THE CONTENDER: Twelve Monkeys (1995)
Number of Nominations: 2 – Actor in a Supporting Role (Brad Pitt); Costume Design (Julie Weiss)
Number of Wins: 0
Not too long ago, I sat down to finally watch Terry Gilliam’s long, long delayed The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. As I did, I was confronted with the sad but very real possibility that I was watching his last film. Gilliam has rarely had an easy time getting his movies made but the road to Don Quixote had been especially arduous. It had been preceded by the barely-released The Zero Theorem; The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus, which had to be completely rethought after star Heath Ledger died in the middle of production; and the even-more-barely-released Tideland, which found the former Python making the publicity rounds while toting a cardboard sign reading, “Studio-less film maker. Family to support. Will direct for food.” How much does he have to put up with before he finally says enough is enough?
It wasn’t always this way. Gilliam’s 1981 breakthrough, Time Bandits, was a bona fide smash hit. It was the 10th highest-grossing movie of the year in America and remains a delightful, endlessly rewatchable classic. His troubles began with his next film, Brazil, which became embroiled in a notorious struggle for final cut between Gilliam and Universal Pictures (specifically then-chairman Sid Sheinberg). Gilliam won that battle and the film is now rightly regarded as a masterpiece but it didn’t exactly demolish box office records.
Then came The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen, a fantasy epic that went wildly over-budget and completely tanked at the box office. Most directors never recover from a debacle like that (see also: Cimino, Michael). But Gilliam was determined to shake his reputation as an irresponsible, out-of-control auteur. He rebounded and back-to-back made the two biggest hits of his career: The Fisher King and Twelve Monkeys.
An Academy Award-winning film in its own right, The Fisher King will be a subject for another day. So let’s contemplate the unlikely success of Twelve Monkeys. First off, it’s a remake of (or, as the credits have it, “inspired by”) a 28-minute French art film told almost entirely in still images, Chris Marker’s La Jetée. It’s a dystopian science fiction nightmare about a violent criminal (Bruce Willis as James Cole) who is “volunteered” to travel back in time to gather information about a virus that wipes out most of humanity in 1996. His job isn’t to prevent the virus from being released. We’re told repeatedly that ship has sailed. The world is dead. The best Cole can do is assist the scientists in their search for a cure.
Cole’s first journey to the past sends him back too far, arriving in 1990 where he finds himself committed to a mental hospital under the care of Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe). He’s befriended by fellow inmate Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), who rants and raves about corporate America and consumer culture. Cole is snatched back to his own time, then accidentally sent to a battlefield in World War I before finally ending up in 1996, just before the virus is due to be released. The scientists believe a group of radical environmentalists called The Army of the Twelve Monkeys is responsible and it turns out that Jeffrey Goines is the leader of the group. But all this back and forth is taking a heavy toll on Cole. He’s doubting his own sanity and is plagued by a recurring childhood memory of seeing a man shot by police in an airport.
In a nutshell, Twelve Monkeys is a dark, dark film. It’s all about madness and death, it takes place in run-down sanatoriums and on the decaying streets of Philadelphia in the grayest of winters, and ends by promising a future that’s about to get a whole lot worse. Nevertheless, it was a sizable hit and earned a pair of Academy Award nominations.
One of those nominations went to costume designer Julie Weiss (she’d be nominated again a few years later for her work on Julie Taymor’s Frida). As far as I’m concerned, Gilliam’s films should routinely be nominated for both production and costume design. There simply aren’t any other movies that look like his. Weiss’ work here is fantastic and not just the futuristic containment suits. Even the contemporary scenes bear a mark of individuality. The various mental patients and homeless people Cole encounters all look weathered and beaten down by life. Of course, these aren’t exactly the kind of fashion statements that win Oscars.
The film’s other nomination went to young up-and-comer Brad Pitt. It was his first nomination and he’d go on to win in the same category just this year for Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood. It’s not quite fair to say that this was the first time Pitt had shown he was more than just a pretty face. He’d been proving himself as an actor for awhile by now in movies like A River Runs Through It and Legends Of The Fall. He’d also grunged himself up for movies like Kalifornia and True Romance. So we already knew he wasn’t exactly vain. We also knew that he was willing to go into some pretty dark territory. His other big hit of 1995 was Se7en. Brad Pitt was not spending the year spreading sunshine, lollipops and rainbows.
But up until now, Pitt’s screen persona had been very laconic, almost bordering on sleepy from time to time. He was charming and extremely good-looking but his energy was very low-key. Twelve Monkeys was the opposite of all that. For the first time, here was Brad Pitt literally bouncing off the walls, firing off dialogue like a machine gun and grinning like a lunatic. We’d never seen this Brad Pitt before and, honestly, we haven’t seen too much of him since. His performance is absolutely over-the-top but in the best way. Personally, I’d love to see Crazy Brad show up again someday.
Bruce Willis (perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not) has never been nominated for an Academy Award. Did he deserve one here? Possibly. Willis certainly doesn’t disappear into the part of James Cole. He’s not that kind of actor. But he anchors this film in some important ways. The consistency of the character’s through-line is what prevents all the time travel mind games from becoming confusing, even as Cole thinks he’s going insane himself. And Willis has at least one genuinely lovely, touching moment when Cole hears music again for the first time in lord knows how long. Willis really sells that scene. The expression of pure happiness on his face speaks volumes about what he’s endured.
You would think that after the back-to-back success of The Fisher King and Twelve Monkeys that Terry Gilliam would have had an easier time of it. You would be wrong. His next film, the appropriately gonzo Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, divided critics and struggled at the box office. After that, Gilliam spent a lot of time on movies that never got made, including a go at adapting Watchmen and the first of several attempts at The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Gilliam was even J.K. Rowling’s first choice to direct Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone before cooler heads prevailed, Gilliam deciding he didn’t want the headaches of a big tentpole film and Warner Bros. deciding they didn’t want the headaches of dealing with Gilliam.
If Terry Gilliam’s directorial career is indeed winding down, Twelve Monkeys will stand as his last big hit. In 2015, SyFy launched a 12 Monkeys TV series that credits Chris Marker and screenwriters David and Janet Peoples but pointedly not Terry Gilliam. People now seem to believe that the movies Gilliam made that were successful succeeded in spite of him, not because of him. If so, that’s a real shame. Terry Gilliam remains a singularly talented filmmaker with a vision all his own. His legacy will outlast any virus.
Twelve Monkeys is available on Blu-ray from Arrow Video.