I’m not sure if 1982 is a bit better than most other years in the 80s, or simply gives that impression by virtue of having two critical/popular smashes at the top of the heap.
Certainly there’s not alot beyond what the Academy slated. Diner, still Barry Levinson’s best film, is the only additional movie I’d be itching to push onto the best picture list. As we know, I’m not an especial Victor/Victoria man. I find Sophie’s Choice stands awkwardly somewhere between powerful (the drama/performances) and incompetent (the incredibly static filmmaking). I have fond memories of a mostly-forgotten movie named Tex, and I liked Shoot the Moon, though primarily for the acting. That’s about it.
Gandhi was the forerunner of Braveheart – a signal that Oscar voters in this era would swoon for any David Lean-sized spectacle, even if executed without any of Lean’s distinctive flair. It’s even possible Academy folk preferred their epics without art, given how they tossed aside the ambitious Reds the preceding year but then went all out for the clunky, bloated blandness of Attenborough’s effort. Ben Kingsley’s performance is the only noteworthy element in the entire project; otherwise it’s a three-hour trudge with no visual distinction and awkward dialogue (“There’s young Mr. Nehru; I wonder if he’ll amount to anything?”). But Attenborough, apparently finding his true calling as a huckster, sold the damn thing as some contribution to world peace, and damned if the Hollywood community (and too many critics) didn’t buy in, giving it a whole slew of Oscars it didn’t deserve (screenplay an exceptional dagger to the heart). I think Attenborough’s acceptance speech may have been the first I ever refused to listen to (I remember hearing he said his victory was a rebuke to Reagan and Thatcher – both of whom, history will note, were soon re-elected by massive majorities). I’d revoke every one of Gandhi’s eight prizes, and needless to say will deny it my vote here in either category.
The Verdict might seem better to me today than it did at the time; back then I found it a great disappointment. The film had been touted for much of the year as “Paul Newman’s Oscar picture”, so I was anticipating something halfway deep/meaningful. What I found instead was pure potboiler – courtroom drama with last-minute twist, the kind of thing John Grisham later made a fortune on. There’s nothing inherently wrong with potboilers; I’ve been known to read quite a few for pleasure. But, at least back then, I didn’t think of them as Oscar contenders, and, for me, that Lumet got nominated for this but not Prince of the City a year earlier seemed a real example of misplaced AMPAS priorities. The Verdict doesn’t approach contention, and I could strike it from the ballot with no regret.
Missing is a better film, but I found it, too, a letdown, at least judged against the very enthusiastic reviews it received from most critics. I liked some things about it, most especially the eerie scenes of Spacek stranded overnight past curfew. And I found Lemmon’s performance maybe the best of his post-Save the Tiger career; the role could have easily brought out his self-indulgent worst, but he played the “right-winger learns liberal truth” character with some nuance. However…the fact that his character is written that way is part of the reason I couldn’t wholeheartedly embrace the film. To me, the film was another in a string at the time – many of them starring Jane Fonda – whose primary purpose was to show conservatives how much better off they’d be if they just renounced their ideas and became liberals. Politically, I very much stood with the filmmakers, and, to answer BJ’s query, for many of us, the fact that Nixon/Kissinger had encouraged/abetted the Pinochet coup was an article of faith. But my demands on art extend further than wanting to see my political points validated at the expense of my opponents. For me that was what, in the end, Missing did, so, despite having virtues (including subtlety in making those points), it struck me as only middle-range filmmaking.
Das Boot came as a major Oscar surprise to me. I’d known the film had been around a while, but it had never seemed like any particularly big deal. The DGA nomination was the first sign it might make Academy impact. Unfortunately, by the time the nominations came along, the film was out of theatres; since this was the pre-VCR era, it was thus years before I finally saw it (some of those years I delayed watching because the dubbed version was the only one available). Anyway…I think it’s a perfectly solid wartime drama that well captures the feeling of operating in undersea claustrophobia. Some have suggested the film tilts into pro-Nazi territory by presenting its sailors without judgment, but I think that’s the fairest, most nuanced way to view the characters -- grunt servicemen are essentially apolitical figures fulfilling their missions; it’s unlikely they’d spend much time articulating Germany’s war aims (anymore than the soldiers in The Hurt Locker would have gone on and on about Saddam Hussein). I’m not voting for the film, but I don’t begrudge any of its nods.
I, like most, come down to the two behemoths. As I’ve said in previous threads, films that were hugely successful both critically and commercially were quite common in decades preceding, but in the 80s they were scarce indeed -- post-1982, only Terms of Endearment and Platoon really fell into that category. So, it was pretty wild to have two in one year, and bizarre that they somehow worked against one another and allowed the dreary Gandhi to slip past.
E.T. had the same sort of magic that last half hour of Close Encounters had, but was a far cleaner, more coherent film overall. The story wasn’t exactly groundbreaking – it was essentially a boy/beloved pet story translated to a space alien – and even some plot turns were predictable (anyone who though E.T. was dead had to have never seen a movie before). But the film was full of wonderfully staged humor and had moments of pure joy. And the film’s final half hour had the audience in a grip that, as one critic said at the time, you almost had to go back to silent days for an equivalent. Many films can evoke tears, but a good percentage of those also carry a level of resentment – you feel yourself being manipulated to misty eyes, and feel cheap even while succumbing. But there’s the occasional film that, for me, systematically dismantles all my usual defenses and reduces me to blubbering jelly – It’s a Wonderful Life is one, and E.T. most emphatically another. I have to take my hat off to such efforts, for being able to break through to my inner child. For that, Spielberg deserves my vote as best director.
However…on the premise that dealing with grown-up reality is a higher calling, I have to give my best picture vote to Tootsie. I don’t know if it’s widely remembered now, but Tootsie while in production seemed a potential disaster: Dustin Hoffman’s long-reported penchant for set difficulty had supposedly pushed the film way over-budget, and the premise was hardly surefire. But, once everyone saw the film, all that negative buzz evaporated. Tootsie is, above all, an incredibly funny movie, with great comic contributions from Hoffman as well as Teri Garr, Bill Murray, George Gaynes, Charles Durning, and director Sydney Pollack. But it’s also an insightful movie about where we were in the battle of the sexes in 1982, and a lot of the credit for that goes to (again) Hoffman, but also Jessica Lange, who, no, is not the year’s best supporting actress, but gives a wonderful, surprising performance that enriches the movie beyond farce. There are plenty of great throwaway moments (like when Hoffman knocks over the Central Park mime), wonderful lines (Bill Murray’s “You slut”; Teri Garr’s “I don’t take that crap from friends; only from lovers”) and a splendid climax and touching denouement (when Jessica Lange says “I miss Dorothy”, most of the audience agrees). However it happened (given the plethora of writers attached to the project), Tootsie turned out one of the great comedies of the American screen, and, in the midst of the moribund 80s, it gets my vote for film of the year.