Film critic Danny Peary wrote a fun and informative book back in 1993. Alternate Oscars looks at every Oscar awarded in the big three categories -- picture, actor, and actress -- from 1927-28 on and offers, when appropriate, a better choice. Peary's book stops with the 1991 Oscars, which leaves the last 20 years wide open. So buy Peary's book, and check back here periodically for my continuation, beginning today, with 1992.
PICTURE: Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven was a very solid winner for Best Picture in 1992. But, if we nitpick, Unforgiven is slow through the middle, and is prone to Eastwood's biggest failing as a director -- the exaggeration of good and evil in his characters.
MY CHOICE: Raise the Red Lantern
I know, China is the trendy kid in school now, with the strong economy and all the lithium batteries. Maybe I'm pandering here. But Zhang Yimou is one of the great directors of the last 25 years and this is among his most intense works. The institutional oppression of women is a favorite subject of his and the young and striking actress Gong Li was his favorite leading lady. Color and framing are exquisite and the acting of Gong, He Saifei and Cao Cuifen constitutes among the greatest ensemble of female performances in any film. The story of a young girl who marries into a rich household ruled by tradition could have reverted to soap opera. But as Jean Renoir did in La regle du jeu, Zhang avoids overt melodrama and crafts an exquisite character study that builds great narrative intensity by the third act. Not bad for a director who had just turned 30.
Nineteen ninety-two was a good year for young directors. Three American directors made striking debuts -- Alison Anders' Gas, Food, Lodging, Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, and best of all, Carl Franklin's One False Move. But I am looking to China for my best picture of the year.
ACTOR: The winner, Al Pacino, had been nominated for Best Actor four times before 1992. But his performance in Scent of a Woman was caricaturish before it left the showroom floor. He was far better as Ricky Roma in Glengarry Glen Ross that same year.
MY CHOICE: Denzel Washington in Malcolm X
The general public first became aware of Washington as Dr. Phil Chandler on TV's St. Elsewhere in the middle of the '80s. He was smart, sexy, smoldering, and largely underwritten in a cast of oddball characters. Still, Washington showed enough star quality to make a few films during the show's run. A few years later, Spike Lee's Malcom X would vault him into elite status. The very long movie covers 40 years of Malcolm's life and shows multiple transformations from street hustler to militant Muslim to philosopher-statesman. Washington not only nails each phase, but he makes the transitions seem natural. It is a towering performance. Cyril Collard (Savage Nights) and Bill Paxton (One False Move) gave brave, nuanced performances in 1992. Washington, who would wait another decade to win his Best Actor, surpassed them all.
ACTRESS: Emma Thompson is among the most intelligent actress of the last 50 years, beautifully restrained with emotion seething just below a calm surface. Her award for Howard's End was well-deserved. But ...
MY CHOICE: Gong Li in Raise the Red Lantern
Gong's Songlian travels a great distance to become her husband's fourth wife. Once in her new home, she must negotiate the manipulations of older, more experienced women. But she is a quick study. She moves from petulance to restraint, from anger to a smile, like a girl trying to be tough in a terrifying new land. We see all of her, but never know exactly what she is thinking. The one time she loses total control and gets drunk, we see a wealth of stifled emotion spill out. This was the actresses third collaboration with director Zhang Yimou and later in 1992, she would star in Zhang's The Story of Qui Ju, another powerful depiction of a woman's hopeless struggle. Those two roles trump Thompson, as well as Kati Outinen whose The Match Factory Girl was officially released in the U.S. toward the end of 1992.
Let me know what you think -- 1993 should be a fun year to debate.