This is the second entry in my periodic continuation of film critic Danny Peary's entertaining 'Alternate Oscars.' Today, we look at 1993.
Picture: Schindler's List essentially won Best Picture the day it was released. Nobody debated this. It was big and important and quite good. But I can't help but feel that the middle of the movie, which features Ralph Fiennes' astonishing portrayal of Amon Goeth, is the best thing in the film, almost to the point of overshadowing Liam Neeson's Schindler. So, though it may seem particularly sacrilegious, I'm going in a different direction.
My Choice: Groundhog Day.
1993 was a year of great prestigious pictures: The Piano, The Remains of the Day, In the Name of the Father, The Age of Innocence. The titles alone drape you in a cloak of educated snobbery. So why pick -- gasp -- trifling popular entertainment? Well, something needs to be said for the brand of movie that can play on cable three times per day for months on end and remain satisfying with every viewing. Critics and performers alike constantly argue that comedy is just as hard, if not harder, than drama, and yet it is rarely rewarded with a trophy. And it would be a mistake to write off Groundhog Day as trifling. The screenplay by Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis is exceptional. It manages the huge challenge of dramatizing repetitive action while staying funnier and more touching than the two nominated comedy screenplays that same year, Dave and Sleepless in Seattle. And the basic theme of one man struggling for self-improvement in order to win the love of a lady is the stuff of the most sublime romances. If you're still not convinced, consider this: Any movie that features Andie MacDowell and Chris Elliott in prominent roles and still invites repeated viewings has to be doing something right.
In the wake of all those prestigious pictures, smaller gems like Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused (the American Graffiti for the '70s), Searching for Bobby Fisher (the best chess movie ever, period), and the beguiling My Neighbor Totoro (one of the best children's movies ever made) get overlooked. None was as satisfying as Groundhog Day.
Actor: For the second consecutive year, the Academy gave its Actor award to an overblown, overwrought performance. In 1992, Al Pacino won for playing a feisty blind guy. In '93, Tom Hanks won for playing a sympathetic AIDS victim. Philadelphia was an important movie. Everyone knew it. But that doesn't make it great. The movie was unsure about whether Hanks' Andrew Beckett was a regular guy or a deified, opera-loving symbol of prejudice's victim. Meanwhile, the more meaningful and nuanced performance in the movie, that of Denzel Washington's converted lawyer, was overlooked.
My Choice: David Thewlis in Naked, and Anthony Hopkins in The Remains of the Day.
Ties have happened in the Oscars. Not often, but they have happened. So I'm using one here. I just can't choose between two titanic performances. They are very different roles. Thewlis is a bundle of energy, intellect, and dysfunction as Johnny in Mike Leigh's rambling narrative. For the rest of his career, he will be the world's best-known werewolf, Remus Lupin, of Harry Potter fame. But film fans should take a look at a role in which he actually offers up a werewolf howl while flirting with a newly met young lady. Virtually nothing happens in Leigh's movie. Most of it is given over to Johnny wandering London and having both physical and intellectual encounters with a series of lost souls. Johnny is by no means loveable. He's often a bastard. Yet Thewlis makes him irresistible. You have to watch him. The movie is so predicated upon the performance that it actually falls apart in the final quarter when Johnny, having been beaten up by thugs, is largely out of the film.
Hopkins' James Stevens is another matter. He is a serving man. His life is devoted to others. He remains stoic and still throughout. And yet, there is such passion, longing, and sadness seething just below the surface, that, like Johnny, he cannot be ignored. Hopkins is brilliant when playing over-the-top Hannibal Lecters, but this is the true measure of his greatness. He seems to do nothing, and he remains riveting.
I realize I may be succumbing to Anglophilia here, and Bill Murray deserves serious consideration for Groundhog Day. But at least I didn't throw Fiennes or Daniel Day-Lewis into the mix as well. (Don't worry, Day-Lewis' day is coming.)
Actress: Hard to argue with Holly Hunter. Not only did she triumph as the mute in Jane Campion's The Piano, she threw in a fun supporting turn as a secretary in The Firm. But if I allowed myself to pick two actors, then I feel like I can pick...
My Choice: The entire female cast of Short Cuts.
This was a who's who of dynamic young actresses in 1993. Granted, they were all young white actresses, and the lack of any ethnicity in Robert Altman's pastiche of life in L.A. is a detriment to the film as a whole. But his women run the gamut from rich to poor, meek to bold, innocent to worldly. And what names: Julianne Moore, Anne Archer, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Lori Singer, Frances McDormand, Annie Ross, Lili Taylor, Lily Tomlin, the afore-dissed Andie MacDowell, and Madeleine Stowe. Ten remarkable characterizations. Some critics complained about how these women seemed to thrive on the brutish behavior of the men in their lives, and remarked on Altman's penchant for photographing so many of them naked. But it was L.A. after all. They all triumphed over the less savory elements of the film. If I have to pick one, I'll go with Stowe, but they were all riveting.
Let me know what you think. And keep an eye out for 1994, one of the best years in recent film history.