The first of three films in a three month span that all featured a “Save the Farm” theme. This is the picture that resulted in a thousand Sally Field jokes for her Academy Award acceptance speech and it introduced us to John Malkovich who has been a welcome presence in films now for the last thirty years. This was the only one of the three to get a best picture nomination although the lead actress in all three of the farm movies was nominated for her performance. Politics may have played a part since economic issues concerning the farm industry were widely discussed in the election year, and just a couple of years later, John Mellancamp and Willie Nelson started the “Farm Aid” project.
There are a dozen other supporting players in the film who will also become familiar or were already well known in supporting roles as well. The movie is a loosely structured series of tableau focusing on the lives of two sisters in rural Texas in 1935. The leading characters could all be representations of some of my own family members since my wife’s parents grew up in just such places. Her folks would have been about the age of Sally Fields two children in the movie. Like my belief that “Racing with the Moon” was probably a pretty accurate depiction of my parents as teens, this film feels very true to the depression dominated times in rural America.
Having seen this movie one time in 1984, I was surprised at how much of it came back to me as I was watching it. The unpleasant dynamics of the married couple unraveling and the mental cruelty to their own child was instantly recalled and regretted. When I first saw this, I did not have kids and now my kids are adults so you would think I could laugh off the comic elements a little bit more easily, I can’t. This is a movie that sets up a romance and develops it nicely and then shows how selfishness and Hollywood success can turn something sour very quickly. It is not subtle or shy about it’s point of view but it also does little to make us anything but angry at the shallowness of two characters that we might have cared for more in another movie.
This film was apparently based on the story of director Peter Bogdanovich. It is pretty easy to see the roots in this supposed expose of Hollywood. A young couple who work together to make a movie that is a critical and financial success are torn apart by the husbands affair with the beautiful actress that he discovers and featured in the film. After divorcing, he makes an indulgent musical which flops, the girl leaves him and his career is mostly dead. Now substitute “Americam Romance” for “The Last Picture Show”, replace Cybil Shepard with Sharon Stone, and make the musical a remake of “Gone with the Wind” named “Atlanta” instead of a Cole Porter based film named “At Long Last Love” and you have the basis for the story.
Early in the year, Steve Martin took a swing with the comedy “The Lonely Guy“, and he whiffed it. Lucky for us you are not out after a single strike or we might have been denied the pleasures of this out of body comedy directed by Carl Reiner and again starring Steve Martin. This ninety minute film is not deep, it is not shot in an innovative way, and at times it is a little too silly. It does however contain one of the great performances of the year. A bigger contrast in styles to F. Murray Abraham’s Salierei you are not going to find.
Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin go all in to give us a slapstick comedy with a little bit of heart, but mostly a whole bunch of laughs. It’s Martin’s physical deftness that elevates this movie to the status of one of the winners of 1984.
From 1980 through 1989, as far as I’m concerned, there was not a better movie than “Amadeus”. There are movies that are better loved, that are more essential to movie history and to the culture, but when measured as an artistic achievement, I’m willing to throw down for this film. The only movie that comes close is “The Right Stuff“, and while I will admit there are things about the first Mercury Astronauts that mean more to us than a couple of dead European composers, “Amadeus” wins out because it has not just the best performance of the decade but two of them.
One of the reasons that I was excited to do this project in the first place, was that it would give me a justification to delve deeply into my opinions and reactions to this specific movie. While I may have anticipated some of the summer blockbusters more, the critical acclaim and buzz on this film was white hot. Months before it was released, insider screenings had left most critics declaring the the Award season could end on this movies release and it turned out that the film lived up to the hype.
Within just a couple of weeks in late September, three of the films nominated for Best Picture were released. Now such a concentration might not seem odd these days, except that all the films would be coming out two months later in November and December. Remember, films played in theaters longer in 1984, and it was less likely that a movie would be forgotten just a few months later. “A Soldier’s Story” premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 1984, and was one of the earliest films to benefit from that exposure.
Presented as a murder mystery, the real subject of the film is racism. The kind of racism that most people would be familiar with, White and Black is part of the story but not the whole story. It also deals with a form of Black on Black racism, which involves attempting to shed a negative image by shrouding those negatives on someone different from ourselves. It does have the patina of a “prestige” picture that deals with white guilt over racism, and that may account for it being, maybe not forgotten but overlooked.
As the summer of 1984 was coming to a close, the usual September program fillers arrived on screen at the local cinemas. Closing out an action packed summer and making way for the Oscar Bait that Fall has become known for, is J. Lee Thompson’s “The Evil That Men Do”. I mention the director because he is an example of where careers go after great heights. He was nominated for an Academy Award as director for “The Guns of Navarrone” and he made “Cape Fear”, the classic thriller with Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum. At the end of his career though, he was cranking out revenge dramas for Cannon Films and he worked with the star of this movie nine times in a thirteen year period.
The star of course is Charles Bronson. For some reason he is not well known by the current generation of movie fans. Time marches on and yesterdays heroes are often just footnotes in cinema history. Once upon a time though, just like the director of these movies, Bronson was big. He pulled in box office, starred in major motion pictures and had a solid reputation as an actor, though of a very specific type. By 1984, he was a little long in the tooth for the action roles he was best known for, but with an international name, he could help those mini-major studios pre-sell their product overseas. “The Evil That Men Do” is a nasty piece of revenge drama that is twisted enough to be interesting, but struggles to build much suspense.
For the price that they made the movie, there are several things that this has going for it. The sets, which I’m sure were used for a dozen other films from the Corman Factory, are not bad. The make-up effects are also passable, they are at least as good as some of those 70s films that I love , like “At the Earth’s Core“. They are a little cheesy, but you know that’s the case going in. Frankly, I’m not sure why this did not win the Academy Award for Best Costume Design, since nearly every woman in the film is draped in the most beautiful of all God’s coverings, her own skin. This is an grindhouse, exploitation film aimed squarely at the market made up of horny adolescent boys.
So with all that going for it, why isn’t it better? The short answer is that the director can’t stage an action scene, the actors are allowed to froth at the mouth and they aren’t really cast as froth at the mouth types, and the story, which is a direct ripoff of “Yojimbo” is told in an extremely lazy fashion. But don’t get me wrong, as terrible as the movie is, I still enjoyed it.
[Warning: The following page does contain nude images. Just in case that's not what brought you here.]