What Shoulda' Won the 1997 Best Picture Oscar?

CAM CANNON

Lots of good movies were released in 1997, and hardly any great ones. On the other hand, Will Shortz celebrates 1997 for “Ulee’s Gold.”

The Nominees:

“Titanic” – This may mark the only time that I’ve ever completely agreed with that hopeless douche Peter Travers. If memory serves, he called it the best and worst movie of the year. I thought I would hate it and was only half right. Despite the cringe inducing dialogue and laughable, supposedly subtle social commentary, the movie mostly works.

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“The Full Monty” – Cute movie, total fluff. Of course, if it hadn’t been nominated, I would probably think more of it. That’s what the Oscars do, they change our perceptions in often crazy ways. On a side note, the phrase “This year’s ‘Pulp Fiction'” was last-used in 1997, only to be replaced in 1998 with “This year’s ‘The Full Monty.'”

“Good Will Hunting” – Man, did this movie experience a backlash! But then its initial groundswell of support was partially generated by the Weinstein hype machine, which put forth the Horatio Alger-esqe lie that Matt Damon and Ben Affleck had come out of nowhere to write and star in this little movie — Weinstein practically begged people to go see it — if you don’t see it, Damon and Affleck will starve! Okay, Harvey never said that. And on the eve of the Oscars, another swirling lie: pssst! Did you hear? William Goldman really wrote it. I still like the movie, if for no other reason than it ushered in a new genre of Boston-set movies with white trash characters. It’s still refreshing to this very day to see white trash characters that aren’t from the South.

“L.A. Confidential” – During Oscar season, the pundits pitched this one as one of those too smart for the room movies. Which couldn’t have been the reason it struggled. After all, I loved it, and I’m not to bright. I mean, too bright.

“As Good As It Gets” – When I saw this, at a sneak preview, I thought, “wow.” James L. Brooks has finally lost it. The Academy, ahem, disagreed. But all the flaws that have plagued his last couple of movies are here in “As Good As It Gets.”

WHAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN NOMINATED

“Jackie Brown” – It tripled its budget at the box office, but after the enormous success of “Pulp Fiction,” it was viewed as, at best, a disappointment. At worst, a flop. I’ve loved it from the moment it unspooled before my eyes. Great performances from Robert Forster, Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, and Robert De Niro. Funny side note: I saw Tiny Lister not too long ago, and I begged him to bellow, “Yo, I give you his beeper!” I’m pretty sure he wanted to punch me in the throat.

“Boogie Nights” – There are several moments that always get me. Like when Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly) insists people tell him he looks like Han Solo. Or when Todd Parker (Thomas Jane) makes his first appearance, punctuated by the sound of screeching tires. And — oh, yeah! — when Reed and Dirk argue with the guy at the recording studio, so firm in their belief that they are destined for musical stardom.

“The Apostle” – Predictably, studios rejected Robert Duvall’s screenplay about a flawed but dedicated preacher wrestling with his calling and his own redemption. It’s a triumph of capitalism that the independently financed movie stirred a bidding at the Toronto Film Festival. I love how the movie is subtly about one character’s own accepting of Christ, but we don’t even know it until it happens at the end.

“Donnie Brasco” – Al Pacino put his schtick on hold — you KNOW THE ONE, don’t PRETEND. That you DON’T — for Mike Newell’s gangster drama, and the result was his best performance in years. The movie was largely ignored at the Oscars, which was a shame, as the movie holds up better than most of the nominees.

“L.A. Confidential” – Curtis Hanson juggles a lot of characters and a fairly intricate murder mystery in this amazingly photographed story of Los Angeles police corruption in the 1950s. Great performances from a huge cast. Marred by a falsely upbeat ending, it is nevertheless a great movie.

WHAT SHOULD HAVE WON

Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights” combines the scope of Altman with the “look-at-me” show-offiness (pretty sure I just made up a word) of Scorsese. He directs this movie like it was the last movie he would ever get to direct, and that energy comes through in every line, every scene, every frame. The actors don’t so much play characters as embody them, from Mark Wahlberg’s sincere, naive, and, um…talented porn star, to Burt Reynolds as the porn auteur who longs to make porn art, but has neither the budget or artistic vision to make it happen.

“Boogie Nights” charts the rise and fall of Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg), who rides the bus every day from Torrence to the porn capital of the world, waiting for his chance to be discovered. Burt Reynolds is Jack Horner (yes, Jack Horner), the director who does indeed discover Eddie, but suggests a new name. Thus, Dirk Diggler is born.

We follow Dirk and his friends — awkward stereo salesman Buck Swope (Don Cheadle), sound man Scotty J. (Philip Seymour Hoffman at his most actor-y), tragic mother figure Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), and the aforementioned, loyal to the end, Reed Rothchild — through a tumultuous decade of sex, drugs, and bad rock and roll.

The structure is pure “Goodfellas” with pornographers instead of gangsters.

First half = Debauchery is fun. And harmless! I’m jealous.

Mid-Point = Oh, wait. This could go too far. The Line Producer just killed himself. I hate Debauchery! Down with pornographers!

Second half = See? I told you that debauchery and porn and drugs were a bad idea!

Anderson somehow injects a sense of morality into the movie. When the business model shifts from film to videotape, Jack is crestfallen. The new, more accessible format inexorably leads to dirtier dirty movies. And Jack plays along…but he doesn’t seem particularly proud of it. Not that pornography was ever clean, or righteous. But with film it had some level of dignity, which was stripped away the minute the medium became mass produced. That the medium got uglier and more immoral once it hit the internet, sort of proves the movie’s point.

The movie achieves greatness, though, when Dirk, Todd, and Reed visit the home of a whack job dealer named Rahad Jackson (seriously, the names alone in this movie should have qualified it for an Oscar), played by Alfred Molina. As bizarre as the scene is — and it is, most definitely, bizarre — it somehow makes perfect sense that Dirk and his friends would end up in the some dude named Rahad’s living room, while he walks around in a robe and little else, singing along to Night Ranger (on a tape labled “My Awesome Awesome Mix Tape #6.” I mean c’mon), while a little dude we can only assume is his boy-toy wanders around, sullenly lighting firecrackers, and a big, strapped dude weighs the coke Dirk and his friends hope to sell Rahad. Only it’s not coke, it’s baking soda. It’s a long scene, that grows more uncomfortable by the minute.

Rahan puts on “Jesse’s Girl.” And jams to it. And Dirk…just…stares at him. For what feels like five minutes. Twitching, sweating, flinching, itching…he just. Stares. While Reed tries to convince him to leave. In that moment, Dirk realizes what a shambles his life has become, and tries to leave. As dim and shallow as Dirk is, we want him to end up okay. We want him to patch things up with Jack, with whom he’s become estranged.

In the end, it’s a movie about a big, huge, dysfunctional family, and Dirk returns home to his surrogate dad, Jack.

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