For years I’ve been railing against the injustice in my mind that Terms of Endearment beat The Right Stuff to win the Academy Award for best movie in 1983. Sure, I’ve also railed against the injustice that Titanic Beat L.A. Confidential in 1997 but that first moment you think the Oscars suck sticks with you. Looking back at ToE and TRS (excuse the acronyms), of course The Right Stuff is a better movie! It’s obvious! It’s scope is bigger, it’s a real filmic treat with iconic scenes and memorable dialogue (just witness Donald Moffatt’s wonderful ranting LBJ in a committee meeting: “Now the Communists have established a foothold in outer space!”), great direction and it has Sam Shepherd, Scott Glenn, Ed Harris, Fred Ward, Dennis Quaid, Lance Henrikssen and Barbara Hershey in it. The Right Stuff has vision and an epic quality about it whereas Terms of Endearment is just mawkish, sentimental, overacted, annoying as heck and it makes a virtue out of selfishness. The action shifts between basically 3 locations…all houses, and if it didn’t have Shirley MacLaine and Jack Nicholson there to chew the scenery would it have got so much acclaim? So yes, 1983 is the year I like to hold up as an example of Oscar travesty.
I’m wrong, I’ve realised.
You see, I’m judging both movies on the merits of my own personal tastes: I’m a guy and a tale of Cold War derring do, powerful rockets, space race, astronauts and test pilots is going to appeal to my soul. Debra Winger dying in a 4 poster bed isn’t. So I judge both movies mainly in terms of my tastes and interests and while I’m doing that I’m ignoring the other section of the movie going public for whom all that boys-own stuff is macho posturing. No, they need a story of maternal love, of redemption, coming to terms with bereavement, of finding love in the autumn years and they need a movie that’s more heart wrenching. It’s the age old tussle between the visual spectacle kind of movie vs the lower key, emotional kind and on this occasion Terms of Endearment won out. ToE isn’t a badly made movie, it’s not badly written at all and, despite my reservations about the story and performances, it’s engaging and does what it sets out to do very well. There’s nothing cringeworthy about it; it’s just it doesn’t have rockets….or the Cold War, or astronauts or a cool opening bit of narration: “They say there’s a demon that lives in the air…..and they called it The Sound Barrier”.
So we have two very good movies duking it out, and the emotional one was the winner.
So if we’re looking for Oscar travesties, we can’t look to 1983…or even 1981 when Chariots of Fire beat Raiders of the Lost Ark either. Or 1973 when The Sting beat The Exorcist or even Shakespeare In Love beating Saving Private Ryan. It’s not a travesty when one excellently made movie beats another but you get annoyed because the one that chimes with your tastes best, loses.
What is needed here is when a stinker beat a classic. Which is why 1997 is the choice movie year (you can also suggest 2003, when Crash beat Brokeback Mountain): Titanic vs L.A. Confidential. This isn’t a clash of different movie styles, it’s a case of one movie using it’s vastness to cover up the script and character flaws. And it’s not even well directed; it’s just…..big.
So my apologies, Terms of Endearment. You’re a lot better than I have given you credit for….but still not as enjoyable as The Right Stuff.