Oh, Academy members of 1989, what were you thinking? I shake my head at you. You got so much right, and yet you got the most basic thing – Best Picture nominees – wrong.
The 1989 Oscars are the first ones I remember, and until I started doing this project, I knew which five movies had been nominated for best picture: Born on the Fourth of July and My Left Foot I remembered for their enigmatic titles; I watched Driving Miss Daisy and Glory (with certain parts fast-forwarded) with my family all the time; and although I didn’t remember the title from my childhood, we had talked about how much better Do the Right Thing was than Driving Miss Daisy in a film class, so I assumed it was the fifth nominee. I was completely confident in this. If I had been on Jeopardy, I would have bet all my money; if I had been on Who Wants to be a Millionaire, I would have told the host that is was my final answer before he asked.
But the Academy was so off that year that two of the best movies of 1989 weren’t even nominated. Trying to remove two nominees from the actual list isn’t easy; Field of Dreams can definitely go; I think it’s the weakest of the true nominees. As for the other one? Personally, I would leave Dead Poets Society there and take out Born on the Fourth of July, but that’s just because I didn’t particularly enjoy the latter. Seeing as how Oliver Stone won the Best Director category for Born on the Fourth of July, people who are better at film than I am might disagree with me. Anyway, this is the list of nominees as I personally think it should have been:
Dead Poets Society
Do the Right Thing
Driving Miss Daisy
My Left Foot
“What are these movies?” you ask. Why did Glory and Do the Right Thing deserve to be nominees? I will give you quick rundowns of these excellent movies and urge you to watch them yourselves, and then tell me if you agree with me that they should have been at the very least on the Best Picture nominees list.
Glory is a movie based on the true story of the 54th Massachusetts Voluntary Infantry Regiment, an all-black regiment fighting for the Union during the American Civil War. So we’re starting off with an amazing historical story, but let’s look at the cast. In perhaps his only serious role ever (I exaggerate, but not much), Matthew Broderick plays Colonel Robert Shaw, the man chosen to train and lead this new regiment. Denzel Washington gives an Oscar-winning performance as Private Silas Trip, a former runaway slave who is choosing to risk everything to fight against slavery. Add Cary Elwes, Morgan Freeman, and Andre Braugher, and you’ve got some serious acting ability in this movie in addition to the great story. The production design and costuming is spot-on, the cinematography is beautiful, and James Horner’s score is so great that he plagiarized himself twenty years later when he “wrote” the “original score” of Avatar (2009). It’s even still watched in middle school American history classrooms across the country as a way to help students understand the Civil War and race relations. It’s so good that my mother, who literally only let me see one movie that was rated PG-13 before I was 13 (Jurassic Park, for those who are wondering), had no problem with my dad’s watching Glory over and over, as long as he fast-forwarded the Battle of Antietam and muted the racist’s sergeant’s serious profanities. I have been watching this movie since I was seven years old, and I find that I still see new things every time I watch it. To me, that is the definition of any great work of art: something that is meaningful on different levels as you age and view it through new eyes.
Do the Right Thing is also about race relations in America, but of the three race relations movies on my list, Do the Right Thing is the only one written and directed by an African-American and told from the perspective of an African-American. The story that writer/director Spike Lee is telling is a contemporary one, not one from history. It’s a simple premise: on a hot day in a neighborhood in Brooklyn, underlying tensions between community members surface and then explode, causing a riot with tragic circumstances. But it’s a comedy. And it works. Everything about it is different. The movie is filmed from all different angles, giving an off-kilter feeling at times. Sometimes the characters directly address the camera as if it were a documentary. Think The Office, but in this case, it’s groundbreaking. There are conversations that are edited in a way that make you feel that you are both of the characters at once. There isn’t a beautiful, sweeping score; the soundtrack is the music around the characters. (And since it’s the late 1980s, yes, there is a boom box.) So many little scraps of characters’ stories are told that you are able to see how the neighborhood keeps its balance until it suddenly doesn’t. The clothes are, again, 80s clothes, so they are bright and colorful, belying the dark tensions running underneath. I know I’m not doing very well at describing what makes this movie so great, but please watch it anyway. It blew my mind; nobody talks about stories like these (definitely not in 1989, and not very much more now), and nobody tells a story this way.
Now that I’ve made my case for which movies should have been nominated, which do I think should have actually won? This is where another question comes up: what makes a movie “the best” of any given year? If a historical movie gets everything right surrounding the event but has a shakier story, is that a good movie, or does it need a good story to hold up everything else? If you have a good story, good actors, good direction, can bad costuming or a horrid soundtrack keep that movie from being “the best”? Does something have to be inspiring to be the best? That’s a conversation that can go on forever. Like I said above, though, I think for something to be truly great, it has to give us something every time we experience it. It doesn’t have to be profound or life-changing; Muppet Christmas Carol, for example, can always make me laugh, so for me, that’s a great comedic movie, even though it has some issues (flying baby doll. Come on, Henson!). That’s where Field of Dreams fails, in my opinion; I have seen it many times, and it has good things about it, but it fails to register anymore. Does a great movie (or any work of art, for that matter) need to inspire? I would say yes, but what does that mean? Glory and Driving Miss Daisy, My Left Foot and Dead Poets Society and Field of Dreams are positive-inspirational movies. “Look at what we have done!” they say. “A black man and a white woman made friends in the South. We can, too! These young boys followed their dreams! We can, too!” But Do the Right Thing and Born on the Fourth of July are a little bit more negatively inspirational. “Look at these horrible things in the world. Some of it may be in the past, but it’s still happening. We need to talk about this.” This negative, eye-opening approach can open conversations to lead to bettering the world we have instead of letting people believe that since something good has happened in the past, the negative thing is conquered. Because of this, I’m going to give my fake Oscar vote that has no weight behind it whatsoever to Do the Right Thing. It has a good story. It has excellent production values. If people watch it with an open mind, it can start a conversation that can lead to harder accomplished, but longer lasting, real changes for the better.
So how do I rank the nominees?
Real Oscar Nominees:
5. Field of Dreams
4. Born on the Fourth of July
3. Dead Poets Society
2. My Left Foot
1. Driving Miss Daisy
The Better List:
5. Dead Poets Society
4. My Left Foot
3. Driving Miss Daisy
1. Do the Right Thing
Driving Miss Daisy only barely edges out My Left Foot, but because I have never in my entire life been able to get over the detail put into the production design, I have to go with Driving Miss Daisy.
PS The only other big beef I really had with the Academy decisions was that Glory wasn’t even nominated for best soundtrack.