By the beginning of the 1980s, Hollywood had moved away from the dark, moody films that defined the previous decade to make more commercially driven films. Gone were the days of directors ruling the roost; instead, actors began commanding obscene salaries while behind the scenes agents and producers became obsessed with making high concept movies tailor-made to bring in $100 million at the box office.
Despite the commercialization of the film industry and a drive to make every movie a blockbuster, Hollywood still made richly compelling films that not only won Best Picture, but also stacked up well compared to Oscar winners from previous eras.
Having conquered Hollywood as a successful box office star, Robert Redford turned to the director’s chair for the first time and struck Oscar gold with this heart-wrenching drama about an upper class family falling apart in the wake of their son’s death. Starring Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore as the grieving parents, and Timothy Hutton as their suicidal other son, Ordinary People was a critical and commercial smash. But that didn’t stop some critics from pointing out that the film might not have deserved to win Best Picture in light of stiff competition that included Martin Scorsese’s searing Raging Bull. Other nominees included Coal Miner’s Daughter, The Elephant Man, and Roman Polanski’s Tess.
A remarkable film based on true life events, Chariots of Fire was an international hit that triumphed over tough competition to win four Oscars, including Best Picture. Directed by Hugh Hudson, the film starred Ian Charleson as a devout Christian Scotsman and Ben Cross as a Jewish Englishman who both run in the 1924 Paris Olympics for deeply spiritual and personal reasons. Featuring Vangelis’ memorable score, Chariots of Fire managed to win Best Picture over Atlantic City starring Burt Lancaster, On Golden Pond starring Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn, Steven Spielberg’s classic adventure Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Warren Beatty’s historical epic Reds.
Though 1982 was a phenomenal year for Oscar in the Best Picture category, there was little doubt that Richard Attenborough’s biographical epic Gandhi would walk away with the Academy Award. The film starred a perfectly cast Ben Kingsley as Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, a British-trained lawyer who gives up his worldly possessions to take up a non-violent, non-cooperative independence movement against British rule of India. Exhaustively detailed and compelling throughout its entire 183 minutes, Gandhi was one of those rare films that comes along only once in a generation. It faced tough competition, but certainly deserved the Oscar over Spielberg’s science fiction opus E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, the political docudrama Missing, Sydney Pollock’s classic comedy Tootise, and The Verdict starring Paul Newman.
A comic drama that takes a sharp turn into tragedy, Terms of Endearment was an exemplary examination of the relationship between an over-protective mother, Aurora (Shirley MacLaine), and daughter, Emma (Debra Winger). Covering thirty years of their lives, the film follows the two women as they struggle to find love, with Aurora finding herself attracted to her drunk, ex-astronaut neighbor (Jack Nicholson) while disapproving of Emma’s high school sweetheart (Jeff Daniels), only to see their lives shattered when Emma is diagnosed with cancer. Terms of Endearment was a commercial and critical hit, and won Oscar over The Big Chill, The Dresser, The Right Stuff, and Tender Mercies.
Milos Foreman’s biopic of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was both exilierating and one of the best films made in the decade. Based on Peter Shaffer’s speculative play, Amadeus starred F. Murray Abraham as Antonio Salieri, a composer devoted to God who is both enthralled and disgusted by the lewd, but undboutedly gifted Mozart (Tom Hulce). While Mozart’s fame and fortune rise, Salieri grows increasingly envious until finally he plots to kill his rival by forcing him to write his own requiem mass, a work he plans to take as his own. Though not a commercial hit, Amadeus was highly praised by critics and rightly won Best Picture over The Killing Fields, David Lean’s final historical epic A Passage to India, Robert Benton’s Places in the Heart, and Norman Jewison’s message drama A Soldier’s Story.
Directed by Sydney Pollack, Out of Africa was a sweeping romantic epic starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, and was a clear favorite to win Oscar. Streep starred as a Danish woman living in British East Africa with her boozing, womanizing husband who falls in love with a white hunter (Redford) despite her dissatisfaction with both relationships. Out of Africa won the Oscar over Steven Spielberg’s great adaptation of The Color Purple, Kiss of the Spider Woman, John Huston’s comic gangster movie Prizzi’s Honor, and Peter Weir’s excellent crime thriller Witness.
A highly personal and somewhat controversial war movie – and one of this writer’s all-time favorites – Platoon put a fictional veneer on the real-life experience of director Oliver Stone’s two tours in the Vietnam War. In the film, Stone is portrayed as Chris (Charlie Sheen), a middle class kid who volunteers for the war in order to find himself, and comes away both shattered and reborn from the experience. Biases aside, this was a year where Best Picture was a no-brainer. Platoon won the Oscar over Children of a Lesser God, Hannah and Her Sisters, The Mission, and A Room with A View.
One of the last grand epics and the first Western film allowed to shoot inside China’s Forbidden City, The Last Emperor was a stunning film that would have fit right into Hollywood’s golden age of “cast of thousands” historical epics of the 1950s. Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, the film spanned six decades in telling the life story of Aisin-Gioro Puyi, The Last Emperor of China before Communism took over in 1949. The Last Emperor was remarkable in every way and won all nine of its Oscar nominations, winning Best Picture over Broadcast News, Fatal Attraction, Hope and Glory, and Moonstruck.
While 1988 wasn’t the strongest year for Oscar, it’s hard to be disappointed with Barry Levinson’s Rain Main winning Best Picture. The film starred Tom Cruise as Charlie Babbitt, a self-centered seller of high-end cars who learns that his expected inheritance of $3 million after his father died has gone to Raymond Babbitt (Dustin Hoffman), the autistic brother he never knew existed. Charlie removes Raymond from an institution with hopes of reclaiming his inheritance, only to discover a real bond with his brother on a road trip to California. With Rain Man, Levinson managed to elevate a standard buddy movie into a deeply moving character study that managed to win Best Picture over The Accidental Tourist, Dangerous Liaisons, Mississippi Burning, and Working Girl.
One of the biggest head scratchers not only of the decade, but in all of Best Picture history, Driving Miss Daisy has long been criticized as being one of the weakest films to win Oscar. The film starred Jessica Tandy as a strong-willed Southern woman and Morgan Freeman as her equally immovable chauffeur, as they traverse the decades through major social upheaval and realize the power of their enduring friendship. Driving Miss Daisy was a fine movie, to be sure, but hardly Best Picture material when seen alongside Born on the Fourth of July and My Left Foot. The other two nominated films were the uplifting dramas, Field of Dreams and Dead Poets Society.