Charles Crichton: A Fish Called Wanda
Martin Scorsese: The Last Temptation of Christ
Alan Parker: Mississippi Burning
Barry Levinson: Rain Man (winner)
Mike Nichols: Working Girl
There are so many good movies from 1988 that were well-directed. Because of this, I’ll have to be summary at best here, and I’m certain I’m leaving a lot out. It’ll be a cold day in hell when the director of an animated movie gets a director nomination, but 1988 saw the release of Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro and Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies, two of the best of any decade. It will be an equally frosty day in hell for John Waters to earn a nomination, but this is the year of Hairspray, his best and most accessible film. Directors like Tim Burton and David Cronenberg aren’t Oscar darlings, but this year saw the release of Beetlejuice, which cemented Burton’s visual style and Dead Ringers, which only solidified Cronenberg’s love of body horror. I should also mention John McTiernan and Die Hard if only because it's Die Hard. Directors who could more legitimately be here include Ron Shelton for Bull Durham, Martin Brest for Midnight Run, and Oliver Stone for the vastly underrated Talk Radio. The two biggest misses for me are George Sluizer for the terrifying Spoorloos and especially Stephen Frears for Dangerous Liaisons. It’s also worth noting that Cinema Paradiso was a 1988 release, but it got its nominations in 1990, so Guiseppe Tornatore was snubbed in ’90, not ’88.
Weeding through the Nominees
5. The nomination of Mike Nichols for Working Girl feels like a case where the film was nominated, not the director. I liked this movie more than I thought I would, but it would be a lie to say that I loved it. The things I liked about it, though, were wrapped up in the screenplay and not with the way in which that story was shown to us. I’d much rather have Stephen Frears here, since I think he did a lot more work and had a lot more work to do. Nichols really just needed to point the camera and let the characters be themselves. It’s a good movie, but it’s also nothing better than a standard directorial performance.
4. Mississippi Burning has genuine problems in the screenplay. That’s not specifically the problem of Alan Parker, except for the fact that the movie has his name on it. Parker was blessed with a fantastic cast and he got good performances out of them, but this is a case where, again, I think the movie was nominated more than the director. A movie about racism, set in the South and produced competently is going to get some play come Oscar time. I’m not even sure in this case that all of its nominations were undeserved. I’m just not convinced that this nomination was particularly deserved.
3. Martin Scorsese deserved an Oscar multiple times before he actually got one, but I wouldn’t give him one for The Last Temptation of Christ. The thing that makes this film noteworthy isn’t the cast (although it’s great and inspired in places) or the direction, but the controversy. It took a great deal of cojones to make this film, and I appreciate that. It was a risk, the sort of thing that could potentially destroy a career if it weren’t handled well. I think I’m okay with this nomination, although there may be a few more deserving directors who could be here.
2. I’m a little more torn on A Fish Called Wanda and Charles Crichton. I genuinely love this movie and have since the first time I saw it. It’s still funny and still funny for all the same reasons. Again, Crichton was blessed with a truly stellar cast all at the tops of their games, but he’s responsible for getting those performances and for making the movie work as well as it does. I love that he was nominated, since comedies tend to be ignored come Oscar time as well. I can’t quite get him to the win, though. Still, it’s the first nomination I really like.
1. That leaves us with the actual winner, Barry Levinson for Rain Man. The truth is that I tend to like the idea of Rain Man more than I like watching the film itself. However, Levinson managed to do something here that is absolutely worth seeing. Tom Cruise has made a career on being instantly likeable. In Rain Man he starts as someone we actively dislike and come to like by the end. Cruise gets a lot of the credit for that, but so too does Levinson. It’s all good work, and of the nominations, I think Oscar went the right way.
But, as seems to be the case more often than not for the last few weeks, I’m going off the reservation and giving the Oscar to someone not even nominated. In this case, since I can’t hand the statue to Giuseppe Tornatore for Cinema Paradiso, since it technically wasn’t eligible in 1988, I’m giving it to Stephen Frears for Dangerous Liaisons. Nothing before or since has made this era of history so nasty, venal, sexy, and wonderful. I’m always surprised at just how damn good this film is, and Frears gets a great deal of the credit for that.