Academy Awards 1989: A Difference of Opinion

Paul Mendoza

On March 26th 1990 the 62 annual Academy awards were presented at the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion in Los Angeles. Daniel Day Lewis won the first of his three Best Actor Oscars, Jessica Tandy became the oldest person at the time, to win a competitive Oscar and Billy Crystal hosted the Oscars for the very first time. The show ran three hours and twenty seven minutes and was watched by over 40 million people.

Everyone has an opinion on the Academy Awards. Even if you hate them and don’t watch you can’t help but think to yourself, “That wasn’t the Best Picture of the year!” and then decreeing that the little seen Indie film you loved IS “The Best Picture of the year!”. Art is subjective. We all have different tastes and you can’t make everyone happy.

I love the Oscars! I’ve watched them every year for as long as I can remember. It’s one of my favorite days of the year! One of my high holy days along with my birthday, the Emmy Awards and Christmas. I love movies! Yet, even I have had my share of disagreements with the Academy from time to time. For example: In 1967 the Best Song award went to Talk To The Animals from Doctor Doolittle but I think Look Of Love from Casino Royale should have won. I’m a big Burt Bacharach fan so I may be biased. In 1974 Best Actor went to Art Carney for Harry and Tonto but I believe it should have gone to Jack Nicholson for Chinatown. And in 1977 how could not one Bee Gees song from Saturday Night Fever earn a nomination for Best Song!!

But rarely have I had such a complete disagreement to the level I had with the nominees for Best Picture of 1989. Just to refresh your memories here were the nominees:

Born On The Forth Of July directed by Oliver Stone (nominated and won for Best Director)
Dead Poet’s Society directed by Pete Weir (nominated for Best Director)
Driving Miss Daisy directed by Bruce Beresford
Field Of Dreams directed by Phil Alden Robinson
My Left Foot directed by Jim Sheridan (nominated for Best Director)

The award went to Driving Miss Daisy, which also won Best Actress for Jessica Tandy and Best Screenplay Adaptation for Alfred Uhry. This was a film based on a play by Uhry which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1988. It was about a black chauffeur and the white woman he worked for. It was a good film. It was entertaining. It had a good message. It was a safe choice. Field of Dreams is a great feel good film, Born On The Fourth of July was about Vietnam and those who came home, My Left Foot was an Irish film about a man with such severe cerebral palsy all he could control was his left foot and he became a world renown artist and Dead Poet’s Society showcased a brilliant Robin Williams in a good old fashioned film about awakening youth. I’m not saying that these five films are not worthy to be considered the best of that year but for my money I think there were five other films that were more worthy. Here’s my five nominees for Best Picture of 1989:

Crimes and Misdemeanors directed by Woody Allen (nominated for Best Director)

Do The Right Thing directed by Spike Lee

Glory directed by Ed Zwick

Sex, Lies and Videotape directed by Steven Soderbergh

When Harry Met Sally directed by Rob Reiner

Crimes and Misdemeanors is one of Woody Allen’s best films. It was dark and serious and extremely well acted. Allen was nominated for Best Director and Best Screenplay, Martin Landau and Anjelica Huston were nominated in the supporting categories.

Do The Right Thing is probably still Spike Lee’s best film. This film was controversial when it was released. It was everything Driving Miss Daisy was not, challenging, risk taking and unsettling. It dealt with race in an honest way that scared people and it offered no easy answers.

Glory was powerful film about one of the first all African-American military units in the Civil War. Denzel Washington won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor that year. It was directed by Ed Zwick who was most well known for creating and helming the successful TV series thirtysomething.

Sex, Lies and Videotape was written and directed by Steven Soderbergh and was his first film . It won the Palme d’Or the at Cannes Film Festival. It marked the beginning of a new Indie film revival, rejuvenated Andie MacDowell’s film career and turned James Spader into leading man. It explored the sexual lives of four people in a frank and unique way.

When Harry Met Sally was written by Nora Ephron and directed by Rob Reiner and made movies stars out of Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan. It almost single handedly started the ‘rom-com’ era. It was incredibly funny, charming and romantic.

Of these five films, four of them received the consolation prize of being nominated for best Original Screenplay. They all lost to Dead Poet’s Society.

These five films were seminal. They were important markers as we headed into the 90s. They are now considered classic films that live on forever on cable. Being nominated for Best Picture is like making the Super Bowl. It’s hard to get back and sometimes you never do. Spike Lee received his first Best Director nomination this year for Black Klaansman and the film was his first to be nominated for Best Picture. Allen was soon to hit scandal and controversy and it wasn’t until 2011 that one of his films was back in the Best Picture category with Midnight In Paris. Soderbergh hit his stride in the late 90s and had two of his films nominated for Best Picture in 2000, Erin Brockovich and Traffic, winning Best Director for Traffic. Soderbergh also became only the third director to be nominated for two films in the same year. Ed Zwick found more success in the 90s but never had a film back in contention. Rob Reiner made it back for his 1992 film A Few Good Men but was not nominated for Best Director.

Beyond these five one could also make a case for four other films;

Henry V (nominated for Best Director Kenneth Brangh)

Parenthood (Dir. Ron Howard)

Enemies: A Love Story (Dir. Paul Mazursky)

and The Fabulous Baker Boys (Dir. Steve Kloves). When you think about it, 1989 was a helluva year for movies.

The Academy now allows up to ten films to be nominated for Best Picture and if this had been the case in 1989 some of these films would have made the cut. But the truth is they didn’t. Just think about this; how many of these films have you watched more than once? Which of these films do you return to time after time? I’ll be honest, I haven’t watched Driving Miss Daisy since I saw it in the theaters. On the other hand, I’ve watched most of the other nine films I’ve mentioned multiple times. What does this mean? I liked them better!

But as The Dude says, “Yeah, well, you know, that’s just like uh, your opinion, man.”