The 1990 Oscars are interesting because they so neatly divide the ‘80s from the ‘90s. Two of 1990’s biggest hits–Pretty Woman and Ghost–were what I like to call ‘pitch’ movies. That’s my word for when you can imagine two eager young men explaining to some bored, jaded film producer the concept behind the film they want to make, in thirty seconds or less:
Guy pitching Pretty Woman: It’s about a millionaire who picks up a beautiful prostitute on the street. He pays her to spend a week with him, and by the end of the week she’s fallen in love with him. But at the end he buys her a whole bunch of stuff ‘cause he kind of likes her, but she’s miserable because it’s obvious her feelings are hopeless, and she runs out of the limo and throws the stuff away and disappears, to become a prostitute again. Fade to black. (That is actually how the original screenplay to Pretty Woman ends. Don’t know if Julia Roberts and her world-beating smile could have pulled that one off.)
Guy pitching Ghost: It’s about a man who dies violently, and comes back as a ghost to protect his girlfriend, and help her to solve the mystery of his murder. The ghost doesn’t have a body so he can’t touch anything, but—get this, he meets this fortune teller who can hear him, right? And then he learns he can actually inhabit her body!
Producer: So let’s make the girlfriend Demi Moore, and the ghost can be Patrick Swayze.
Guy: Wow, great!
Producer: And we can make the fortune teller Melanie Griffith, and we’ll have this smoking-hot love scene, which will be great because it will LOOK like lesbians, but it’s actually completely heterosexual in spirit.
Guy: That works, too.
The ‘80s were the heyday of pitch movies. Tootsie, E.T., Cocoon, Terminator, Predator, Rain Man, Ghostbusters, Back to the Future, Fatal Attraction...on an on, all movies you could neatly explain in thirty seconds and give a general impression of how the whole thing plays out. They weren’t necessarily the most prestigious films (although a surprising number have joined the canon), but the high-concept film was in overdrive, and they made money. (I have no way of knowing this, but I suspect the temptation to pick these kinds of stories came from the likelihood that a million changes was going to happen in pre-production, so picking a basic, relatable concept was essential—I talk about why in Oscars Past Part 2).
The 1990 Oscars featured Ghost, Awakenings, Dances With Wolves, Godfather Part III, and Goodfellas as Best Picture nominees. Ghost is a quintessential ‘80s movie. Goodfellas is a quintessential ‘90s movie. That they found themselves in competition with each other right at the turn of the decade makes 1990 a great dividing line (along with the fact that it is the actual numerical dividing line).
Demi Moore is really pretty, and has a sexy voice, and when she isn’t asked to do anything beyond her ability I tolerate her. Unfortunately, her ability is usually limited to being a verbal foil for more charismatic actors. In Ghost her partner is…Patrick Swayze? Wait, how did this movie work again?
Oh, yes—Swayze is dead, so they never have to actually exchange words with each other. Somehow watching Swayze run around and fume while Moore quietly emotes draws our sympathy. And Whoopi Goldberg swoops in and provides the charm which is a notable deficiency in both leads (she won a Best Supporting Actress in the fortune teller role.) *
My memory of Awakenings is not that great, but I do distinctly remember its parallels to Flowers for Algernon. A comatose man (Robert De Niro) is awakened after decades by an experimental drug. If I were watching it now I’d guess the ending in the first five minutes, but I hadn’t watched as many movies back then. It’s still rather touching, and probably stands up to a contemporary viewing decently, as long as you don’t worry about the inevitable denouement.
Dances With Wolves probably doesn’t stand up as well, but it was grand and stirring and ambitious in its reach (there was more subtitled Native American in the movie than English).
Godfather III added to the conundrum of final chapters in a trilogy not quite being sure of what they’re about. But anyone who is a big fan of the Godfather movies probably should watch it, just to see how it all ends.
I am not Martin Scorsese’s biggest fan. Not because I don’t think he’s great, but because I can tell his priorities in storytelling are very different from mine as an audience.
1990 featured three notable gangster movies: the third Godfather, the Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing, and Goodfellas.
Gangsters have been associated with the movies for a very long time. There’s an essential problem which needs to be addressed by all of them—if your protagonists are professional criminals (that is, people who make a conscious and informed decision to steal and murder), how do you get the audience to accept them? We don’t think of this as a problem because there have been so many gangster movies that we are conditioned to accept any one of many solutions almost immediately. How Godfather and Goodfellas (and to a lesser degree, Miller’s Crossing) address the issue is telling.
Godfather romanticizes gangsters. Vito and Sonny Corleone take on the quality of tragic heroes—undoubtedly flawed, but supremely felt. They are, like Lear or Oedipus, powerful kings negotiating the cruelty of the world in the only manner they know how. Marlon Brando goes so far as to create the impression that Vito is not a criminal at all, but rather a benevolent potentate whose influence is as legitimate as a U.S. senator or a Hollywood mogul. (The worst one of the bunch is Sonny himself—which of course is so heartbreaking because he begins as the innocent. Coppola dares us to sympathize with him for having to become a cold-blooded killer).
All of the mobsters in Goodfellas are scum–loud, violent, obnoxious sociopaths (Ray Liotta’s main character gets some sympathy for trying to be reasonable, but when push comes to shove he’s a creep, too). Scorsese doesn’t feel the need to apologize for any of this. In fact, he doesn’t feel the need to comment on the shocking behavior at all. His camera is alive and incredibly energetic, but it’s pure energy, driven by the particular mood of the scene or the psychology of a character at that moment, and saying nothing about the wider ramifications. One of the most talked-about sequences in the movie involves a busy day in the life of Liotta’s Henry Hill—he has to pick up his paraplegic brother from the hospital, sell some guns, pick up some drugs, manage his mistress, cut the package to make it street-ready, cook some veal cutlets and marinara for dinner, and get his drug mule’s lucky hat in Rockaway so he can put her on a plane, all while snorting an enormous amount of cocaine and watching helicopters circle overhead. The sequence draws you completely in to Hill’s point of view, but only as it pertains to him wigging out. There is no other decipherable message, besides what we bring to it ourselves.
In the post-Sopranos world this lack of moral comment may not be that shocking, but that’s kind of the point. There is no Sopranos without Goodfellas. By the time the 2000s rolled around we had become inured to this type of visual storytelling—a camera which records obsessively, and penetrates characters’ psychology as brutally as a drill, but doesn’t try to shape the narrative in a way that feels like we’re being told a tale. There is usually a very distinguishable overarching plot that follows Aristotle’s dramatic rules quite closely (Goodfellas itself observes the ‘rise-and-fall of a young man’ plot with a devotion which approaches parody), but it’s always window dressing. No one watches Goodfellas and comes away with the idea that it is a cautionary tale about the lure of the crime life.
No one really knows what Goodfellas is about. It utilizes powerful visual techniques that continue to influence movies today and synchronizes popular music with the on-screen action in a way we hadn’t seen before, but now is used as shorthand in everything almost every visual/aural medium. The performances are roundly excellent. But there seems to be no there there. I don’t think I’ll ever come around to this kind of thinking. But plenty of people already have.
*–I just remembered that Swayze passed away tragically from cancer a year ago. From all accounts he was a terrific guy and a loving husband. And while he was not a great actor, he certainly took advantage of all of his talents to give us a bunch of movies that will live forever in our nostalgia chambers.