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  • Sheldon Gaskell

Alternate Oscars: 1993

Best Picture

Winner: Unforgiven Other Nominees: The Crying Game, A Few Good Men, Howards End, Scent of a Woman

Best Choice: Howards End Runners-Up: Malcolm X, Unforgiven, The Crying Game, The Last of the Mohicans, Reservoir Dogs

The 1993 Oscar for Best Picture was awarded to Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, in which Eastwood also nabbed the award for Best Director.  The win acted as a farewell to Eastwood's long career in the Western genre, and to this day marks a significant turn toward his renown brisk, bare-bone style of film making.  Though an entertaining work with great political and artistic value, the film reveals more of a director in turmoil with his own ego and the hesitant abandonment of tradition than the duel riveting action shooter and thought provoking farewell to arms originally intended for the screen.  With the ongoing motif of "leaving the guns behind," it seems ironic that in the final scene, the hero, William Munny uses violence to attain justice.  Remnicient of Sergio Leone's  A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965), Unforgiven, though attempting to comment on the end of the Western genre and the emergence of a new generation of film-making, relies on the same visual and narrative techniques of tradition, undermining its own cinematic message.

Howards End, directed by James Ivory and based on the book by E.M. Forster, is a film breathing tradition, yet boldly pushing the envelope of viewer expectation.  The film welcomes viewers into the world of post-colonial England where the rich and the poor exist at either ends of society.  The film begins with a woman, Ruth Wilcox (Vanessa Redgrave), wandering the beautiful property of Howards End, the homestead at the center of the drama.  She is nearing death and is in the process of securing her will and determining who will take ownership of the summer homestead in her wake.  Her husband, Henry J. Wilcox (Anthony Hopkins), is an up-kept gentleman who appears to be the prime benefactor for the property, that is until Ruth forms an unlikely friendship with a woman in the city, her less-well-to-do neighbor Margaret Schlegel (Emma Thompson).  Ruth's son Charles (James Wilby) was once set to marry Margaret's sister Helen (Helena Bonham Carter), which first brought the two families tumbling together.  Thompson's portrayal of Margaret is compassionate and kind, supremely likable and subtly joyous, acting as both friend and emotional support to Ruth.  Unlike Henry's aloof, almost indifferent response to Ruth's current condition, Margaret clearly cares for Ruth, gaining her an invitation to Howards End, though she never visits while Ruth is alive, and later title of primary beneficiary of the estate.

From here, the drama erupts.  After Ruth's death and it is revealed who will inherit Howards End, Henry burns the will, claiming the house and property for his own.  Margaret, who is now a good friend of the family, is unaware of her rightful claim and continues to visit the property by Henry's request, as he has grown infatuated with her.  Soon, much to his children's disdain, Henry proposes to Margaret, and they are married.  It is thus, through an ironic twist of fate, that Margaret becomes co-owner of an estate that is rightfully hers.  While Margaret grows more involved in upper-class life, her sister Helen grows infatuated with a sensitive young academic married man from the lower class.  They become lovers, and she is eventually impregnated by him.  Later, he seeks Helen to discuss his love for her regardless of their class differences, and he is killed by Charles in a quarrel as a result of a weak heart.  Charles is charged with murder and Margaret, disgusted with Henry and his severe hatred of the poor, decides to leave Howards End for Germany with Helen.  In the film's final scene, Henry reveals to Margaret Ruth's wish for her to inherit the estate, though he states she most likely did so as a result of her "not being herself."  The film, thus, ends on a sad, ironic note; the viewer is left distraught over the supreme injustice performed by the rich, both in the murder of a thoughtful poor man and the thievery of Howards End from Margaret, its rightful owner.

The film is most effective in its mastery of narrative, winning the Oscar for best screenplay for Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's poignant dialogue and effective dramatization of E.M Forster's brilliant novel of the same name.  The cinematography is equally brilliant, allowing viewers to connect with characters through specific visual clues.  This is most apparent with the young intellectual man's journey through the lilacs, symbolizing both his awakening to love and fragility of body.  Emotionally stirring and intense, Howards End is a film that marks both powerful narrative ability and vast cinematic value.  Viewers will be brought to tears, their insides twisted in anguish while simultaneously struck by awe at the film's immense narrative and cinematic beauty.

Best Actor

Winner: Al Pacino (Scent of a Woman) Other Nominees: Robert Downey Jr. (Chaplin), Clint Eastwood (Unforgiven), Stephen Rea (The Crying Game), Denzel Washington (Malcolm X)

Best Choice: Denzel Washington (Malcolm X) Runners-Up: Robert Downey Jr. (Chaplin), Daniel Day-Lewis (The Last of the Mohicans), Anthony Hopkins (Howards End), Al Pacino (Scent of a Woman)

Al Pacino finally earned his long-coming Oscar win for playing a blind army lieutenant.  The year marked a perfect opportunity for his win as he also proved especially riveting in his role in David Mamet's screen version of the play Glengarry Glen Ross, also earning him a nomination in the supporting category.  Though no doubt a fine performance, the win was more a salute to Pacino himself for his inspirational career since his role as Michael Corleone in The Godfather (1972), making amends for past Oscar snubs for brilliant performances in Serpico (1973), The Godfather: Part II (1974), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), and Scarface (1983).

The undeniably best performance was given by Denzel Washington in Spike Lee's biopic of the late African American civil rights leader, Malcolm X.  So realistic and empowering was Washington's performance, coupled with his visual likeness to X, that audiences today still mistake him for the actual civil rights leader.  Washington's poise and supreme concentration reveal both a revolutionary and evolutionary Malcolm, one who grows from unstable criminal to collected civil rights advocate, calmly defying the unjust laws laid down by white men through concentrated resistance.  The emotional exasperation of Washington in Malcolm's younger years, especially notable in the pseudo-Russian roulette scene, contrasted with the cool prowess of his later years is evidence of an actor living and breathing in his element.  The raw power and intellectual backdrop that drives Washington's every movement in the film marks this performance as one of the decade's greatest.

Best Actress

Winner: Emma Thompson (Howards End) Other Nominees: Catherine Deneuve (Indochine), Mary McDonnell (Passion Fish), Michelle Pfeiffer (Love Field), Susan Sarandon (Lorenzo's Oil)

Best Choice: Michelle Pfeiffer (Batman Returns) Runners-Up: Emma Thompson (Howards End), Catherine Deneuve (Indochine), Michelle Pfeiffer (Love Field), Susan Sarandon (Lorenzo's Oil)

Emma Thompson's performance as Margaret Schelgel in Howards End is modest, sweet, and incredibly effective in subtly garnering love from both her fellow characters and viewers.  Though Thompson was deserving of the award, her character was overshadowed by the brilliance of Vanessa Redgrave's portrayal of Ruth Wilcox, and at times appeared to be more of a strong supporting character than the ultimate protagonist of the film.

A more fitting, though unexpected, choice would be Michelle Pfeiffer for her role in Tim Burton's Batman Returns.  Pfeiffer was nominated for her performance in Love Field as a Southern housewife aiding a black man and his daughter through difficulties on the road to Washington.  Though emotionally wrought and effective in her delivery, her performance for the most part played it safe - she was the typical wife seeking something more and using her feminine intuition to offer aid for a man and his daughter's well-being.  Her portrayal of Selina Kyle (aka Catwoman) in Batman Returns, however, is both comic and dark, touching and literally hair-raising.  This is a performance where Pfeiffer takes risks and succeeds dramatically in them.  Selina Kyle is the modest secretary to Max Shreck, an evil business man seeking total control of Gotham city.  Once Selina learns of Max's plans, Max throws her from a window.  Miraculously, Selina survives after being revived by cats, and takes on a villainous alter-ego as Catwoman.  Pfeiffer brilliantly portrays a woman merging from cloistered dismissal to unrestricted madness, flaunting her individuality and manipulative sexual/physical power over all the men she encounters.  Most brilliant is the scene where she first merges into her feline form.  After being thrown from the window, Selina arrives at her apartment.  Already she appears mad, both rigid as though dead and unpredictable in her thrashing movements through the apartment.  To the viewer, it appears as though an inner demon is merging into Selina's consciousness.  Pfeiffer is at first in a daze, and then in a furry, letting the cat out of the bag as she destroys everything from her character's previous life and evolves fully into her role as villainous hysteric.

Best Supporting Actor

Winner: Gene Hackman (Unforgiven) Other Nominees: Jaye Davidson (The Crying Game), Jack Nicholson (A Few Good Men), Al Pacino (Glengarry Glen Ross), David Paymor (Mr. Saturday Night)

Best Choice: Tim Roth (Reservoir Dogs) Runners-Up: Jaye Davidson (The Crying Game), Al Pacino (Glengarry Glen Ross), Wes Studi (The Last of the Mohicans), Jack Nicholson (A Few Good Men)

Gene Hackman won his second Oscar for once again playing a brutal enforcer of the law.  Like his previous performance as NYC narcotics detective Jimmy Doyle in The French Connection (1971), Hackman's portrayal of Little Bill Daggett in Unforgiven was ruthless, cold, and just psychotic enough to push Academy voters to action.  Though effective in his raw power in the film, Hackman offered nothing really new to his performance of the villain.  He was strictly, unapologetically cruel, offering no perspective to his means for his actions.  The audience hated him, but simply because he was the typical woman-beating, Morgan Freeman-whipping, symbol of police brutality and government control.  His performance was just as the viewer expected and nothing more.

There were a few promising non-nominated performances given this year.  Wes Studi gave a horrifying, passionately cold performance as the villainous Huron leader, Magua, in The Last of the Mohicans.  Quentin Tarantino's first critically acclaimed film Reservoir Dogs especially offered a slew of powerful supporting performances, most significantly the wild, swear-aholic Steve Buscemi and my choice, Tim Roth.  Roth's performance of Mr. Orange could easily be argued as overdrawn.  His acting seems awkward, out-of-place, even staged, that is until it is revealed that Roth's character is a double agent, secretly leading the police directly to those in charge of the heist.  Essentially, Roth is acting as a police officer acting as a criminal to such precision that even the audience is initially deceived.  Even as he lies dying on the ground of the warehouse, Roth performs a character struggling with what it means to be a good actor within the circumstances of the scene of his criminal ego's death.  Though bleeding out in the car with Mr. White (Harvey Keitel), Roth performs a complex Mr. Orange, one who thrashes both with the pain of gunshot wound and with the realization that if he cannot contain his identity with how a criminal would act in this situation of dying, he would surely be killed immediately by Mr. White.  Roth also displays this self-reflective nod to the art of acting during his monologue scene when he first warms up to the criminal gang.  He memorizes a monologue in the film to allow the other members of the bank heist to trust him.  Soon, he is able to improvise lines (both as the character and in the performance of the character), providing a performance quite unique to film, one that breaks the fourth wall while simultaneously effectively intensifying the narrative.

Best Supporting Actress

Winner: Marisa Tomei (My Cousin Vinny) Other Nominees: Judy Davis (Husbands and Wives), Joan Plowright (Enchanted April), Vanessa Redgrave (Howards End), Miranda Richardson (Damage)

Best Choice: Vanessa Redgrave (Howards End) Runners-Up: Marisa Tomei (My Cousin Vinny), Judy Davis (Husbands and Wives), Joan Plowright (Enchanted April), Miranda Richardson (Damage)

Marisa Tomei gave a funny and powerful performance as the boisterous, mechanically-inclined wife to Vinny, Mona Lisa Vito in My Cousin Vinny.  It's hard to compete with her quirky, sassy vibes and dominance in every scene; however, at times she appears more so as the stereotypical whiny, nagging Italian girlfriend than a character with individual, complex desires, thus fulfilling more the role of expectation than originality.

The better choice is Vanessa Redgrave in Howards End.  Here is a performance at the complete opposite spectrum of Tomei's.  Redgrave is subtle, complex, and deep in thought throughout her debut as Ruth Wilcox in the first third of the film.  Ruth is a gentle, seemingly compliant, and highly secretive woman on her deathbed seeking the proper benefactor for her estate of Howards End.  Her thoughts are never explicitly stated, so though it appears she is happy in her marriage with Henry (Anthony Hopkins) and that he will inherit the property, her increasing attachment to Emma Thompson's Margaret Schlegel reveals an alternative motive.  Redgrave and Thompson's acting compatibility is electric in the film, so much so that their characters' emotional relationship is unmatched by even Margaret and her sister Helen.  One can even argue Redgrave's subtle, thoughtful performance of Ruth's longing for Margaret is one of lesbian desire, further fueling the flames for her gifting the property to her dear friend.  Dreamy and complex in her almost hopeful descent to death, Redgrave's performance is one working heavily and heartily behind the scenes, every movement of lips and linger of eye a clue to the puzzle of Ruth's unique choices in the film.

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