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The Last Emperor: Best Picture, 1987

last_emperor_poster.jpgThe 60th Annual Academy Awards were hosted by Chevy Chase. The year unquestionably belonged to The Last Emperor, with 9 nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Costumes, Best Sound and Best Original Score. Interestingly, despite the obvious critical acclaim and bravura performances by John Lone as the adult Pu Yi and Peter O’Toole as Reginald Johnston, the emperor’s British tutor, The Last Emperor received no acting nominations. Major competition included Broadcast News (7 nominations), Fatal Attraction, Moonstruck, Empire of the Sun (6 nominations each) and Hope and Glory (5 nominations). The Last Emperor took it all, tying with 1958’s Gigi for the largest clean sweep in Oscar history (until Return of the King won all 11 of its Oscars in 2003), and represented the most wins since 1961’s West Side Story over a quarter of a century earlier.

The Last Emperor tells the very personal story of the life of Pu Yi, last emperor of China, in the sweeping, epic context of the decades of Chinese history he lived through. Crowned emperor of China in 1908 at the age of three, he was forced to abdicate four years later, but continued to live in the Forbidden City as a sort of figurehead (and a virtual prisoner) until 1924 when he was forced to leave and eventually returned to his birthplace in Manchuria. Seven years later, Manchuria was invaded by the Japanese, and in 1934 the Japanese set Pu Yi up as the puppet emperor of Manchuria. Captured by the Russians at the end of World War II, he was returned to the Chinese in 1950. He would spend the next 10 years in prison, where he was “re-educated” by the Communists to live as an “ordinary citizen.”

Hopping back and forth between the “present” of the 1950s and a series of cleverly interwoven flashbacks, what emerges is more than just the story of Pu Yi’s rise and fall. It is the story of a man who has never been able to take control of his own destiny, and must be forced to claim responsibility for both his past and his future; and it is a story of the journey of the Chinese people through the first two-thirds of the 2oth century. This is a near-perfect balance between the large-scale biopic elements, rich in sumptuous historical flavor and detail about its subject and his context, and the strong themes of redemption and personal growth. Neither all-head nor all-heart, the film has much to say on multiple levels.

Devastatingly authentic, The Last Emperor was the first movie to be filmed in the Forbidden City, and it takes full advantage of the location. Extras numbering in the tens of thousands, and are painstakingly dressed in clothing that spans a variety of contexts and periods The atmosphere is, as a result, flawlessly immersive throughout the six decades of Chinese history that we are witness to. The score provides a beautiful and moving complement to the ongoing story.

One of my favorite scenes comes early on, shortly after the young Pu Yi’s is crowned. The little boy, bored with a droning ceremony, starts to squirm. Then he stands and begins to jump up and down on his throne. His horrified “advisors” try to shush him, but he climbs down and runs giggling outside, where he is greeted by the staggering sight of thousands of his subjects bowing before him. He toddles aimlessly among them, and it is obvious that he hasn’t even noticed the spectacle. He is far more interested in the cricket chirping somewhere amidst the mass of people.

In the next scene, his imperial majesty decides that he no longer likes baths, which he proclaims loudly as he stomps like a petulant Godzilla through a model of the Forbidden City. The royal retainers finally entice him into the tub, and as his back is scrubbed he asks, “Is it true I can do anything I want?” “Of course, your majesty, anything you want. You are the Lord of Ten Thousand Years.” In response, he splashes water on everyone and stands up to kick water at them, loudly crying, “I’m the son of heaven! I’m the son of heaven!”

The final scene is one of my favorite endings to any film, a poignant and perfect coda: the freeing of the cricket. Far be it from me, though, to expound further and spoil it. This is a movie that deserves to be seen. I myself have watched it perhaps half a dozen times now, sometimes alone and sometimes with others, despite the nearly 4-hour runtime of the extended version. It is truly a memorable and worthy movie experience, deserving of its acclaim.


Though I don’t think I could replace The Last Emperor as Best Picture (in fact, I’d have given it a chance at even more awards), there are two other movies from the same year that deserve special mention. Amidst a field of some highly-acclaimed, but truly awful late-80s nominees, each was nominated for a single Oscar. One won in its category. The other did not. The former was Babette’s Feast, which won for Best Foreign Film. One of the most spiritually-fulfilling films ever made, the fact that it came from Denmark unfortunately kept it from getting the attention it deserved in other categories. It is truly a worthy film. The latter was The Princess Bride, which lost Best Original Song to “The Time of My Life” from Dirty Dancing. For such a wonderful, original film that has remained a perennial favorite, it seems particularly egregious that it should be relegated to such a minor category. It deserved, at the least, spots in Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, and the whole slate of acting categories.

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~ by Jared on March 4, 2008.

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