Out of Africa: Best Picture, 1985

outofafricaposterThe 58th Annual Academy Awards were hosted by Robin Williams. Out of Africa was nominated for 11 Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Editing, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Actress (Meryl Streep), Best Supporting Actor (Klaus Maria Brandauer, Best Art Direction, Best Original Score, Best Costumes, and Best Sound. The other nominees included The Color Purple (11 nominations, no wins), Witness (8 nominations, 2 wins), Kiss of the Spider Woman (4 nominations, 1 win), Prizzi’s Honor (8 nominations, 1 win), Akira Kurosawa’s Ran (4 nominations, 1 win), and Back to the Future (4 nominations, 1 win).

Ultimately, Best Actress went to Geraldine Page for The Trip to Bountiful (Streep had already been nominated 5 times, with 2 wins, by this point). Don Ameche won Best Supporting Actor for Cocoon. Witness got Best Editing and Best Costumes was awarded to Ran. Out of Africa won its remaining nominations, for a total of 7 Oscars. Meanwhile, The Color Purple astoundingly went home empty-handed.

In hindsight, Out of Africa appears to be a perfect storm of Oscar-bait elements and seems to have been almost guaranteed a sweep. This was not how it seemed at the time, but consider: The film has an epic scope (and length), it is set in an exotic historical locale, it is a biopic, it is centered around a romance. All of these are things which are said to appeal to Oscar voters, and a cynical modern viewer might perhaps question whether the film was intentionally constructed specifically for the awards ceremony. It’s not a very profitable bit of speculation, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The movie is about the life and experiences of Karen Blixen (Streep), a wealthy Danish woman who moves to Kenya in the early 1900s. Karen initially goes to join her husband (Brandauer) and run a ranch. However, she arrives to find that he has unilaterally decided (using her money) that they will grow coffee instead, despite the unsuitable location. As she struggles to make the venture work, foster good relations with the local natives, and generally flout colonial conventions, her husband proves (in several ways) to be unworthy of her. Eventually, she begins a passionate relationship with adventurer Denys Finch Hatton (Redford), and grows to love her life in Africa, leaving her own distinct mark on everyone who meets her. The film is based on Blixen’s memoirs, published under the pen-name Isak Denisen.

There is a lot to like about Out of Africa; perhaps too much. The production is full of memorable scenes thanks largely to the glorious African landscapes captured on film and bolstered by the lovely, sweeping score. Streep is very good in the lead, disappearing into character as she always does so brilliantly. Blixen’s story is almost too good to be true, but the film remains reasonably faithful to its source and she lived, it seems, a very cinematic life. The story of how the film was made is an interesting one in itself, and the more I hear about what went into the making of it behind-the-scenes, the more I admire it for what it is.

What it is not, however, is the sort of movie I could watch over and over again. Despite covering a large amount of material, the movie feels overlong. While full of memorable movie moments, the overarching movement of the whole sometimes feels too disconnected and directionless. This assessment is extraordinarily personal, however. Another viewer might be totally enthralled by the beauty of the images and the interactions of the characters where I was not quite drawn in. A second viewing might make it easier for me to avoid holding the film at arm’s length and appreciate it more fully.

One enormously distracting element was the extremely poor integration of on-location footage with actors working in studios. A great deal of filming was done in Africa, but many shots were accomplished simply by filming the actors in front of screens, as with all close-ups of Streep and Redford during the otherwise magnificent flight over Africa scene. Amidst the gorgeous, soaring shots of the tiny plane gliding above the amazing scenery below, there are jarringly awful shots of the two actors on-board the plane which are obviously fabricated. It’s the sort of thing that is quite common in older movies (look at any scene filmed in a car until just a few decades ago, for example), and it normally doesn’t bother me. In this case, however, it was totally at odds with the aesthetics of the movie, and it would have been worthwhile to either devise an alternate method or leave the close-ups out entirely.

Call me a populist, but my favorite film of 1985 is probably Back to the Future. It may be a light-hearted sci-fi/comedy directed at teens, but there are layers of depth and sophistication buried not far under its surface. It captures the spirit of the time while also looking back to an earlier generation, and presents a situation that almost anyone can relate to and be amused by. If there’s one major, identifiable problem with the Oscar system, it’s that they are so unapologetically geared towards a particular type of “serious” film that suggesting a movie like Back to the Future sounds kind of absurd. Of the other Best Picture nominees, I rather like Witness, and I’ll go ahead and throw Woody Allen’s fantastic The Purple Rose of Cairo (which had a single nomination, for Best Original Screenplay) out there as another worthy contender.

~ by Jared on June 9, 2009.

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