Feature: "Oscar's Cinema Lineage"
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Oscar's Cinema Lineage

By D. Scott Apel

"There is nothing new under the sun," we read in Ecclesiastes.

This is not an entirely detrimental development, however -- especially for videophiles. Consider the five films nominated for this year's Best Picture Oscar, for instance. Only one is on cassette (The Full Monty, available March 17); the others we won't be able to view in the comfort of our own living rooms for some time. But for every entry, there are a number of previously produced films, readily rentable on cassette, that bear similarities in theme, tone or plot to these recent features.

Anyone with enough interest can play Cinematic Supersleuth, tracing the lineage of a specific theme or idea back through the history of film. But primarily this idea of a "video genealogy" can be extremely entertaining. If you enjoyed the current crop of Best Picture contenders, chances are you'll also enjoy some of these recommended similar films -- many of them Oscar winners themselves.

In alphabetical order, the nominees are:

As Good As It Gets

Jack Nicholson's scenery-chewing performance is the highlight of director James L. Brooks' "dramedy" about an obsessive-compulsive writer attempting to forge a relationship with the only woman who can stand him (Helen Hunt). Other films have dealt with this theme of "dysfunctional romance" in various ways, both comic and dramatic, including:

David and Lisa (1963), a sensitive drama in which Keir Dullea and Janet Margolin play mentally disturbed young adults who nonetheless inspire affection in one another.

Stanley & Iris (1990), a charming melodrama concerning the budding love between a new widow (Jane Fonda) and the illiterate working class man she begins tutoring (Robert De Niro).

Frankie and Johnny (1991), an overlooked little gem starring Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer as a blue collar couple warily wondering if taking another chance on romance is worth the effort.

Truly, Madly, Deeply (1991), a poignant, bittersweet comic fantasy written and directed by Anthony Minghella (The English Patient) which features Juliet Stevenson and Alan Rickman as a truly dysfunctional couple: he's come back from the dead to put an end to her grief.

The Full Monty

This rousing, crowd-pleasing comedy from Great Britain sports a plot as old as story-telling itself: a group of mismatched misfits banding together to overcome enormous odds. In this case, the men are unemployed steel workers inspired by the Chippendale dancers to try some on-stage stripping themselves. But the essential premise can be seen in any number of times, places and goals, including films such as:

Brassed Off (1996), a recent comedy in which Peter Postlethwaite and a (literal) band of unemployed Brits attempt to win a music competition to regain their lost pride.

The Commitments (1991), in which young Dublin musicians attempt success even though their combo is dedicated to playing vintage American R&B.

The Best of Times (1986), an energetic sports comedy featuring Robin Williams as a middle-aged failure, convinced he can turn his life around if he can just persuade his old high school football team to replay the game that cost him his self-respect.

Meatballs (1979), a teen comedy in which summer camp counselor Bill Murray teaches his scraggly, sure-to-lose contestants that not only is winning a competition against a competing camp not everything, in fact "It just doesn't matter!" See also Murray's Stripes (1981), a service comedy in which Bill whips a platoon of misfits into fighting shape.

Good Will Hunting

A young man (Matt Damon), torn between his genius for math and his blue-collar roots, is gently encouraged into adulthood by his math tutor, a quirky psychologist (Robin Williams) and the woman who falls in love with him (Minnie Driver). Just as there is much comedy and drama that can be wrung from the problems of the emotionally arrested (see As Good As It Gets, above), there is a similar vein of gold to be mined in the problems of those outsiders whose intellect towers above the crowd. This theme has been addressed in a handful of fine films including:

Charly (1968), a science fiction story about a retarded man (Cliff Robertson, who won a Best Actor Oscar in this role) turned into a genius by an experiment, and his subsequent emotional distress -- first in dealing with his newfound intelligence, and later in realizing that he will eventually revert to his original retarded state.

Shine (1996), a Best Picture nominee for its dramatic portrayal of a brilliant but overly-sensitive pianist who fights a winning battle against mental illness.

Little Man Tate (1991), the poignant portrait of a child genius and the emotional difficulties he encounters enduring a clash between his cold, inhibited tutor (Dianne Weist) and his nurturing working-class mom (Jodie Foster, who also made her directorial debut with this gentle little film).

Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993), another bittersweet story of child genius, this one centering on real-life chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin, who must integrate the advice of both his parents as well as two conflicting tutors to walk a tightrope between his natural ability and his innate decency.

L.A. Confidential

Corruption In High Places is the theme of this exceptional modern film noir drama (due on tape April 14). While this engrossing and atmospheric entry recreates the seamy side of Los Angeles in the '50s, its central theme is evident in a number of previously-produced (and highly recommended) films which take place in other times and places, including:

Chinatown (1974), the film generally credited with reviving the film noir form, and an Oscar-winner in its own right (Robert Towne's Screenplay). Jack Nicholson plays a semi-seedy private eye in 1930's L.A. who becomes entangled in a grand political scheme to monopolize the city's water.

Hammett (1983), an underrated, underseen gem in which author Dashiell Hammett turns investigator and discovers corruption among the Big Rich in Depression-era San Francisco -- as well as numerous characters and incidents which he would later weave into his groundbreaking detective fiction.

The Usual Suspects (1996), a dark, intelligent and convoluted crime thriller centering around the identity and actions of a mysterious criminal mastermind -- and a film which won Kevin Spacey a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

All the President's Men (1976), a fascinating and suspenseful real-life detective story about corruption at the very highest levels, as Washington Post reporters Woodward (Robert Redford) and Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) doggedly pursue a thread of evidence into Nixon's Oval Office. William Goldman's screenplay won an Oscar, as did Jason Robards for his supporting role.


The Academy has a longstanding tradition of rewarding similar films; consider such sweeping historical epics (and Best Picture winners) as Ben Hur (1959), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), The Last Emperor (1987), Dances with Wolves (1991), Schindler's List (1993), Braveheart (1995) and The English Patient (1996) -- not to mention sweeping historical romances like 1939's Best Picture winner, Gone With The Wind. Of all the films that fit this bill, however, perhaps the closest to Titanic is:

Doctor Zhivago (1965), director David Lean's epic saga of doomed romance, which also won Oscars for its screenplay, cinematography, art and set decoration, costume design and score.

And we certainly can't overlook earlier films which explored the same tragic Titanic disaster, including:

Titanic (1953), starring Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck in a Hollywood studio-style melodrama which concentrates less on the titanic effects and more on the effect of the event on its passengers.

A Night To Remember (1958), a British version of the Titanic tragedy -- and until now, the best retelling of this horrifying story.

The Last Voyage (1960), while not specifically about the Titanic, features vivid effects and compelling characters (including Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone) in a tightly-plotted and suspenseful sinking-ship drama.

D. Scott Apel is the former video columnist for the San Jose (CA) Mercury News, and is author of the video guide Killer B's: The 237 Best Movies On Video You've (Probably) Never Seen.

Previous features:
Love Makes the World Go 'Round
Buried Treasures of 1997
It's a Wonderful Film: Frank Capra's Christmas gift to the world.
Intelligent alien connections with "Contact" ... and other benign close encounters.
Die Laughing: 13 flicks guaranteed to rattle your funny bones.
Film Noir: Build a library of some classic B-pictures.
Thanksgiving turkeys: A giblet-eye view of the worst of 1997.

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March 15, 1998