Every once in a while (i.e. constantly) I'll pick up the classic Inside Oscar to double check an awards factoid. Sometimes I like to hold actual books in my hands rather than play search engines like a piano. So retro! I was looking at 1985 recently -- any '85 babies reading? Happy quarter-century mark -- for Kurosawa's section of that foreign film article. The Best Picture nominees for 85 were The Color Purple, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Out of Africa, Prizzi's Honor and Witness.
I'd venture to say that from that particular vintage John Huston's Prizzi's Honor is the least discussed now, so I thought I'd give it a spin to celebrate its anniversary on this very day.
Given the overall 1985 nomination field (the Picture nominees hogged 42 nominations all told) it's tough to imagine that any film came close to breaking up that party o' five. But it's always fun to conjecture about 6th place. Perhaps it was actually Kurosawa's Ran (four nominations, though foreign films rarely make that top competition) but maybe it was the surprise Oscar favorite Runaway Train (which showed up in three key categories). It certainly wasn't the critical pet of the year Brazil (too weird for AMPAS) or Woody Allen's miniature masterpiece The Purple Rose of Cairo, shamefully recognized only in Screenplay. It's possible that neither of those classics would have even made a ten wide Best Picture field though perhaps Back to the Future would've, since it was a big enough hit to break into the screenplay field despite being much sillier than Oscar allows.
But I digress.
Aside from the gay arthouse smash Spider Woman, Prizzi's Honor is the most atypical of the nominees. To start with it's a comedy, which automatically makes you the odd man out in any lineup.
The film follows the confusion and misadventures of hitman Charley Partanna (Jack Nicholson, winning his 8th nomination) and the troubles that erupt from his dim trust in untrustworthy women: the thieving hitwoman Irene Walker (Kathleen Turner, the preeminent Shady 80s Lady) and his former girl Maerose (Anjelica Huston, Nicholson's real life partner at the time) who both have complicated histories with the Prizzi family that Charley serves. Since it's a comedy and quite eccentric at that, it's tough to imagine Oscar responding had it not come from such a legendary auteur (Huston was 80 by the time the ceremony rolled around and this would be his fourth Best Picture nominee).
I mean it's a strange movie, at once both expansive (multiple characters, multiple cities, and plentiful plot turns) and intimate (most of its spark comes from the nuances of its romances, both sexual and familial) and nearly always arrhythmic. Though the screenplay is whip smart and packed with clever flourishes and exchanges, it's also strangely dull and the pacing is just bizarre. Sometimes there are long passages where nothing is happening (the opening sequence at a mafia wedding goes on for quite some time offering up much less plot and characterization than the time would allow for) and then there'll be too much information all at once in short snappy scenes: Wait, who iced who? who's on whose payroll? What's a pieceman? Who stole whose money and they're hiding it how exactly? So the strangest among its plentiful Oscar nominations might actually be Directing and Editing.
That said, my single favorite beat in the movie is expertly timed, with the direction and editing (and star performers of course) coming together in quite a satisfying manner: I love the abrupt dissolve from the seemingly eternal static shot of Irene & Charley's foolhardy declarations of love (on their first date, mind) to the athletic perpetual motion shot of a marathon f*** in progress, scored with comic bombast. If you're thinking "but dissolves aren't abrupt," well, the beauty is that this one is.
Jack feigns stupidity with comic panache throughout the film and one recurring joke about his sexual shyness works superbly. Kathleen exudes confidence and sex (what else is new) but neither are 'best in show'. The movie is owned by the scandalous Prizzi daughter (Anjelica Huston) and her grandfather, the don (William Hickey) both of whom received Oscar nominations. Anjelica won giving her father the unique distinction of having directed both his father (Walter Huston, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) and daughter to Oscar wins in his lifetime. Hickey and Huston are both doing heightened, funny, weirdly unnerving turns that mix well with the movie's ambitious comic tone. Still, in keeping with the slippery oddness of the whole enterprise, their one scene together doesn't really pop the way it probably ought to.
Despite any reservations one may have about its honored place in the annals of 80s Oscar history, it's maddening that it got such a shabby DVD transfer. This is part of the filmography of one of cinema's most enduring directors. Show a little respect, studios. I'm wondering if there's a good DVD release that did the film justice and I just got the weak one? Anyone know?
Also: Have you seen all of the 1985 Best Picture nominees? Which one gets your vote?