Monday, June 14, 2010

25th Anniversary: Prizzi's Honor(s) and the 1985 Best Picture Race

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.

"What the hell, Charley, the calendar takes care of everything"

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.

"Do I ice her? Do I marry her? Which one of these?"

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.

Prizzi's Weirdness.

"My gift to you is not only the pictures, but also what they mean."

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?

Have you seen all of the 1985 Best Picture nominees? Which one gets your vote?


The Jaded Armchair Reviewer said...

1985 baby over here, or a "Glory of the 80's" according to Tori Amos!

Prizzi's Honor has admittedly been one tough movie to locate for me thus I unfortunately cannot comment so all my love lies with The Color Purple (they couldn't have at least given "Sister" the Oscar for Best Song?) and I remember being terribly and fondly sentimental of Geraldine Page and The Trip to Bountiful when I first saw it at age 10.

illnaa said...

'85 baby here too....Nathaniel your summary of the pro's and cons of Prizzi's is RIGHT on, you hit every nail on the head of the film's strong points and weaknesses. The movie's best parts are the romantic scenes between turner and nicholson and the of course the performances of hickey (great in christmas vacation and My blue Heaven too) and of course Angelica Huston. Her win is certainly justified (though i prefer her performance in The Grifters) but Winfrey and Avery were equally deserving and probably split their votes.

As for the year 1985 i don't understand the love of Runaway Train - i actually found it boring, and I think Back to the Future deserved Picture, Directing and supporting Actor (Lloyd) nominations. Witness was an excellent picture and Out of Africa was BEAUTIFULLY shot but the overall best picture out of the nominees was certainly The Color Purple...and in true academy fashion it went home empty handed...go figure

Stefano said...

Another '85 baby here! I love 1985 as movie year, and I've always adored Prizzi's Honor (both the novel and the film). It's my favorite movie among 1985 Best Picture nominees and my second favorite movie of the year after Kurosawa's Ran (in my opinion, Ran deserved to be nominated for Best Picture instead of Witness).
I think Prizzi's Honor is a perfect example of black comedy full of irony and with a strong plot development. Anjelica Huston's turn as Maerose is simply marvellous and she totally deserved her Oscar win (I would have given the film also the Best Screenplay prize).

John said...

Yeah Prizzi's honor is probably my favorite of the nominees of that year. I've always found more weak The color purple (Spielberg doing his worst) and Out of Africa (an accent and a Score doesn't made a film) in terms of consistency.

Bensunce said...

I'm an '86 baby, sorry... But I've seen all '85 Best Picture Nominees except for Out of Africa. My vote goes to Kiss of the Spider Woman. It's both raw and poetic, funny and sad. It's been haunting me since the first time I saw it, seven years ago. William Hurt totally deserved his Oscar, but why the hell wasn't Raul Julia even nominated?

I've seen Prizzi's Honor only once a long time ago, so my memory of it is a bit shady. The Color Purple had grat performances, but was really boring, I thought. Witness was very well-crafted. I also have a soft spot for Back to the Future and I actually liked Runaway Train quite a lot.


@Jaded & Illnaa -- happy quarter century!

I've actually never seen "RUNAWAY TRAIN" of the Oscar films from that year. And Illnaa, I also prefer Huston's work in The Grifters (that is one helluva performance -- best of that year give or take Streep in "Postcards". Huston was just way too severe for Oscar. She is just relentless in that film.

@Stefano & John -- i'm so happy to hear from Prizzi's fans. I feared that this post would just be greeted with head scratching. People just don't discuss this one much.

/3rtfu11 said...

The Academy is still suffering to this day for what they did to TCP. I’m not sure if they’re any respectable black female winning performances – I know I’m veering off into another subject there. But I can’t help but feel like Crash and the effect that Lee Daniels has had – is very much a defect of finding material to recognize black performers.

I suspect that if Scott Rudin succeeds at producing high quality serious black theme films – the Academy will no longer have to dig through the garbage can that is Lee Daniels.
I’m sorry but I just hate that TCP couldn’t go home with a single win for anything – it is cruel and it feels racist but I know the Academy was just scared of the NAACP and other protesting groups – and it sucks that Precious is representing us as serious cinema – and I know that schlock isn’t – neither is Crash.

Craig said...

As ususal, another great and insightful post, Nathaniel.

Though not a quarter century baby by a few years, I did see all of these films on DVD/VHS, so feel I can comment.

The angel in me wants to say The Color Purple was '85's best, but the devil in me prefers Prizzi's Honor.

It's a rare Hollywood film when a major release that's thematically a dark/black comedy garners such critical and awards attention, so for that fact alone, Prizzi's Honor deserves classic status. (And I agree that Huston's best performance was in The Grifters).

I find it rather amazing that Spielberg was snubbed a best director nomination for The Color Purple. The Academy had continued a resentment towards Spielberg that wouldn't pass until his Holocaust epic Schindler's List.

And who could forget, too, Oprah's big screen debut as Sophia when we first saw her marching up a hill, arms swinging, with 'tude written all over her? Or Margaret Avery seeking salvation while leading her crew to her daddy's church, and, natch, belting one out to the high heavens?

Out of Africa -- a completely forgettable film of the Masterpiece Theatre genre, save for the cinematography, score and the always wonderful and emotionally honest Meryl Streep.

Not for one minute did I believe William Hurt as a gay man most comfortable in drag in Kiss of the Spider Woman. About as bad as Robert Redford's American accent while playing an upper-class Brit. Both performances for me were not very believable, almost excruciable. (Redford too much the all-American and Hurt, too hetero).

Volvagia said...

My Best Pic list for '85:

1. Brazil
2. Come and See
3. Back to the Future
4. Ran
(Above are what I think should be in everyone's top 5 at least.)
5. ? (There seems to be so many possibilities. Kiss of the Spider Woman, Legend, The Colour Purple, Purple Rose of Cairo and Witness would probably be my battlers for slot five. Prizzi's may be a nice final gasp, but it may only flit into my personal top ten of 1985, as opposed to my five.)

Gustavo said...

Having never seen the film in discussion, I can't really comment, but all I know is that the two most perfect films of that year were snubbed in the main category - RAN and PURPLE ROSE. Sigh...

Peggy Sue said...

Go Prizzis! Definitely my favorite among the nominees.

The (long) opening sequence at the wedding is so classy! I love how Mr. Huston teases us by mixing genres and those plot twists... This movie is genuine fun.

Hickey was fantastic and also the rest of the supporting cast (Randolph, Loggia, Lombard). Totally OK with Anjelica's Oscar and yes, oh yes, la Turner forever and ever.

PS A special DVD edition is mandatory.

Volvagia said...

And yes, I know how obscure Come and See is, but it's tone is amazingly pitched as the very centre of a very odd triangle (Craven (the forrest scenes), Malick (field and burning house scenes) and Lynch (I dare you not to think of him during the skeleton scene.)

James T said...

I'm also a 1985 baby (what a euphemism it feels nowadays) but I've only seen Color Purple.


Wow all these 25 year old readers.

I really did not expect to find this many Prizzi's Honor fans among you. I'll admit that I'm not sure i totally "get" the film. But I love any and all dialogue that you can totally steal to be about the movie itself.

"My gift to you is not just the pictures, but what they mean."

the screenplay here really does have great lines.

Maybe it's the opening act. I just don't understand why i'm being fed so little information while at the same time, I don't feel completely immersed in the world. And long sequences in movies I feel like you should be going for immersion or information -- visually or verbally.

The funny thing is that when we were watching this we kept being all "what time period is this set in?" and were totally thrown by the telephones. But it's contemporary. I had forgotten that it really hasn't been that much time before we all spoke on crazy big corded phones.

I like the costumes here but it's surprising to see a modern piece get a nomination. Maybe its' because the screenplay refers to the clothes, drawing attention to them.

GUSTAVO -- agreed that Purple Rose of Cairo is perfect. For me that's an easy choice as #1 of 1985. It aged so beautifully. It's now my second favorite Woody Allen film.

Anonymous said...

Okay, I'm not an 85 baby by a LONG shot (I'm West Side Story, look it up), so I saw all of these movies in the theater in the year they came out.

I remember admiring Out of Africa but not loving it, but I really, really hated The Color Purple. I've never bothered to see it again. I only remember it as being simplistic and Disneyfied. Maybe if I hadn't read the book.

Spider Woman felt like a minstrel show to me (speaking as a gay guy).

The two best movies for me were Prizzi's Honor and Witness. As rare as a comedy is to be nominated, I think it's even rarer for a genre piece like Witness to be nominated and be so superb, so yes, I'm going with the most artistically "downmarket" as my best of the year. I loved the way Peter Weir made a "time travel romance" out of the movie without having to actually time travel, and made the romance AND the cop flick both so artful. So there! ;-)


anon -- i agree that WITNESS is a gem and so far above its genre peers it's almost ridiculous.

But that's Peter Weir for you.

Deborah said...

I have never liked Prizzi's Honor, but I only saw it once, I'm pretty sure in the theater on release. I loved Anjelica Huston in it but found the whole thing kind of distasteful.

Spider Woman I loved at the time, but wonder how it's aged.

My choice for best pic (yes, I've seen all 5) is Witness. It's strong and enduring, has powerful, understated performances, it's true to its own values, it's populist in its appeal without being plebian, it's moral, it's entertaining. I love it.

Kevin P. Durkin said...

Veering off topic slightly, but am I the only one to prefer Margaret Avery to Oprah Winfrey in "Purple"? I thought they both gave lovely turns, but that Avery captured the bombastic sexuality and almost childlike innocence so perfectly.

Winfrey, while pitch-perfect for the role tends to "push" (no pun intended) a bit too much to achieve her anger and resentment at times.

Just my utterly humble opinions.

MRRIPLEY said...

Nat,for 85 who are your lead and supporting actress nominees.


@KEVIN -- i MUCH prefer Avery to Winfrey in that movie. so you're not alone.

@ MR RIPLEY -- Honestly... i feel so blurry on all those movies but i could probably say these three safely for each category in 1985

Coral Browne - Dreamchild
Mia Farrow - Purple Rose of Cairo
Miranda Richardson - Dance with a Stranger


Margaret Avery - The Color Purple
Anjelica Huston - Prizzi's Honor
Mieko Harada -Ran

mrripley said...

avery has been my 85 supp actress pic and has been for 20yrs when i first saw the color purple and since screening all the possible supp actress nominees from 1985 she still stayed top it's the line and how she delivers it

"see daddy sinners have a song too!".

/3rtfu11 said...

"see daddy sinners have a song too!".

"See daddy sinners have soul too!"

/3rtfu11 said...

Ok Nate – I’m sorry for my rant but the 1985 Oscars just pulls me into a rage.

I eventually rented PH because of Anjelica Huston, I loved her as a kid for a number of reasons I won’t get into here. I saw TCP on television for the 100th time and Oprah always breaks me down especially knowing she didn’t win – so I wanted to see what the winner did to win. Huston is my favorite aspect of the movie and I’m proud to say I do a damn fine Anjeclica Huston impression of all three of her Oscar nominated performances – my worst impression by a long shot is Enemies, A Love Story – because my Russian accent sounds like Gary Oldman’s Hungarian accent from Bram Stoker’s Dracula.


/3rtfull -- this is the first time i'm hearing someone claim Anjelica Huston impersonation skills. Can you do "The Witches"? Cuz that'd be worth doing!

Anonymous said...

I'm an '88 baby and, sadly, I've only seen The Color Purple (which is a personal favorite of mine). And in response to Kevin, I also prefer Avery to Winfrey, though I like Winfrey a lot too. Prizzi's has been on my "must see" list for a while now, hopefully I can get to it soon.

Volvagia said...

Related to Mr. Ripley, what would be your lead and supporting Actor nominees. I know two winners: DeNiro (Brazil) and Aleksei Kravchenko. Other nominees?

Supporting Actor:

Christopher Lloyd in Back to the Future
Michael Palin in Brazil

Lead Actor:
Jonathan Pryce in Brazil

Supporting Actress:
Kim Greist in Brazil

(I know the characters in Brazil are all cyphers in a science fiction film that veers, sometimes painfully, in satirical and philosophical directions. But at least the characters aren't theme delivery capsules, as some films characters often are, to the unfortunate detriment of actually delivering a great performance.)

Volvagia said...

In case anyone's wondering, Kravchenko is the Come and See teen. (Just barely missed my Top Five Child Performances list due to his display of only one emotion: Fear. Great, variably delivered fear, but still just fear.)

Shmo said...

Nat, you wouldn't give Turner a nom for this?!

Also an 85 baby, I'd rank them...

1. The Color Purple
2. Out Of Africa
3. Witness
4. Prizzis Honor
5. Kiss of the Spider Woman

I liked but didn't love Prizzi. It just seems very unfocused at times and despite some good lines, the screenplay is very dull at times. The ensemble is terrific however!

Richter Scale said...

I was born three years after 1985, but I have seen all five nominees, and I can't for the life of me understand how Out of Africa won Best Picture. It's so boring. Not much really happens, and as much as I love Meryl Streep, her accent in this one almost put me to sleep. I'm also not the biggest fan of Prizzi's Honor, though I did enjoy William Hickey and Anjelica Huston and a lot of the lines (it was just, as Nat said, very weirdly paced).

My favorite of the nominees is The Color Purple, but of that entire year, I'd definitely go with The Purple Rose of Cairo. Such a witty film, such magical characters, I love every minute of it. I also love Back to the Future (it's silly, and a bit dated, but still so much fun) and I also have a soft side for The Trip to Bountiful. That film is just beautiful, and it's not just Geraldine Page who shines, but also Renecca De Mornay. I also love the Foreign Language Film winner from that year, Argentina's La Historia Oficial (The Official Story) which is a brilliant thriller with a sharp look at the political turmoil of Argentina. You should check that one out Nat.

I also really liked Kiss of th Spider Woman, and yes, William Hurt deserved that Oscar. It was also the year of the Coen Brothers' first film, Blood Simple. They've come a long way since then, but as a springboard for everything they've done up to now, it's a really good one.

cal roth said...

I know I've been playing foreign film bitch here lately, but I just can't resist:

Volvagia, I consider Come and See the best war movie ever made, side by side with Ivan's Childhood. You know, Russians know all about war and movies.

Volvagia said...

Forgot about Blood Simple. Prizzi's has an uphill battle to enter my ten of the year.

Anonymous said...

Blood Simple is probably my third favorite Coen film, after No Country... and O Brother....

Rose said...

"Marry her, Charley. Just because she's a thief and a hitter doesn't mean she's not a good woman in all the other departments."

Looooove Ms. Huston in this (and most anything). Such a worthy winner. On a side note, whenever I think of past ridiculously famous/beautiful/talented couples, I always forget about Nicholson and Huston. They seem like such an odd pairing that still made a lot of sense.

cal roth said...

I'd love to see a Wes Anderson movie starred by Nicholson & Huston as old flames (with unbearable kids, since it's an Anderson movie).

cinema adventures said...

As a 1985 baby, I was SO happy to see this post!! Inside Oscar is unbeatable in terms of Oscar coverage. I wonder if we'll ever get an Inside Oscar 3?

From 1985, I've seen only Out of Africa (majestic movie) and Prizzi's Honor (strange is the best word to describe it).

No one has mentioned The Breakfast Club, which probably never entered the Oscar conversation 25 years ago but seems like a no-brainer years later.

adri said...

I love Anjelica Huston in "Prizzi", and I really like the other players as well, Hickey, Nicholson and Turner. The era it's set in is undefined (which I think is kind of cool)- the news photographers use 1930s cameras and the "great California car" could be vintage or contemporary. Like most of John Huston's work, there's a core in it that stays fresh.

I would have chosen Harrison Ford in "Witness" over William Hurt, though. I don't understand how a year (1985) that could give us Daniel Day-Lewis in "My Beautiful Laundrette", a truly romantic gay love story that's also about class and ethnicity as well as love -- and they'd nominate Hurt over Day-Lewis? Just this year it came out how chagrined the "Spider Woman" director was when he got to the set and found William Hurt there - he thought he was working with JOHN Hurt.

Of the 4 Best Pictures that year, I haven't seen "The Color Purple". I like "Prizzi's Honor" best, then "Witness". "Out of Africa" is ridiculous sludge. "Ran" is a great movie and should have been in the line-up. And Miranda Richardson was flaming fabulous in "Dance With a Stranger"!

AnthonySF said...

The final scene of "The Purple Rose of Cairo" was perhaps the best moment of film in 1985.

par3182 said...

what a snoozy line-up

my nominees -

blood simple
pee-wee's big adventure
the purple rose of cairo


AnthonySF -- how about the best moment of the 80s, period.


god i just love that movie. my parents hated the ending because "it was sad"

/3rtfu11 said...

Can you do "The Witches"? Cuz that'd be worth doing!

All Anjelica impersonating techniques are interconnected.

Cinesnatch said...

I didn't see "Kiss," but "The Color Purple" gets my vote.

Richter Scale said...

"my parents hated the ending because "it was sad""

Don't ever let Woody Allen hear them say that. To him, it's a happy ending.

I love it though. The movie would not be what it is without that ending.

uabt said...

Prizi’s Honor is one of my all time favorites – a very intriguing morality tale – it forces you to re-evaluate your own moral codes by showing you an alternative (and very well functioning) one. And above all – by doing so it also managed to be one of the funniest films ever made. Everything about it works – from the unclear sense of period it have about it (it's set in the then present but in a way it could anytime from the '40s onward) to the fascinating use of color, the peerless cast which delivers perfectly every single performance (among them Angelica is a standout – few were ever as luminous as she is here) and so on. I saw it four times during the summer of '85 – I was totally captivated by its sly wit – and saw it countless times over the years. There is always bits in it one can use as a fitting comment on human stupidity, cruelty and lack of self awareness – just think of Kathleen Turner, after cold-bloodedly shooting an innocent bystander, being shocked, SHOCKED, since the bodyguard she was throwing a doll at was not reacting the way she thought he should have. Or remembering her saying that four or five hits a year are not that much, considering the size of the population, will always put things in the right perspective. And Huston Jr., transforming herself in front of a mirror into a seemingly suffering, obedient daughter only to manipulate her father's weak heart to miss a bit by describing Nicholson's endowment, is a masterpiece of a vignette.

As for the rest of that year nominees – Witness and Kiss of the Spider Woman are both very good. Out of Africa is the kind of film that tend to arise an automatic response – it’s long, boring, old-fashioned and so on while I find it a very fascinating meditation on the way people experiencing a certain time and place, sometime with no relevance to how it might be perceived by other. To me it was a worthy film (and Oscar winner) – a true follower to David Lean heritage.

As for The Color Purple - it’s laughable, childish, totally lacking on the intellectual front. (Do you think that Spielberg got any idea that this one was about militant feminism with lesbian undertones and not so much about racial injustice?). A dreadful film.

Y Kant Goran Rite said...

I am also a Glory of the 80s (too much Gaga on this site - not enough Tori!) - I was a baby in 1985 - I have scheduled my quarter-life crisis for late next month (apparently they're trendy now).

And I've seen all of those nominees - Prizzi's Honor gets my vote. But as usual that is a pretty paltry roster meant to represent the year that gave us Ran and The Purple Rose of Cairo. (And as usual, the prize went to the most anaemic contender.)

rax said...

I saw Prizzi's Honor a few years ago and was stunned by its utter dullness and lack of wit. One of the least funny 'comedies' ever, surely. Also, late in the film there's a shot (spoiler, the fate of Kathleen Turner's character) that is so dreadfully and ineptly made that you have to wonder if Huston didn't leave it to his intern or something.

Avery is way better than Winfrey (who's still good) in TCP, IMO. Her and Mieko Harada are two of the best supporting actress performances of the decade.

George P. said...

Wow, I'm happy see other fellow '85 babies on the blog!

As for the 5 nominees, I either watched "The Color Purple" as a kid and I don't remember it, or I just read the book. As for the others, I had started "Kiss of the Spider Woman" and "Witness," only to not finish them because they were due to be returned at the library.

I guess someday I'll check out the whole lineup, with "Prizzi's Honor" being the first.

V. Igra said...

Veering off topic slightly, but am I the only one to prefer Margaret Avery to Oprah Winfrey in "Purple"? I thought they both gave lovely turns, but that Avery captured the bombastic sexuality and almost childlike innocence so perfectly. Winfrey, while pitch-perfect for the role tends to "push" (no pun intended) a bit too much to achieve her anger and resentment at times.

Kai Hamilton said...

The Color Purple was the best... hands down.. and still the directors best as well. Geraldine Page, the same year, also got a much deserved Oscar... but the film.. Trip To Bountiful... adapted from a play... should have been nominated for Best Picture.