A commentary on the Best Picture Nominees for 1994.
1994 was a great year for movies. Through the coarse of this retrospective on the year 1994 in movies the most difficult part will be deciding which movies not to cover. Though the best place to start would be the movies considered by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to be the best for the year. A wise man that I recently spoke to put it like this “ There were three all timers and two how the hell did they get nominated.” The movies in question are Four Weddings and a Funeral, Quiz Show, Pulp Fiction, Shawshank Redemption, and Forrest Gump. While all five are excellent films in their own right, three certainly stand out as having stood the test of time. There will be spoilers ahead as these movies are twenty five years old. If you haven’t seen these movies, I recommend all of them and they are their easy enough to find. I am going to try to not dig too deep into the meat and potatoes of the plot details, instead focusing on the elements that made these movies exceptional, the culture impact they had at the time, and their lasting legacy. So with no further delay, let’s get started.
Quiz Show is a historical drama about the rigging of a 1950’s game show and the scandal that followed leading to a congressional investigation. The movie stars John Turturro, Ralph Fiennes, and Rob Morrow also is directed by Robert Redford. In the early days of television, game shows became popular programming which made household names out of its contestants. NBC had a show called Twenty-One. To sweeten the ratings, the producers gave the answers to a contestant Herbert Stemple, played by John Turturro. People tuned in to see just how much he would win as the prize money grew from week to week. When his ratings plateaued, they asked Stemple to take a dive so they could replace him with a more attractive star, Charles Van Doren played by Ralph Fiennes. Stemple takes this pretty hard and happily does his part to blow the lid off the whole thing when congress decides to investigate the quiz shows. Rob Morrow plays Dick Goodwin, the person asked to investigate the case and it’s remarkable how close he became to Van Doren. Van Doren plays a long with the scam for as long as his conscious will allow it. He is a Columbia professor from a family of intellectuals so this whole matter puts his reputation and family honor on the line.
It’s going to be hard to comment on the legacy of this film or its cultural impact since I don’t think Quiz Show has much of either. The movie was loved by critics but it bombed at the box office. Reading some of the reviews, I think the critics were reading too deep into the material. The story is a curiosity at best. It is interesting how much people cared about whether or not game shows were on the level, so much so that congress would get involved. All I could think is if they cared this much about quiz shows why didn’t they investigate wrestling, which was also very popular in the early days of television. The movie plays with the quaint notion that people on television would be admired for their intellect, something that even by 1994 was no longer the case. Quiz Show received several nominations by various organizations for Best Adapted Screenplay which I call bullshit on. I found the writing to be the weakest part of the film. There are clunky lines of dialogue like “He’s famous like Elvis.” or “Sputnik will land right on your head!” They had to keep reminding you in the dialogue that this movie takes places in the 50’s and every film student knows that is a screenwriting faux pas. Structurally, the writing is sound but unlike films like Pulp Fiction, Shawshank Redemption, or Four Weddings and a Funeral, the film doesn’t do anything out of the ordinary. I hate to engage in conspiracy theories but the praise Quiz Show receives from the critics and Academy can only best be explained as a love affair they have with Robert Redford.
With everything I just said, I don’t want it to sound like Quiz Show is a bad movie. It’s a perfectly acceptable film but definitely the weakest of the bunch. What the movie does do well is capturing the 50’s. This movie is an example of some excellent acting. John Turturro was particularly exceptional as Herbert Stemple, a nebish trivia expert who has difficulty dealing with taking a dive and being in on the fix. He is awkward and excitable. Turturro’s performance really is the strongest of a strong crop. Ralph Fiennes as the WASPy intellectual Charles Van Doren was also particularly well done. Robert Redford did an excellent job getting the best out of everyone down to the extras in terms of making these people feel authentic. I was born in 1980 so I don’t know for sure what people in the 50’s were like but all of these characters felt to me like what people in the 50’s acted like. The other remarkable aspects of Quiz Show to me were the production design and cinematography. This movie also looks authentically 50’s or rather my perception of that decade. If I were instructing film makers who were interested in making a period piece on the 50’s, Quiz Show would make the list for study material.
Four Weddings and a Funeral
I am so glad I got to rewatch this movie as part of this project. At first glance, one might remember this movie as one of the many Hugh Grant romantic comedies. That was a genre that ran its coarse by the mid-2000’s. I don’t like rom-coms. But Four Weddings and a Funeral is an exceptional romantic comedy. It casts the die for this type of movie and simultaneously breaks it. The movie follows Charlie, played by Hugh Grant, and a group of his friends as they attend four weddings and a funeral over the course of a year or so. We know little about these characters and their regular lives but that doesn’t really matter. All that does matter is how they interact in these type of social settings. We have all had to attend weddings and funerals and most of us know that we become different people in these settings. The only story connecting these events is Charlie meeting Carrie, an American played by Andie MacDowell, whom he falls in love with but can’t have. They meet and the only time they see each other is at these gatherings. Somehow they manage to have a type of relationship that is very touching. What makes this movie better than most of it’s genre is the writing, the comedy, the acting, and how it is structured. Comedy doesn’t always have to be loud and over the top, although sometimes that helps. Sometimes comedy can be just a look from the actor or a look away. It can be a subtle tick or body language. The supporting cast is very strong and whether they are giving a one- liner in passing or taking part of an entire scene, everyone invests into their character something to make them unique. The way the story is laid out is quite good too. Gareth, the character that is most full of life is the one who dies. The speech his lover Matthew makes at his funeral feels incredibly real. The funeral in this movie isn’t part of the comedy. It is played completely seriously. We don’t get the Big Show Daddy’s funeral here. You would think having an entire sequence that changes the tone of the movie would derail it but instead it adds to the experience and makes everything about the movie more authentic. Like most romantic comedies, the third act has a lot of surprises and turns where everything works out for the best in the end. But unlike most rom-coms, the ending feels earned. Hugh Grant says I do but the results are completely unexpected.
Four Weddings and a Funeral is an incredible accomplishment as an independent film. Made on a budget of roughly $3 million, this movie took in $245 million in worldwide box office. Today people could spend $3 million on four actual weddings and a funeral much less make a feature film of this quality for that much. Part of this movie’s success has to do with a press tour Hugh Grant does in America that charms the nation. That coupled with the movie would make Hugh Grant a star. He would go on to be a romantic lead for years to come. The other legacy for this movie is the string of romantic comedies that would come. They are less common now than they used to be but for many years that would follow 1994, it seemed you would get at least two rom-coms a month. The writing for romantic comedies became formulaic and the plots contrived. For a while, they would be the easiest money a studio could earn. Much like the slasher trend of the 80’s, studios rarely lost money on a rom-com and they kept pumping them out. I am sure there are examples of romantic comedies before this movie, Annie Hall comes to mind. But Four Weddings and a Funeral started an explosion in this genre.
Based on a Steven King story, Shawshank Redemption is the story of Andy Dufresne, played by Tim Robbins, making the best use of his time. Told through the eyes of Red, a convict played by Morgan Freeman, this is about how Andy quietly escapes from prison. By the end of the movie you see how Andy bides his time, used his remarkable intellect, and carefully planned his escape from the first day he arrived at Shawshank Prison. The storytelling is so masterful that by the end of the movie you see everything Andy does through has a purpose with the focus of getting out. Also you see the friendship between Red and Andy grow over time. You see how Andy plays the Warden and the head prison guard, brilliantly played by Clancy Brown, putting together a money laundering scheme that makes everyone rich. There is so much that can be said about this movie, it really is a masterpiece. The acting performances were amazing. The setting and production design was incredible. Shawshank Redeption brings this environment to life and the prison becomes a character itself. All of the characters have the feeling of real people. Even Tommy, who we barely see for an act of the movie, makes you feel heartbroken when he is shot. Brooks is another character that we meet for only a brief moment in the movie. He has a hard time adjusting to life on the outside. The way they told his story was so good that you can identify with a man who feels more comfortable in prison than out of prison. Really, all I can say about Shawshank Redemption is that it’s about hope and living with purpose. Hope is a good thing, maybe the best thing. And no good thing ever dies.
Shawshank Redeption did not do well in the box office. Once awards season rolled around, it started to gain some buzz. It became one of the top rented movies for 1995. Once TNT started showing the movie almost daily, they had found their audience and people began to appreciate Shawshank Redemption for the great movie that it is. It’s hard to say that if this movie or Seven was the film that launched Morgan Freeman into being a bankable actor in a supporting role but it certainly helped. Putting this film into the context of what it meant in 1994 is kind of difficult because it didn’t have much box office success at the time. However, what the movie does have is a timeless quality. People born in 1994 are finding this movie and enjoying it today. Somewhere on cable, this movie is being played as you read this. Every streaming service I can think of has Shawshank Redemption available. That is the mark of a truly great film, that it will be around forever.
A landmark film of the 90’s, Pulp Fiction follows three separate stories, told out of order, surrounding a group of criminals, over the course of two days. Structurally, Pulp Fiction is unlike an other movie we have seen. There are seven different sequences that tie together tangentially. We start at the diner at the beginning where two robbers that we can affectionately call Honey Bunny and Ringo are plotting to rob the restaurant they are in. Then we meet Vincent Vega, played by John Travolta, and Jules Winnfield, played by Samuel L. Jackson. They discuss cheeseburgers and go on a mission to retrieve some propriety for their employee from some small timers who only had the best of intentions. The third sequence is Vincent having to take his bosses wife on a date. After what can best described as a successful date, Vincent’s date Mia Wallace, played by Uma Thurman, has an accidental overdose and Vincent finds a way to discretely have her revived before anyone can find out. The next sequence is Air Force Captain Koons, played by Christopher Walken gives us the significance for a gold watch being given to Butch, who will grow up to be a boxer and played by Bruce Willis. The next sequence shows the after match of what happens when Butch doesn’t throw a fight he was suppose to throw for mob boss Marsellus Wallace, played by Ving Rhames. Butch has to return to his apartment where gangsters will be waiting. Butch gets the watch back and then things get weird. If you didn’t know what a gimp was before, then you will now. From there, we go back to what happened after Vincent and Jules retrieve the briefcase. Jules has a spiritual experience and while discussing theology in the car with their friend Marvin, Marvin gets shot in the head accidentally. Jules has a friend in Toluca Lake named Jimmy who can hide them for a little while until his wife comes home but they have a serious problem driving around in a car soaked in blood with a headless dead body in the back seat. Mr. Wallace calls in Winston Wolfe, played by Harvey Keitel. Mr. Wolfe may be one of the coolest characters in the history of movies. He cleans up messes and does so with such style, you really have to see it. With the situation cleaned up, Jules and Vincent go to lunch at a diner, the one that was going to be robbed at the beginning of the movie. When Ringo and Honey Bunny decide to rob the place, Jules puts the breaks on it by gaining control of the situation. Jules breaks down his interpretation of Ezekiel 25:17, which is terribly misquoted and out of context in any bible translation you might have. Regardless, Jules puts a bow on the movie with what he tells Ringo before making a quiet exit.
Quentin Tarantino has made so many great films over the years but this one still is considered by many to be the best. To make a movie that is as popular as Pulp Fiction is with such an unorthodox structure is an achievement in itself. Every single character pops and comes alive. Even Christopher Walken’s character, who makes a brief cameo and gives a roughly two minute speech, feels lived in and authentic. Holding an audiences attention with a monologue like that in a static shot with nothing visually taking place is one of the most difficult things to pull off but here it’s done masterfully. I think I have heard every line from this movie quoted or referenced at some point in my life. Royale with Cheese, Ezekiel 25:17, What does Marselles Wallace look like? Say what again! I am sure you have your favorite line. Point is, no one else can pull off this kind of wordy, clever dialogue but for Quentin Tarantino. I have seen attempts to copy this style,whether it be in movies, tv, or comic books, fail time and again. That is what makes Tarantino a master amongst directors. Also, this movie makes the characters likable, relatable people. Almost every character in the movie is not what one would call a good person. They are criminals, remorseless killers, dregs of society, lowlifes the whole lot of them. But through the writing, directing, and acting these become characters that we like, enjoy spending time with, and even want to see succeed. While Tarantino broke many of the established rules and conventions of film making with Pulp Fiction, there is an obvious love for the craft that can be seen in this and all of his movies. I could probably write a book on Pulp Fiction but to sum up this part of the article, Quentin Tarantino made a masterpiece with Pulp Fiction. It’s considered by some critics to be the greatest film ever made.
The effects of Pulp Fiction on the culture were wide and sweeping. This movies success launched the career of Quentin Tarantino and gave him the creative license to do whatever projects he wanted, which he has for the last twenty five years. The success of this film had a great effect on how people in and outside the movie business saw independent films. No longer were indie films reserved simply for the art houses with a limited appeal and a niche audience. The career of John Travolta was revived because of this movie. The Simpsons joke about a bartender looking like John Travolta was not far off from the truth. A series of critical and commercial bombs throughout the 80’s left Travolta at the lowest point of his career. This movie put him back on the map and made John Travolta cool again. Pulp Fiction elevated the careers of Samuel L. Jackson and Uma Thurman. Both had been respectable, working actors prior to this movie but Pulp Fiction made both actors leading role material and marketable entities. Bruce Willis was also helped greatly by his performance in Pulp Fiction. Bruce was pretty well established as an action hero but this movie helped him be taken seriously as an actor that can do a lot more than most action stars. As I have stated before, Pulp Fiction has been referenced and quoted countless times throughout pop culture. When Fall Out Boy made a song about wanting to dance like Uma Thurman, they weren’t talking about her performance in Batman and Robin or The Avengers (1996). Movies from Space Jam to this years Captain Marvel have fit in references to Pulp Fiction. The sountrack was fantastic. Many of us remember the ECW interview segments with the surf guitars in the background that most fans simply call “Pulp Fiction.” There are few movies that can be called game changers but Pulp Fiction is most certainly one of them.
And the Oscar goes to…. Forrest Gump.
Forrest Gump is about a simple man with an extraordinary life. Forrest, played by Tom Hanks, is a character that is slow but wise. He finds himself in the middle of almost every major cultural event from the last half of the 20th Century. Somehow he is oblivious to the significance of these events. He teaches Elvis how to dance, plays football for Bear Bryant, fights in Vietnam, meets Presidents Johnson and Nixon, invests in Apple Computers, runs a few laps around the United States, founds a successful shrimp company, and so much more. Forrest Gump doesn’t see any of this as impressive. His main focus is the love of the first girl he saw on kindergarten, Jenny. They have moments where they pass through each others life. Forest is smitten. Jenny has other priorities in live and while she finds Forest to be sweet, she doesn’t take him seriously. That unrequited love is at the center of who Forrest is and no matter what happens, he loves Jenny. In the end, Jenny dies but not before giving Forrest a son.
Forrest Gump was an unexpected blockbuster that captured the imagination of the country. I remember being taken to this film along with the rest of my school under the pretense of a history field trip. The most remarkable thing about that field trip is how this movie held the attention of my entire 8th grade class. Even the small town junior thugs sat still and paid attention to Forrest Gump. The movie manages to not be overly schmaltzy in it’s nostalgia but also not cynical about the past. Seeing these events through the eyes of a man like Forrest Gump helps. He is the kind of guy who can meet John Lennon and not know who he just met. That keeps this movie from being the sort of thing that is laughable like in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. My Dad saw this movie in the theater and my Dad never goes to the theater. This movie took the country by storm and I don’t believe the producers could have seen the success of this film coming. On a budget of $55 Million, Forrest Gump made $677 Million at the box office, second highest grossing film of the year only behind The Lion King. This was a film that almost everyone saw and the line “Life is like a box of chocolates.” was quoted frequently.
One of the last legacies of this film is what it did for Tom Hanks career. He was launched from a fairly popular comedic actor having worked on films like The Burbs, Dragnet, The Money Pit, and Joe vs the Volcano. With Forrest Gump, Hanks went to become one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, a wave that he is riding to this very day. Tom Hanks came to be taken seriously as a dramatic actor with a lot of versatility. When you look at the wide range of characters Hanks has played over his career, all of it is owed to what he did with this film. The very humorous line in Tropic Thunder about “not going full retard” is very amusing but actually really good acting advice. The way Hanks plays Forrest with so many layers, it really is an amazing performance. Also a lot of credit should be given to the writers as well as director Robert Zemeckis. Together, they crafted an amazingly rich character. The way this character behaves is consistent through the years. He is unchanged while the world around him keeps on changing at a rate that may have never been seen in human history. Forrest Gump is an example of a protagonist who effects the world around him but has no traditional character arc. With his performance, you see a person who impacts those around him and makes them better, particularly Lieutenant Dan, played by Gary Sinise. Lieutenant Dan has a character arc from when we first meet him to where he ends up at the end of the movie. Forrest is more or less unchanged. Thanks to what Tom Hanks showed in this movie, he became a bankable star that has been given a wide range of roles over the last twenty-five years and he has to be considered one of the greatest American actors there have ever been.
Speaking of Gary Sinise, the impact Forrest Gump had on his life has been long lasting and powerful. Lieutenant Dan is Forrest’s commanding officer in Vietnam. He has a long history of the men in his family dying in the battle field in all our wars. It looks like Dan will proudly follow in his fathers footsteps when Forrest Gump steps in and saves his life. Dan is not at all happy about this. Not only did he fail to live up to his family legacy but he also will live the rest of his life without legs. Dan pops in and out of Forrest’s life in the coming years, struggling hard to adjust to life outside the military and without legs. He eventually finds peace and a purpose thanks in part to the friendship of Forrest Gump. After this movie came out, the character really resonated with veterans and many gave their touching stories to Gary Sinise in person. He has talked about this at great length and even to this day he gets very emotional when discussing the conversations he has had with veterans over the years and just what the character of Lieutenant Dan has meant to their lives. This led Sinise to doing a lot of work with veterans groups over the years, helping people out with trauma. You can look more into the work for yourself he has done over the years but the point is that it has meant a great deal to many people and he has really came through for veterans. All of this because of a movie. That is the power of films and how they can touch the lives of many people.
It’s worth discussing the soundtrack to this movie. The two disc set for Forrest Gump containing hits from the 50’s to the 80’s along with the score is in many ways the soundtrack for the Baby Boom generation. It sold over 12 Million copies and reached number two on the Billboard charts. This is unheard of for a movie soundtrack. Using popular music was an important aspect of Forrest Gump and clearly it resonated with many people. The right music used at the right times can really make the movie feel authentic. It’s hard to equate it to anything today. I suppose Guardians of the Galaxy might be the closest comparison. I was shocked to find out how well this soundtrack performed on the charts and it’s a sign of the long reach this movie had.
Did they get it right?
So those are our five films that the Academy deemed to be the best of the year. So did they get it right? Well, in my opinion, they could have done better than selecting Quiz Show. I think movies like Ed Wood and The Lion King were worthy of consideration for Best Picture. Prior to rewatching Four Weddings and a Funeral I would have said that movie had no business being nominated but my opinion has changed. It was going to to break through this crowded field but it certainly was worthy of consideration being that it is the best example of a genre that had not yet been played out.
Having watched all five films this week, I will say that Pulp Fiction was probably the best movie in 1994. That being said, I can see why they went with Forrest Gump and it wasn’t a grave error. Forrest Gump was the safe pick. Everyone had seen the movie. It was a fantastic film, worthy of Best Picture in any year it could have conceivably been released. Most importantly, the subject matter was safe. A nostalgia film about the baby boom generation vs a movie about criminals filled with sex, violence, and foul language. The Academy is going to go with a film like Forrest Gump every time. There are plenty of other years where one can criticize the Academy for not picking the right film for Best Picture or nominating a bunch of movies no one has seen or cares about. 1994 was not one of those years. Picking between Shawshank Redemption, Pulp Fiction, and Forrest Gump was not an easy task. These three films will be watched and talked about forever.