Category Archives: Academy Award Winners for Best Actor

Gandhi (1982)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 9 out of 10

4-Word Review: Fighting for India independence.

The film follows the life of Mohandas K. Gandhi (Ben Kingsley) starting at the age of 23 when he gets thrown off of a train in South Africa simply for being Indian. After spending many years fighting for Indian rights in that country he then moves back to his homeland of India. It is there that he takes up the challenge of fighting for its independence from Britain by advocating for his followers to practice peaceful civil disobedience.

This film project took director Richard Attenborough 20 years in the making as all the Hollywood studios refused to back it. He also went through many different casting choices in regards to who would play the lead and at one time seriously considered Dustin Hoffman and Anthony Hopkins in the title role. Due to the difficulty of finding backers and other hurdles some of the stars that do appear here were offered their parts many years before the filming actually took place including Candice Bergen, who plays Margaret Bourke-White, who first got approached about it in 1966.

Yet the long wait proved to be worth it as the film comes close to being a masterpiece in just about every conceivable area. I was surprised too that for  such a long runtime it hardly ever seems slow and clips along at a brisk pace. The story is filled with many strong scenes even a few harrowing ones like the recreation of the Amritsar Massacre that is quite disturbing, but thoughtfully handled.

After making his film debut a decade earlier as the bad guy in Fear is the Key and then moving back to the stage Kingsley shines in his Academy Award winning performance . The rest of the cast gets filled with a lot of big names, but many of them have brief appearances that almost amount to walk-on parts. My favorite though was Trevor Howard, who plays a judge and despite have little dialogue and only 2-minutes in front of the camera still manages to make the most of it, which is what great acting is all about.

The film though lacks a complete oversight of Gandhi’s character as we only get introduced to him when he is already 23 even though the crucial formative years are during childhood and it would’ve been revealing and insightful to have seen some scenes of him during that period. His family life also takes a backseat. We see only one scene of him with his children and then they just disappear. He also discusses marrying his wife when he was very young, but a flashback showing it would’ve been stronger.

The film also has its share of dissenters who feel it’s biased as it only shows the positive side to Gandhi’s personality. It even instigated three novels, which paints Gandhi in a much different light by arguing that he fought for Indian rights while in South Africa, but not for the blacks and there’s evidence that he had the same disdain for the blacks in that country as the whites did.

Some also argue that his involvement in the push for India independence was much more minimal than the film portrays and that India most likely would’ve eventually broken off from British rule one way or the other had Gandhi existed or not. All of these counter arguments could have some merit, but I don’t think that was the intended point of the film, but instead the focus was on how peaceful non-violent resistance can make a difference and in that regard the movie succeeds nicely.

My Rating: 9 out of 10

Released: December 6, 1982

Runtime: 3 Hours 11 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Richard Attenborough

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video, YouTube

Save the Tiger (1973)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Arson is the solution.

Harry Stoner (Jack Lemmon) seems to be the embodiment of the American Dream living in a large house in an exclusive neighborhood and driving a  fancy car, but underneath the facade he’s struggling. His apparel business is on the brink of financial collapse and he decides along with his business partner Phil (Jack Gilford) to torch the place so they can collect on the insurance money, but the closer they get to the date the more despondent he becomes.

The producers realized upfront that this was not going to be an audience pleaser  and therefore made it on a small budget with Lemmon agreeing to waive his usual fee and instead working for scale, which at the time amounted to $165 a week. The effort though paid off as this film is able to tell its story with unflinching honesty without having to make the usual compromises in order to gain mass appeal.

What I really liked is how the main character gets attracted to the tantalizing aspects of corruption just like the world around him as opposed to how it’s done in most other films where the protagonist somehow manages to rise above the fray and remains magically immune from the corruptible forces. What’s even better is that it shows how sometimes even good people can be driven to do bad things especially when up against a system that is cold and unyielding.

John G. Avildsen’s direction has a nice day-in-the-life feel especially the way it captures Harry’s routine at work and all the contrasting personalities and egos he must deal with as well as a hectic and seemingly never ending pace. I also enjoyed Harry’s hook-up with a hippy (Laurie Heineman) and how despite their vast age differences and perceptions they’re still able to form an interesting bond. How a transient woman who has worked no job could somehow get a house sitting opportunity at a dreamy Malibu pad is a good question, but the scene there between the two is one of the film’s best moments and Lemmon’s raw meltdown at that point is what most assuredly netted him the Oscar.

I enjoyed Gilford’s performance as well and was impressed seeing him in a rare dramatic role, but his character seemed more like a metaphor to Harry’s conscience than a real person and his constant yammering about arson being a federal crime becomes redundant. Harry’s mental breakdown onstage brought unneeded surrealism to a film that otherwise pushed hard for gritty reality and the result is jarring. Having him see images of his dead army comrades sitting in the audience looks inauthentic as their dead pale faces appear to be covered with nothing more than theatrical make-up.

It also would’ve been nice had there been some conclusion to the arson scenario. The viewer is left hanging with the idea that they will go through with it, but nothing is conclusive. I realize with the budget restraints that showing a burning building as the final image would’ve been difficult but helpful and giving us some sort of hint whether Harry and his partner were able to pull it off, or got caught would’ve been nice too. Besides Thayer David, who plays the arsonist, is so good in his role that he should’ve been in more scenes anyways.

Overall though I liked the cynical tone and how the script doesn’t pull any punches while it paints a terse, vivid portrait of the so-called American Dream and how those that appear to be living it aren’t always so happy.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: February 14, 1973

Runtime: 1 Hour 40 Minutes

Rated R

Director: John G. Avildsen

Studio: Cinema International Corporation

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)

kramer vs kramer

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 10 out of 10

4-Word Review: Life after wife leaves.

This is a solid drama detailing the divorce and subsequent custody battle between two young, educated and upper middle class parents (Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep).

To say that this is simply an examination of divorce and its effects on both the child and parents do not do the film justice as this is a very richly textured story that brings out the many variables that come with being a modern day parent. One of the best is the examination of Hoffman’s character’s job and how ‘moving up the corporate ladder’ can have an adverse effect on a man’s home life and his family members. In fact this is a major factor to his break-up and emotional detachment with his wife.

The film also offers a nice glimpse between father and son and the scenes showing this relationship are quite touching especially as they learn to coexist with one another after the mother leaves. Justin Henry doesn’t get enough credit for his performance as the son. Yes, he is adorable in the typical child-like way, but he also manages to create a child character that is diverse and memorable.

Hoffman gives a superior performance and in many ways it is all about him and his adjustment at playing the dual roles of being both a father and mother. He has his aggressive New Yorker persona, but you understand it and really feel for what he is going through. Even watching him frantically running around from place-to-place is interesting.

Streep is also outstanding in what is kind of an unusual role for her. Typically she plays strong-willed women with a strong on-screen presence, but here her character is rather weak and suffers from problems that are elusive, but still intriguing.

Howard Duff is solid as Hoffman’s attorney and Jane Alexander offers good support as the next-door-neighbor although her character is a bit too ordinary and could have been supplied with a few interesting quirks.

The subject itself is still quite topical and everything is kept in a real perspective with nothing getting overblown or clichéd.  Robert Benton’s direction is flawless as it pays attention to the smallest of details and makes them special.  A good example of this is the poor way the father and son try to make French toast when they first find themselves alone together and then the very efficient way they learn to make them at the end. It is also not all serious as there is a really hilarious scene involving Jobeth Williams who plays Hoffman’s new girlfriend and the unusual circumstances onto which she first meets Henry.

There are a few issues to quibble about, but they are minor. One is that you hear Hoffman and Henry peeing in the toilet a lot, but they never seem able to flush it! There is also a scene where Hoffman who is in desperate need for a job applies for one during a holiday party and when he gets it he runs out, grabs a woman he does not know and kisses her right on the lips. If he tried something like that today he would not only be fired on the spot, but have a sexual harassment lawsuit as well.

My Rating: 10 out of 10

Released: December 19, 1979

Runtime: 1Hour 45Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Robert Benton

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video

The Goodbye Girl (1977)

the goodbye girl 2

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Goodbye doesn’t mean forever.

Paula (Marsha Mason) is a ‘dumped on’ single parent, whose live-in boyfriend has just left her, and now must contend with Elliot (Richard Dreyfuss) a rather obnoxious man who is subletting the apartment. Despite long odds the two end up ‘falling in love’ in this rather obvious, mechanical love story that is finely tuned to the female, especially those from that era. (The macho guy viewer will have run out of the room long before David Gates even has a chance to sing his soft rock title tune).

This was made when writer Neil Simon was still considered in vogue, although his patented one-liners are sparse and when they do come they are more cute than funny. This in some ways seems a retooling of his earlier ‘lovers in a New York apartment’ film Barefoot in the Park. Only here it’s a little rougher around the edges so it can appeal to a ‘hip’ audience. No clean-cut, cutesy newlyweds instead these people are more jaded to modern sensibilities and will routinely live with their partner even when they are not quite yet divorced.

If you can get past a rather strong late 70’s feel (gotta love that Fonzi poster hanging in the bedroom) then the characters remain solid and believable. No beautiful models living lavish and exciting lifestyles. These are average people just trying to make ends meet and find a little happiness along the way. It also doesn’t just show them when they are together, but also when they are out and alone in the ‘real world’, which allows us a rounded and sympathetic view of them.

Dreyfuss basically plays his usual opinionated, abrasive self. Whether the viewer sees the intended charm underneath is completely up to their own personal tolerance. His performance is good, but not exactly screaming for an Academy Award, which he won anyway, but then poked fun of it when he later hosted ‘Saturday Night Live’ on May 13, 1978.

Mason, who at the time was married to Simon, is the one who should have won it. Her performance is both believable and fluid. You truly see a lot of everyday people in her characterization and she clearly carries the film.

Quinn Cummings, as Paula’s daughter, is cute without being too precocious. Her sensibilities help compensate for the sometimes emotional immaturity of her adult counterparts. Though it really looks and seems dumb to have a ten year old still smearing food on the edges of her mouth and wearing a big napkin around her neck while eating.

Although I don’t always have a great eye for continuity errors this one has a doozy. When Dreyfuss comes home one night drunk he knocks over a table with a lot of stuff on it. He sticks his head out the window to shout something into the night air and then two seconds later comes back to where the table is standing and everything on it is neatly set.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: November 30, 1977

Runtime: 1Hour 51Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Herbert Ross

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video