A few trivia tid-bits about this year's nominees: Lee Daniels becomes only the second black director to be nominated, with Kathryn Bigelow the fourth woman acknowledged in the same category. Up is just the second animated film to be cited for Best Picture after 1990's Beauty and the Beast.
Meanwhile, today I began my review of the Best Picture contest from 1981 with a viewing of...
Burt Lancaster, Susan Sarandon, Kate Reid, Robert Joy, Hollis McLaren
Trying to make a life for herself in Atlantic City's up and coming gambling scene, Sally Matthews (Sarandon) takes croupier classes while working in the seafood section of the casino's eatery. When her deadbeat husband Dave (Joy) shows up to sell drugs he stole from some mobsters, he manages to persuade Sally's next-door neighbour, Lou (Lancaster), to make some deliveries. Past his prime, Lou imagines he was once a gangster to be reckoned with, although he now seems to be little more than an errand boy. Sally and Lou strike up an unlikely relationship, both dreaming of success.
Atlantic City opens with the rather strange image of Susan Sarandon rubbing lemon juice over her breasts while Burt Lancaster spies on her from across the way, and that's just the beginning of a bucketload of strange. I recently pointed out the incomprehensibility of Zorba the Greek, which I now see has competition from Atlantic City in the incoherency stakes. It reaches its surreal heights in a scene in which singer Robert Goulet croons a song to an oblivious Sally while in a phone booth in the middle of a hospital.
The story loses some of its vagueness halfway through the picture as the narrative comes together. Even the lemon juice incident receives an explanation - Sally was just trying to wash off the fishy smell from work. A totally normal thing to do ... in front of the kitchen window.
The characters in this film are dysfunctional, to say the least. But even so, I just didn't connect with them on any real emotional level. They all behave in such a stiflingly staged manner, with little semblance to actual human behaviour. I understand that this is a different world but I ought to still relate to the characters in some vaguely meaningful way, and these characters just felt so foreign to me. Lou almost seems mentally disturbed by the end of the film, proudly confessing his criminal activity to all who will listen.
It doesn't help that the script and direction are somewhat reminiscent of soap opera. For instance, in one scene, while Lou is packing a small suitcase, he picks up a gun and decides not to pack it, throwing it on the bed. He heads for the door, stops dramatically, walks back to the bed, flings the suitcase down, picks up the gun and walks out the door with determination. Then, there are the contrivances, including one sequence which sees Sally inexplicably shove a tape player into her handbag, allowing her to conveniently pull it out when she is later offered a cassette on the boardwalk.
Most of the performances, too, are a little plastic. However, Burt Lancaster manages to retain his casual charm considering the words he is asked to deliver. In fact, the entire cast could easily be forgiven for a script that contains such enigmatic lines as the one Dave utters when Lou explains that Atlantic City used to be called the lungs of Philadelphia: "If we stay here long enough, we could be the nose of Philadelphia." What the...?