Directed by Sydney Pollack
Screenplay by Kurt Luedtke, from the books Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen, Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Story Teller by Judith Thurman, and Silence Will Speak by Errol Trzebinski
Starring Meryl Streep, Robert Redford and Klaus Maria Brandauer
Out of Africa is a typical 80’s movie. Not in the way that Top Gun is an 80’s movie, with all the bombast, jingoism, reductionist story-lines and bonanza box office. No, it’s an 80’s movie in the way Ordinary People and Ghandi and The Killing Fields are all 80’s moves: it’s earnest, epic, about something sort-of important, and, above-all, fairly dull.
In other words, it’s the movie the Academy typically fell in love with in the 80’s and dumped a butt-load of Oscars on.
Even as I say that, with all the weariness and disdain I can muster V just imagine me rolling my eyes when I write typically – it really comes as no surprise bloated, boring epics were the name of the game in the 80’s, as far as the Academy was concerned. Giving awards to this kind of film was just what they did. And honestly, just like this isn’t the first time I’ve said it, it probably won’t be the last I say it, either. No, what will be said here first – at least by me – is the reason I think the 80’s went the way they did.
It’s because Academy voters are old.
Right? They’re old. Shocking? Right?
Okay, so maybe the age of your average Academy voter isn’t really something to be shocked by. I mean, it’s no secret they tend to be old white men. The average current age – or semi-current age – is 62. And assuming that was roughly the average age on a yearly basis in the 80’s, it makes sense that epics would be a big deal. After all, when we get older, we tend to become more conservative – sad to say, but I can count myself amongst those who seem to be losing some of their gonna-live-forever edge. And in the 80’s, not only were the voters getting old and conservative, they had already started from a place that appreciated the banality of the epic. After all, these are people that would have been young men and women in WWII, coming out of that into the 50’s, when epics and spectacles were what the studios were throwing out there to compete with TV. Having essentially grown up on that – or at least come of age in the business during that time – it would make sense they have a throwback mentality and worship the bland epic.
In other words, because they came up when the epics were really making it big – big at the box office and big with the Academy – it makes sense that when they made it into the Academy, that’s the kind of film they’d vote for.
(Although, to be fair, this theory doesn’t really explain why epic films tend to be big with the Academy every year, no matter when the voters came up in the world, it just explains why epics were big with this one particular type of voter.)
(And, to be fair, it doesn’t really explain why the Academy went for so many transgressive pictures in the 70’s, and basically swore off epics. I’m still trying to figure that one out.)
Anyway, epics were the thing in the 80’s and since Out of Africa was epic, it won Best Picture.
So, first and foremost…
What is Out of Africa?
The short answer is it’s a movie about Danish writer Karin Blixen’s life in Africa, after she marries a man she’s friends with, but doesn’t exactly love. Cobbled together from three books by screenwriter Luedtke, it touches on her mostly-unfulfilling marriage; her husband’s desire to be some sort of adventurer; her time running a coffee plantation after she gives the husband the boot; and her affair with another man. Eventually, the story ends when her money runs out and she’s back to Denmark to do whatever it was she did later in life, and which the movie didn’t find interesting enough to really dive into.
So, How Was It?
Let me start telling you how it was by telling you what it wasn’t. That might seem to be the backwards way of doing things, but since this is my site, I make the rules.
Now, it’s without a doubt – or at least accepted wisdom – that the worst film ever to win Best Picture, is The Greatest Show on Earth. Or Around the World in 80 Days. That of all Best Picture winners, these are alone in their little holes of ignominy. There are others that I might think are worse, but my reasons for thinking this have to do less with seeing the film as being contemporary to it’s time – Broadway Melody, anybody? – and more with seeing it through the prism of history and disliking it.
No, in a real and demonstrable way, and viewed either on terms contemporary to it’s time, or through the prism of history, the worst Best Picture is The Greatest Show on Earth. Or Around the World in 80 Days. I really can’t decide. Anyway, both are hoky. Weighed down by terrible scripts and lousy effects. Either meant largely as a travelogue and to showcase beautiful landscapes and a special photographic process – Around the World in 80 Days. Or as some sort of throwback to a simple, less-divisive time, i.e., the usual conservative nonsense about wishing to return to the past, when you could be racist without fear of being thought poorly of – The Greatest Show on Earth. And both were obvious valedictory Oscars. For Around the World in 80 Days, it was to Mike Todd for shoving Cinerama down our throats. For The Greatest Show on Earth it was a reward to that old-fashioned, rabid paean to right-wing showmanship, C.B. Demille.
DeMille – the original auteur.
And there, knocking on the door for admittance, would be Out of Africa. But just because it’s knocking on the door doesn’t mean it get’s in. After all, while it’s not good, Out of Africa is also not bad. It’s just…middle of the road and forgettable.
And that’s the point — it’s not memorable.
In truth, the best that can be said for Out Of Africa is that it is an immediate afterthought – a film irrelevant in its own time. Some films age well, and have historical significance on their side that turns them into some sort of cultural touchstone – Platoon might be a good example of this. But if history bestowed any significance on Out of Africa it is that in 1985 The Color Purple was nominated for 11 Oscars and lost all 11 – tying it with The Turning Point for Oscar futility. In other words, Out of Africa’s lasting cultural significance is that it contributed to making The Color Purple a notorious loser for director Steven Spielberg.
And so immediate was its irrelevance that at the BAFTA’s the most Out of Africa could come up with was a screenplay Oscar – surely given less for the fact that the screenplay was excellent, which I don’t think it was, and more for the fact it was coherently cobbled from three sources – and for its cinematography, which is general beautiful, except for the terrible process shots in the airplane And did the great winner of the AMPAS Best Picture even rate a Picture or Director nod at that BAFTA’s, when it was finally eligible in 1987?
No, it did not.
To be fair, I can see why the BAFTA’s awarded what they did, and withheld what they withheld. The film is an episodic yawn. Coherent, but a yawn. And the cinematography is great. Even if it all adds up to a boring film that looks nice.
I wish I could say the acting saves it, because sometimes it does. Sometimes a bad movie can be made watchable by an over-the-top performance that just has to be seen to be believed – a Nicholas Cage specialty, if you will. But the performances here are so all-over-the-place, and not in a good way, it’s hard to tell if they save it. Streep does her usual accent, and seems good about it, but she’s far too dowdy in the part to really play a romantic lead. And while Redford is all smiles and easy charm, the fact that he’s playing a Brit without any hint of a British accent, in a film in which Meryl Streep is playing a Dane with a Danish accent, is jarring.
The clip below gives you the difference between their accents.
In the end, it was a yawn.
The Sad Truth
The sad truth is that at some point Sydney Pollack had to look back over his career and know that of all the films he made, it was Out of Africa that brought him glory. Not, They Shoot Horses Don’t They, Tootsie, Jeremiah Johnson or Absence of Malice – all instant classics. Rather, they chose Out of Africa. Worse, at least when the Academy ignored Martin Scorcese they did it by turning their back on his controversial pictures and awarding Oscars to ‘safe’ pictures – Dances with Wolves anybody? But Pollack was never a controversial filmmaker, so to ignore his excellent, and non-divisive pictures, and later award him for his middle-brow, yawnfest seems like a real slap in the face. Sure, they slapped him in the face with Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director, but still – a slap is a slap.
What Should Have Won?
Lots of people would say Brazil – the abused masterpiece of the Terry Gilliam oeuvre. Alas, I’m not among them. I’ve seen Brazil, but aside from some amusing bits, it’s not really for me – the love story seems false and almost intrudes from another movie. Still, that it has it’s champions, nearly 30 years on from release, while Out of Africa is basically forgotten, says quite a lot about the value of Out of Africa.
No, if I had my choice – and since this is my site and my blog and my series, I do have my choice – I’d go for a movie that really wowed me as a 10 year-old in 1985 and still continues to amuse me to this day: The Goonies.
Now, talk about a movie with shelf life. It’s fun, unpretentious and is exactly what it was meant to be – a crowd pleaser. Ironically, all those things might normally be applied to a DeMille film, the only difference being DeMIlle liked that heavy-handed sturm and drang, while The Goonies will have none of it. It’s there to have fun and the cast really seems to be having fun. In the end, isn’t that what the movies should be?
For other entries in the Best Picture Project, please go here.
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