Monday, November 9, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "Dances with Wolves" (1990)

Scene from Dances with Wolves
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

Dances with Wolves
Release Date: November 9, 1990
Director: Kevin Costner
Written By: Michael Blake
Starring: Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell, Graham Greene
Genre: History, Drama
Running Time: 180 minutes

Oscar Wins: 7
-Best Picture
-Best Director
-Best Adapted Screenplay
-Best Cinematography
-Best Sound
-Best Editing
-Best Original Score

Oscar Nominations: 5
-Best Actor (Kevin Costner)
-Best Supporting Actor (Graham Greene)
-Best Supporting Actress (Mary McDonnell)
-Best Art Direction
-Best Costume Design

Other Best Picture Nominees

-The Godfather Part III

And the winner is...

Over the course of the Best Picture winners, there are few from the 90's that had as much of a positive impact as that of director Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves. For starters, the three hour epic was partially responsible for the brief but memorable resurgence of the western genre. Likewise, it was given credit for preaching tolerance to audiences for the appreciation of Native Americans. While some have since argued that films such as Avatar have stolen the film's plot, or that the film is itself a "white savior" narrative; there's no denying that Costner's ambitions definitely created one of the most unique cinematic experiences of its time. It may never be the best western, but it does challenge what the stories could be about.

The film's legacy begins with a sort of backwards logic. Writer Michael Blake wrote the screenplay sometime in the mid-80's. Having problems pitching it to studios, his roommate Costner suggested turning it into a book. After some effort, the book was published in 1988 as "Dances with Wolves." Costner, who had worked on Blake's only previous film (Stacy's Knights), decided to buy the rights for the story and was planning to make the film on a modest budget. Having gained popularity for films such as Bull Durham and Field of Dreams in the 80's, the promise of his directorial debut put additional pressure on him to bring something in at a modest budget.

The budget started at $15 million, but required an additional $3 million out of pocket. The massive scope was getting so bad, especially with the planned three hour cut, that many dubbed it "Kevin's Gate." This was in reference to Heaven's Gate; a film that disastrously shut down a studio and epitomized behind the scenes disasters. It also was partially responsible for the end of the New Hollywood movement that started in the 70's as well as the end of westerns as a profitable genre. It makes sense, considering that Costner shot predominantly on set in South Dakota with live bison, some even belonging to Neil Young. Very little was practical effects, and there was no C.G.I. accompaniment for the various stampede scenes. Since wolves could barely be trained, there were additional problems unforeseen at the time. South Dakota was also notorious for unpredictable weather, which caused delays. The final budget ended up being around $22 million.

The film itself ended up being somewhat faithful to the Indian tribes it depicted. The Sioux tribe was depicted as the heroes and a strong portion of the film featured characters talking in the native language of Lakota. Costner put in effort to have a translator on set. While this wouldn't upset some audiences, Lakota natives found it humorous due to the translations being of the feminine tongue. Lakota is a language that is spoken differently based on gender. Likewise, there were complaints that the Sioux tribe was too heroic while the enemy tribe from Pawnee were stereotyped as villains. There's also mystery surrounding Costner's character, John Dunbar. While it never has been directly addressed, there was a real life Dunbar whose actions are very similar. There has been no confirmation if this is more than a coincidence.

The film ended up a success, thanks to its teachings of understanding to the Indian tribes. Blake would dedicate his life to helping various causes, even bringing up a native during his Oscars acceptance speech for Best Adapted Screenplay. Meanwhile, Costner became the fifth person to win Best Director for his debut feature. The film, which lead the nominations with 12 total, also made Costner the fifth person to be nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor for the same film. He wouldn't win the last of the three. The film was also one of only three westerns to win Best Picture; the first since Cimarron and preceding Unforgiven from a few years later. 

Among the film's other achievements, it became caught up in confusion when Costner selected to rerelease the film a year later as an "extended" edition, featuring a full hour's worth of additional footage into theaters. He claimed that it was worth it for fans who wanted to spend more times with the characters. He also insisted that this added more depth to various characters' relationships and was essentially a new movie. This cut would receive more acclaim when it made its way onto home video and on a special broadcast. While there were plans for a sequel, nothing prevailed. Blake had written a novel, "The Holy Road," in 2001. As of his death in 2015, there hasn't been any further development, save for reports of a potential miniseries. None of this actually involves Costner.

This isn't the first western to deal with Indian relations. However, its impact was definitely felt. Even in the best of westerns, including Stagecoach and The Searchers, Indians have been painted as savage beasts out to kill "the white man." While some see this film as the white man saving the Indians, the message of tolerance and peace is inevitably what has helped the film to have a positive legacy. Even if the resurgence of the western would be short lived, the impact of the film would be felt, as more socially conscious films would tackle similar subjects over the continuing decades. Of the cast, Costner would continue to direct films such as The Postman and Waterworld, but would never capture the same success that he had with Dances with Wolves.

For a film that was rumored to potentially bomb, Dances with Wolves has persevered a lot better than most would assume. It's not only the high point of Costner's career, but it also brought forth a new way of telling history. It was one that was more compassionate. Even if there's been a lot more exciting westerns out there, few have the same appeal as this one. True, many could complain about it beating the far more impacting Goodfellas, but that's to ignore the socially conscious side of The Academy. As much as it's about art, it's also about making a change through it. Even if many would argue it's not better, Dances with Wolves definitely made a difference where Goodfellas didn't. Sometimes, that's all it takes.

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