Sunday, November 15, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "The English Patient" (1996)

Ralph Fiennes in The English Patient
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

The English Patient
Release Date: November 15, 1996
Director: Anthony Minghella
Written By: Michael Ondaatje (Novel), Anthony Minghella (Screenplay) 
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Juliette Binoche, Willem Dafoe
Genre: Drama, Romance, War
Running Time: 162 minutes

Oscar Wins: 9
-Best Picture
-Best Director
-Best Supporting Actress (Juliette Binoche)
-Best Cinematography
-Best Art Direction-Set Direction
-Best Costume Design
-Best Sound
-Best Editing
-Best Original Score

Oscar Nominations: 3
-Best Actor (Ralph Fiennes)
-Best Actress (Kristin Scott Thomas)
-Best Adapted Screenplay

Other Best Picture Nominees

-Jerry Maguire
-Secret & Lies

And the winner is...

To a certain facet of movie fans, the idea of the epic is something that has never gone away. It's a romantic gesture, believing that beautiful scenery and sweeping transitions can be artistically strewn together for hours of a singular story. It's seen in the best of epics, including Lawrence of Arabia. In the case of director Anthony Minghella's The English Patient, it wasn't just a throwback to 30 years prior where the idea was more respected. It was its own story, filled to the brim with passion and desire. It was beautiful and able to update the genre thanks to technological advancements and changing ideals. It's a film that sweeps audiences off their feet and transports to another time. It's what the best of cinema has. It is what this film excels at as well.

To some extent, it does seem like "The English Patient" was always destined to be a movie. As he was completing a shoot in New York, Minghella picked up the book and began to read it. He became so obsessed that he ended up finishing it in one sitting. He was enthralled. The next morning, he called Saul Zaenetz to attempt to work on the project. There was some luck in the cards, as the producer had not only read it, but the author was going to be in town that weekend for a book event. The only catch was trying to obtain the right cast. For the role of Katharine Clifton, the studio wanted Demi Moore. Minghella refused, feeling that she was wrong. Kristen Scott Thomas lobbied for the role, eventually getting the part. There was general concern over the film's cast, as many believed that the relatively unknown performers would be more of a liability. Zaenetz gave $6 million to the budget out of his own pocket.

The script took four years and 20 drafts for Minghella to get it right. While filming, there were various small things that happened. During the shoot, he injured his ankle - thus resulting in him walking around in a plaster cast, or on crutches. Despite the make-up process taking five hours, Ralph Fiennes insisted on putting on everything for his burn victim character. This was peculiar, because there were several scenes where he would only be seen from neck level upward. The make-up was also innovative in that it was created to also look like the geography on a map, as to allow for transition shots to flow more smoothly. Despite having a budget of $31 million, the production once had to rely on tourists in Italy because they couldn't afford extras.

Editor Walter Murch dreaded working on the film. He felt that having to edit together transition shots would be too problematic. However, he began to see potential as he did it. While there were scenes that often had jarring differences, whether in pacing or sound, he found ways to put them together. It often required the final cut to be different from the script. The initial cut ran four hours and 10 minutes. The film was also special because Murch started editing mechanically, but transitioned into digital. This was largely because his son had a medical emergency during production, and Murch felt it would be easier to work from home. As a result, The English Patient became the first film to win Best Picture with digital editing.

The film was a massive success. It earned $232 internationally and immediately began racking up awards. It was so overwhelming that by the point that The Academy Awards ceremony came around, it seemed impossible to beat. During his acceptance speech for Best Original Song (Evita - "You Must Love Me"), he noted that he was relieved that The English Patient didn't have a song in the category. When Juliette Binoche won Best Supporting Actress, she felt confused, believing that Lauren Bacall (The Mirror Has Two Faces) was a definite win - a move made stranger since the iconic actress had never won before. In total, The English Patient won nine of its 12 nominations. 

While the film has since become an obscure Best Picture winner, especially since it's relatively new, its legacy lives on in a contradictory manner. While the film definitely had its detractors, many remember the Seinfeld episode "The English Patient" more. In the episode, Julia Louis Dreyfus goes to see the film in a theater and complains nonstop about how boring it is. She even calls the story stupid and wishes that Fiennes' character just die already. It's an easy joke, given the film's running time. However, it's the one that audiences are likely to remember - especially since its legacy is likely overshadowed by more noteworthy Best Picture winners such as the following year's Titanic. Also, director Minghella has gotten a bad rap for making films (such as Cold Mountain later on) that were middlebrow and obnoxious. While the cast has gone on to great things, the film has an overbearingly negative legacy for no discernible reason.

Whether or not The English Patient is one of the greatest Best Picture winners of all time, it's still a majestic film, recalling a more romantic era of film making. With a great cast and beautiful scenery, it is a film that captured the romanticism of World War II and period pieces unlike any other film of the 90's. Its sweeping score adds to the beautiful nature of the film, even creating its emotional core. While it is possibly too long for some audience members, the ambition on display is enough to admire, especially with its cutting edge editing and unique take on familiar grounds. Even if The English Patient just ends up being a gem for Oscar completionists to seek out, it will hopefully restore its legacy to something better than a punchline to a sitcom. It deserves so much more than that.

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