Friday, December 18, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "Out of Africa" (1985)

Scene from Out of Africa
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

Out of Africa
Release Date: December 18, 1985
Director: Sydney Pollack 
Written By: Karen Blixen (Book), Judith Thurman (Book), Errol Trzebinski (Book), and Kurt Luedtke
Starring: Meryl Streep, Robert Redford, Klaus Maria
Genre: Biography, Drama, Romance
Running Time: 161 minutes

Oscar Wins: 7
-Best Picture
-Best Director
-Best Adapted Screenplay
-Best Cinematography
-Best Art Direction - Set Direction
-Best Sound
-Best Original Score

Oscar Nominations: 4 
-Best Actress (Meryl Streep)
-Best Supporting Actor (Klaus Maria)
-Best Costume Design
-Best Editing

Other Best Picture Nominees

-Lost in Translation
-Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
-Mystic River

And the winner is...

When it comes to beautiful films about the joys of life, there are few that capture the majesty as much as director Sydney Pollack's Out of Africa. Its cinematography alone captured the planes of Africa in all of their beauty while putting its cast at occasional risk. Lead by Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, this epic drama has all of the romance and wildlife of a great movie with plenty excellent voice overs. It's a meditative film that manages to show the studio system flourishing with excellent acting. Even if it isn't the most recognizable or memorable Best Picture winner in history, it does set a precedent for what the award can be when it's allowed to go about the world, finding answers wherever they may be.

Pollack's film wasn't the first attempt to make a film about Karen Blixen's journey in Africa. There was reportedly a version that was going to involve Greta Garbo; and several other directors such as David Lean, Orson Welles, and Nicolas Roeg attempted to make versions of the film before Pollack got hold of it. When casting his protagonist, Pollack initially wanted Audrey Hepburn, who turned down the role. Blixen's eventual actress, Streep, wasn't actually chosen immediately because the director found her to not be sexually attractive enough. This was changed when Streep came into her audition with a low cut blouse and a push-up bra. Meanwhile, Robert Redford was chosen in part because it was believed that British performers didn't capture the same sexuality. However, Redford initially did the performance with an accent before ditching it because Pollack felt that it would be too distracting.

The filming took place predominantly in Africa, though was also filmed in England. Due to the country's policy of not having trained animals, many of the ones featured in the film were imported from California. However, that didn't stop the actual animals of Africa from getting their weight thrown around. The famous scene where Redford washes Streep's hair was filmed near a wild hippopotamus reserve, which made Streep very nervous. During another scene, a bug the size of her arm had crawled up her sleeves. She finished the scene, but immediately after thrust the jacket off to get away from it. In another scene, Streep is seen attempting to protect herself from a lion via a whip. The plan was that the lion would be harnessed and incapable of attacking her. On the day, it wasn't - causing her reaction to be far more genuine. 

There were other things on the set that had to be made. Blixen's house from 1913 took a good year for designer Stephen B. Grimes to build. It was located not too far from the real location of her home - and the area was soon named Karen in her honor. Because locomotives weren't in use during filming and had long been discontinued, Pollack decided to make one from scratch instead of having one shipped in. Likewise, the Kikuyu tribe depicted in the film featured many actual descendants from the one Blixen described in the book. While the story sticks largely to her story, a few chapters and narrations were changed in order to progress in a more cinematic fashion. The pacing was also intentionally slow, as to reference from the book "Natives dislike speed, as we dislike noise."

The post production went rather well. For starters, Pollack's one regret was that he filmed Out of Africa in 1.85: 1. He wanted it shot in anamorphic wide screen, though was used to shooting it in a way where his films were cropped for TV presentations. While doing the editing, Pollack used temp tracks by John Barry in order to get the feel for scenes. When it came down to choosing a composer, it only felt right to go with Barry - whose score became revered in the decades to follow for its sweeping beauty. The film was released in the centennial year of Blixen's birth in 1985 and was a major success at the box office. However, the critics were more divisive, believing that the pacing was often problematic and distracted from an otherwise beautiful story.

Despite winning seven Oscars, there aren't really any major achievements that the film had. It didn't break any records nor did anyone give a rousing speech worthy of its own legacy. The film itself excelled in the fields that it was going to win. Meanwhile, there were other records achieved during the ceremony, notably for The Color Purple. With an impressive 11 nominations, it became one of the largest nominees in history to walk away without a single trophy. This was also the first year that all acting fields were filled with people solely from America. With Prizzi's Honor, director John Huston became the oldest person in the Best Director category to be nominated at the age of 79. Otherwise, there wasn't much really to discuss other than that the film won.

Much like its release, the legacy of Out of Africa is a divisive one. It is one of very few to have "Rotten" scores (below 60% general consensus approval rating) on Rotten Tomatoes. Many even consider it an example of how The Academy is self-involved and love rewarding films about their nobility. While Out of Africa isn't necessarily a well remembered movie, it does have some legacy, as it is a meditative film about women becoming one with nature. The genre may have not started with this, but it definitely benefited from it. Later films would continue to explore the themes, as diverse as Into the Wild, 127 Hours, and Wild. The famous scene in which Redford washes Streep's hair is also considered one of the most sensual moments in film history. Barry's score has also been ranked rather highly as one of the best.

Even if Out of Africa is a film that doesn't ring a bell, it's one that showed the elegance and beauty that could be found in nature. With solid performances by Streep and Redford, it's a drama that reflected the value of thought and how escaping to nature can open up one's inner self. One could argue that its pacing is too slow, even if Pollack insists that it is deliberate. Others can easily embrace it and see where film has gone since then. Even if it doesn't have much of a legacy, it has plenty to offer for those that find solace in nature and just enjoy looking out at sunsets and wildlife, enjoying the simpler things in life. It may not be Streep or Redford's best, but it definitely shows that they could act like pros when necessary.

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