JOHN HUSTON FOR PRIZZI’S HONOR
The competition (Cliff: 4 for 5)
Sydney Pollack for Out of Africa
Hector Babenco for Kiss of the Spider Woman
Akira Kurosawa for Ran
Peter Weir for Witness
NOTE: dark blue text denotes individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue indicates those who were nominated.
For decades, from its beginnings as iconic exploitation in Little Caesar and Scarface, through its elevation to operatic heights in the Godfather films, the gangster genre focused on the top of the pyramid. The protagonists were kingpins and “most wanted”-grade thugs, and their brazen power plays defined our perception of organized crime. A decade after the first two Godfather films, however, the spurt of gangster films that graced the Academy Awards reoriented down the ladder. Stephen Frears’ The Grifters and Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas made their protagonists into average Joes trying to get by and, just maybe, get ahead. Prizzi’s Honor, at the vanguard of this cycle, has perhaps the most cynical take on the mob as rat race. Huston’s mobster romance darkly jests at a world in which the characters on the make are the ones who lose the most. Though he knows the playbook backwards and forwards, Jack Nicholson’s Charley, a hit man for William Hickey’s frail Don Prizzi, reveals himself as little more than a two-bit heavy who is poorly cut out for the deft movements of mob politics. Kathleen Turner’s Irene, the mysterious femme fatale for whom Charley falls, always has an angle but cannot pull off her daring schemes with anything close to the perfection she needs to stay ahead. Their attempts to game the system only drive them downhill, while characters like Prizzi’s granddaughter Maerose (Anjelica Huston), who patiently wait for those around them to make mistakes, are left smiling when the film fades to black.
While I can appreciate this story, Huston’s treatment of it has me at a bit of a loss. Black comedies always take a big bet on striking the right tone, and for me Prizzi’s Honor oscillates between highly effect, pithy touches and broad, awkward strokes. As regards what I like: Huston, always wise to classical filmmaking conventions, here applies them with a wry sense of humor. Forty years earlier, when making The Maltese Falcon, the strength of the Production Code impelled Huston to pan away and fade to black on the cusp of Sam and Brigid’s intimacy. Here, a tryst between Charley and Maerose similarly fades to black, but only after the characters have unambiguously stated their consent to have sex. To deal with characters’ many changes in location, he uses repeated inserts of a United Airlines jet in mid-flight, pointed left to signify to the West Coast and right for trips to the East Coast—simultaneously the most economical exposition and the savviest product placement to be found in this series.
However, such brilliant little moves are undercut by clunky choices elsewhere, such as Alex North’s exaggerated application of Rossini scores over a hit—seemingly a weak gesture toward the climactic montage in The Godfather. And while Nicholson and Huston’s daughter do a fair job, certain parts of the ensemble similarly feel too exaggerated, chiefly Hickey’s cheesy Don Prizzi. Sadly, Best Actress was the one acting category this film failed to crack, leaving a sterling Kathleen Turner to wait another year for her first (and only, to date) nomination. Meanwhile, the tone in other places is too perplexing–particularly in the finale, which mingles the emotional core of the film with corny violence. While I can still detect a startlingly sharp filmmaker for the age of 79 (indeed, The Dead, his final film made two years later, is one of my favorites of his), Prizzi’s Honor is still a mixed bag. At the least, though, it’s quite a fascinating and unusual entry in the Oscar race.
The 1985 Best Director slate featured a pair of curtain calls and a pair of debuts on the margins, and one peaking career in the center ring. I’ll get to the debuts soon, when I write about Hector Babenco’s work in Kiss of the Spider Woman, but for now I’ll focus on the two living legends honored here: Huston, on his fifth Best Director nomination (though his first since 1952) and his fifteenth overall, and Akira Kurosawa for Ran, who at the time of this, his first nomination (excluding one win and one nomination for Best Foreign Language Film), rivaled any claimant to the mantle of Greatest Living Filmmaker. The award went to Sydney Pollack, whose own debut nomination for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is some of my all-time favorite directing, and whose work here I also find quite commendable. In the midst of such strong competition, this slightly amiss entry for Huston might rank near the bottom, but it’s still quite an unusual and unpredictable entry in the Best Director field, and one I’m glad I saw. My vote tilts toward Kurosawa for his austere composition of Ran, and we’ll see in coming days if the Japanese master holds on.