SCOTT HICKS FOR SHINE (1996)
The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)
Anthony Minghella for The English Patient
Joel Coen for Fargo
Mike Leigh for Secrets & Lies
Miloš Forman for The People vs. Larry Flynt
NOTE: dark blue text denotes individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue indicates those who were nominated.
Shine has more in common with Searching for Sugar Man, the recent Best Documentary winner, than any of the artistic biographies (Hilary and Jackie, Pollack) that followed after its success. Scott Hicks, an standard biopic fare with one or two brilliant sequences; its captivating force comes not from the directorial style but from the excitement of discovering David Helfgott’s dormant musical genius. Hicks’ real coup was in the casting of the film; nowadays, Geoffrey Rush is the best-known actor in the film, but at the time he was unknown outside of Australian stage. That this great talent was cast as the lead (along with Noah Taylor and Alex Rafalowicz) in an ensemble dotted with the likes of Lynn Redgrave and John Gielgud, reinforced the narrative of discovery. Even if Rush’s breakout led to greater success than Helfgott’s comeback (judging from YouTube, his talent is not as recognizably brilliant as it seems in the film), Hicks’ excavation of a nearly forgotten talent is a powerful narrative force in its own right.
The film plays out with a familiar musical biopic format of childhood promise, heady success, and humbled comeback. Hicks’ and Jan Sardi’s screenplay mingles the three periods of the character’s life very neatly and comprehensibly (aided by Pip Karmel’s dynamic editing). I was pleased to see that Hicks and Sardi granted fairly equal weight to Helfgott as a child (Rafalowicz), youth (Taylor), and grown man (Rush), though it surprised me that the Oscar-winning performance received so little screen time. A friend of mine once described this as the kind of performance in which you can’t really make a wrong choice, and to some extent that’s true. Much of the emotion in Rush’s scenes comes from David Hirschfelder’s score, with Rush remaining stuck inside his unfathomable inner world. Still, his creation of discombobulated movements and gusts of kooky word associations really are a vivid creation. and his impressive replication of Helfgott’s handwork (reminiscent of Natalie Portman’s demanding impression of a prima ballerina) alloys the character’s incoherence with an impressive layer of control.
However, the performance that really stood out to me was Noah Taylor’s as the teenaged David, integrating the lingering timidity of Rafalowicz’s childhood portrayal with whiffs of Rush’s antic portrayal. In contrast to Rush’s striking but impenetrable mannerisms, what results is a performance that shows the affliction that is mounting inside his head, but still preserves a range of relationship dynamics with his teachers, peers, and dreaded father (a fearsome Armin Mueller-Stahl). Taylor also benefits from the best-directed scene in the film as he tackles the imposing Rach 3. Hicks’ camera swoops ecstatically around the piano in every direction, slowing down and speeding up to show the enormous mental chasms in between the frantic rush of notes. The rapturous sensory overload of the performance becomes clear as the performance progresses, and if Hicks is employing a bit of creative license by combining his nervous breakdown with the end of his onstage performance, then the connection between his genius and madness is still made perfectly clear.
As I’ve said before about the 1996 Oscar race, this was the year of the independent film, a spirit that carried former INXS music video director Scott Hicks alongside a band of outsiders. I appreciate a race that featured not only the Australian Hicks and Czech-born Miloš Forman, but also two Brits: Mike Leigh for his masterful ensemble film Secrets & Lies and Anthony Minghella for one of the few films that deserves the descriptor, “breathtaking,” the WWII epic The English Patient. Still, last time we checked in, Joel Coen (nominated on behalf of his partnership with brother Ethan) was running away with my vote for the homespun crime drama Fargo. One of the best legacies of the year of the independent was to lodge the Coen Bros. in the Oscar conversation, where so many of their finest works have since been rewarded. However, none of their films have topped this perfect colloquial examination of the mundanity of good and evil, a work I’m increasingly convinced counts among the great American movies.