Oscar Vault Monday – Mississippi Burning, 1988 (dir. Alan Parker)

I just saw Mississippi Burning, which is fictionalized account of real events that happened in Mississippi in 1964, for the first time a few weeks ago and it really blew me away. It may not be a perfect film, but it’s definitely a film with a strong world-view. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, winning one: Best Sound, Best Editing, Best Cinematography (won), Best Supporting Actress Frances McDormand, Best Actor Gene Hackman, Best Director and Best Picture. The other films nominated for Best Picture that year were The Accidental Tourist, Dangerous Liaisons, Working Girl and winner Rain Man.

I find Alan Paker’s filmography really fascinating. His directorial filmography also includes Midnight Express, Fame, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Angel Heart, The Commitments and Evita. If that’s not variety I don’t know what is.

The very first image of this film tells you pretty much everything you need to know about Parker’s point of view as a storyteller. This is our history, presented in a way to make you feel angry. This is what this whole film will be. The real kicker, is that it will make you feel angry for a variety of reasons, whether it’s because this really happened(ish), that people could be so cruel and racist or whether you think this film falls under the “white savior” category. I, for one, don’t think it should be labeled as such, because it is based on two real dudes doing their jobs who just happened to be white. Regardless of why, this film better make you angry. This time n our history should make you angry and it should never be forgotten so it doesn’t get repeated (although, if you ask me it kind of is, what with all the political attacks on the gays and women, but here I am politicizing my film website now. Oops.)

Gene Hackman received his 4th of five Oscar nominations for his performance as tough as nails FBI Agent Rupert Anderson. This was only Hackman’s second nomination in the Best Actor category (he won for 1971’s Best Picture winner The French Connection); he was also nominated for Best Supporting Actor three times, winning once: Bonnie and Clyde (1967), I Never Sang For My Father (1970) and Unforgiven (1992, won). While I get that Hackman’s performance is the more intense and showy of the two leads in this film, I’m not really sure he’d get my vote for the best performance in this film. He lost the award to Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man.

For my money, Willem Dafoe gives the best performance in this film. It’s a subtle performance, though, and those are the kinds of performances that carry a movie without the audience even realizing it. Those are also the kind of performances that don’t (often) get any awards recognition. This was also the same year Dafoe played the lead in Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, which did not receive Best Picture or Best Actor nominations, despite a Best Director nomination for Scorsese. Dafoe has been nominated for Best Supporting Actor twice, for Platoon (1986, the film won Best Picture) and Shadow of the Vampire (2000); he lost both times. Dafoe has one of my favorite faces in all of cinema history and his eyes are so expressive it just kills me. A lot of what he does in this film is with that face, with his reactions to the townsfolk and to Hackman’s Agent Anderson. I think when you watch this film now, it’s Dafoe (and McDormand) who really transcend above and beyond everything else.

Frances McDormand made her screen debut just three years earlier in the Coen Brothers’ first feature Blood Simple (she’s been married to Joel Coen since 1984), but this was her first major splash. She earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination and although she lost to Geena Davis in The Accidental Tourist, McDormand would go on to be nominated in the Best Supporting Actress category twice more (for 200o’s Almost Famous and 2005’s North Country and would win an Oscar for Best Actress for her performance in 1996’s Fargo. McDormand’s performance as the timid hairdresser wife to Brad Dourif’s violent deputy is a far cry from the smart, tough women we are used to seeing from her. If you are a fan of her, you better watch this film, but soon.

Speaking of Brad Dourif, he gives a chilling performance as a Sheriff’s Deputy/KKK member who has absolutely no remorse for his actions because he doesn’t think they are wrong. He plays the role with the same kind of voracious conviction we’ve come to expect from him every time. Dourif was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his debut performance in 1975 Best Picture Winner One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

Lastly I want to mention Peter Biziou’s brilliant cinematography, which won the Academy Award that year and rightfully so. Filming at night used to be impossible (see: day for night). Now it is possible, but still extremely difficult. Biziou’s work is so perfect he makes it look easy. While this is Biziou’s only nomination and win, he is also responsible for the killer cinematographer in director Peter Weir’s modern masterpiece The Truman Show.


About Marya E. Gates

Cinephile to the max.

Posted on August 27, 2012, in Oscar Vault Monday and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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