Oscar Vault Monday – Good Will Hunting, 1997 (dir. Gus Van Sant)

This was one of my favorite films when it first came out and it remains one of my favorite films to date. Actually, 1997 is one of my favorite years for film and I would be hard-pressed to pick a favorite of the five films that were up for Oscar’s top prize that year. Good Will Hunting was nominated for nine Academy Awards, winning two: Best Original Score Danny Elfman, Best Original Song “Miss Misery” by Elliott Smith, Best Film Editing, Best Supporting Actress Minnie Driver, Best Supporting Actor Robin Williams (won), Best Actor Matt Damon, Best Original Screenplay Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (won), Best Director Gus Van Sant and Best Picture. The other films up for Best Picture that year were As Good As It Gets, The Full Monty, L.A. Confidential and winner Titanic.

I’ve gotta talk about my love of Gus Van Sant for a little bit. I love most of his films that I’ve seen. Milk is flawless and Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho show an artistic prowess that often gets toned down in his more mainstream pictures. There’s almost too much to say about To Die For, but if you are a Nicole Kidman or Joaquin Phoenix fan and haven’t seen it yet, get on it! Van Sant’s got a new film coming out later this year called Promised Land, which pairs him back with Matt Damon (from a script penned by Damon and John Krasinski. I look forward to it immensely.

Of course I have to mention the story about how these two wrote this film, got it to Harvey Weinstein and became Hollywood’s Golden Boys. I don’t want to go too much into it, though, because it’s been re-hashed a million times. I will say, I love the two of them. I love them in this film. I love them as friends. I love them in Dogma. I love that Matt Damon is now in a “hot dad” phase in his career and I love that Ben Affleck is finally coming into his own as a director. They just really seem like the deserve the success they’ve got; that they’ve earned it. Oh, I also wanted to mention that this film was made on a $10 mil budget and grossed $225 mil during its theatrical run. That’s what I call a little film that could.

Which brings us to Matt Damon in this film. Look at how young he is. I think when he filmed this he is the age I am now. That scares me a little. What’s so amazing about this script (and I do suggest you read the script if you can; it is marvelously written), and Damon’s performance, is that it has depth and an understanding of human nature far beyond what one would expect from a bunch of dudes in their mid-twenties. This was Damon’s breakout performance and, other than maybe his turn in The Talented Mr. Ripley, remains my favorite of his. I think it’s probably because since he wrote the character, he has a deeper understanding of Will Hunting than an actor would normally have of a character. I can only imagine how insane it must have been for Damon when he found out his was nominated in a category that included Peter Fonda, Robert Duvall, Dustin Hoffman and Jack Nicholson (Jack won). That’s just nuts. But well deserved.

I keep waiting for Stellan Skarsgård to be bigger in America because he is just so good. His character is the closest thing the film has to an antagonist (unless you count the Harvard grad student in the bar scene who likes apples), but he is a character with flaws just as deep as the others and with his nerves just as exposed. There are times when you really hate him, but you can’t altogether dislike a character who tries to hit on pretty girls by comparing a mathematical theorem to an erotic symphony. There’s a scene towards the end of the film where Will sets a theorem on fire and Prof. Lambeau tries to save it that just breaks my heart.

There relationship throughout the movie is just so fascinating. Will thinks that Prof. Lambeau is jealous of his inborn talent. On some level, maybe he is, but really he is in awe of it and he wants to see it put to a good use. Which raises the question, if you are born with a talent are you then required to use it? Is it really a waste to do something else with your life?

Robin Williams was nominated for Best Actor three times (Good Morning, Vietnam – 1987, Dead Poets Society – 1989 and The Fisher King -1991), before finally winning his Oscar in the Best Supporting Actor category for his performance as Sean Maguire in this film. While some may prefer  Williams in more comedic roles, personally, I will take him any way I can get him. He is pretty much always fantastic, and this film is no difference. What I love about this character is there is this undercurrent of rage, mixed with true compassion and understanding that flows through him. When he meets Will Hunting he gets the same kick in the pants that Will gets from him and the two truly fix each. That’s not to say they leave each other perfect, but they force each other to work on themselves and continue actually living a full life.

Just look at this bro hug. Damon and Williams have such amazing chemistry in their scenes together. I can’t imagine what it must have been like on that set, witnessing all that talent.

Which brings us to Minnie Driver as Skylar – the other kick in the pants that Will needed to get his act together. I love this character because for the most part she is an active female character with agency and depth. She says what she feels and she acts when she see fit. Driver was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her performance along with Joan Cusack in In & Out, Julianne Moore in Boogie Nights, Gloria Stewart in Titanic and winner Kim Basinger in L.A. Confidential.

I wanted to mention the first date scene between Skylar and Will because if you will notice, it is a clear homage to Annie Hall (picture below), only in Woody Allen’s film, Alvy Singer asks Annie to kiss him early on to get it out of the way. In this film it is Skylar who takes the initiative. In fact, it is Skylar who takes the initiative throughout their entire relationship. This is what makes the end of the film so touching.

Gotta love great homages.

Oh Ben Affleck, how I used to love you so. I still love you. I’m so glad it’s okay to love you again. I never stopped loving you, I swear. Look at his baby face and silly late-90s leisurewear. Chuckie is an interesting character because he knows he is the supporting character to Will’s lead, possibly even in his own life, but he is okay with that. What he is not okay with, is Will’s lack of ambition. I love the lecture he gives him wherein he tells Will it would be an insult to all of them if he didn’t use his gifts and go and do more with his life. That scene makes me tear up every damn time.

Look at Casey Affleck’s curls. So cute. And, yes, if you didn’t already know, Casey is Ben’s little brother. He was also the star of big brother’s directorial debut Gone, Baby, Gone in 2007 and was also nominated for Best Supporting Actor that year for his turn in The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford. Casey’s character Morgan gets most of the best insults in this film. So many great zingers.

There were two characters who I had never really paid much attention to until this most recent rewatch. The first is Tom, Prof. Lambeau’s assistant, played by John Mighton. He’s not given much screen time, but the character makes quite an impact and arc of his own. At first he is jealous of Lambeau’s attentions towards Will, but as the film progresses he observes what Lambeau wants for Will and his true admiration and respect of Will’s talent. He tries to tell this to Will, but it seems to fall on deaf ears. This truly a case of no small parts.

The second was Cole Hauser as the fourth guy in the gang Billy. He doesn’t speak much, and he’s often in the back of the scene. What I loved about his performance this last time I watched the film, was how natural it was. I think this is why I had never noticed him before. He blends in so perfectly with the neighborhood and that South Boston world, that he almost doesn’t feel like a character. I think it’s quite brilliant.

I wanted to share a few shots that I just really love. This is towards the beginning of the film, when Will solves the first theorem. Look at the composition. Look at those colors. Too good.

This overhead shot is used a few times in this scene when Sean tells Will about how he met his wife. It’s such an arresting view of the scene.

I mentioned the end a little bit when I was talking about Minnie Driver and I guess this shot is a bit of a spoiler, but it’s just so beautiful. I don’t think I’d ever noticed that this shot actually runs all the way through the credits; it never fades to black.

There’s also this very last title card. I’m guessing this as done at the request of Damon and Affleck. I can definitely see how the work of these two authors affected them as writers.

Lastly, I wanted to mention Elliott Smith’s song Miss Misery because I just really fucking love Elliott Smith. Apparently, he didn’t want to perform at the Academy Awards but the producers of the film told him it would be played live during the ceremony whether by him or some other musician. In the end Smith said, “Mainly I just want to go so I can wear my white suit. I always have a great time when I wear my white suit.” Boy, did he look great in that white suit. I wish he had won. I wish he were still with us making music. Alas.

If you have Netflix, you can watch Good Will Hunting on their streaming service.


About Marya E. Gates

Cinephile to the max.

Posted on September 24, 2012, in Oscar Vault Monday and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. This is on my favorite forever list of movies. Do you know that I just recently got my dad (so not a TV or movie watcher) to actually sit down and watch this movie with me? He got choked up with some of the scenes and couldn’t stop talking about how great Matt Damon & Robin Williams were. He said that movie was made for Robin. He loved it so much. Then he looks at me and asks: “Why did you wait so long to show it to me?” lol

    Love your review and comparisons. Just reading this makes me want to watch it again.

  2. If a person has a talent are they required to use it? Or is it OK just to be and find someone to love? I don’t believe in guilt as a way of life. Nor do I think that we can plan another persons life. This is indeed a wonderful movie with a great ensemble. And boy oh boy what a year.

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