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Gandhi (Best Picture, 1982)

I’ve noticed something about great actors.  For the most part, they seem to fall into two camps.  There are those who remain themselves while in the role – take Tom Hanks or Julia Roberts as examples.  They’re fabulous actors, but you never quite forget you’re watching Tom Hanks or Julia Roberts.  The other group is made up of chameleons like Meryl Streep and Leonardo DiCaprio.  While it might occur to you vaguely once or twice in the film that you’re watching Streep or DiCaprio, you’re mostly so sucked into the film that you notice the character more than the actor.  It’s the difference between “Margaret Thatcher, played by Meryl Streep” and “Julia Roberts as Erin Brockovitch.”

I bring this up because the title character of this film was played by one of the great chameleonic film actors of the last fifty years, Sir Ben Kingsley.  His ability to fade into a role is mostly talent and hard work, but it’s enhanced by his mixed ethnic heritage that makes him able to be convincing as English, Indian, Semitic…. it’s fascinating.

Kingsley’s work as Gandhi is unparalleled.  This has to have been an extraordinarily taxing role for him.  There are maybe half a dozen scenes without Gandhi in them, and the emotional and physical demands of the role must have been draining in the extreme.

Biographical films are tricky.  Director Richard Attenborough included a brief statement at the beginning of GANDHI to the effect that any film of someone’s life must pick and choose moments to include, so the effort must be made to stick to the spirit of the story.  But therein lies the rub.  Any story, particularly a retelling of history, inevitably chooses sides.  A biopic of someone as revered as Gandhi will inevitably be hagiographical to some extent.  Just think – a film portraying Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. as fundamentally flawed and possibly even in the wrong sometimes, or showing something good about Hitler – these would be incredibly hard to sell to audiences, critics, and probably studios.

I don’t know enough about Gandhi or Indian history to be able to tell what, if any, parts of GANDHI are exaggerated out of proportion to make the man more saintly than he was.  I’m not trying to trash Gandhi.  I think he was an incredibly determined man with admirable ideals, and I believe that what he did was for a good cause.  But my training as a historian makes me question the biases displayed in this film.  Attenborough and the other production staff, the actors, and so forth created powerful images of the pain and strife of getting Indian independence and the resulting Partition of India.  They sweep the audience up into the reverence for Gandhi.  Even the extras have shining eyes as they look at Kingsley, deep in the persona of Gandhi.

Maybe the real Gandhi would like that I can’t help but question the movie.  By all reports, he was a very modest man, not entirely comfortable with the level of adoration directed his way.  Intelligent, astute, and well-educated as he was, maybe he’d encourage me to question.

Terms of Endearment (Best Picture, 1983)

Man, was THIS a bummer.  Dysfunctional relationships all around, repressions, questionable morals, and the continued inexplicableness of Jack Nicholson as some kind of sexy leading man.  I just don’t get it – he’s not attractive, his drawl triggers my fight-or-flight response rather than making me feel intrigued.  It’s not the same as my reaction to Richard Gere, who comes across as just plain slimy.  Nicholson’s limited facial expressions and tendency to continually play the same kind of anti-authority types makes me wary instead of just plain repulsed.  He’s somehow menacing, even when he’s trying to play a sympathetic character.

This is one of those films in which everyone is at their worst.  Shirley MacLaine’s character is only happy when her daughter is unhappy, and even then the happiness is sour and unpleasant.  The daughter is clearly someone with a brain who chose not to use it in any of her life decisions.  The son-in-law, inexplicably named “Flap,” is a marginal academic controlled mostly by what we might call “Little Flap.”  Nicholson is Nicholson.  Some actors are chameleons, like Ben Kingsley in GANDHI.  Nicholson is always Jack Nicholson.  Paunchy, trying hard to be cool and edgy, making everything sound like slimy innuendo, and exuding arrogance from every pore.  And you can see the emotional trauma continuing from generation to generation.  MacLaine’s character, in the very first scene of the film, wakes up her infant daughter to the point of crying just to make sure she’s alive.  Emma (the daughter) marries straight out of high school and proceeds to have three children in her unending tailspin of a marriage, and as the marriage slowly falls apart, her children exhibit early signs of being teenage horrors.  The eldest son, Tommy, radiates anger towards both his parents, accusing his mother of driving his father away, and indirectly accusing his father of not caring about any of them.

So yes, it’s a carefully constructed, ultimate portrait of dysfunctional families and dysfunctional people.

Doesn’t mean I have to like it.  And I don’t.

Next Up: Amadeus (Best Picture, 1984) and Out of Africa (Best Picture, 1985)