It’s Time to Forgive Some Infamous Movie scenes

By Scott Mendelson As one of the two highest-of-high holy days in the Jewish religion, Yom Kippur basically involves asking forgiveness for the past transgressions against God over the previous year. But arguably as important is Erev Yom Kippur, which is the day before the high holy day, which involves asking the actual people you’ve transgressed against for atonement. In that spirit, let us take a few moments to finally let go of a few alleged transgressions in recent cinema history. Don’t do it for them, do it for yourself.

Kevin Costner
Alleged Sin: Beating out Martin Scorsese at the 1990 Academy Awards

For nearly twenty years, critics and film nerds have been condemning Kevin Costner for having the gall to ‘deny’ Martin Scorsese the Best Director Oscar that theoretically should have been his for Goodfellas. As a result, a once beloved film, one that revived the western as an occasionally viable film genre, is now looked upon with ridicule and scorn. Never-mind that Kevin Costner directed a critically-acclaimed smash hit. Never-mind that he somehow directed a three-hour revisionist western that managed to gross $494 million worldwide. Never-mind that this allegedly ‘politically-correct’ fable contains brutal violence and native-American characters that are neither savage (Graham Greene’s nuanced and humorous performance still holds up) or noble (at one point they shoot down an unarmed and surrendering enemy tribesman). The film’s initial quality has been surpassed by the ‘Scorsese was robbed!’ bandwagon.

Why we should let it go:
Because it’s been twenty years. Let’s not pretend that had The Godfather part III not been considered a disappointment, then Francis Ford Coppola probably would have won instead for finishing off his classic trilogy on a high note. Third of all, Dances With Wolves remains an exceptional motion picture. It’s a thoughtful epic, a mournful drama, and a sterling action film. As for Costner’s post Wolves output, we got twenty years of tricks (The Postman, The Bodyguard, 3000 Miles to Graceland) as well as some glorious treats (JFK, A Perfect World, Tin Cup, Open Range, The Upside of Anger), and everything in between (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Wyatt Earp, Waterworld, Swing Vote).

Scorsese’s Goodfellas ended a post-Raging Bull slump that saw him taking an unknown Tim Burton’s sloppy seconds (Burton was originally going to direct After Hours, but he passed out of respect for Scorsese). Cape Fear, Age of Innocence, Bringing Out the Dead, Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed, and Shutter Island. All either critical and/or box office smashes. Marty’s doing just fine, and he finally won that Oscar sixteen years later. It’s time to admit that Dances With Wolves was a pretty terrific film back in 1990.

Joel Schumacher
Alleged Sin: Wrecking the 1990s Batman franchise.

We all know the story. After parents cried foul over the violence and kinkiness of Batman Returns, Tim Burton left the franchise and Batman Forever was directed by Joel Schumacher, then a guy most famous for directing Falling Down, Saint Elmo’s Fire and The Lost Boys. Schumacher gave us Batman Forever, a somewhat campy and neon-colored Batman adventure that felt awkwardly crossed the 1970s Darknight Detective days with the 1950s gee-whiz era. As a stand-alone film, it works pretty well, balancing out the bad (Tommy Lee Jones’s terrible turn as Two-Face, moments where the Batmobile drives up the wall of a building) with the good (Jim Carrey’s scary/funny turn as the Riddler, the strong chemistry between Chris O’Donnell and Michael Gough). The film was a smash hit and audience favorite, so Schumacher followed it up two years later with Batman & Robin. That’s when everything went to hell.

Under strict studio orders to make a toy-friendly picture, Schumacher plunged completely into camp, giving us a Batman picture not based on the 1960s TV show, but one lodged firmly in the late 50s/early 1960s nadir. Buried beneath a solid story of Bruce Wayne coming to terms with becoming a surrogate father as his own (Alfred) lay near death stood a thousand miles of cheese: Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze ice-puns, Uma Thurman’s sexy but grating May West impression, Alicia Silverstone’s halfhearted attempt at playing a feminist Batgirl, George Clooney’s overly cheerful Batman, etc. The film crashed and burned after opening weekend, Clooney fell on the sword, and the Batman series was dead for eight long years.

Why we should let it go: First of all, had Clooney not floundered so badly, he might not have made the defining choice to act for art, forgoing big paydays and instead making artier, more personal pictures that have made him one of the most interesting movie stars of his generation. Sure we get an occasional The Perfect Storm and Ocean’s 11, but Clooney’s filmography is filled with the likes of Out of Sight, Good Night and Good Luck, Syriana, Michael Clayton, Confessions of A Dangerous Mind, and Up in the Air. Second of all, the audience rejection of such an overtly fan-unfriendly adaptation of a comic book property gave notice to studios that the next wave of comic book films should at least try to appeal to the hardcore fans.

Had Batman & Robin been just a little bit better and been a little less of a financial failure (it grossed $238 million, but at a cost of $200 million), then maybe we wouldn’t have gotten the wave of reverent comic book adaptations (X-Men, Spider-Man, etc) that jump-started the 2000s. Most importantly, had Joel Schumacher not killed the Batman franchise, Chris Nolan never would have had the chance to bring it back to life in its current glorious form. Let’s face it, without Batman & Robin, there would never have been a Batman Begins. For that alone, we owe Schumacher just our forgiveness, but our thanks.

George Lucas
Alleged Sin: Wrecking the Star Wars franchise with the prequel trilogy

There was no more anticipated film in modern history than Star Wars: Episode One: The Phantom Menace. Released nineteen years after Return of the Jedi, the first chapter in a three-part prequel saga was the verifiable holy grail of film nerds everywhere. Then, on May 19th, 1999, it was released. And the fans, the hardcore fans who worshiped the original trilogy as children, cried foul. It was too juvenile, it was too concerned with galactic politics, Jake Lloyd was kinda terrible as Anakin Skywalker, and the film lacked a Han Solo type character, a roguish prick to balance out the solemnity of the whole affair. They complained that Natalie Portman’s Queen Amidala was too regal and not enough like Princess Lea (ie – 17-year old Portman just wasn’t sexy enough). And that Jar Jar Binks character as an unholy creation of adolescent pandering, a jabbering, farting, doo-doo joke making monstrosity, right? Despite cries of treason from the nerds, regular audiences ironically liked it just fine, powering the film to a $431 million domestic gross and $924 million worldwide, making the film the second-highest grossing film in history behind Titanic at that point. While the next two films in the trilogy tried to make amends (there was less Jar-Jar, more action, and more hard violence), The Phantom Menace is considered the original sin in the eyes of film nerds everywhere.

Why we should let it go: Because it’s been eleven years. Because bitterness is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die. Because your kids will think that Jar Jar Binks is pretty funny, they won’t mind a badly-directed Jake Lloyd, and they’ll enjoy the youth-skewed adventure of The Phantom Menace, and that will give you the excuse to show them the rest of the films. Because your kids may very well discover Star Wars through the dynamite Clone Wars TV show currently on Cartoon Network. Because you weren’t eight years old when The Phantom Menace came out. You were in your late teens if not significantly older. The Star Wars trilogy was never intended to be judged as adult entertainment. That The Empire Strikes Back was so somber, character-driven, and mythical may very well have been an accident, giving dramatic weight and pathos to what was supposed to be a series of outer-space adventures. At heart, the original Star Wars trilogy was an homage to Flash Gordon, done up with state of the art effects with some political substance thrown in for good measure (Palatine = Nixon and Ewoks = Vietnamese). Because I still see kids on the playground playing their own Star Wars adventures. I’m pretty sure they don’t complain about Jar Jar and debate whether or not George Lucas raped their childhoods.

To read more go to Scott Mendelson

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  • September 18, 2010 | Permalink |

    I could not agree with you more.

    Another thing regarding Joel Schumacher; he originally planned to take the Batman series into an even darker, more adult direction. You know that Frank Miller-penned “Batman: Year One” screenplay that has been floating around the internet? Yep, that was for Joel. It’s the studios who forced him into camp.

  • September 19, 2010 | Permalink |

    Return of the Jedi was released in 1983. Phantom Menace was released in 1999. 1999 – 1983 = 16 years (not 19). Also, the name is Mae West (not May).

  • September 21, 2010 | Permalink |

    George Lucas didn’t wreck the prequel trilogy. You just simply grew up between the two trilogies and therefore you cannot see the “newer” films through the eyes of a child anymore. You approach them with adult expectations, you misunderstand things or overexaggerate them.

  • September 24, 2010 | Permalink |

    Great article, Scott.

    I love “Goodfellas” and Scorsese’s direction in general, but I remember seeing “Dances With Wolves” in the theatre and it took my breath away. And I hate movies that are made for “politically correct” reasons (one big reason that Pauline Kael hated the movie so much). I hated “Ghandhi” for that reason: an overlong, bloated, self-important guilt movie that copped all the big Oscars over far worthier contenders like “ET”, “Tootsie”, and “Sophie’s Choice”. Tell me how to forgive that slap in the face 27 years later.

    I think so much of the uproar in 1991 was due to the seeming determination of the Academy to ignore Scorsese’s obvious talent even though he had already released a string of great films. Costner beat Scorsese exactly ten years after another “pretty boy” actor/director, Robert Redford, beat him for the directing Oscar with “Ordinary People” (over Scorsese’s “Raging Bull”). As someone who gets a little tired of hearing people whine over “quieter” Best Picture winners like “Shakespeare in Love” and “Ordinary People”, I very much appreciated reading this article. In fact, I would love to read your treatise on these two films, seeing as how undeniably well-written and beautifully acted they are (and hoping that you might agree with me :)). Not every great film needs to be about violence, war, or larger-than-life betrayal on an operatic scale. They can be family dramas or, dare I say it, even comedies!

    Thanks again.

  • September 24, 2010 | Permalink |


  • Jim
    September 28, 2010 | Permalink |

    I agree with the bit about forgiving Dances with Wolves beating out Goodfellas. However, I whole-heartedly disagree with you about Star Wars. Let’s face it, the prequels are terrible. Lucas DID wreck the Star Wars saga with them. The third one is the only one that matters, and even it has its flaws (the biggest, perhaps, being that it overcompensates for the shabby storytelling of the previous two and is bogged down connecting them to Episode IV.) The only reason to forgive is because of how much material he gave Red Letter Media to pick apart.

    By the way, Episode I came out sixteen years after Jedi, not nineteen.

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