Graeme Robertson on why L.A. Confidential should have won over Titanic at the Academy Awards…
The Oscars celebrating the best of 1997 was a ceremony dominated by one film, James Cameron’s romantic disaster epic Titanic – a film that devoured the box office and won itself an absurd 11 Oscars including Best Picture, a feat previously only matched by historical epic Ben-Hur in 1959 and only matched since by Return of the King in 2003.
I myself have mixed feelings about Titanic. While I admit that the main set piece of the sinking itself is a great sequence, I think the film is about an hour too long and I really would have preferred the film to be more of an ensemble piece rather than a romantic two-hander. Also, I really really hate that damn Celine Dion song.
So in the interest of once more likely irritating people, I’m going to go against the grain and argue that another film should have been given the top prize by the Academy. The film that I feel should have been named as Best Picture of 1997 is the late Curtis Hanson’s 50s crime noir L.A. Confidential.
It’s 1953 and mobster Mickey Cohen has just been arrested leaving his criminal empire open for the taking resulting in a wave of violence and gangland killings. When a police officer is murdered in what looks like a robbery gone wrong, a trio of mismatched detectives quickly stumble across a conspiracy that connects organised crime to those at the top of the LAPD.
Based on the novel of the same name by author (and possible lunatic) James Ellroy, the story for L.A. Confidential is steeped in noir influences and jazzy intrigue with its colourful cast of characters really working to bring you into this crime-ridden world of dicy dames and corrupt cops.
Russell Crowe is brilliant as Bud White, a veteran detective gifted with a furious temper and the fighting skills to back them up, with Crowe portraying White something of a caged animal, one who when provoked will not hesitate to beat the crap out of someone and bend the rules of police procedure to get the results he wants.
However, while he could be dismissed as a violent thug with a badge, Crowe manages to show the humanity behind the brutish exterior with White’s violent streak being revealed as the result of a tragic childhood, with his violence often having something a moral bent to it with wife beaters and rapists being the main targets of his wrath.
Guy Pearce is also terrific as Ed Exley a more “by the book” detective who is struggling to match up to the legendary status of his hero cop father. Exley attempts to do his duty as a police officer with respect for proper procedure and integrity, with this “honourable” exterior hiding something of a power-hungry young cop who is all to happy to “snitch” on his fellow officers if it gets him a promotion, doing so under the guise of “ensuring that justice is done”.
Kevin Spacey also stars as detective Jack Vincennes, a celebrity cop who wines, dines and busts the rich and famous of the City of Angels, while always careful to remind people of his status as an advisor on cop show Badge of Honour. While I would say more about Spacey’s performance had he not since destroyed his reputation, I’ll simply say that it’s an otherwise good performance from a disgraced actor whose appearance should not deter from anyone watching this film, nor, in my view, any other film that he happens to appear in.
Aside from the principal male trio we have excellent supporting turns from James Cromwell as the wise and mentor like Irish police captain, an Oscar-winning Kim Basinger channelling classic noir blonde starlets of the past as a troubled call girl, and in a show-stealing performance we have Danny Devito as the deliciously sleazy tabloid journalist Sid Hudgens whose gossipy narration of greed, corruption, starlets and gangsters greets us as the film opens perfectly setting the mood for the tales to come.
While the story of L.A. Confidential with it’s tales of corrupt cops and enigmatic blondes, is a strong one that throws enough twists and turns to keep you guessing, it’s the world and the characters within that really make the film shine.
The film, like Ellroy’s novel, is a clever blending of fact and fiction to create a vibrant and colourful portrait of life in 1950s Los Angeles, one in which gangland killings keep the streets bloody while the gossip rags take delight in revealing the lurid details of Hollywood’s starlets and stars private lives. The exceptional production design and costume design coupled with the films noir-inspired cinematography and its careful lighting choices create a vibrant and authentic recreation of the City of Angels at this time in history, with all these qualities combining to make the city almost feel like a character itself.
The film’s pacing is also exceptional with it managing to strike a perfect balance between sharp sparkling dialogue exchanges and the quiet building suspense before a sudden and shocking outburst of often brutal violence. The final gunfight of the film is my favourite moment, with the scene perfectly building up the tension as White and Exley find themselves surrounded by a small army of armed goons with the ensuing barrage of bullets being a frightful, intense and exhilarating affair.
With an excellent cast giving excellent performances, exceptional direction and production design, coupled with a sharp script that brings the film’s seedy world to life, L.A. Confidential is quite possibly one of the greatest films of the 1990s, and it’s my pick as the film that should have taken home the trophy for Best Picture of 1997.
What do you think dear readers? Do you agree with my feelings that L.A. Confidential should have taken home the trophy, do you think Titanic deserved the trophy or do you think the Academy should have named another film as Best Picture of 1997?