Over the years, we’ve seen it time and again. Oscar voters get it wrong. Remember when “Crash” won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2005?
An Oscar that was clearly (and queerly) meant for “Brokeback Mountain,” which still managed to take home the trophies for Best Director (Ang Lee) and Best Writing/Adapted Screenplay (Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana). Thankfully, they got it right in March 2022, especially when queer actress Ariana DeBose won the Best Supporting Actress for her performance in “West Side Story.”
“Ordinary People” (Paramount) from 1980, now reissued on Blu-ray as part of the Paramount Presents series, is another example. The movie won Oscars for Best Picture (beating out “Raging Bull”!), Best Director (Robert Redford), Best Supporting Actor (Timothy Hutton), and Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (Alvin Sargent). But Mary Tyler Moore, who gave a career-redefining performance, was shut-out in the Best Actress category (Sissy Spacek received the honor).
Based on the bestselling novel “Ordinary People” by Judith Guest, there is, of course, nothing ordinary about the wealthy WASP-y Jarretts. They are a family unraveling before our very eyes. We encounter them as father Calvin (Donald Sutherland), ice-queen mother Beth (Mary Tyler Moore), and their son Conrad (Hutton) are still reeling from the drowning death of older son Buck (Scott Doebler), and the suicide attempt by Conrad that followed.
Initially resistant, Conrad eventually goes into therapy with Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch, who also received an Oscar nomination) after a four-month psychiatric hospital stay. He also begins to date classmate Jeannine (Elizabeth McGovern) and reconnects with fellow psych hospital patient Karen (Dinah Manoff). But Conrad’s greatest challenge is making headway with his emotionally detached mother.
Moore, who long played lovable characters, is outstanding in her embodiment of this complex and unlikeable woman. The supporting cast, including McGovern (in her feature film debut) and Manoff, is also outstanding. Blu-ray special features include the theatrical trailer and two featurettes.
Five years before Mary Tyler Moore was robbed of her Oscar, Carol Kane had a similar experience. To be fair, Louis Fletcher who won the Academy Award for playing Nurse Ratched in the Oscar-sweeping “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” was tough competition. She’d also been at it professionally for a lot longer than Kane. Nevertheless, Kane’s Oscar-nominated performance in Joan Micklin Silver’s directorial debut “Hester Street” (Cohen Media Group), recently making its Blu-ray debut in a 4K restoration, should never be overlooked.
Filmed in black and white which adds to setting the media (sepia would also have worked), Silver (who also wrote the screenplay) takes us back to New York’s Lower East Side in the late 19th century for this timely immigrant’s tale. Handsome and mustached Jake (Steven Keats) left Russia ahead of his wife Gitl (Kane) and son Yoessel (Paul Freedman), and in that time quickly assimilated to the American culture. He works in a sweatshop and is very popular with the women, one Mamie Fein (Dorrie Kavanaugh), in particular. Jake has kept his wife and child in the old country a secret.
That is until he is notified of his wife and son’s arrival. At Ellis Island, Gitl is beside herself when she sees Jake (whom she calls by his old name, Yankel), and quickly notices that he shaved his beard. Back at his flat, where he lives with a scholarly co-worker and boarder Bernstein (Mel Howard), furnished by money borrowed from Mamie, he settles in with his newly arrived kin.
From that point forward, “Hester Street” tells of the process of becoming an American, leaving the old ways behind. Jake constantly berates Gitl for being a greenhorn. He wants her to stop wearing a sheitel (wig) and start dressing differently. He insists that Yoessel, now called Joey, learn English and cut his hair. But nothing Gitl does, including getting a makeover by neighbor Mrs. Kavarsky (Doris Roberts), appeals to Jake. Ultimately, the couple seeks a gett (divorce), allowing Jake to marry the next day, while Gitl, who received a sizable financial settlement, has to wait 91 days.
Kane, who went on to become a brilliant comic actor (and will be known to queer viewers from “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”) shines in this breakthrough role. In English and Yiddish with subtitles. Blu-ray bonus features include director interviews, archival audio commentary track, original opening sequence and outtakes, and much more.
Gregg Shapiro is the author of seven books including the expanded edition of his short story collection How to Whistle (Rattling Good Yarns Press, 2021). An entertainment journalist, whose interviews and reviews run in a variety of regional LGBTQ+ and mainstream publications and websites, Shapiro lives in Fort Lauderdale with his husband Rick and their dog Coco.
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