This is the conclusion of a 3-part series, a collaborative effort by Sean Munger, Robert Horvat and Cody Climer, to profile 12 influential films in the history of Warner Brothers. Part I (1920s-40s) is here, Part II (1950s-70s) is here. This article is by Cody Climer (covering 1990s) and Sean Munger (covering 1980s and 2000s/2010s).
American filmmaking underwent a renaissance in the 1970s. It was the age of both the auteur and the box office blockbuster, and talents like Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola remade genres and changed the rules. Warner Brothers had a hand in that renaissance, but the studio also, like all the others, sometimes struggled to keep up in its aftermath. The decades of cinema since the close of the 1970s have been tumultuous, serving up both the best–and the worst–that the media of movies can offer.
In the best category, it doesn’t get much better than Milos Forman’s Amadeus. It’s one of the most perfect movies ever made and will remain forever one of Warner Brothers studio’s crowning achievements. This lavish 3-hour epic, set mostly in the 1780s, made movies about powdered wigs, buckled shoes and quill pens sexy and exciting again. It also featured a double-barreled dose of two of the most riveting performances ever put on film, dueling for high stakes and high tension: Tom Hulce as brilliant but troubled composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and F. Murray Abraham, who won an Academy Award, as his nemesis Antonio Salieri. Watching the sparks fly between these two is nothing short of mesmerizing.
Amadeus also uses music in a brilliant and groundbreaking way. You’d expect a movie about composers to have a lot of music, but Mozart’s scores, all completely authentic with not a single note changed, become another character in the film. Forman’s genius as a director somehow juggles all the volatile aspects of what could easily have been a very messy, overlong and turgid flop, transforming it into a humming machine of perfect cinematic ingenuity, but the real backbone of the picture is the music. It’s all about the music, and it should be.
Reversal of Fortune (1990)
“Legally, this was an important victory. Morally – you’re on your own.”
Some movies become so quickly overlooked. This is one of those movies. Released in 1990, Reversal of Fortune shows the story of the legal appeal of the conviction of Claus Von Bülow for the attempted murder of his wife Sunny. She lies in a coma in and can’t say whether he actually tried to murder her.
The film covers the retrial and Claus telling his version of events through flashbacks. Claus was found guilty in the first trial with piles of evidence, though most (if not all) of it was circumstantial or outright fradulent. Claus was less than likable, and Jeremy Irons conveys that perfectly with old world charm and despicable aloofness. He won an Oscar and Golden Globe for his portrayal.
Reversal of Fortune is a fascinating glimpse into ‘Old Money New England’ and scandalous crimes that can sweep popular culture. That may be part of why this movie has become a forgotten gem. The first murder trial for Claus Von Bülow could have been called the ‘Trial of the Century,’ even though that title seems to be handed out much more often than the name implies. Murder trials are guilty pleasures that I think we try to forget as soon as possible, and the things created round them are forgotten just as quickly.
L.A. Confidential (1997)
“Go back to Jersey, sonny. This is the City of the Angels, and you haven’t got any wings.”
Noir is a genre which seems to be constantly reborn. In 1997 director Curtis Hanson brought a screenplay of James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential to the screen. The movie shines a bright, antiseptic light on post war Los Angeles and it’s constant battle with racism, class and being the stage for the ‘American Dream.’ For me that’s the unique aspect of L.A. Confidential. While the classic noir uses smoky dark offices and shadowy streets to convey the seedy underbelly of life, this movie turned that around with bright unforgiving Southern California sunshine.
The seed for the story is a crime boss finally getting thrown in jail and causing all the illicit activities in L.A. to be thrown into chaos. Naturally as with all noirs it’s a MacGuffin that leads to the uncovering of the various sins of the L.A police department, such as a prostitution ring where the girls have plastic surgery to look like starlets, and the discovery of the cop killer Rollo Tomasi.
Two Australians had their first big roles playing Americans here: Guy Pearce as the straight-laced Ed Exley and Russell Crowe as the brutish Bud White. They star opposite Kevin Spacey who’s a slick detective and Kim Basinger who won a Golden Globe as the femme fatale.
Battlefield Earth (2000)
I’m a firm believer that bad movies have a definite place in cinema history. Bad movies are sometimes cautionary tales and sometimes the karmic corrections to filmmakers’ dangerous hubris (Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate springs to mind). If Amadeus is one of Warner Brothers’s best films, certainly the execrable science fiction disaster Battlefield Earth will forever stand as one of its worst. Dozens, even hundreds of bad movies come out every year and no studio is immune from a misfire. But finding a picture that’s as much of an epic, audacious failure as Battlefield Earth is very difficult.
The story of this film is infamous. Based on an over-long 1980 SF novel by Scientology cult founder L. Ron Hubbard, it got made not on the strength of its source material, but because its star and chief advocate, actor John Travolta, was a Scientologist who wanted to honor L. Ron Hubbard. Whether it was religious fervor or simply bad judgment that blinded Travolta and director Roger Christian to the film’s many failures, absolutely everything about Battlefield Earth is not just bad, but astonishingly, skull-crushingly awful. The costumes. The acting. The special effects. The “Dutch angles” in every single scene. The unbelievably illogical plot. Nothing about this movie is even competent, much less works. Any yahoo can make a movie, but it takes a tremendous amount of talent to make a disaster as big as Battlefield Earth.
For as much as big-Hollywood cinema suffered in the 2000s and 2010s due to shortening attention spans and increasingly cynical ploys for audiences’ summer dollars, Christopher Nolan’s Inception came along at exactly the right time to prove how groundbreaking even a big-budget blockbuster can be if made with care and intelligence. Inception puts huge, complicated intellectual concepts up on the screen without a moment’s hesitation, and with a refreshing lack of second-guessing whether audiences are smart enough to understand them. The plot, about people who enter other peoples’ dreams to conduct sneaky psychological espionage, is complex, but it’s done very smartly and very artfully, and in a way that keeps the audience guessing until literally the last second of the picture.
Inception also strikes the right chords as a crowd-pleasing movie. It has great performances by endearing stars (Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a stunning visual look, fast-paced and exciting action sequences, and a romantic angle that tugs at the audience’s heartstrings but doesn’t overdo it. It’s sort of like a glitzy 1930s-style high-concept star vehicle infused with highly modern and advanced science fiction concepts. Inception may be a tantalizing glimpse at the future of movies, and if so, the future is bright.
We hope you’ve enjoyed our tour of cinema history through the lenses of these 12 great Warner Brothers films. Big thanks to contributors Robert Horvat and Cody Climer for their hard work and great insights.