Marlee Matlin is nothing short of incredible in this adaptation of Mark Medoff’s acclaimed Broadway play, playing a deaf custodian at a New England school for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing who embarks on a passionate and tumultuous relationship with a fellow employee, an unorthodox speech teacher (William Hurt) who encourages her to speak after a near-lifetime of silence. Don’t let the ultra-pretentious title put you off; Children of a Lesser God is actually a very humble and intimate drama, rarely straying from the fascinating relationship at the heart of the story — Hurt is excellent, but Matlin is phenomenal, delivering a completely un-self-conscious and fearless performance as a troubled young woman who learns to overcome her fear of verbally expressing herself. Oscar-nominated for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress (Piper Laurie); Matlin’s win at 21 made her the youngest actress to ever receive the award. Children is also the first film since 1926’s You’d Be Surprised to feature a deaf actor in a major role.
The spiritual older brother to Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, High Noon stars Gary Cooper as Will Kane, the longtime marshal of Hadleyville, New Mexico who turns in his badge after marrying a pacifist Quaker girl (Grace Cooper). When word comes in that Kane’s longtime nemesis, Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), has dodged a jail sentence due to a legal technicality and is now en route with three of his cohorts looking for payback, Kane reinstates himself as marshal to take them on — alone, as no one in town is willing to help him. Perhaps the first true “anti-Western” with its themes of moral ambiguity and realistic approach to violence (both as an act and as part of human nature), High Noon was met with some criticism when it was first released from audiences who were expecting a more standard kind of shoot-‘em-up, though no one could argue that Cooper was truly excellent as an aging lawman who’s not going to get out of this one without a few scrapes, both physical and emotional. There was initially some controversy over Cooper’s casting as, at age 50, he was almost 30 years older than his on-screen bride, Grace Kelly, but none of that mattered when it came time for the Oscars — he won Best Actor for his performance, with the film also awarded Best Film Editing, Best Original Score and Best Song (for “High Noon (Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin'”).
Director Hector Babenco’s dark and dreamy adaptation of Manuel Puig’s novel might be the oddest “odd couple” movie ever made as it tells the story of two completely different men who share the same Argentinian prison cell: Valentin Arregui (Raul Julia), a member of a leftist revolutionary group, and Luis Molina (William Hurt), a homosexual who’s been incarcerated for having sex with an underage boy. Despite their radically different political views (and basic lifestyles), the two strike up a strange friendship as Molina passes the time by describing scenes from his favorite movie, a Nazi propaganda film called “Her Real Glory” and which stars the “Spider Woman” of the title (played by Sonia Braga). It’s soon clear that Molina is more than he appears to be — and, for that matter, so is his political prisoner cellmate. While Kiss of the Spider Woman is rarely more than a photographed stage play (even with the “movie within a movie” framework), it’s definitely an exquisitely acted stage play, with Hurt turning in a fearless and fascinating performance that earned him the Oscar for Best Actor; Julia, who’s just as good, was robbed of a nomination for his ultimately much less flashy role. Kiss was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay; the novel was later adapted as a stage musical in 1993.
When Frank Ross (John Pickard) is killed by his hired hand, Tom Chaney (Jeff Corey), his 14-year-old tomboy daughter Mattie (Kim Darby) is determined not to rest until Chaney is “barking in hell.” She hires the services of U.S. Marshal Reuben J. ‘Rooster’ Cogburn (John Wayne), a man whose hard drinking (and lack of a left eye) doesn’t keep him from having “true grit,” to track down Chaney, who’s now aligned with notorious criminal ‘Lucky’ Ned Pepper (Robert Duvall), a man whom Cogburn once wounded in a gunfight; accompanied by a Texas Ranger named La Boeuf (Glenn Campbell), they head into Indian Territory (Oklahoma, actually) on their mission of justice/vengeance. And so goes the first film adaptation of Charles Portis’ novel and one of the most beloved westerns of the ’60s, a movie that does its title justice with a truly, well, gritty tone and atmosphere; everything (and everyone) seems dirty and dangerous in this world where if a bullet doesn’t take you out, a rattlesnake bite just might. Wayne is gruff, surly and charismatic as Cogburn, a performance that earned him the Oscar for Best Actor; upon accepting the award, he exclaimed, “”Wow! If I’d known that, I’d have put that patch on 35 years earlier.” He actually would six years later when he reprised the role in Rooster Cogburn ( and the Lady), which would end up being his penultimate film.
A sometimes charming but ultimately devastating portrait of a mom and dad splitting up and the impact it has on their young son, Kramer vs. Kramer remains the most popular title mentioned when people are asked what film truly captures what it’s like to be a child of divorced parents (with Wes Anderson’s more whimsical but just as emotional The Royal Tenenbaums being a close second). The divorce of Ted and Joanna Kramer (Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep) is really just the Act One set-up; it’s the relationship between Ted and his son Billy (Justin Henry) as they begin a life without a wife/mom that’s the real heart and soul of the movie, with both Kramer men giving moving performances. Kramer vs. Kramer challenged Hollywood’s more traditional portrayals of fatherhood vs. motherhood and is considered by many to be a prime example of ’70s second-wave feminism, in cinema or otherwise; however you want to look at it, it definitely features some of Hoffman’s most vulnerable and humanistic work. Nominated for nine Oscars and won five: Best Picture, Best Director (Robert Benton, who would later go on to direct Hoffman in Billy Bathgate), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor (Hoffman) and Best Actress (Streep).