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Posts Tagged ‘Josef Sommer’

There’s a game you can play, if you get really bored and someone is prepared to do the research: it’s called Oscar or Not? and you play it like this. Someone says the name of an actor and everyone else has to say whether or not they ever won an Oscar. Easy peasy, right, but as ever, there may be a few surprises.

So – Woody Harrelson: Oscar or not? Not. Jason Robards? Oscar (two back to back, in fact). Jim Broadbent? Oscar. Peter O’Toole? Not (eight times). Brad Pitt? Oscar (two, but only one for acting). As you can see, there are literally seconds of fun to be had. Go on then, one more: Harrison Ford: Oscar or not?

If you don’t know the answer, it’s a tricky one, n’est-ce pas? Harrison Ford’s the kind of person who must have won an Oscar, surely? A few years back, someone did the sums and worked out that Ford’s movies, collectively, had made more money than anyone else’s collated filmography, and that kind of box office clout is not the sort of thing the Academy usually overlooks. (Then again, someone may have snuck past Ford in the intervening period, mostly likely to be either Christopher Lee or Samuel L Jackson, and neither of them have picked up a little gold homunculus.) On the other hand, as we have noted hereabouts in the past, Harrison Ford has stuck pretty strictly to his only-one-movie-a-year regimen for the last forty years, and for the last couple of decades his projects either haven’t been particularly high profile (I give you Crossing Over, Morning Glory and Paranoia, just for starters), or have been calculated franchise extensions mainly noted for being considered inferior to other Ford films from the 1980s.

Well, fear not, I shall put you out of your misery. Not by bringing this piece to an end (ha, ha) but by going to the point and revealing that, no, Harrison Ford has never won an Oscar (and if you ask me, he’s leaving it a bit late if he’s serious about getting one). The closest he came was in 1986 when he was nominated for Witness (this was a fairly noteworthy occurrence, as the film was actually released prior to the previous year’s Oscars rather than in the traditional awards period).

The film was Peter Weir’s first US project. It opens with the wide open spaces and swirling grassland which form the backdrop of most of the movie, as the people of a old-fashioned rural community come together for a funeral. The young widow, Rachel (Kelly McGillis), struggles through bravely; one of her neighbours (Alexander Godunov) is clearly looking to press his suit, but circumstances dictate he bide his time. Not long after, Rachel and her son Samuel (Lukas Haas), set off to stay with relatives – which involves passing through another world.

For they and their community are Amish, devout Anabaptists who eschew most contacts with the modern world. This makes travelling through Philadelphia a bit of an adventure, for Samuel at least, but things take a darker turn when he witnesses a brutal murder in the railway station restroom. Soon on the scene is detective John Book (Ford), who reveals that the victim was an undercover cop. Despite Rachel’s desire to get away from this sordid world, Samuel’s testimony will be vital – especially when it looks like the killer (Danny Glover) is himself part of the police department.

However, Book shares his suspicions with the wrong person, for his captain (Josef Sommer) is part of the plot as well. Book takes Rachel and Samuel home, trusting to the insularity of the Amish world to protect both them and himself – for an attempt on his life has left him wounded. But can a big city cop fit in here well enough to hide from the men who are hunting him?

This is essentially the first act of the film, which handles the requirements of its thriller element briskly and with clarity. There’s a sense in which this is a rather calculated piece of work – you can tell that director Peter Weir isn’t really that interested in a thriller about being on the run from dirty cops, but at the same time no major studio is going to put money about a clash of cultures mostly taking place amongst the Amish of Pennsylvania (‘we don’t make rural movies,’ insisted one big-name studio when offered the chance to finance the film).

The thriller plot is very straightforward and mainly there to make the film appealing to a wider audience; the latter is also really true of the presence of Ford himself, who at this time was overwhelmingly known for his various films with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. All of those were big, flashy, often noisy movies, with Ford’s main duty arguably to bring a little humanity and self-deprecating humour to great machines which could easily have becoming grating and soulless. You can see why the actor would jump at the chance to appear in a much quieter film with only the most cursory genre elements – and he makes the most of the opportunity, still retaining his movie star charisma but giving a performance of great warmth, subtlety and wit.

Witness is often acclaimed for its success as a romance, but while this is ostensibly a relationship between Ford and McGillis, there’s a sense in which she represents the totality of the rural experience and the environment in which Book finds himself – something totally new to him, for there is a sense of community here which seems to be lacking in the big city. The most famous set-piece of the film (if set-piece is the right way to describe a sequence in which a group of people build a barn) depicts the community coming together, and the long middle section of the film portrays Book slowly assimilating amongst the Amish, and becoming accepted by them.

The dictates of the plot, however, require that this be a less than total assimilation: Book isn’t capable of passively accepting the crass behaviour of tourists, thus standing out in the community, and in the end he leaves and returns to his old life. That this somehow feels an acceptable and logical ending for the film – Book really has little to return to, as we have already seen – suggests that Weir never quite stops presenting the Amish something as other and somehow strange, literally otherworldly. Nevertheless, the film is striking for its openness toward stillness, silence and simplicity: this is what marks it out as something unusual amongst studio thrillers, and perhaps what has given it its reputation for artiness. But this is also what makes it such an impressive and satisfying film, one of the best in Ford’s filmography.

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