Stories of the infamous shoot for James Cameron’s The Abyss are almost as harrowing as the movie itself. The director’s penchant for perfectionism led him to engineer an unprecedented underwater shooting schedule, pushing cast and crew to the limits, and endangering people’s safety more than once. One particularly grueling evening triggered a furious emotional meltdown from actress Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, still spoken of in hushed whispers among the scions of Tinseltown. Despite that, and despite the psychological scars some members of the shoot still carry to this day, it resulted in an impressively groundbreaking movie that has aged remarkably well. For better or worse, The Abyss opened today in 1989.
Peter Weir’s career constitutes one of the more fascinating in modern films, and he was never better than with The Truman Show, a eerily prescient look at life in the digital era. it features Jim Carrey as a man who has unknowingly lived his entire life as the subject of his television show, complete with parents, friends, co-workers and romantic interests all actually actors cast to provide a totally convincing environment. We’re all living with cameras these days, and Weir found a unique way to let us all know what was coming. The Truman Show opened 20 years ago today in 1998.
Harrison Ford has a number of iconic roles on his resume, and while Jack Ryan doesn’t quite rank up there with Han and Indy, there’s no denying the strength he brought to Tom Clancy’s righteous spook. His initial outing, Patriot Games, set him against Sean Bean’s hateful IRA extremist with outstanding results. Anne Archer, James Earl Jones, Richard Harris and a pre-star Samuel L. Jackson get in on the action, but it’s Ford and his righteous anger that make this one work. (On an entirely different note, Ford got his footprints put in cement in front of the famous Chinese Theater as part of the promotion for this film.) Patriot Games opened today in 1992.
The Right Stuff was billed as a major Oscar contender upon its release, and critics rightfully hailed it as one of the best films of the decade. Its Academy campaign was derailed, however, by the now-absurd premise that it was helping then-senator John Glenn (whom the film depicts) launch a presidential campaign. But its box-office failure and short-handed night at the Oscars can’t change what it is: one of the greatest movies ever made about our country, at its best and its worst. It opened today in 1983.
That same day in 1983, director David Cronenberg turned in one of his more straightforward efforts: an adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone. Long considered an overly clinical director, he found the heartbreaking center of the story in John Smith (Christopher Walken), a schoolteacher who awakens from a coma to find the life he knew gone, but possessing the power to predict the future. Those who know Walken only as creepy gangsters and the like will be surprised at how empathetic he is here, and Cronenberg’s sure direction delivers one of the best Stephen King adaptations to date.
We’ll close with The Awful Truth, a screwball comedy starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunne as a couple in the midst of a divorce who start having second thoughts. It’s light and breezy the way Cary Grant should be, and under the direction of Leo McCarey, it becomes one of the better comedies from this era. It opened today in 1937.
Though well-received critically, The Shawshank Redemption failed to generate much heat at the box office, and was swamped at the Oscars by the competing behemoths of Pulp Fiction and Forrest Gump. Hourly screenings on TNT changed all of that and today, it’s considered one of the greatest movies of the 1990s… as well as cementing director Frank Darabont’s reputation as the go-to adaptor of high-end Stephen King novels. The Shawshank Redemption opened today in 1994.
It’s a big day for David Cronenberg too, featuring two movies of his that supposedly demonstrated his ability to move beyond the horror genre that made him famous. The first, Dead Ringers, charts the slow descent of a pair of identical twin gynecologists (both played by Jeremy Irons) into drug addiction and madness. The second, A History of Violence, entails the hidden past of a seemingly normal coffee-shop owner (Viggo Mortensen) which comes knocking on the door of his idyllic life. Both are exceptional examples of a director at the top of his game. (And to date, he doesn’t have a single Oscar nomination. NOT EVEN A NOMINATION.) Dead Ringers opened today in 1988. A History of Violence opened today in 2005.
Finally, we’ll close with a favorite: Arsenic and Old Lace, Frank Capra’s adaptation of the darkly funny Joseph Kesselring play. It concerns an aristocratic writer (Cary Grant) who fears that he may succumb to his family’s hereditary insanity… as evinced most prominently by his two batty aunts, who periodically off their gentleman callers. It’s a bit stagey, but otherwise a hoot. It opened today in 1944.