Friday, March 6, 2009

Film #111: The Great Santini

Love me some Robert Duvall. He eats up the screen here, and got his first Best Actor Oscar nomination, in 1979, for his title role. He plays the gruff, unmanagable, unBEATable Lt. Bull Meecham, a 50s-era Air Force warrior-without-a-war whose stern belief in discipline is unfairly extended to his genteel Southern family (led by syrup-voiced mother Blythe Danner), Michael O'Keefe co-stars as Ben, the "Great Santini's" sensitive and, thus, long-suffering son (the original novel Lewis John Carlino's screenplay was based upon was penned by Georgia-born Prince of Tides writer Pat Conroy, who based his work on his life growing up as an artist in a military family).

The film holds a singular place in cinema history. Originally titled The Ace and dumped into 1979 movie theaters, it performed poorly. It immediately was sold to HBO and when it began to get massive ratings, it was pulled, re-edited, and then re-released (to good box-office showings) into theaters as The Great Santini. One would think its appearance on HBO would have deemed its Oscar chances nil (even today, the Academy Award rules state that, to be eligible for an Oscar, movies must not have appeared on TV first). But, somehow (I guess because of its re-edit), The Great Santini ended up getting nods not only for Duvall, but also for the beleaguered O'Keefe as Best Supporting Actor (an angry Duvall bouncing a basketball off O'Keefe's head during a "friendly" family game stands as one of the film's most memorable images). No other movie that has been shown previously on TV has ever reached the Oscars, as far as I know (even Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage was disqualified for being shown in a longer form on Swedish TV). The Great Santini also sports notable performances from Stan Shaw (as the doomed Toomer), David Keith, Lisa Jane Persky, Julie Ann Haddock, and Paul Mantee. Catch it, sports fans!

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