THE BEST PICTURE PROJECT – ‘The Last Emperor’ (1987)

In 1988, the 60th Academy Awards ceremony was held at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. Honouring the films released between January 1, 1987, and December 31, 1987, the awards were held on March 30. The awards moved back to the Shrine Auditorium for the first time since 1948. The ceremony was hosted by Chevy Chase.

Beginning a month before the ceremony, the Writers Guild of America strike heavily affected the telecast. The Guild refused to grant the Academy a waiver to permit writers to work on dialogue for the ceremony. Luckily, the show’s three head writers had already begun work on scripting the ceremony before the strike had begun, and this material was able to be used. To compensate for the remainder of the ceremony that remained unwritten, the show’s producer, Samuel Goldwyn Jr., hired comedians including Billy Crystal, Eddie Murphy, and Robin Williams to ad lib and improvise their segments, bypassing the strike’s strict rules on pre-written material.

The ceremony was also affected by a crippling traffic jam in the streets surrounding the Shrine Auditorium, leading many attendees to abandon their limos and walk the suburban streets to make it to the ceremony in time. To celebrate the Oscars’ 60th anniversary, Goldwyn had planned to feature a pre-recorded red carpet arrivals segment featuring footage of actors who had appeared in each of the 59 previous Best Picture winners. Due to the traffic issues, the red carpet was so devoid of major celebrities, Goldwyn was forced to scrap the segment altogether.

With his victory for Best Actor for his performance in Wall Street, Michael Douglas became only the second person in Oscars history to win for both acting and producing. Douglas had previously won for being a co-producer on Best Picture winner One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. In an Oscars first, all five Best Director nominees were born outside of the United States. This has never occurred again.

Leading the field this year with nine nominations was Bernardo Bertolucci’s sweeping biopic The Last Emperor. The film became only the second in history to sweep the Academy Awards by winning all of its nominations, taking home all nine awards it was up for including Best Picture, Best Director for Bertolucci, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score and Best Cinematography. The film became the eighth Best Picture winner in history to win without any acting nominations.

The nominees:
Broadcast News
Fatal Attraction
Hope and Glory
The Last Emperor

The winner:
The Last Emperor

Based on Pu Yi’s 1964 autobiography From Emperor to Citizen, The Last Emperor is the epic biography of the last Emperor of China. This sweeping account of the life of Pu Yi (John Lone) follows the leader’s tumultuous reign. After being captured by the Red Army as a war criminal in 1950, Pu Yi recalls his childhood from prison. He remembers his lavish youth in the Forbidden City, where he was afforded every luxury but unfortunately sheltered from the outside world and complex political situation surrounding him. As revolution sweeps through China, the world Pu Yi knew is dramatically upended.

Why did it win?
Marking the final biopic to tap into the Academy’s obsession with the genre in the 1980s, The Last Emperor followed in the same vein of Gandhi by presenting the incredible life and times of a foreign figure many knew by name but may not have known his story. And, much like Gandhi, The Last Emperor ticked all the boxes required for a biopic to take home Best Picture. Its scope and running time were immense. It portrayed the life of an impressive and revered figure. It was visually stunning and impeccably crafted. Yes, we have another Oscar-bait winner which hit its mark at the perfect time.

One look at the other nominees, and it’s easy to see why the Academy went for the atypical film for Best Picture. Its competition were two romantic comedies (one from James L. Brooks, the man behind former Best Picture winner Terms of Endearment), a British comedy/drama, and a psychological thriller. When faced with such relatively light competitors, a sweeping biopic often shines just that much brighter, and The Last Emperor represented a Best Picture contender the Academy simply couldn’t refuse. They fell back to awarding what they loved in the 1980s, and Bertolucci’s grand opus fit the bill perfectly.

On a budget of only $23 million, The Last Emperor was a moderate success at the U.S. box-office, taking $45 million to end the year just outside the top 10 highest-grossing films of 1987. After the film won Best Picture, its weekend box-office gross increased by 306%, and it finally cracked the top ten weekend box-office figures, where it remained for the next six weeks.

While its box-office numbers were less than stellar, The Last Emperor received widespread acclaim from critics, with many declaring it as one of the most impressive biopics of its time. The New York Daily News called the film “a spellbinding peek behind the gate of a lost world,” Variety hailed it “absorbing and tremendously interesting,” while the Los Angeles Times declared the film “as coolly lavish an epic as we may ever see.”

The Last Emperor had all but wrapped up the Best Picture race before the night of the Oscars ceremony. The film swept the Golden Globes, taking home four awards for Best Motion Picture – Drama, Best Director for Bertolucci, Best Original Score and Best Original Screenplay. Despite strong competition, Bertolucci also won the Directors Guild award. When the film was rewarded with nine nominations, the game was all but over. It had been fives years since the Academy were presented with the opportunity for one film to completely sweep the awards, and it was a chance they did not pass up.

Did it deserve to win?
It’s hard to deny a mighty and impressive production like The Last Emperor shouldn’t be rewarded by the Academy. For that reason, eight of its nine Oscar wins are thoroughly deserved. But calling it the best picture of the year is maybe stretching things a little too far. While it’s hard to make a strong case for any of the other four nominees (it really wasn’t a great year, was it?), there were certainly two films not even nominated which could lay claim to the best of the year – Steven Spielberg’s glorious and underrated Empire of the Sun, and my most cherished foreign film of all time, Babette’s Feast.

But we know how the Academy had been treating Spielberg in the 1980s, so there was no chance for Empire of the Sun. And a foreign language film was never going to win Best Picture, so it’s hardly surprising to see neither be recognised with nominations. At least the latter was able to walk away with the consolation prize of Best Foreign Language Film. Don’t get me wrong. The Last Emperor is a wonderful film, with many sublime attributes going for it which makes for an engaging and enthralling piece of cinema.

The production was the first to ever be granted the government authority to film in Beijing’s immense and spectacular palace complex The Forbidden City, and the result is truly stunning. You simply couldn’t recreate this location with sets, and Bertolucci takes complete advantage of this rare access to such an incredible filming location. The visuals soar that much higher by the use of thousands of extras and incredible period costuming to create a truly authentic and genuine depiction of China and this moment in the nation’s history. With Vittorio Storaro’s sublime cinematography, the film is a visual feast made even more dazzling by Ryuichi Sakamoto, David Byrne and Cong Su’s Asian-inspired score.

However, the film does suffer from terrible lag, with its almost three-hour running time seeming awfully excessive and terribly unnecessary. Yes, it has a lot of ground to cover, but not every moment in Pu Yi’s history is entirely cinematic, and you can’t help but wonder if some tighter editing may not have improved the end result considerably. The dialogue is also rather bland, made all the more disappointing by the decision to craft the film entirely in English. This leads the performances of the Asian actors to suffer, as they clearly struggle to act in a foreign language, hence the film’s lack of any acting nominations. As an audience member, it often takes you out of the film, which is a true shame.

The Last Emperor is a visually beautiful film which is impeccably crafted by Bertolucci and his impressive production team. It’s hard not to be swept away by the genuine majesty of such a gorgeous looking piece of cinema. The film’s narrative may not meet the same heights, but it still makes for an entertaining and enjoyable watch. It’s far from the Academy’s worst pick for Best Picture, and, by comparison to the films it defeated, it’s still an entirely deserving winner. But, when compared to its fellow winners in the annals of Oscar history, it’s nowhere near the greats which have also taken home the Academy’s top prize.