Thursday, December 27, 2012

UNFORGIVEN (1992)


UNFORGIVEN (DIR:CLINT EASTWOOD) (SCR: DAVID PEOPLES)

In 1993 the Academy awarded the Western UNFORGIVEN as best picture of 1992.  It was a bit of an odd turn; after first awarding the Western  CIMARRON as best picture, way back in 1931, it wouldn't be until DANCES WITH WOLVES's victory in 1990 that another such film would be so awarded. And then there would be just two short years before another Western win. But then, this really isn't such a surprise, given that both films are conscious re imaginings of the classic Western style, and that they are far more adult in their appeal then the more child oriented Western films of the past.  But the award for the film UNFORGIVEN was meant for more than just the movie itself, it was clearly also a lifetime achievement award for its iconic director and star, Clint Eastwood.
Eastwood's career began back in the 1950's when, after working as a struggling extra for years (look for him in 1955's B movies THE REVENGE OF THE CREATURE and TARANTULA) he landed the plum role of Rowdy Yates on TV's RAWHIDE in 1959.  This lead Sergio Leone in 1964  to cast him as the lead in his highly entertaining Western A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS.  While Eastwood's macho character was, in some ways in the tradition of legendary Western star John Wayne, his "man with no name" protagonist was no white hatted hero.  When we first see him, riding into town on a burro, wearing a filthy shawl and sporting razor stubble, Leone firmly showed that this was a new kind of cowboy, one more cynical and jaded than the ones of old.  A FISTUL OF DOLLARS was a success, and Eastwood reprised the character for Leone twice more, in 1965's FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE and 1966's THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY.  Unfortunately, Eastwood then made more Westerns in Hollywood (like 1968's HANG 'EM HIGH)  that were mostly pale imitations of his work with Leone.   Then in 1971 Eastwood would find his next iconic character when he made DIRTY HARRY for director Donald Siegel.  That also marked the year that Eastwood himself became a director with the odd thriller PLAY MISTY FOR ME, which he also starred in.  For the next twenty years Eastwood would continue to act in and sometimes direct mostly action films with wildly uneven results (in 1978's silly EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE  he co-starred with an orangutang!), managing to keep his star power and manly image mostly intact as he approached the age of sixty.


David Peoples first wrote the film's script, then called THE WILLIAM MUNNY KILLINGS, in 1976, to little interest from Hollywood.  Eastwood read the script and saw potential in it for him as both something he could both direct and star in; eventually he bought the rights for it 1983 and then sat on it for years, waiting to make sure that he was the same age as the main character in the script. In 1991 he felt the time was right, and he quickly struck a deal with Warner Bros to fund the film.  He then talked Gene Hackman into playing brutal sheriff Little Bill Dagget, assuring the worried Hackman that the film would not glorify violence.  Morgan Freeman and Richard Harris were both quickly cast in important roles, and the movie was set.   It was shot mostly in Canada near Calgary (somewhat ironicly for a Western!).  Over the years Eastwood had built a reputation as a director that ran a fast moving, no nonsense set, and true to form he brought the film in four days ahead of schedule.  Strong reviews and word of mouth made it a sizable hit, with a box office take of around $100,000,000 on a budget of $35,000,000. 

It tells the story of William Muny, a retired bounty hunter, who is approached by a young man called "the Schofield Kid"(Jaimz Woolvett) who wants the two of them to kill two men who brutalized a prostitute and collect the bounty put up by owner of the brothel that she worked at.  He reluctantly agrees, and,  bringing along his friend Ned (Freeman), they head for the town of Big Whiskey, where they inevitably run into the town's vicious sheriff, Little Bill Dagget (Hackman), who has already disposed of another hired  killer, English Bob(Harris).

Clint Eastwood


UNFORGIVEN was the fourth Western that Eastwood directed (and the second that he worked with cinematographer Jack Green on), and he clearly knew how to make the genre look good, with beautiful shots of men riding horses through rippling fields of grain or across sunset skies.  Not to mention the superlative way he captures the  memorable image of a shotgun wielding Eastwood arriving for the film's final shootout, showing the gruff, killer stare that he used so often over the years.

It's easy to see why Eastwood admired Peoples's script; here is a complex and intelligent view of the old west that still ends with a traditional shootout and that allows Eastwood's character (and Eastwood the Western icon) to wreak violent revenge and ride off alone one last time.  Almost right away, the screenplay  throws out the simplistic view of good guys and bad guys that so many classic Westerns have.  In the opening moments, we see Quick Mike(David Mucci) brutally slice up a prostitute's face.  Then, sheriff Bill Dagget gives Mike and his brother Davey (Rob Campbell) a mild penalty, much to the anger of prostitute Strawberry Alice (Frances Fisher).  She quickly raises funds from her fellow prostitutes to put a price on the head of the two brothers.  While we can admire Alice's anger at Mike's cruelty, is it really right for the two brothers to be killed, given as they did not kill the prostitute?  In fact, Davey's only real crime is not stopping his brother, and he truly appears sorry about what has happened and tries to make restitution later.  Clearly, this is no evil villan, and Will, the Kid and Ned are not so easily seen as being on the side of goodness.
Equally interesting is the character of sheriff Dagget; in old Westerns the sheriff is almost always a heroic figure, and yet the sadistic Dagget is the least likable character in the film.  But even he has understandable motivations: he definitely believes that he is on the side of right and order, administering rough justice in the proper manner, and if that means doling out brutal beatings and even torture, then so be it.  (This film may have come out years before the war on terror, but it seems eerily prescient!)   Hackman has a marvelous death scene, in which, to his last breath, he proclaims that it's wrong for a man like him to killed by an outlaw like William Munny.  He is that most interesting  of characters,  a man that the audience perceives as bad (look at the joy he takes in beating English Bob and William, and the way that he lectures to them as he does so) but who thinks he is good.  Hackman would win a best supporting actor award for his performance, and it's easy to see why;  with his just his walk and manner, he perfectly embodies the self righteous sheriff.

Gene Hackman


Another nice theme in the script is the idea that the old west was already in the process of mythologizing itself; when flamboyant gun man English Bob (Harris joyfully plays the role) rides into Big Whiskey, he brings along WW Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek), an author who is in the process of writing up Bob's exploits, dubbing him "the duke of death".  After beating and imprisoning Bob, Dagget explains to Beauchamp that Bob is no great assassin, and that Bob won one famous shoot out only because his opponent shot himself in the foot!  Here, Peoples is reminding the audience that the tales of old west glory were exaggerated over the years, and that we should watch old Westerns with a cynical eye.
The use of violence in the film is very effective in that it is usually ugly and brutal; from the cutting of the prostitute, to the cries of a man slowly bleeding to death, there is no glory here (one shoot out even takes place in an outhouse).  In fact, when Ned can't bring himself to shoot a wounded man, he is not portrayed as a weakling or coward, he's just making a moral choice about killing.  And after the Shofield Kid shoots a man for the first time, the gravity of what he's done horrifies him so much that he's willing to give up his share of the bounty and ride off.  Again, he is not supposed to be a coward, he's just realized that he is not a killer like William.
Eastwood is to be admired for allowing himself not only to appear old onscreen, but also off his game as a killer and badman.  At first, his character doesn't seem like much of a famous outlaw anymore: he's trying to be a pig farmer, his aim is poor, and he keeps getting thrown from his horse.  Until the end of the film, his character never really seems all that impressive.  We hear tales of how good he was at killing people, but now he seems to have lost his touch; he shoots one man, but only after several missed attempts, and he lets himself be captured by Dagget easily.  But, in the film's final shoot out, he quickly and coldly guns down five armed men without taking a scratch, and is so impressive that he can ride out of town without anyone confronting him, even when they have a clear shot on him.  While this is an exciting scene, I also find at odds with the rest of the film: here is a violent scene where the hero out draws the bad guys in a blaze of glory, living up to the myth of the gunfighter that the rest of the film seems to be opposed to.  Perhaps Peoples is saying that while some stories of the old west were exaggerated, there were some men who lived up to the hype.  Either that, or perhaps it was decided that Eastwood's character had to live up to the audience's expectations at least once; in any event, I think this traditional ending weakens an otherwise intelligent film a bit, and I wish that it had a less traditional kind of ending, like, say, having both Dagget and Will die; after all, if you're going to make a revisionist Western, you should go all the way, in my opinion.  But I don't think that this is a fatal flaw, and I imagine that the classic Clint ending gave audiences what they wanted and added to the film's box office, so on that level I can't argue with it. 

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

There were a number of fine films released the same year as UNFORGIVEN, like Spike Lee's excellent bio pic MALCOLM X, James Foley's excellent adaptation of David Mamet's play, GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS,  Robert Altman's hilarious THE PLAYER, and Mike Newell's highly underrated (and wonderfully romantic) ENCHANTED APRIL.  But, since UNFORGIVEN functions as a lifetime achievement award for Eastwood, and a nice send off from him to the Western genre, along with being an excellent movie in its own right, it's a hard choice to argue with.

Friday, December 21, 2012

THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991)



THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (DIR: JONATHAN DEMME) (SCR: TED TALLY, BASED ON THE NOVEL OF THE SAME NAME BY THOMAS HARRIS)

In 1991 the Academy broke precedent by naming THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS as the best picture of 1990, the first horror film to ever win, giving the much maligned horror genre some long overdue credit (THE EXORCIST in 1973 and JAWS in 1975 were both nominated for best picture, but didn't win).  It's easy to see why: despite containing gore, violence and some truly terrifying moments, director Jonathan Demme skillfully kept the film from ever seeming exploitive or disgusting.  In fact it is a polished and classily made film, with beautiful cinematography and terrific acting.  Despite the subject matter, this was no grind house cheapie!  And, most significantly of all, it made an overnight star of a then 54 year old journeyman actor named Anthony Hopkins, whose striking performance as cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter would quickly become iconic.  Hopkins's excellence in the role is remembered even as numerous parodies, rip-offs and disappointing sequels and prequels (some of which Hopkins himself starred in) diminished the character a bit.  In fact, 12 years after this film's release, the character was voted the number one movie villan of all time by the American Film Institute, clearly showing the lasting impact of Hannibal Lecter.

It all began in 1981 when novelist Thoman Harris published RED DRAGON, a horror thriller novel that first introduced the character of Hannibal Lecter to the world.  In 1986 it was made into a glossy, entertaining film called MANHUNTER by Micheal Mann, with Brian Cox portraying Lecter for the first time onscreen, and he is actually very good in it.  But the film underperformed at the box office, so his role in the development of the character is mostly forgotten.  In 1988 Harris wrote a sequel to RED DRAGON, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, which brought back the Lecter character, and introduced a young FBI cadet named Clarice Starling.  It's critical and commercial success led to interest in a film adaptation despite the disappointment of MANHUNTER.  Actor Gene Hackman initially bought the rights, and worked with the Orion studio on getting funding.  He wanted to direct it and star as Lecter, but the dark subject matter eventually turned him off.  Eventually, Demme was hired to direct; at first he may have seemed an odd choice, since at that time Demme was mostly known for quirky comedies like 1986's SOMETHING WILD, but he began his career writing and directing exploitation films like CHAINED HEAT for Roger Corman, so he knew how to shock an audience. Former play write Ted Tally was hired to adapt the novel.  Demme wanted Michelle Pfeiffer for the role of Clarice, but she found the film's subject matter distasteful.  Jodie Foster, who had wanted to buy the rights to the book herself, lobbied hard for the part and eventually got it.  For the role of Lecter, many names like Jeremy Irons and Patrick Stewart were thrown around before Demme, who liked Hopkins's work in 1980's THE ELEPHANT MAN, picked Hopkins for the part.  Foster researched her role by spending time with real FBI agents, while Hopkins studied real life serial killers.  The film's shoot went smoothly, and it quickly became a word of mouth hit, grossing over $130,000,000 dollars on a budget of only around 20.  And, along with winning Best Picture, it would also win Best Actor, Actress, Director and Adapted Screenplay, placing it alongside 1934's IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT and 1975's ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST as the only films to win those top five awards.

Anthony Hopkins


Its story begins with Clarice Starling (Foster), a young FBI trainee, is assisting in the pursuit of a serial killer  nicknamed Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine), who kidnaps and skins young women.  She is sent to interview imprisoned serial killer Hannibal Lecter (Hopkins) for possible insights, and eventually discovers that Lecter knew Buffalo Bill; before he was captured, Lecter was a psychiatrist and Bill was one of his patients.  When Catherine, a senator's daughter (Brooke Smith) is kidnapped by Bill, Lecter offers a deal to help the FBI capture Bill, but only if he gets to meet the senator.   This leads to Lecter making a daring escape, while Clarice confronts Bill.
Demme made this film so skillfully that you can see why it became a word of mouth hit, with people who normally don't like horror films seeing and enjoying it.  It could have so easily gone wrong, with its grisly story dealing with innocent women being skinned, but Demme made sure that the audience is always on Clarice's side and that the gore and violence are not lingered on.  (For example, when Bill kidnaps Catherine, Demme keeps the camera out of the van when he hits her, so that we just hear the attack without seeing it.)  Tally's superlative script keeps the story moving quickly and logically, and treats the story with dead seriousness, with occasional dashes of dark humor (like some of Lecter's lines to Clarice).
 I also greatly enjoy how the movie pulls the rug out from under the audience on two separate occasions: once, when Lecter is escaping and he finds a way to hide in plain sight, and again, later, when what we think is an FBI raid on Bill's hideout turns out to be an unknowing Clarice.  Both of these switches work because they play fair, with the scripting and editing coming together to  upend audience expectation in a way that is true to the story (unlike, say, in the movie FIGHT CLUB, in which a similar trick is pulled on the audience, but it makes no sense).
As well done as the story is, it's the character of Hannibal Lecter that audiences remember most of all from the film,  and its no surprise that Hopkins won a best actor award even though he is only in the movie for around seventeen minutes. While Hopkins has given many other fine performances over the years, this is still the role he is mostly identified with.  With his silken voice, (based, according to Hopkins, on a combination of Truman Capote's and Katherine Hepburn's) that rarely rises in tone, and his piercing, hawklike gaze, Hopkins makes Lecter downright mesmerizing.  I love the way that when we first see him, he is standing upright, looking right at Clarice, expecting her and already studying her.  And he is a fascinating bundle of contradictions: here is an educated, erudite psychiatrist who enjoys classical music and drawing, and who eats innocent people.  Not only that, he still lashes out at others verbally while imprisoned since he cannot physically.  It's chilling how he brilliantly (but believably) sizes up Clarice after talking to her for just a few minutes, just by looking at her clothes and listening to her southern accent, and then he spits his knowledge right back at her in the harshest way possible.   Or when he later torments senator Martin (Diane Baker) verbally before finally telling her Bill's name. And when he eventually is in a position to commit physical harm on others, he becomes even more frightening, wearing a completely blank expression on his face as he beats a police officer to death. Yes, Lecter is a seemingly impossible mix of insanity and intelligence that makes him both terrifying and kind of admirable, (one can't help but be impressed by the way that he masterminds his escape from a building filled with police) and some audiences even cheered as he walked away at the film's end!  Credit for the character must also be given to cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, whose beautiful lighting  perfectly captures the predatory gleam in Lecter's eye.  Also production designer Kristi Zea should be mentioned because it was her idea to have Lecter's cell be behind glass instead of iron bars, which gives the interactions between Lecter and Clarice a frightening intimacy.

Jodie Foster


While it's easy to praise Hopkins's performance, equal credit must be given to Foster who carries the film excellently.  Her Clarice is smart (she figures out Hannibal's word games with ease), brave, likable  and capable, and the film hits a nice feminist tone by showing her excel in the mostly male world of the FBI. Foster strikes just the right tone in her conversations with Hannibal, answering his questions and letting him get into her head without wavering or letting him know how much he's hurt her, and her unflinching attitude towards Lecter impresses both him and the audience. (It's appropriate that she cries after first meeting Lecter but makes sure that she holds her tears until after he can see them).  And Demme gets great performances from the whole cast, with Scott Glen a real standout as Starling's FBI mentor Crawford.

The film was protested by some because the Buffalo Bill character is a gay man who thinks he is a transsexual, and that he is played by Ted Levine as an over the top freak.  In the film's defense, Clarice clearly states that Bill is not a real transsexual, and that transsexual men are usually passive, but  this distinction may be lost on the audience given the scene in which Bill puts on makeup and dances in front of the mirror.  While I can understand some people's anger at such an unflattering portrayal (unlike Lecter, we have no admiration for Bill, who seems like a dimwitted lowlife along with being a serial killer), the film is so well made, and his character's homosexuality such a small part of it, that it doesn't bother me personally.  And in the years that have followed more sympathetic portrayals of gay men have appeared in many movies, so that this negative portrayal seems far less representative and offensive now then it did in 1990.  Demme himself was aware of the criticism, and that was partly why he made the film PHILADELPHIA three years later, which had Tom Hanks playing a likable gay man with AIDS.

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

It's clear that THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS had stood the test of time and is still an excellent horror film; if it is to go down in history as the only horror film to ever win the best picture award, the Academy could have done a lot worse.  I'm tempted to say that I wish Disney's charming animated BEAUTY AND THE BEAST would have won (that's about a million miles away from THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS!), and I also enjoyed Oliver Stone's slightly crazed JFK, but I certainly have no problem with the Academy's choice.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

DANCES WITH WOLVES (1990)



DANCES WITH WOLVES (DIR: KEVIN COSTNER) (SCR: MICHAEL BLAKE, BASED ON THE NOVEL OF THE SAME NAME, ALSO BY BLAKE)

In 1991, the Academy started the new decade by awarding DANCES WITH WOLVES  the best picture of 1990; it was the first western to win since CIMARRON way back in 1931.  More importantly, its victory was a major vindication for the film's director and star, Kevin Costner, who turned a difficult dream project into an enormous success.  And while it's not my personal favorite film of that year, it is good looking and entertaining, plus it  manages to hearken back stylistically to  the classic Westerns by directors like John Ford and Howard Hawks, while also looking forward to a far more progressive view of Native American culture than those old films ever portrayed.
It began in the early 1980's, when screen writer Michael Blake first wrote the film as a screenplay.  Kevin Costner read the script and liked it, but urged Blake to first publish the story as a novel, which he felt would make it an easier sell to Hollywood as an adaptation.  The book was eventually published in 1988, and Costner immediately bought the rights, hoping to make it his directoral debut.  Vigo Mortensen was considered for the lead role, but eventually Costner realized that his own star power (he was then riding high after hits like FIELD OF DREAMS  and BULL DURHAM) would aid the film's box office potential, and so he decided to play the title role.  For the sake of authenticity, the rest of the cast were mostly unknown Native American actors.  Shooting took place mostly in South Dakota, and when the film ran over budget as the cast and  crew contended with buffalo herds and drought, there were many in Hollywood who considered the film a potential disaster, with some calling it "Kevin's Gate", (a reference to Micheal Cimino's 1980 dud, HEAVEN'S GATE).  Eventually, Costner put up his own money to help fund the film and soldiered on, even as some laughed at reports that much of the dialogue was spoken in the Native American language of Lakota, which would make it a hard sell to American audiences who tend not to like subtitles.  But Costner had the last laugh, as the film eventually returned over one hundred and eighty million dollars at the box office on a budget of around twenty.  He would also win an Oscar for best director.

Kevin Costner


It's story is about Lt. John Dunbar(Costner), a Union Civil War Hero who is sent to a position on the Western frontier.  At first, he thinks it's deserted, but he eventually befriends an Indian tribe living nearby, and as he grows to respect them, he soon throws off his "civilized" ways and lives with them.  Eventually, he is forced to choose between his military past and his newfound culture.

Right away, one can sense in every frame that this was a film that Costner felt passionate about making in his desire to portray Native Americans in a much more honest and respectful way than they had been in most Westerns.  That's why his decision to have the Sioux speak their own language with subtitles is so right; for years Native Americans onscreen  have been shown speaking a ridiculous form of pigeon English (full of "Ug"s and "How"s), so by having them speak eloquently in their own language,
(and by making Costner's character learn their language) that laughable stereotype is put to rest.  While it does seem awfully convenient  that the Sioux have a caucasian woman (Mary McDonnell) living with them who can serve as interpreter (and eventual love interest) for Costner, it doesn't really damage the film.
This is also a terrific looking film: Costner and cinematographer Dean Semler (who won an Oscar for his work) shoot the gorgeous scenery of South Dakota is a sweeping manner, often portraying how small a man alone can look when he's surrounded by nature.  The film's action scenes are also great looking and exciting, especially the buffalo hunt, (which was shot with nine cameras), which features a stampede of hundreds of buffalo that move like a flood through the plains.

Directing himself, Costner seemed fully aware of what had made him a star: his good looks combined with his soft spoken likability and innate sense of decency (not unlike Gary Cooper's persona) so he plays up to those in his performance.  He never over emotes, allowing the action, the story and the visuals to do all the heavy dramatic lifting.  Along with being thoughtful, kind, and brave, his John Dunbar has an intimate connection with animals (he bonds with a wolf) and is perfectly willing to throw out his prejudices about Native Americans when he finds them to be untrue.  At times his character comes across as a little too good to be true, (especially when he compares himself to Jesus in the first scene!) and, as is often the case with stars who direct themselves, a little too perfect looking, but at least he allows his character to sometimes look foolish or fall on his face, so Costner's ego was at least in check somewhat.  (Seven years later Costner directed himself again in the sci fi film THE POSTMAN, a notorious flop in which his bloated sense of self importance about his on screen character was widely mocked by critics).  He also got good performances from his mostly non professional Native American cast, especially from Graham Greene as Kicking Bird, who radiates with intelligence and plays off Costner nicely onscreen.

Graham Greene & Kevin Costner

Considering how much this film had personal meaning for Costner, it's understandable just how much he hated to see it end, unfortunately that means that at over three hours, there are more than a few slow spots: it takes almost an hour for our hero to have any contact with the Sioux, and there are some scenes    that just don't seem necessary (like an early encounter Costner has with suicidal Union Major Fambrough, [Maury Chaykin]a truly odd scene that I just don't get).  Still, the film's length also allows for some scenes of the Sioux tribe just being themselves, and engaging in what was normal behavior for them, which deepens all of the characters and adds to the film's realism,  so the long running time is sometimes a good thing.
While some historians complained about inaccuracies in the film, especially in the treatment of the Sioux tribe,  who may not have been as peace loving as they are shown here, I don't find that a serious flaw, especially when one considers the ridiculous portrayals (often by white actors in red paint!) that Native Americans have been subjected to over the years.   Another criticism aimed at the film is that it just exploits white guilt about the treatment of Native Americans by white settlers over the years, and that the white soldiers are all sadistic brutes and the Native Americans are all noble savages.  Now, while I  do wish that Costner didn't lay it on so thick with the white soldiers, who are all  repulsive and sadistic (his is the only truly likable white man in the film), it should be pointed out that not all of the Native Americans are shown as perfect, as they do wage war with other tribes, and they can be sadistic in battle.  Furthermore, I don't think that showing Native Americans being mistreated and killed by white soldiers and settlers is wrong because it happens to be based on historical truth; from the spread of Small pox to broken treaties, American history is littered with stories of Native Americans being abused by whites, and to deny that is to deny history.  You can call that guilty white liberal bias if you want, but as Stephen Colbert often says, "Reality has a well known liberal bias."
One final point about this film: while Costner made no bones about being influenced by classic Western  directors (this is most overtly seen in the flashback to the kidnapping of the McDonnell character when she was a little girl, which clearly harkens back to a similar scene from John Ford's 1956 film THE SEARCHERS), there is another film that predates this one and has a few similarities, Arthur Penn's excellent 1970 film, LITTLE BIG MAN.  Both films have a hero that narrates the film and spends years living with Native Americans, bonding especially with a wise older tribe member, and witnessing firsthand the horrible treatment of the tribes at the hands of white soldiers. (Even the titles of both films come from the Native American name given the main character). Now, there are also many differences between the two films, with Penn's hero leaving behind the tribe to have other old west adventures, and the tone of the films couldn't be more different, with Costner's deadpan seriousness contrasting with Penn's often comedic tone, not to mention Penn's use of history to make digs at modern issues of that day like free love and the Viet Nam war, so the two films are quite different.  Still,  I think LITTLE BIG MAN is worth mentioning because DANCES WITH WOLVES is often pronounced as the first sympathetic portrayal of Native Americans in Hollywood history, when, in fact, Penn's film with many of the same themes predated it by twenty years, and is, overall, a better film in my opinion.  Also, I should mention in all fairness to old Hollywood, Delmer Daves's 1950 film BROKEN ARROW made a definite attempt to show more fairness towards Native Americans, the first of the old Westerns to really do so.  But even in that film the Native Americans were portrayed by white actors, so it would take decades before Hollywood really got it right.

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

While I think it is understandable that the Academy would want to award Costner's risk taking in making DANCES WITH WOLVES, I don't think it was the year's best film; I prefer Martin Scorsase's hyper violent gangster comedy GOODFELLAS, which featured great performances and Scorsase's terrific, kinetic directoral style.  The awards for both best picture and best director to Costner that year probably stung Scorsase, especially because this would mark the second time that he was defeated for the director award by a first time director! (The other time was when Robert Redford triumphed over  him in 1980 for ORDINARY PEOPLE, defeating his work on RAGING BULL).  Thankfully, Scorsase's day would eventually come, although it would take another decade for him to get there.