Back to the Movies BONUS: The Year of Living Dangerously

Note: Back to the Movies is a special feature on the FilmNerds blog in which Matt Scalici will be watching the Top 50 highest-grossing movies of 1983 in order from 50 to 1. This is a bonus installment chronicling another significant film from 1983.

After sitting through 50 movies and countless hours of research delving into the context and culture of the American cineplex of 1983, you would think I’d have had enough by now. You’d think I’d be ready to snap if I heard just one more note of synthesizer music. But you’d be wrong. For some reason, whether it’s boredom or some form of sadomasochism,  I’ve decided to return to 1983 to pick up on a few films that may not have been financially successful enough to break into the box office top 50 but have undoubtedly stood the test of time and found their way into popular culture almost 28 years later. These “bonus” installments of our Back to the Movies series will come rather infrequently, mostly as I’m able to get ahold of some of these movies, but we’ll do our best to keep them rolling in until we’ve seen just about every remotely significant movie released in 1983.

We begin our bonus series with a film that wasn’t particularly successful at the box office. Finishing at No. 71 on the list with a worldwide gross of around $12 million, it actually likely lost money as it was, at the time, the most expensive production in Australian history with a production budget of around $13 million, most of which came from MGM who co-financed the production.

Based on a popular novel, The Year of Living Dangerously was an extremely ambitious and somewhat daring project for director Peter Weir to undertake. The film is set in the Indonesian capital Jakarta during the infamous 30 September Movement of 1965, an attempted coup that at the time was believed to have been orchestrated by the local Communist Party (it has since been suggested that the coup was likely orchestrated by right-wing military officials with backing from the British and American governments). While the film itself focuses on a handful of characters and their personal relationships with one another, the violent revolution happening in the background is certainly a major character in its own right and Weir’s insistence that the riot scenes be filmed using actual massive crowds of Filipino extras gives those crowd scenes an extra sense of real danger because, well, the actors really were in real danger.

Weir is known today for some of the more mainstream Hollywood films he directed in the ’90s such as Witness, Dead Poets Society and The Truman Show but back in 1983 he was an emerging name in a cinematic movement known as the Australian New Wave. Weir’s films like Picnic at Hanging Rock and Gallipoli (in which he first collaborated with Mel Gibson) stood out at the time as shining examples of the kind of smart, contemplative films that Australia’s burgeoning film community was capable of producing and both gained Weir international critical praise and respect. When Weir set out to do a fairly large-scale romantic political thriller, it’s no surprise that a major American studio decided to get involved and it’s was MGM’s financing that allowed Weir to cast two fairly big-name stars in Gibson and Sigourney Weaver.

Gibson, fresh off his star-making turn in The Road Warrior, plays Australian radio reporter Guy Hamilton, an ambitious young journalist who frankly would rather be in Vietnam covering that conflict but is instead assigned to Indonesia where many believe the next major Communist revolution is brewing. After arriving, Guy meets a cast of interesting characters including a jaded but collegial group of international journalists, a beautiful British diplomat (Weaver) and most interesting of all, a wise but somewhat suspicious Chinese-Australian dwarf by the name of Billy Kwan.

While The Year of Living Dangerously is not a bad movie, it remains significant today and warrants a blog entry here in Back to the Movies for one reason and one reason alone and that’s Billy Kwan. The character on his own is fascinating, a street-smart photographer who has connections and relationships with everyone from the corrupt President Sukarno all the way down to a lowly street urchin and her deathly ill little boy. Kwan at times serves as the film’s narrator and seems to be the only character who truly “gets” what’s happening in Jakarta while at other times his motives seem curious and almost devious. It’s a complex and fascinating character and one that the entire film clearly hinges upon, which is what made it such a difficult casting decision for Weir at the time.

Weir considered dozens of actors for the role, even some who weren’t actually dwarfs, but in the end he couldn’t find any male actors he found suitable for the role. So he hired a woman. Yes, Billy Kwan is played by actress Linda Hunt, a raspy-voiced New York stage actress who so convincingly disappears into this character that most critics at the time, including Roger Ebert, were absolutely shocked to discover that a woman played the role. Take a look at this clip of Hunt in character as Kwan and then a clip of her accepting her Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.


Oscar Acceptance Speech:


As you can see in the clip, Hunt was up against some pretty high profile competition, including pop superstar Cher’s performance in one of the year’s most buzzed-about films, Silkwood, as well as Glen Close’s performance in The Big Chill, a Best Picture nominee and another of arguably the most talked-about movies of 1983. The novelty aspect of Hunt’s cross-gender performance certainly may have helped her Oscar campaign but the novelty wears off once you begin watching the performance, and that’s exactly what makes it such an impressive performance. There are moments of this movie in which I really ceased to be aware that I was watching a woman. I believed that Billy was tragically in love with Weaver’s character, I believed that he was jealous of, and perhaps also attracted to, Gibson’s character, and I rarely if ever considered Billy as anything other than male while emerged in the story. That’s a tribute to Hunt but it’s also a tribute to Weir’s direction and his ability to keep the audience focused on the characters while so much excitement is happening in the background.

While this film is known primarily today for Hunt’s groundbreaking performance, the early work from Gibson and Weaver shouldn’t be overlooked. Both actors were in the very early stages of fame, with Gibson known primarily for his Mad Max performances and Weaver for her role in Ridley Scott’s Alien. While Weaver’s sex appeal was played up in certain scenes of Alien, she has always had the interesting distinction of being a somewhat severe, almost masculine actress and she continues to play into that image today with her casting choices. But in The Year of Living Dangerously, it’s interesting to see Weaver play a very straightforward and feminine role, the beautiful damsel in distress. She brings a lot of dimension to the character and had she chosen to follow a more conventional career path, she likely would have landed quite a few top roles in the ’80s, though I doubt she would still have the kind of respect and prestige she has today.

As for Gibson, he is very much in leading man territory here and nearly every critic at the time could see the inevitable path Gibson was headed down towards Hollywood superstardom. He certainly comes off as young and somewhat naive here, which are both essential parts of the character, but it doesn’t really fit with the image we have of Gibson from the ’90s in which he often conveyed the sense that he was not only a tough guy but also the smartest man in the room.

It’s interesting to view this film today through the prism of the recent Arab Spring, something that most Americans view as a relatively positive event. But Communist revolutions like the 30 September Movement and many others in Southeast Asia and elsewhere in the 1960s were certainly not viewed as favorably at the time, despite the fact that they were no less supported by the everyday citizens (no revolution can be successful, after all, without the support of the people in the streets). 1983 American audiences would have viewed the events taking place here as fearful reminders of the threat that Communism posed to every civilized nation, the looming possibility of riots in the streets that seemed to follow the movement wherever it went.

One aspect that seems fairly timeless is the dynamics of the press corps assigned to cover the situation in Jakarta. Gibson’s character is warmly welcomed by the group, that is until he starts beating out some of them for stories and making the rest of them look bad by comparison. Having been a member of a press corps in a past life, there’s something very authentic about the collegial-yet-competitive atmosphere that Weir establishes among these characters. They are there to out-do one another ultimately but only through cooperation can any of them really get what they want. There’s also a slight feeling that these are unsupervised children, a group of students whose teacher has left the room. They have a job to do but none of them have a supervisor looking over their shoulder. They have a lot of autonomy and because of that, there’s a bit of recklessness and bad behavior that seems inherently part of the job.

There are a lot of artistic touches that Weir drops into the film as well, motifs involving shadow puppetry and blindness, and perhaps enough here to make this a movie worth watching twice. I think the biggest reason it doesn’t have more of a following today is that its setting, Indonesia, doesn’t really strike much of a cultural chord with most Americans. Watch this movie to see Linda Hunt’s amazing performance, which has to rank among the most impressive performances by a woman in film history, but there’s plenty else to enjoy along the way as well.