Let’s time travel to 1997, where we’re going to the movies! First up, we’ll watch the epically long, epically quotable, and epically profitable Titanic. Our hearts will go on and on and on as we watch the greatest love story ever told between Leonardo Dicaprio & Kate Winslet. Never forget.
For a style change, we’ll next watch the really-long-but-still-shorter-than-Titanic film noir L.A. Confidential. Set in 1950s Hollywood, this excellent crime drama features baby-faced Guy Pierce, baby-faced Russell Crowe, and Kim Basinger who’s performance fetched her an Academy Award. We’ll finish an excellent trio of dramas by watching Good Will Hunting. The greatest Boston-based movie of all time, Good Will Hunting features baby-faced Matt Damon and gives Robin Williams his only Academy Award. Feeling a bit tired after watching nearly 8 hours of movies, we quickly binge-watch Jurassic Park: Lost World, Starship Troopers, Men in Black, Boogie Nights, Hercules, and the criminally underrated space opera Fifth Element. We feel like we’ve gone the distance.
1997 was truly a great year for baby-faced actors and excessively long movies. Now, let me ask you: who won Best Actor and Best Actress at the 1997 Oscars?
I’ll give you a hint: the winners are from the same movie and this hasn’t happened since. Got your answer? It’s…Jack Nicholson & Helen Hunt in As Good As It Gets! This movie gets lost in the shuffle, and is atypical in nature. The ensemble drama cost a small fortune ($50 million) to make, and features the type of non-linear, character-driven plot that has become more popular since 1997. But a quotable script, and strong performances by Nicholson, Hunt, Greg Kinnear, and Cuba Gooding Jr. filled theater seats and resulted in more success than Good Will Hunting. In fact, As Good As It Gets marks Nicholson’s second highest earning film behind Batman. If you haven’t seen As Good As It Gets, you really should check it out on Netflix.
As Good As It Gets (1997)
Written and directed by James L. Brooks, the movie centers around Jack Nicholson as an old, mean, isolated man with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). True to the caricature of OCD that was popular in the 90s, Nicholson is the misanthropic version of Bill Murray from What About Bob? He’s a germaphobe who avoids stepping on cracks, flips switches exactly five times, and always eats at the same table at the same restaurant served by the same waitress (Helen Hunt). His career as a popular romance novelist affords him a New York apartment and the ability to snarl at everyone and everything who disturbs his neurosis. This starts (in literally the first scene) with his neighbor’s dog (named Verdell), who Nicholson throws down the garbage chute.
Verdell’s owner is Greg Kinnear, a queer painter who lives next door. He and his agent, Cuba Gooding Jr., immediately confront Nicholson. While Nicholson yells at them both, using quite a few homophobic and racist slurs, Cuba Gooding Jr. does what he does best and yells back. He makes sure Nicholson knows he owes Kinnear big-time.
Shortly thereafter, Kinnear is robbed, beaten, and left for dead by one of his models. While Kinnear’s rushed to the hospital for a lengthy stay, Cuba has Nicholson pay his dues by caring for Verdell. Nicholson starts warming to Verdell, because who wouldn’t? Side bar: Verdell was played by six Brussells Griffons named Timer, Sprout, Debbie, Billy, Parfait and Jill the Star. Kinnear bonded strongly with Timer, but not at all with Jill. In a poor (but likely intentional) twist of fate, Jill got the most screen time. Her face melts our hearts, just as it melts Nicholson’s.
As Nicholson softens, he takes an interest in his go-to waitress (Helen Hunt). Hunt is a single mother, whose son has a debilitating auto-immune disease. She’s soon forced to leave work to stay home with him. Nicholson is so upset (neurotic?) that he pays for an in-home doctor so Hunt can return to work and serve him food. But what starts as a selfish act turns to empathy as he takes a genuine interest in her son’s recovery.
Meanwhile, Kinnear moves back home to continue his recovery. At this point he’s destitute, with poor proceeds from his last art exhibition and a hefty hospital bill leaving him broke. Verdell returns home but now prefers Nicholson, serving as the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Feeling completely alone, Kinnear realizes he must now drive to Baltimore to ask his parents for money. This prompts a group road trip, with Nicholson driving and asking Hunt to tag along.
The road trip features my favorite lines and the two most memorable scenes of the movie. In the first, Nicholson takes Hunt to a romantic dinner of soft-shell crabs. He fumbles for a compliment, before delivering the memorable line, “You make me want to be a better man.” But he quickly ruins the moment by suggesting Hunt has sex with Kinnear to cheer him up. Hunt abruptly leaves and bunkers down in Kinnear’s hotel room. As she bathes, Kinnear regains the artistic inspiration he’s lost and starts sketching her (with his left hand, of course!). Kinnear delivers his million-dollar line, “You’re the reason cave men chiseled on walls.”
Of course the movie can’t end sadly. After returning to New York, Nicholson insists that Kinnear move in with him. Kinnear provides some clutch romantic advice, and Nicholson visits Hunt at 4 AM to say just the right words to make things right.
I spent a lot of time talking about the dog, because Verdell ties the narrative threads together and connects the characters. But this movie should also be seen as the story of a rich, misanthropic white man whose behavior is changed for the better by interactions with characters representing three historically disadvantaged and mistreated populations. Unlike Tom Hanks in You’ve Got Mail, who uses his wealth and power to put Meg Ryan out of business and then woo her, Nicholson holds the money but not the power. Cuba Gooding Jr. stands his ground as a black man, because of course he does. Helen Hunt brings an absolutely fierce independence to her role, repeatedly telling Nicholson off and reminding him that favors for her son are not a transaction for sex. And Greg was truly terrific.
Vulnerably Victorious Greg Kinnear
James Brooks struggled to cast the part of Simon Bishop, the gay artist. He auditioned countless famous and amateur actors over several months. Eventually, Brooks’ friend, Garry Marshall–who had directed Greg in the utterly terrible Dear God–strongly recommended GK. Then, in Brooks’ own words, “I went to see [Greg], he was filming in San Francisco, and the scenes played.” Immediate pause, this comment is INSANE! I literally fell out of my chair reading it. The only movie this can possibly be is the quite-terrible A Smile Like Yours. I don’t know how any of Greg’s scenes could have played, let alone impressed Brooks more than anyone else he’d seen. In what can only be described as a miracle, Greg went from consecutive uninspired performances to a career-defining, Premier Kinnear performance in As Good As It Gets. The key to unlocking next-level Kinnear must have been his meeting with Nicholson, an actor Greg admittedly ‘ships and one who likely inspired epic turns from his supporting cast.
Greg-as-Simon displays exuberance and vulnerability that I haven’t seen in any of his other works. At the movie’s outset, Greg is exuberant and confident as a painter who adores his puppy. This is most prominent when he interrupts his own art exhibition and insists on confronting Nicholson about stealing his puppy. But this exuberance fades in a single moment in a single scene. When Greg realizes he’s being robbed by his own model, his face drops and he gives a tone-setting reading of the line, “Why are you doing this to me?” From the moment Greg wakes in the hospital after his beating, he trades exuberance for a lived-in vulnerability.
Greg shows vulnerability and increasing despair as his friends tell him he has no money left, as he fires his maid, and as Nicholson uses his trademark barbs to return Verdell–who now prefers Nicholson. Greg’s facial expressions are one of his strong suits, and the depth and range of his expressions here (plus some on-screen tears) provoke deep sorrow and sympathy from the viewer. But even in destitution, Greg maintains his dignity and sets boundaries. When Nicholson derides him, Greg tells him off in no uncertain terms. At one point, Greg does a spot-on, on-screen impersonation of Nicholson.
Because Greg maintains dignity in despair, the resolution of his story arc is triumphant. At rock bottom, Greg is forced to ask for money from his parents, who he hasn’t spoken to in years. (His father kicked him out as a teenager for painting his mother nude). Waiting in a Baltimore hotel room for his parents to call, Greg has lost all motivation to paint. Finding him in this state, Hunt’s unassuming and natural beauty inspires him to pick up the pen. With a newfound giddiness, Greg rips off his cast and sketches pose-after-pose of Helen Hunt. Deciding he doesn’t need his parents and regaining confidence in himself, Greg returns to New York and gives Nicholson relationship advice from this place of newfound strength.
Greg was nominated for an Oscar for this performance, but lost to Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting (because, of course). Even so, Greg’s on-screen giddiness translated to more of the same irl. He brought his parents to the Oscars, and had a most excellent time. Just look at his smiles during Nicholson’s acceptance speech, at the 1:40 and 2:45 marks.
- 1997 was an extraordinary year for baby-faced actors in excellent but super-long movies, including Titanic, Good Will Hunting, L.A. Confidential, The Fifth Element, and As Good As It Gets.
- With outstanding performances by Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Greg Kinnear, As Good As It Gets is an engaging and empathetic drama about a misanthrope with OCD who’s changed by interactions with characters representing three historically disadvantaged and mistreated populations.
- The dog Verdell, played by six Brussells Griffons, melts viewers hearts with cuteness and is the movie’s unifying thread.
- Displaying a rare but exceptional balance of exuberance, confidence, and vulnerability, Greg Kinnear as gay artist Simon Bishop turns in a Premier Kinnear performance.
- Trivia: Geoffrey Rush turned down the role of Simon Bishop, but he & Greg would square off as rivals two years later in Mystery Men.
- Links: this 20-year reunion interview with Brooks, Hunt, & Kinnear is excellent as is this WordPress post about fun facts from the movie.
- Next-up: Heaven is for Real, for real! Here’s the trailer, for what seems like the sixth time.
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