Dear Mom and Dad,
I rewatched Dances with Wolves this morning for what must have been the umpteenth time. It obsessed me from the night I first experienced it in the years following 2006, when you died within three weeks of each other. There was a period in my life, though, when I asked myself if I would ever see it again – I had fallen prey to food poisoning back in high school, and, too weak to get out of bed, I played it as a way to pass three hours. Like a Pavlovian dog, I associated Kevin Costner’s epic with an upset stomach for years afterward.
Thankfully, those years are now forgotten.
Since studying film in undergraduate school, I take issue with some of the identity politics underpinning the movie’s representation of race relations between white and indigenous Americans, as well as its depiction of Lakota culture. Writing for Salon, David Sirota is right to characterize Costner’s protagonist as a “white savior,” while his Lakota co-stars succumb to the “noble savage” trope. Meanwhile, Blackfeet filmmaker George Budreau is quoted as saying, “No matter how sensitive and wonderful this movie is, you have to ask who’s telling the story. It’s certainly not an Indian.”
Nevertheless, Dances with Wolves remains a groundbreaking mainstream Hollywood Western in its sympathetic and (at times) authentic portrayal of the Lakota nation. Because unproblematic media doesn’t exist, it is still one of my most treasured blockbusters.
And maybe part of the reason why is because I first saw it with Grandma, who says she and Grandpa took Dad to see it in theaters on New Year’s Eve 1990, when he was only nineteen years old. It’s almost like Dances with Wolves is a member of our family.
But for all the sentiment surrounding it, I agree that Dances with Wolves snubbed GoodFellas for Best Picture at the 1991 Academy Awards ceremony.
Over the years, I’ve criticized 1995’s Casino as derivative of GoodFellas, and while I still hold that to be true, Casino has grown on me as Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece (in no small part because Robert De Niro and Sharon Stone’s relationship reminds me of you at your worst, Mom and Dad, what with the fighting and the drugs). Regardless, before Casino, GoodFellas was Scorsese’s magnum opus, and it goes without saying that Scorsese is a more important director than Costner.
Grandma says GoodFellas was another one of your all-timers, Dad – everything from The Godfather to The Sopranos engrossed you with the Mafia, enough for Grandma to joke you would’ve joined Cosa Nostra if you could. Because you drank yourself to death when I was twelve years old, I would have been too young to watch GoodFellas with you, but I know we would have reveled in it together.
Which brings us to that other gangster classic (and Best Picture nominee) from 1990 – The Godfather Part III. Personally, I think it about as mediocre as Grandpa did when he saw it with you and Grandma on Christmas Day that year, but Grandma says you were as rabid a fan of it as you were of the first two installments in the trilogy. Again, I was too young to have watched any of The Godfather movies with you when you were alive, but the best part of them is how they remind me of you at your most spirited (and least likely to drink).
As for you, Mom, I don’t know what your opinion was of Ghost – perhaps tied with The Godfather Part III on the lower end of these four Best Picture contenders – but the Righteous Brothers’ iconic cover of “Unchained Melody” from the film’s soundtrack recalls the Elvis Presley version that surely possessed you. I remember you telling me before you overdosed that you expended much of your teenage angst listening to music, and your most beloved singer must have been to you what Lady Gaga was to me during my own high school days: something to live for while dying of unaddressed mental sickness.
A film professor once observed, Mom and Dad, that you must have been fond of blockbusters, and 1990 came and went not long before 1997’s Titanic (another favorite of yours) became one of the last Best Picture winners people have even heard of, much less seen. Yes, 1990 was a seminal year in popular cinematic history, but more significant than that is how these and other titles regale me with a release of your loss like only “movie magic” can provide.