1995 / Best Director

Film #548: Leaving Las Vegas (1995)

Sorry for the long hiatus between posts but is it’s been an odd month but now I’m back to look at the other film that received a Best Director nod alongside Dead Man Walking in 1995. Whilst Tim Robbins’ drama was full of issues, Mike Figgis’ Leaving Las Vegas was a different beast entirely; a stripped-back character piece featuring an emotionally damaged couple. It also found itself in the same sort of categories at that year’s Oscars with Elisabeth Shue losing Best Actress to Susan Sarandon whilst her co-star Nicolas Cage successfully snagged the Best Actor Award from Dead Man Walking’s Sean Penn. However after watching both films I do feel that maybe those awards should have gone the other way around but I’ll get to that in a moment.

Leaving Las Vegas is definitely an odd beast of a film and one that I’m surprised interested the Academy at all due to its downbeat story and the fact it was filmed on 16mm. I feel the primary reason it was actually nominated is the fact that Cage’s character Ben Sanderson is a Hollywood screenwriter albeit one who has lost his career to booze and has basically decided to drink himself to death in Las Vegas. Sanderson is in fact based on novelist John O’Brien whose semi-autobiographical work was adapted by Figgis to produce the film’s screenplay. In my opinion the most interesting aspect of Leaving Las Vegas isn’t Ben but rather the film’s other main protagonist Elisabeth Shue’s prostitute Sera. Sera is much more of a multi-faceted character on one hand somebody whose good at her job but on the other hand somebody who wants to be loved. Sera’s to-camera monologues are some of my favourite parts of the film as she discusses her profession and her growing love for Ben. Ben and Sera’s doomed relationship occupies the second half of the film and I have to say the scenes between them are pretty sweetly presented. However it’s not long before Sera has to go back to work and Ben hits the bottle again with the couple’s self-destructive nature eventually ruining what they had. The pair’s final scene together is lovingly presented and rather tragic in equal measure and is one of the most unique death scenes I’ve seen in film.

My experience watching Leaving Las Vegas was odd at best as I found it a rather hard film to get on board with at certain times. My main problem was that I felt Cage went a little bit too over the top and I feel my expectations were a little high after learning that this was his Oscar-winning role. I do feel that Cage has been better elsewhere, most notably in Raising Arizona and Adaptation., but I do feel that in Ben’s calmer moments he excels especially when he’s on screen with Shue. Shue on the other hand is fantastic from beginning to end as she shares a winning chemistry with Cage and is equally good in the scenes when she’s on her own. In fact the most memorable scene of the film sees Sera gang-raped by a bunch of college students with Shue’s performance being that outstanding that she deserved an Oscar for it. As I said earlier I think Penn’s turn in Dead Man Walking probably deserved the Oscar more than Cage whilst I felt Shue’s acting was a lot more subtle than Sarandon’s performance as Sister Helen. One thing I won’t argue with is Figgis’ nominations for both Adapted Screenplay and especially for direction as he takes a story that could easily have become clichéd and made it feel raw and authentic. The ways he achieved this including his aforementioned filming style as well as the fact that the majority of the scenes on the Las Vegas Strip had to be done in one take in order to avoid the police as Figgis and company had no permit. Additionally Figgis had Shue and Cage go out and research their roles in order to get a better idea of how to play the call girl and the alcoholic. Another element of the film I enjoyed was the slightly sleazy score and not till reading about the film afterwards did I learn that this was also composed by the multi-talented Figgis. All in all I do feel that Figgis was definitely more deserving of winning the award for Best Director this year than the eventual victor; Mel Gibson for Braveheart.

Although I mentioned it when I was reviewing Dead Man Walking it does bear repeating that the 1995 Best Picture line-up felt incredibly sanitised and it’s amazing what that year’s category could have featured. Take out the likes of Babe and Sense and Sensibility and replace them with Dead Man Walking and Leaving Las Vegas and I think you have instantly better Best Picture category. In fact I think 1995 is a year when you could easily replace all that year’s nominees and have a stronger line-up if you think that The Usual Suspects, Seven, Heat and Casino all came out that year too. But I’ll end off by saying that once I got into it I really found myself enjoying Leaving Las Vegas and I do feel it’s a film that has a unique style and therefore needs to be sought out by those who are yet to watch it.

Next Time we take a look at the first of two films from a director whose work we’ve explored in the past.

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