Movie review: ‘The Right Stuff’

rsIn honor of the life of John Glenn, who passed at 95 on Dec. 8, 2016, I’m doing a review of “The Right Stuff.” Glenn, who will always be one of the United States’ most iconic and patriotic figures, was at the center of the space race and defined a new generation rocketing into the national conscience as well as being the vanguard of a new age. Director Philip Kaufman and his cast have “The Right Stuff” and the film is simply pitch perfect from beginning to end. I could find nary a flaw from its cast to its direction to its writing (also by Kaufman) and to its cinematography. Hell, I bet it even had “The Right Stuff” with its catering trucks on the set. In any case, “The Right Stuff” is a wonderful film about the U.S. beginnings in the space race and it all over the cable grid and very easy to find. Do yourself a favor and watch it again, since I know you’ve seen it before.

‘The Right Stuff’
(1983; 193 minutes; rated PG; directed by Philip Kaufman and starring Sam Shephard, Scott Glenn and Ed Harris, etc.)

DIFFICULT TO FIND A FLAW IN THIS ‘STUFF’

The Right Stuff” was certainly deserving of its eight Oscar nominations and the four wins from that group. However, it should have won Best Picture instead of the overrated snifflebag “Terms of Endearment” (thanks, Ray Romano, for this term for weepy, crappy emotional films). “The Right Stuff” is simply perfect from beginning to end and no other film from 1983 deserved to win over it.

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In watching “The Right Stuff” again, I was doubly impressed by the solid job of just about every actor on screen. There just is not a single weak link in the cast and it is as extensive and studded with actors’ actors as you can find in a motion picture. And all of them contributed to the film and I’m especially impressed how none mailed in his or her effort.

The same can be said for Ron Howard’s equally terrific “Apollo 13” a dozen years later, and that one won two Oscars and had seven other nominations. However, it, too, was passed over for Best Picture (OK, so “Braveheart” was more deserving than “Terms of Endearment” but it wasn’t more deserving than “Apollo 13”) and, also like “The Right Stuff,” did not get a win in any acting category (it got two acting nominations to “The Right Stuff” and its single acting nomination). Overall, “The Right Stuff” won four Oscars: one for editing and three technical statutes – including for sound and music.

In “The Right Stuff,” Sam Shepard, who plays legendary pilot Chuck Yeager, received the only acting nomination from the cast, but all were deserving over every other actor nominated that year. Shepard was nominated for supporting actor, but is somewhat the headliner of the cast … or co-star if you will with Ed Harris, who plays the United States’ most famous astronaut ever – John Glenn.

I’m not going to repeat the story. It’s simple but intricately complicated by events and personalities: it’s the story of the events leading up to the United States’ first ventures into space and the instant legends that the astronauts became. The story is well-told and doesn’t too much sugar-coat the astronauts. In the end, each is human, fallible and likable.

So, I’ll look at the film by commenting on parts of the principal cast. Here are the pilots and astronauts:

  • As noted, Shepard got the Oscar nomination for his work here and he deserves it. It is a sublime piece of acting and he’s wickedly good at at the complete job he accomplishes here: from his voice to his physical presence to being able to convey with a look or the turn of his head more than the dialogue he was given. He was also in “Swordfish” and “Black Hawk Down.” Shepard is also a great screenwriter and was the author of the screenplay for “Paris, Texas.” I also liked him in the snooze-fest called “Baby Boom.”
  • After Shepard’s Yeager, you have as the co-lead of Harris as Glenn. A four-time Oscar nominee, Ed gives his usual excellent turn here but he doesn’t have to overcome faults in his lines or the film in general. Also like Shepard, Harris uses it all here to portray the most All-American hero of heroes. He’s engaging and makes you believe you’re watching Glenn of that age. I also liked him as a Nazi super-sniper in “Enemy at the Gates” (click here for my review) and he was nominated for a space film, but it was “Apollo 13” and not this one. If you want one of his less-remembered good works, check out “Milk Money” with Melanie Griffith.
  • Coming in third behind Shepard and Harris is Fred Ward as Virgil Ivan “Gus” Grissom and he had the most challenging role of a somewhat older and a step-behind the young(er) pilots and ends up as the failure of the bunch in a situation where everyone is hero regardless. Ward gives Grissom a tough, grind-it-out and stout-as-a-flattop-haircut pilot who becomes one of the legends. It’s probably the best work I’ve seen him do and I did like him (for enjoyment, not for acting acumen) in “Road Trip” (click here for my review) and “Tremors” (click here for my review). He was completely awful in the festering stinkbomb called “Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins” (click here for my review).
  • Scott Glenn does his usual solid turn here as Alan Shepard, who was America’s first man into space. He easily shows the physical toughness of a military pilot and only occasionally allows an emotion to peek through. Glenn is often overlooked in lists of great actors, but I first liked him as the bad guy in “Urban Cowboy” pitted against John Travolta and was in “The Hunt for Red October” (click here for my review) and “The Silence of the Lambs” (click here for my review) in back-to-back years of 1990-1991. However, I liked him best in “Silverado” (click here for my review). Glenn has a somewhat prolific 95 credits in his six-decade career – so far.
  • The only other astronaut character worth mentioning is Gordon “Gordo” Cooper and he is played to perfection by Dennis Quaid. A two-time Golden Globe nominee (not for this one), Quaid shows off his acting chops with an energetic turn as the youthful pilot-turned-hero who follows the groundbreaking flights of Shepard and Glenn at the bottom of the assignment list. He knows how to do this character and makes the most of it. I’ve liked him in a number of films including “The Big Easy” (click here for my review), “Innerspace” (click here for my review), “The Long Riders” (click here for my review) and “Breaking Away” (click here for my review).

The women headliners make up as solid a core of actors as you can find in any movie ever made. They are simply fantastic and each deliver performances worthy of an Oscar nomination (though none of them received one). Here are the best of these women:

  • Oscar nominee (not for this one) Barbara Hershey plays Glennis Yeager and is the counterbalance to an adventurous husband. Hershey completely knows when to somewhat underplay a character and it works wonders here. Her effort is nearly sublime and you can appreciate it immediately. I actually liked her better in “Hoosiers” with Gene Hackman (click here for my review) and she was nominated for “Portrait of a Lady” and she was in “Black Swan.”
  • Mary Jo Deschanel plays Annie Glenn, wife of the biggest hero of the film. She has a lot to work with and should have gotten more screen time. Deschanel gives a sterling performance showing both the strength and challenges faced by the real Mrs. Glenn. It would have been wise to expand this role a little bit. Deschanel was in “The Patriot” with Mel Gibson.
  • Three-time Primetime Emmy nominee Veronica Cartwright has the most contentious character to play by being Betty Grissom. Her acting range is impressive from a wife looking to move up to being in the inner circle and then finally the frustration that came with the problems associated with Grissom’s flight. Cartwright, who has an impressive resume of 142 credits stretching back to 1960s TV series such as “Daniel Boone” and “Leave it to Beaver,” makes good use of every second of her screen time. Cartwright has also been in “Alien,” the Hitchcock classic “The Birds” as well as in 1978’s remake of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”
  • Finally, you’ll find a flawless performance from the perennially underrated Pamela Reed as the longsuffering “Trudy Cooper.” She is perfectly cast here against the bombastic energy of Quaid and the two work well together. Reed was also in “The Long Riders” (click here for my review) with Quaid. She’s also been in “Kindergarten Cop” and “Cadillac Man” as well as tons of TV episodes.

Ouch! It would take a novel to round out all the actors here – from veteran journeyman Lance Henricksen as “Wally Schirra” to even Donald Moffat as “Lyndon B. Johnson.” To leave anyone out is pretty much a crime, but I don’t have time enough to write a novel out of this review.

The cinematography is excellent from period pieces at a clinic where the would-be astronauts were first tested to space headquarters at Cape Canaveral. This isn’t a big film on special effects, but the effects are special and used perfectly (no surprise to write that word yet again).

Before doing “The Right Stuff,” director Kaufman was at the helm for the wonderful gang flick “The Wanderers” (click here for my review). He was nominated for an Oscar for writing for “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.,” which he also directed. It would be nice if Kaufman had or would direct more films, but he certainly has a much more impressive writing CV (take the “Indiana Jones” franchise as just one example).

A note about the release of the film. Although it went into wide distribution in February 1984, it is considered a film from 1983 because it had its premiere and had limited release in late 1983 – and its premiere was at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. It was part of the 56th Academy Awards in April 1984 – less than two months after it went into wide release.

It’s completely insane, but “The Right Stuff” was only the 33rd ranked film at the U.S. box office in 1983, according to Box Office Mojo. It was made on a budget of $25 million, according to Wiki. It is simply pathetic that “The Right Stuff” didn’t earn more than “Jaws: 3-D” (15th with $45.5 million) and which starred Quaid. The No. 1 film was of course “Star Wars: Volume VI – Return of the Jedi” with $252.5 million, which is more than double the second-ranked film. In any case, here are the films from 1984 that I’ve reviewed:

Assorted cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):

  • Deschanel is the mother of one of my favorite young(er) actors: Zooey Deschanel, who was simply terrific in the simply terrific “Big Trouble” (click here for my review).
  • Sam Shepard is reportedly afraid of flying.
  • Some of the space uniforms were made from silver material from some of Cher’s costumes.
  • Directly from IMDb.com: “The ‘Happy Bottom Riding Club,’ which was owned and operated by Pancho Barnes, burned down in 1952. The remnants can still be seen today at Edwards Air Force Base.”
  • Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “While filming the lung-capacity sequence – in which the seven original Mercury astronauts need to blow into individual tubes to keep toy balls suspended in a beaker and end up in a competition of physical stamina – the seven actors portraying the astronauts actually competed with each other for the same reason. Gordon Cooper was third, John Glenn was second and Scott Carpenter won (in the movie). In reality, Gordon Cooper – the astronaut portrayed by Quaid – was the only non-smoker among the seven original astronauts, and therefore possessed a far-greater lung capacity than any of the others.”
  • Click here for IMDb.com’s extensive trivia page about “The Right Stuff.”

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2017.
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without
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