The “Out of Africa” theory of evolution posits that Homo sapien originated on the African continent and migrated to replace other hominid species, which is in direct contrast to the multiregional theory of human evolution (the “Multiregional Continuity Model”) positing the phenomenon of Homo sapien to be just that: a phenomenon, simultaneous across varied regions and indicative of some level of gene flow between geographically separated populations. Significantly, this gene flow would have prevented speciation after the dispersal, a somewhat unbelievable but not altogether impossible occurrence that nevertheless would seem to nudge all credibility in the direction of the Out of Africa model. Among the critical tenets of this hypothesis is the assumption that after Homo erectus migrated out of Africa the different populations became reproductively isolated, evolving independently and, in some cases — as with the Neanderthals — into separate species entirely.
Thankfully, Sydney Pollack’s Out of Africa has nothing to do with any of that boring science stuff. Two nights ago the 88th Academy Awards granted Spotlight two major trophies, one for Best Original Screenplay and one for Best Picture, and so as usual a return to the past Picture winners seemed in order to see where we stand as a cinema-appreciating public. Is Spotlight better/worse than winners past? Did you see Spotlight? Did you enjoy it? Did you enjoy it at unprecedented best-film-of-the-entire-year levels? Did The Revenant or The Big Short deserve the trophy instead? Ah, of all sad words of tongue or pen!
Thirty years ago at the 58th Academy Awards ceremony Out of Africa was the toast of Hollywood, collecting seven trophies — Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Art/Set Direction, Sound, and Score — and doing so in an interesting and competitive year (Witness took home Best Original Screenplay over the likes of Brazil, Back to the Future, The Official Story and The Purple Rose of Cairo in what must have been a hell of a race). The Best Adapted race was a little more tame, but Africa still had to overcome The Color Purple and Prizzi’s Honor and Kiss of the Spider Woman. All in all it was an impressive year for the screenwriter, especially if the movie you wrote had a location or “Purple” in the title. Or both.
In the Best Picture category it was the aforementioned Witness, Color, Prizzi and Spider Woman that fell to Sydney Pollack’s sweeping romance. Remember, kids, that these were the days when categories were comprised of five nominees instead of, say, whatever the hell the Academy feels like in a given year. 2015 Best Picture? Eight nominees! 2015 Best Original Song? Three nominees! Can we just get rid of the Best Original Song category already? There aren’t even enough entries to muster more than three lines on the ballot, and even those have been majorly weak the past few years. Way back in the olden times of 1985 they had five nominees and somehow — by the dastardly hand of some cruel conspirators — Back to the Future’s “The Power of Love” didn’t win. The Academy is often wrong, sure, but never has it hurt so much.
Anyway. Did you see Out of Africa? Did you enjoy it? Did you enjoy it at unprecedented best-film-of-the-entire-year levels? If you did, then you were one of the only ones. Currently Out of Africa holds a 53% on Rotten Tomatoes (certified “rotten”), and while we’re not claiming RT to be the Infallible Barometer of Movie Goodness it’s often more comprehensive than a certain Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Regardless, aside from the wholeheartedly abysmal Greatest Show on Earth, Out of Africa has the lowest critical consensus on RT of any Best Picture winner since the 1930s. Let’s let that sink in for a moment: out of the last 80 Best Picture winners, Out of Africa would be ranked #79. Even Crash, one of the most maligned Best Picture winners of recent memory, seems to be held in much higher critical esteem.
Being one of the Worst Best Picture winners is sort of like being the worst player on the team that wins the World Cup, meaning the important thing here is that Out of Africa still won. Yes, there’s another argument to be made here — “the award isn’t the important thing at all, because who cares about a little gold trophy?” — and admittedly the after-the-fact awards shows have no bearing on whether a movie endures the test of time. And indeed Out of Africa is a well-crafted, deeply thematic, thoughtful, epic film led by a pair of complex characters. The look of the film is stunning, due in equal parts to Pollack’s careful direction and David Watkin’s masterful cinematography; it helps that the on-location shoot in the titular Africa is visually striking in actuality. Robert Redford and Meryl Streep are memorable as the seasoned frontiersman Denys and the wide-eyed young traveler Karen, and more importantly their characters are simultaneously drawn to each other and philosophically opposed. Theirs is the basis for a tragic love story, which is ultimately what Out of Africa becomes.
So why the hate? A common qualm concerns the near-glacial pacing of the movie, which doesn’t introduce Denys until the end of the first act and doesn’t incorporate him as a main character until the midway point. There are numerous scenes that in retrospect serve little purpose. For Pollack, Out of Africa was a make-it-or-bust attempt at a true adventure epic, one hinted at by the likes of his earlier films Jeremiah Johnson and even Bobby Deerfield, and so the sense of reaching just a bit too far is in some respects justified. Ultimately the moments of action or tension are either too infrequent or too inconsequential. The lion attack is thrilling, but it comes wrapped in a sea of plodding conversations about love and marriage. The burning of Karen’s barn might have been envisioned as an action beat, but it’s forgotten almost instantly thereafter. Out of Africa is subject to the same criticisms that other love epics like Meet Joe Black are subject to, primarily the inescapable fact that half the audience will fall in and out of love with the protagonists and the other half will fall in and out of slumber from being so bored.
But there, too, does the validity of the movie become entangled in the barometer we use to measure that validity. In this short piece alone we’ve mentioned Africa against other films at the Oscars, against other films on Rotten Tomotoes, and now against other films on the “epic” genre spectrum. Is this a too-long Legends of the Fall/Heaven’s Gate epic, or is this an exquisite Deer Hunter/Lawrence of Arabia epic? The question of comparison isn’t meaningless, but it is something that Redford’s Denys would in fact take issue with. He’s the prototypical champion of living your own life and ensuring that life is unconcerned with the lives of others. If Denys were a film critic he’d shun all such comparisons, but he’d never be a film critic. He’d be a filmmaker, content to create his own path regardless of what comments might arrive from the outside, and the same can likely be said of Sydney Pollack. Out of Africa was his vision, and for better or worse it evolved under his guidance to become one of his most distinct films.