You could hear the sniffling around you, but could not quite believe there was so much of it. Looking around meant giving yourself away, meant that the men. women and children in the theatre would see the tears slipping down my cheeks. Nonetheless I was interested and stole a peek to see all those around me weeping opening, tissues dabbing at eyes, grown men and women in tears as Elliott (Henry Thomas) bade farewell to ET, his friend from another galaxy. Their embrace got to me, the manner in which the ancient alien pulled the boy to him, his long wrinkly fingers moving to bring the child in close to him, closing his eyes in sorrow, each of them knowing they will never see one another again, just as they know the deep love they feel for one another. The old alien seems to understand what the child has done for him, what he has risked, the danger he has placed his family in for sheer friendship. Seeing another being in need, the boy displays staggering humanity in taking care of this little creature left behind.
People forget that Henry Thomas, the boy who portrayed Elliott did most of his acting to a special effects, a big chunk of latex worked by men with cables. Actors work best when there is energy in the air, an electricity that comes from lines coming back at them, emotions in the air, when realism settles in, when they have another actor across from them feeding them energy with the lines, creating life. Thomas would not have that in his scenes with ET, though certainly someone was feeding him the dialogue. Creating the character he did, creating the emotions he did, remains an achievement of astounding proportion, one that might be the finest performance ever given by a child. That the boy gave a performance of that depth, of that extraordinary quality is what made the film work, not the effects (which were/ are superb), not the score, nor the cinematography, but the heart and soul, and deep humanity Thomas brings to his performance. Watch his face when ET lifts the bike in the forest and sends the two of them soaring above the trees. Fearful at first, he quickly realizes the alien would never hurt him, his eyes fill with wonder,with the realization of what he is experiencing, and he screams out in delight at the adventure he is having, perhaps wondering what the other ten-year olds are doing tonight? His life turned upside down by divorce, by the loss of a father, he finds this little alien left behind by accident, nd protects him, befriends him, loves him. The film is best defined by what Keys, one of the scientists searching for ET says to Elliott, stating that he was glad the alien met Elliott first because the child had not exploited him, but rather befriended him in the best possible manner. Film critic Pauline Kael, championed the work, calling it a “dreamscape”, perfectly summing up what the director had created for his audiences. Premiered at the Cannes Film festival before opening a month later in North America, the film was greeted with a prolonged standing ovation and shouts of “bravo” from the tough Cannes audiences. When the film opened it was greeted with rave reviews and strong box office, with repeat viewings driving up the take week after week.
Only the Los Angeles Film Critics and the Hollywood Foreign Press had the courage to name the film Best Picture of the Year. Released in the summer, it was still playing in theaters come year-end, but hit head on with the juggernaut of Gandhi (1982), Richard Attenborough’s historical epic about the spiritual father of modern India, which had taken twenty-five years to make it to the screen. The problem was, critics and the Academy seemed to want to honor the accomplishments of Gandhi the man therefore honored the film. Many could not see it for what it was, which was a stuffy, rather typical Hollywood biopic, a Gandhi’s Greatest Hits, leaving out anything controversial, anything that painted him as something less than a saint, anything that made him human, all of which would have made the film more interesting, more honest.
At year’s end as fore mentioned the LA Film Critics Association honored ET: The Extraterrestrial (1982) with awards for Best Film and Best Director, while the picture won Best Picture (Drama) and Best Score honors at the Golden Globes. Steven Spielberg won Best Director from the National Society of Film Critics and earned a nomination (his fourth) from the Directors Guild of America. From the Writers Guild of America, the picture’s screenplay earned Best Original Drama for Melissa Matheson, and film earned nine Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director,Best Screenplay and Best Musical Score. However, by Oscar night it was clear that Gandhi (1982) was going to pull off a sweep, and it did winning eight in all. Spielberg’s film won four Oscars, and on his way to accept Best Director, Attenborough stopped to speak with Spielberg whispering to him, “this should be yours.” At the end of the night E.T: The Extraterrestrial (1982) won Oscars for Best Score, Best Sound, Best Sound Editing, and Best Visual Effects. Through the years Attenborough’s words to Spielberg have echoed, “this should have been yours.”
E.T.: The Extraterrestrial (1982) continued the summer blockbuster race started by Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), becoming the highest grossing film of all time within a few months of its release. Perhaps that played a hand in the Academy denying it a Best Picture Oscar, the belief being that why did Spielberg need Oscar glory when he had so much success at the box office? Perhaps it was a long existing bias against fantasy films that existed until The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) took home eleven Academy Awards. Whatever their reasons, history has made it clear that the superior film was E.T.: The Extraterrestrial (1982) which is simply one of the greatest fantasy films ever made, rich in humanity, and Capra-esque in its message, of “Love thy neighbor”. For me it is one the deepest portraits of love and friendship put on-screen.
And yes, thirty years later, I still cry at the end. Watching it again recently it felt as though those long fingers of ET’s were reaching in to stroke my heart, as his own shone brightly.