This week in our review of the body of work of Edward James Olmos, we look at the only performance for which He was nominated for an Academy Award: Jaime Escalante in Stand and Deliver (1988). If you know anything about the Academy, that right there tells you exactly what kind of film this is. Oh, and for a particular reader of this blog, I'll just point out that the Oscar that year went to Dustin Hoffman. That's right, Admiral Adama lost the Oscar to Rain Man.
I don't want to shock the hell out of you, but Stand and Deliver sees Olmos playing a Latino character trying to make something out of Chicanos trapped in the barrios. Don't even pretend like you saw that coming! This time he's a Bolivian maths teacher who takes underachievers from Garfield High School and soon has them passing the AP Calculus exam. (The film helpfully explains, for those of us who don't know, that less than 2% of all high school students in the Empire pass this exam. At least, in 1988.) The drama in the first half of the film stems from Escalante's attempts to get the students to go from expecting to fail in school and then get menial (or criminal) jobs to believing that school is worthwhile and that they can succeed. The second half deals with the problem of racism when the students do in fact do well.
A film like this succeeds or fails according to the performance of the actor playing the teacher. (See Dead Poets Society for what happens when you accidentally hire Robin Williams for the role.) Fortunately for the movie, Olmos is Olmos, so despite the very quirky affect he adopts (reportedly based on the real Jaime Escalante, as the film is based on a true story), we like Escalante and want him to succeed. The film is also helped immensely by the charisma--if not necessarily strong acting--of a young Lou Diamond Phillips, who made this film before his star-making turn as Ritchie Valens in La Bamba (though it was released after it). The best scenes are those between Phillips and Olmos and between Olmos and Vanessa Marquez as the top student whose working-class father doesn't see any value in her going to college. In addition to watching the students first reject, then accept, then excel for Escalante in the classroom, we also see snippets of their lives outside of class and the obstacles they face in their home lives. One memorable scene has Phillips asks for a second set of books to leave at home so that his fellow gangstaz don't see him carrying, like, books back and forth to school.
But in the end, I have to agree with Roger Ebert's review, where he notes that something's missing. The story should come alive more than it does. Ebert points out that the film is murky in places, often where it's most fascinating. The most grating example involves the Marquez character. Olmos has a wonderful scene in which he confronts her father in the restaurant the father owns and where he expects her to work as a server. Escalante remarks that the AP exam can lead to university which can lead to a better life for her than waiting tables. The father angrily retorts that he started out washing dishes for a nickel an hour, and now he owns the restaurant, and Mr. Escalante may consider himself thrown out of said restaurant on his ass! Marquez's chair is, of course, empty in the next class. But a few days later, she suddenly shows up and continues in class with no explanation. Did the father forgive Escalante? Did he come to see the value of a university education? Did her mother or someone else intervene? Is she attending in defiance of her father, and if so, what are the consequences? We never have any idea. A powerful dramatic scene in which Escalante, for once, may have cocked things up, and it all gets resolved, off-screen...somehow.
I can't agree with Ebert, though, about his other reason for saying the movie is weak: that the students' lives outside the classroom are uninteresting. (Well, he's right that the love story is out of place and goes nowhere.) In fact, I wanted more of these scenes. The film runs but 103 minutes. Another 15 minutes or so of these scenes might have strengthened our connection to the kids and gotten us more invested in their success and (especially) anger when they are accused of cheating on the AP exam.
The strongest scene in the second half of the movie has Escalante directly accusing two ETS investigators of only doubting his students' scores because they're kids with Spanish surnames attending a barrio school. Andy Garcia, as one of the investigators, angrily shouts that no one can accuse him of racism because he's a minority himself. The film doesn't have Escalante challenge this; it's instead left to ring hollowly in the air like the meaningless claptrap it is. The students are forced to re-take the test, and there's tension there: If they pass again, will they get an apology from ETS? Yeah, right, you're more likely to get human dignity out of Sean Hannity.
What can I say? The film worked for me. It's maddeningly vague at times, a few of its subplots don't pay off, and it doesn't explore the students' lives enough, but when my big criticisms are that I want to know more, it can't be that bad. If you're a sucker for upbeat, uplifting films about real heroes doing a truly tough job (actually teaching socially-disadvantaged kids and not just marking time in the classroom until the bell rings), Stand and Deliver is for you. If you're a cynical misanthrope like Carl Eusebius, well, Edward James Olmos might just win you over anyway.