Release Year: 1985
Genre: Biography, Drama, Romance
Director: Sydney Pollack
Writer: Kurt Luedtke
Here's a story for you.
There's a woman in Denmark in the early 20th century. She has money from a wealthy family, but she's not an aristocrat. So she marries a guy who doesn't have much money, but has a title—and seems honest and decent enough.
Then she moves to Kenya to run a dairy farm. Natch.
Except the dairy farm turns out to be a coffee plantation, which her new husband didn't tell her about before she was stuck there. Oh yeah, then he gives her syphilis—because he's been tomcatting around like the human race is dying out and he's the only hope for propagating the species—and she loses the ability to have children.
So then there's this other super cool guy with a biplane and everything, and he really seems into her, but he's also got restless feet. Every once in a while he heads off into the darkest bush to hunt heffalumps and whatnot, leaving the gal alone for months on end while her coffee plantation burns down.
Oh, did we mention this was a true story?
Karen Blixen—who had to use her father's name as a pseudonym because women authors couldn't get published back in the day—took all of that and produced some of the most incredible memoirs ever written. So good, in fact, that director Sydney Pollack moved heaven and earth to get a movie made out of them—and won a fistful of Oscars as a result.
When it comes down to it, Out of Africa is just the kind of movie that Hollywood used to make. By the time it came out in 1985, the box office was dominated by summer blockbusters with "directed by Steven Spielberg" at the end of the opening credits.
Back in the day, Out of Africa was the kind of movie that cost a fortune and showed every dime of it onscreen. Big spaces, gorgeous cinematography, larger-than-life romance, a spirited, principled heroine, and a few tear-jerking moments to wrap it all up.
Pollack resurrected the kind of old-fashioned spectacle that had been missing from Hollywood's playbook since the 1950s. Casting Meryl Streep and Robert Redford—both iconic movie stars at the peak of their careers—didn't hurt, either.
The result? A whopping $227 million worldwide box office count on an expensive-but-not-excessive $28 million investment.
Audiences flocked to the theaters, but not all critics loved it. The critical consensus was that it was gorgeous to look at, Meryl Streep was amazing as usual, but it was just…too long, too slow. Oh, and Robert Redford was dull as dirt.
But that didn't stop the Academy from giving the film seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director (both for Pollack) and four more Oscar nominations (Streep, Klaus Maria Brandauer, editing, and costumes). What's up with that?
Well, could be that the members of Academy, an older Hollywood bunch, remembered the days of the lush, epic romances that took their sweet time and didn't have car chases, explosions, and quick edits. Obviously, they adored Pollack's film.
At the very least, you can't say the film didn't leave its mark on cinema history.
Plus, it's got flamingos.
If you binge-watch travel shows, this movie has your hook-up: all the lush savannahs and African critters you could ever hope for, presented under the stirring strings of composer John Barry. You could turn it on and start planning your Kenya safari stat.
But beyond that—and beyond all the Oscars and dump trucks of box-office money—the film is a striking example of Girl Power in action.
It's based on actual events, and you won't find a better example of showing just how marginalized women were back in the day. Karen (Meryl Streep) is a brilliant, principled, educated woman trying to make her way in a world that insists she merely look good at her husband's side and run the household while he spends all his time on hookers and blow.
When she finds another man—someone who seems to actually respect her independence—he ends up flaking out too, pulling the "Freebird" excuse and refusing to commit, even though she adores the guy.
But that's not the end.
In fact, it's barely even the beginning.
Rather than let all of that beat her down, Karen takes it standing up: staying true to herself and refusing to give in to despair. Though she left Africa filled with loss, she turned those experiences into a glorious writing career that influenced people like Orson Welles, Ernest Hemingway, and Truman Capote.
And she did it in a world where women were pretty much forbidden from expressing themselves at all.
That's something worth celebrating, and director Sydney Pollack knew it. His movie captures everything she went through—but also the calm, steely way she took it all in, bent where she had to, and resolutely refused to break.
We can all take some lessons from her example, and not just women fighting to express themselves in a world that still isn't that friendly all these years later. The film speaks to anyone who's ever had to look epically terrible times in the face and say to themselves, "This isn't going to beat me."
Oh, and did we mention the flamingos?
Robert Redford originally planned to play Finch Hatton with a proper British accent. Director Pollack thought it would be too distracting for the viewer, so he told him to speak in his normal accent. But what about Meryl Streep doing Danish? Maybe audiences were used to her using a variety of accents, since that was starting to be her specialty. Or maybe Redford just couldn't pull it off. Regardless, he went back and overdubbed the scenes he'd already done with the accent. (Source)
That vintage locomotive we see at various points in the movie? (Most notably in the beginning when it takes Karen to Africa.) It actually didn't work. The production company couldn't find a working vintage train engine, just a few replicas. So instead, they pushed the train using a modern locomotive behind the replica. (Source)
Don't like bugs? Neither does Meryl Streep. Apparently, during the shooting of one scene, a beetle the size of a saucer dropped into her costume… you know, with the corsets and the undergarments and the it-takes-twenty-minutes just to get the thing off. Streep went through the with scene (it's actually in the film) then completely wigged out when the cameras stopped rolling. What a pro. (Source)
Some people believe that Bror did not give Karen syphilis, but that she was infected before they met. She'd complained of some malaria-type symptoms before she met him, and she was known to get around during her time in Paris. Plus, Bror never showed any symptoms himself, and neither did any of his other lovers or wives. Karen wrote as if he infected her, however. She once said, "There are two things you can do in such a situation: shoot the man or accept it." She accepted it. (Source)
Bror Blixen wasn't the only one fooling around in British Kenya in the 1920s. A bunch of debauched expats, including Denys and Beryl Markham (Felicity in the film), called "the Happy Valley set," were notorious for their drug use, wife-swapping, nude parties, and generally scandalous behavior. The joke of the day was asking someone, "Are you married or are you in Kenya?" Karen was friends with some of the group but didn't really get involved in the shenanigans. (Source)
Shmoop's Got the Hook-Up
Seen the movie and now want to read the book? Don't dive in without our awesome literary guide.
Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen Home Page
Karen Blixen or Isak Dinesen; whichever name she used, the woman was a genius. Here's her home page to tell you why.
We love us the Turner Classic Movies, and they have a page picked out all special for this movie.
Roger Ebert's Take
Oh, Roger, is there any movie you can't wax eloquent on? Probably, but this ain't one of them.
Karen Blixen Museum
Still don't think Karen Blixen is a big deal? Denmark does. They've got a whole museum dedicated just to her.
And… Kenya's Version
Kenya lays claim to the great author too, with a museum of their own to share.
Out of Africa
The movie was officially based on three books: the Dinesen work itself, and two biographies. Here's the Dinesen one.
Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller
Judith Thurman's biography was a big part of the script too.
Silence Will Speak
Another biography, this one covering the fine Ms. Blixen and her lion-hunting paramour.
The Academy's official page goes gaga for the film's jaw-droppingly beautiful landscapes.
People Magazine Has the Skinny
In its usual breathless gossipy style, People magazine has the skinny on the film's production.
Margret Atwood on Isak Dinesen
Renowned author Margaret Atwood—no slouch herself in the writing department—waxes super geeky over Isak Dinesen.
Janet Maslin Goes In-Depth
The famous critic from the New York Times has a long talk with Sydney Pollack about it all.
There's More to Bror
After his divorce from Karen left him broke, Bror became a legendary game hunter and safari guide with clients like the Prince of Wales and friends like Ernest Hemingway. He was considered by everyone to be the best in the business. He wrote an autobiography, too, and was the model for one of Ernest Hemingway's characters.
Not Quite History
A historian points out where the movie added and subtracted from the true story of Karen Blixen in Africa.
Here's the official trailer for the movie.
Sydney Pollack spills all when it comes to the movie
One from Meryl
The star speaks.
Possession and Ownership
Pollack and others comment on the romance at the middle of the film.
More behind-the-scenes goodies, this one about Karen's school.
Also known as the giant money pit Karen's husband stuck her with.
One last interview, this one about the ending.
We Knew She Had Her Own Money, But…
This is an image of the Danish 50 kroner bill that was printed from 1999-2009. That woman in the front? Isak Dinesen.
We love the poster for this one, and we're pretty sure you're gonna dig it too. Swoon.
It's a Little Too Hot for This Hat…
Director and star behind the scenes in England.
Robert Redford and Meryl Streep get goofy between takes.
"Seriously, how come I don't get a pith helmet?"
The stars chat behind the scenes.
Extreme Makeover: Kenya
Karen's home in Africa is now the Karen Blixen Museum.
Hot Hot Hot
The British newspaper The Telegraph describes Robert Redford as "smoldering" in this photo. Who are we to argue?
Great White Hunter
Here's (l-r) Bror, Denys, and Edward, Prince of Wales, on safari in 1928.
Here's Karen on safari. At least she's got an appropriate hat.