Right Stuff, The (1983): Philip Kaufman’s Oscar-Nominated Space Epic, with All-Star Cast

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Warner (The Ladd Company)

One of the best films of the decade, Philip Kaufman’s satirical account of the beginning of the space age, based on Tom Wolfe’s best-selling novel, is also one of the most misunderstood ones.

Spanning over a decade, the saga, scripted by Kaufman, begins with Chuck Yeager (playwright Sam Shepard in iconic role) breaking the Mach 1, and concludes with a joyous celebration at Astrodome, hosted by then President Lyndon Johnson (Donald Moffat).

In between, the serio-comic adventure encompasses the public and private lives of the astronauts involved, detailing arduous, military-like training, unanticipated mishaps such as drop-out of major players, rise to fame as documented by the mass media, and personal and collective consequences of the mission.

“The Right Stuff” benefits from a superlative ensemble that includes some of the best character actors working in Hollywood in the 1980s; there is not a single flawed performance.

Unfortunately, the Picture’s publicity was tied to the presidential candidacy of John Glenn (played in the film by Ed Harris). The movie was a critical success, receiving glowing reviews by all the major critics, but a box-office flop.

Some claimed that the film was too ambitious in attempting not only to outline the origins of U.S. space exploration but also to investigate notions of courage, heroism in a satiric way. Indeed, reportedly some viewers couldn’t tell from Warner’s ad campaigns that it was a satirical treatment of the astronauts, instead of a straightforward and more conventional chronicle.


Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard)

Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn)

John Glenn (Ed Harris)

Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid)

Gus Grissom (Fred Ward)

Glennis Yeager (Barbara Hershey)

Bancho Barnes (Kim Stanley)

Betsy Grissom (Veronica Cartwright)

Trudy Cooper (Pamela Reed)

Deke Slayton (Scott Paulin)

Oscar nominations: 8

Picture, produced by Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff Supporting Actor: Sam Shepard Cinematography: Caleb Deschanel Art direction-set decoration: Geoffrey Kirkland, Richard J. Lawrence, W. Stewart Campbell, and Peter Romero; Pat Pending and George R. Nelson Film Editing: Glenn Farr, Lisa Fruchtman, Stephen A. Rotter, Douglas Stewart, and Tom Rolf Sound: Nark Berger, Tom Scott, Randy Thom, and David MacMillan Sound Effects Editing: Jay Boekelheide Original Score: Bill Conti

Oscar awards: 4

Sound Original Score Film Editing Sound Effects Editing

Oscar Context

The most nominated film in 1983, “Terms of Endearment” received five Oscars out of its 11 nominations, including Best Picture and Director for James L. Brooks. The action-adventure “The Right Stuff,” won four technical wards out of its eight nominations, but it denied its director Philip Kaufman a nod. The other contenders were smaller, more intimate dramas, such as “The Big Chill,” “The Dresser,” and “Tender Mercies.”