Running on Empty (1988)

Warner (Lorimar Productions)


In this political melodrama, directed by Sidney Lumet, Christine Lahti and Judd Hirsch play married couple Annie and Arthur Pope, who due to their left-wing politics and radical activities, have been on the run for years; as students, they blew up a building and accidentally killed an innocent man.


River Phoenix plays their son Danny, a talented musician about to graduate from high-school, who's been accepted into the prestigious New York school of Julliard. Facing a moral and practical dilemma, the Popes need to make a painful, fateful decision about the future of Danny, who's willing to stay underground with them, but they feel that perhaps he should separate from the troubled family nest.


The yarn is perfect material for Lumet, known for his leftist sympathies.  However, at times, the drama feels as if it belongs more to TV Movie of the Week than to the big screen.  Eve so, good acting from the entire ensemble, which includes Martha Plimpton as Danny's girlfriend, elevates the melodrama above the routine.


Christine Lahti received Best Actress from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, but failed to win an Oscar nod.


Oscar Nominations: 2


Screenplay (Original): Naomi Foner

Supporting Actor: River Phoenix


Oscar Awards: None


Supporting Actor


Oscar Context


The most nominated film in 1988, “Rain Man,” received four Oscars out of its 8 nods, including Picture, Director, Actor, and Screenplay by Ronald Bass and Barry Morrow. 


The other Best Picture nominees represented a mixed bag in genre and quality: “Dangerous Liaisons” and “Mississippi Burning,” each with 8 nominations, Mike Nichols's comedic fable “Working Girl,” with 6, and Lawrence Kasdan's literary adaptation “The Accidental Tourist,” with 4.


This was River Phoenix's first and only nomination, which made him one of the Academy's youngest contenders.  His category included Kevin Kline, who won for “A Fish Called Wanda,” vet Alec Guinness in “Little Dorrit,” Martin Landau in “Tucker: the Man and His Dream,” and Dean Stockwell in “Married to the Mob.”