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Monday, January 31, 2011

The Best Picture Countdown #21: Hamlet (1948)

Director: Laurence Olivier
Starring: Laurence Olivier

Shakespeare is one the most famous and celebrated writers in the history of the English language and he created some of the most enduring and compelling characters ever written. His work has been adapted countless times on film and yet only one – Laurence Olivier’s version of Hamlet - has ever won the Oscar for Best Picture and only two others have ever been nominated (1944’s Henry V, also from Olivier, and 1953’s Julius Caesar starring Marlon Brando). Made with a distinctly noirish sensibility, Hamlet easily transcends any obstacles that normally hinder stage to screen adaptations.

The story of Hamlet should be familiar to anyone with even a passing knowledge of English literature. Something is rotten in Denmark, where old King Hamlet has mysteriously died and his crown – not to mention his wife, Queen Gertrude (Eileen Herlie) – have been claimed by his brother, Claudius (Basil Sydney). This does not sit well with Prince Hamlet (Olivier), particularly after he encounters his father’s ghost, who informs him that he was, in fact, murdered and by Claudius.

Not entirely trusting the word of an apparition, Hamlet decides to test Claudius and uses a troop of stage performances to ferret out the truth. The play they enact, called “The Murder of Gonzago,” is unbearable to Claudius, whose reaction confirms the truth in Hamlet’s eyes. Hamlet is now set to avenge his father but after accidentally killing Polonius (Felix Aylmer) he is deported to England. En route, his ship is attacked by pirates and he is returned to Denmark, where he learns that his beloved Ophelia (Jean Simmons) has gone mad and killed herself. Ophelia’s brother Laertes (Terence Morgan) challenges Hamlet to a duel and Claudius provides him with a poisoned blade. As an extra measure, Claudius also poisons a drink. Needless to say, this does not end well.

Olivier took on screenwriting duties in addition to directing and playing the lead and in adapting the play he cut out roughly half the dialogue and a few of the characters. This streamlined version drew criticism at the time of its release from Shakespearean purists, but the film still manages to capture the full scope of the play. It also avoids a problem that often plagues stage to screen adaptations, namely the issue of stageyness. Hamlet doesn’t have a great variety of sets but Olivier does keep the camera moving quite a bit and employs a lot of deep focus to give scenes a more multi-dimensional feel. We aren’t just watching the play; we’re thrust right into the action.

Desmond Dickinson’s cinematography (which, shockingly, did not receive an Oscar nomination) is positively sublime from first scene to last. The scene in which Hamlet encounters his father’s ghost is especially atmospheric, full of rolling mist and shadow. This is a very moody adaptation that uses all the elements in the production to complement Shakespeare’s words.

Olivier’s performance as Hamlet is note perfect, guiding an easy escalation from Hamlet’s early impotent sullenness to his later consuming desire for vengeance. This particular version really plays up the Oedipal elements of the story and Hamlet often seems more like a jealous lover than an angry son. This element is emphasized in several ways, from the displays of affection between mother and son to the costuming (there is one scene in which Gertrude, clad in a very low cut dress, leans over Hamlet and kisses him on the lips), but also through the casting. At the time of filming Olivier was 40 and Herlie was only 27 and as a result the kind of chemistry required between the characters feels natural rather than forced (although, of course, it’s still creepy).

In the decades since its release Hamlet seems to have fallen somewhat out of favour, but I found it thoroughly enjoyable. I’ve seen other film versions of the story but this one is easily my favourite (Kenneth Branaugh’s 1996 version comes a fairly close second). I just think that the blending of Shakespeare with the look and feel of noir cinema works extremely well and makes the story all the more effective.

The Best Picture Countdown #20: Gentleman's Agreement (1947)

Director: Elia Kazan
Starring: Gregory Peck

Gentleman’s Agreement, a screed against anti-Semitism based on the novel of the same name by Laura Z. Hobson, comes straight out of Hollywood’s “We’re Going To Teach You a Very Important Lesson” files. It might sink under its own earnestness were it not for the passion and skill of its performances. I don’t think this film, directed by the great Elia Kazan (who won an Oscar for his efforts), ever completely rises above the level of sermonizing to reach the point of storytelling, but it’s not without its moments.

The story centers on Schuyler Green (Gregory Peck), known as Phil to his friends. He’s a widowed journalist who moves from California to New York with his young son and his mother (Anne Revere) to take a job with a magazine. His new publisher, John Minify (Albert Dekker), assigns him to write a story about anti-Semitism, having been given the idea by his niece Kathy (Dorothy McGuire). Phil is reluctant at first, mostly because he can’t think of how he might approach the subject in a new way, but then he hits on an idea. Whenever he’s written other stories he’s done it by immersing himself in the world he’s going to depict – when he wrote a story about coal miners, for example, he got a job in a coal mine – and so that becomes his strategy here. He’ll pretend to be Jewish and experience firsthand the bigotry that is casually tossed around throughout society.

Phil’s deception involves writing to prospective employers under two names – his own and “Phil Greenberg” – and seeing which elicits a positive response, but it also extends to all other aspects of his life. Since he doesn’t know anyone in New York, he lets everyone believe that he’s Jewish, including the people that he works with at the magazine. He discovers that the management of the magazine doesn’t quite live up to the publication’s liberal ideals (his secretary, who is Jewish, applied under two names, her real name and her the name she currently works under) and he also discovers that Kathy, with whom he’s become romantically involved, isn’t quite as open-minded as she at first appeared.

As the story works its way towards its conclusion, it becomes less about the direct prejudice perpetuated by bigots and more about those who know that such attitudes are wrong but let it pass. Kathy, despite having suggested Phil’s story in the first place, ultimately just wants to get along and not get her hands dirty. She isn’t anti-Semitic herself, but she’s not willing to take a public stand either, which eventually puts her at odds with Phil. Meanwhile, there’s another woman in Phil’s life, a fashion editor at the magazine named Anne (Celeste Holm), who is on the same wavelength as him regarding this subject and who is most definitely interested in him. Will Phil and Kathy find a way to make it work or will Phil start a new relationship with Anne? It’s somewhat strange that that is what the story ultimately comes down to.

The subject of Gentleman’s Agreement is, obviously, an important one and sometimes it truly does transcend that line between showing and telling. There is one scene, for example, in which Phil attempts to get a room at a hotel and is turned away, the manager first polite but becoming increasingly hostile towards him as Phil demands that he cut the niceties and say clearly and directly that he doesn’t rent rooms to Jews. This is a very effective and well-played scene, as Peck’s anger grows and grows only to end in impotence as he realizes the futility of the situation. The problem with the film is that more often than not it adopts the strategy of telling us about the issue rather than dramatizing it. Characters deliver great speeches elaborating on the injustices faced by the victims of prejudice, but that rings a little bit hollow because showing is always more compelling than telling. The means through which the screenplay guides the characters to these speeches is also problematic, because it often feels contrived and no matter how good the actors are (and they’re all good), they can’t really raise it above the inherent artificiality of the dialogue.

Like Spencer Tracy and Henry Fonda, Peck is an actor who brings a strong sense of authority to the screen. He’s an actor who can convey the sense that he’s on the side of right without seeming like he’s lecturing the audience. He softens the sometimes overly didactic dialogue and makes Phil more than just a cardboard crusader. Likewise, Revere renders an excellent performance as Phil’s mother, lately suffering from frail health but supporting Phil all the way. That this performance works at all is somewhat amazing given that Revere was all of 44 (and only 13 years Peck’s senior) when this film was released, but she manages to make you suspend your disbelief and, along with Peck and McGuire was nominated for an Oscar (she lost to co-star Holm). The actors really make this film worth watching; without them it wouldn’t rise very far above the level of a morality play.

Oscar Loves... A Boxer

With 7 nominations to its credit, including one for Best Picture, it's clear that AMPAS has a lot of affection for the boxing drama The Fighter. But Mickey Ward isn't the only boxer Oscar has fallen for:

Most famously, of course, there's Rocky, which won Best Picture, Director and Editing at the 1976 Oscars. It was also nominated for 7 other Oscars, including Best Actor for Sylvester Stallone.

The other Oscar winning boxing movie is 2004's Million Dollar Baby, which netted a Best Actress Oscar for Hilary Swank.

Swank is the only woman to be nominated, let alone win, for playing a boxer, but the Best Actor category is no stranger to fighters:

Wallace Beery won in 1932 for The Champ, while Marlon Brandon won in 1954 for On The Waterfront (not a film about boxing, but about a boxer), and Robert De Niro won in 1980 for Raging Bull.

Actors who received Oscar nominations for playing boxers include Kirk Doulgas in 1949 for Champion, James Earl Jones in 1970 for The Great White Hope, Denzel Washington in 1999 for The Hurricane, and Will Smith in 2001 for Ali.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Best Picture Countdown #19: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Note: this post is modified from a previously published post

Director: William Wyler
Starring: Frederic March, Dana Andrews, Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright

The Best Years of Our Lives is one of the few films that can be accurately described as timeless. It is a film that’s as powerful today as it was when it was released in 1946, when it was both a critical and commercial success and won the Academy Award for Best Picture. This is a film about coming home from war and finding it changed, returning to a life that fits like clothing you’ve outgrown. At once heartbreaking and uplifting, joyous and sad, it is above all a powerful statement about the cultural narratives and myths surrounding the idea of war.

The story centers on three ex-servicemen: Al (Frederic March), Fred (Dana Andrews), and Homer (Harold Russell), who meet, discover that they’re from the same home town, and travel back to it together. Homer is the first to arrive home and his reunion with his family is marked by a mixture of happiness and uncertainty. He’s lost both hands and he and his loved ones are tentative as they approach each other. No amount of training could prepare him or the other men for the human element of returning home, for the way people will treat them and the ways that they’re almost strangers to people they’ve known all their lives.

Al is the next to go home, and his return is one of the great moments in cinema as he walks in the door and puts his finger to his lips so that his children won’t announce his presence. His wife, Milly (Myrna Loy), calls from the kitchen to ask who was at the door and slowly realizes that it must be Al. She goes into the hallway, looks at him for a moment, and then runs into his arms. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Fred has a less welcoming homecoming when he finds that the woman he married before going overseas is nowhere to be found.

Soon after returning home, the intensity of these domestic scenes becomes too much for all three men and they find themselves at the bar owned by Homer’s uncle. After Homer leaves, Fred and Al, along with Milly and their daughter, Peggy, (Teresa Wright), spread the party over the rest of the town until Milly and Peggy can finally convince the two men that enough’s enough and bring them home to get some sleep. Fred ends up at Al and Milly’s house after being unable to gain entry to his own (his wife is still MIA), and when he’s awakened the next morning by Peggy, it’s the beginning of a love affair, though neither knows it yet.

The lives of the three men have been irrevocably altered during the war and each struggles to be relevant in a changed world. Al was a banker before and returns to his job now charged with the task of granting or refusing loans to men returned from overseas. A conflict arises in him because the banker in him knows that his first client is a bad risk, but the serviceman in him wants to give him a chance. He grants the loan and is forced to explain himself: “I tell you this man Novak is okay. His ‘collateral’ is in his hands, in his heart and his guts. It’s in his right as a citizen.” This is one of many instances where the film is critical of the treatment of veterans, expressing that anyone who risks their life for their country has the right to return to it and be repaid. Another moment comes when Fred returns to his former workplace, seeking a better job than the one he had before. The manager tells him that since he has no applicable training, he can’t be promoted to a higher position. Fred points out that he was fighting in a war during the time he might have had training, but the manager is unmoved. Fred walks out but is eventually forced to return and accept his old job working as a soda jerk in order to support himself and his wife, Marie (Virginia Mayo). The scene where the film is most critical of public reception of veterans comes when a stranger expresses to Homer that he lost his hands for nothing, that the war was pointless and driven by corrupt governmental powers. This is a striking moment, especially when seen today, and one of many which keeps the film seeming so fresh.

Director William Wyler brilliantly guides the film towards the right notes and never allows the material to become heavy handed or preachy. When Fred reconnects with his wife, we sense immediately that both were so caught up in the romantic idea of Fred going to war and coming home to Marie that neither really bothered getting to know the other. Marie likes Fred’s uniform, which he of course no longer has a reason to wear, while Fred wants a down-to-earth wife, which Marie, who likes to party, certainly is not. What Fred wants, he later discovers, is to be with Peggy. She wants the same and announces to her parents one night that she intends to break up Fred’s marriage. Her parents are understandably unhappy about this but receive the news calmly and the scene leads to a great speech by Loy about the struggle to maintain a relationship. Loy and March are the steady, solid force that grounds the story and both get a number of scenes in which to demonstrate their considerable talents. One of my favourite moments from March comes after Peggy’s announcement, when Al goes to meet Fred. They sit across the table from each other and have a clipped conversation in which a couple of things are established: 1. Al doesn’t like the idea of Peggy running around with a married man; 2. Al wants to remain friends with Fred, but not if he puts Peggy in a compromising position; and 3. Al ultimately recognizes that Peggy has become an adult in his absence and understands that he has to let her make her own mistakes. It’s a terrific scene that exposes the complexities of the relationship between the two friends as well as the relationship between father and daughter.

This is a wonderful and moving film with too many fantastic moments to name. If forced to choose the most powerful, I would have to say it’s the scene where Homer shows his fiancée Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) just what his night time ritual entails, when he must remove his hooks and be “helpless as a baby” until someone can put them back on for him again in the morning. This scene transcends mere fiction because it was a fact of Harold Russell’s life. I dare you to try to watch it without getting misty.

The Best Picture Countdown #18: The Lost Weekend (1945)

Director: Billy Wilder
Starring: Ray Milland, Jane Wyman

The Lost Weekend is arguably Billy Wilder’s darkest film. It is almost unrelentingly grim (though it does have a happy-ish, if not entirely believable ending), swirling ever deeper into the depths as it follows protagonist Don Birnam (Ray Milland) on an odyssey of self-destruction. With his characteristic skill, Wilder guides us on this journey, ultimately winning two Oscars (for directing and writing) for his efforts.

The story begins with Don supposedly on the road to recovery. After manipulating his brother Wick (Phillip Terry) and girlfriend, Helen (Jane Wyman), into leaving him alone, however, he heads straight to one of his favourite bars. Disappointed, Wick more or less gives up on his brother and encourages Helen to do the same, but that’s easier said than done because, despite his problems, she loves him. Despite his problems, he loves her, too, and he recounts the story of how they met to a bartender. Don’s anxieties run deep, so deep that he sees himself as having been split in two: Don the writer, and Don the drunk. The two personalities are at odds with one another but intractably linked, as Don can only form ideas when he’s drunk but forgets them when he’s sober.

Don’s feelings of low self-worth drives as wedge between him and Helen, as he encourages her to break things off lest he drag her down with him, but she remains determined to stand by him, even as things get increasingly worse. He steals a woman’s purse to buy booze and is caught, he tries to pawn his typewriter, he takes a bad fall down a flight of stairs and ends up in the hospital, where he falls into the care of the alcoholics’ ward. After escaping he gets right back to drinking, suffering from horrible hallucinations, and considers suicide.

Made during the time of the Production Code, The Lost Weekend isn’t quite as brutally candid as a film like Leaving Las Vegas, but it is quite harrowing nevertheless. The scene where Don hallucinates seeing a mouse being attacked by a bat is still effective today, though of course it’s not graphic by today’s standards. Milland’s performance, entirely without vanity and full of weariness at his character’s self-defeating choices, is really excellent and certainly worthy of the Best Actor Oscar he won. Playing drunk is notoriously difficult because, of course, it invites over-acting and mugging. Milland keeps the character from becoming caricature and renders a lived-in performance that perfectly suites the seen-it-all/done-it-all attitude of the character.

For the most part the film unfolds with a gritty sense of realism (well, as gritty and real as a film made under the strict rules of the studio system could possibly be) but the ending is another matter. Don rallies, combining his two personas into one by writing about his experiences as a drunk (rather than allowing his experiences as a drunk to supplant his work as a writer) in a novel called “The Bottle.” It appears that he’s on the wagon and finally on the way to fulfilling his promise as an artist. Part of me thinks that this ending is too easy, that someone who is in as deeply as Don couldn’t crawl out just on the strength of his love for Helen and her love for him. On the other hand, I also wonder whether this is meant to be a true resolution. Perhaps this is just another occasion where Don will pull himself together for a brief period and then go right back to square one. After all, the final shot mirrors the first, focusing on the bottle of booze he has suspended outside of his window. So, is it triumph or is it another tragedy waiting to happen? I suppose that’s up to the viewer.

The Best Picture Countdown #16: Casablanca (1942)

Note: this post is modified from a previously published post

Director: Michael Curtiz
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Raines

You must remember this: the enduring tale of love and sacrifice, of wartime politics and subterfuge, noble men and scoundrels, and Rick’s Cafe Americain – the original bar where everyone knew your name. Casablanca is a movie with a little something for everyone, a thoroughly satisfying film for the romantic and the cynic alike.

Whether you’ve seen the film or not, the plot ought to be familiar to you: Casablanca, located in French Morocco, is one of the stops along the way for those wishing to flee the Nazis and take refuge in the US. Rick’s Cafe Americain is the local hot spot, owned by Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) and frequented by Captain Louis Renault (Claude Raines) and black market dealer Ugarte (Peter Lorre), amongst scores of others waiting and plotting their escapes from Casablanca. As the story begins there are three new arrivals in Casablanca: the German Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt), concentration camp escapee Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), and Laszlo’s wife, Isla (Ingrid Bergman). Strasser has come to ensure that Laszlo, a resistance figure, doesn’t make it to America. Laszlo and Isla were meant to get the letters of transit which would allow their escape through Ugarte, who is arrested before he can sell them but not before he can give them to Rick for safe keeping. When Laszlo and Isla come to make the deal, Rick is confronted with his past, having loved and lost Isla in Paris. Now Rick, who has been determined not to stick his neck out for anybody, must decide whether it’s worth it to put himself in danger to help Laszlo, and Isla must decide what she’s willing to sacrifice (or not, depending on how you look at it) to ensure that Laszlo gets out of Casablanca.

Casablanca is about a lot of things, but it seems to me that above all else, it’s the story of desperation. The people in Casablanca are all desperate to get out, to get on to the States, and one of the film’s subplots involves a woman who agrees to a liaison with Renault in exchange for his agreeing to help her and her husband to flee. Laszlo is desperate to escape the Nazis and continue his work. Rick and Isla are desperate in their love for each other – but each is also desperate for something else, too. Isla wants to make sure that Laszlo is able to continue his work, for which she admires him so greatly, and Rick, despite his hard shell and his roguish pose, wants to do the right thing.

Isla’s relationships with Rick and Laszlo are, of course, the central focus of the story. Isla loves Rick but she worships Laszlo, whom she had thought was dead when she and Rick met in Paris. In certain respects, Isla is an empty character, an object to be bartered over by the two strong male figures who will determine her fate, but in the hands of the luminous Bergman, the character is given depth and dimension. Henreid, as Laszlo, has a role that ought to be thankless – the spotless hero and cuckold – but he, too, makes more of it than what is present on the page. There is a great scene early on when Laszlo and Isla discuss all the times when they might have gone their separate ways but instead stayed together that demonstrates why Laszlo is a legitimate rival for Rick, rather than just a device of the plot.

Bogart has the film’s best role (though Raines runs a close second as the shady but ultimately sentimental Renault) as a man who puts on a tough show, but is really a romantic on the inside. He’s quick to tell people that he’s out for number one, that he cares about himself and himself alone, but what he consistently shows is that he cares a great deal about other people and wants to help them. Sure, he doesn’t lift a finger to help Ugarte when Renault decides to round up “the usual suspects” in an effort to track down those two missing letters of transit, but he does help the woman who was willing to prostitute herself to Renault by ensuring that her husband wins big at the roulette table, and he has a history of fighting the good fight, even if he does insist that he only did it for the money. Further, when he’s making plans to sell the cafe, he makes sure that his employees will all be well taken care of. Rick is a really well-rounded character and through the course of the film he truly earns the right to make that great and selfless speech to Isla, the one about three people whose problems don’t amount to a hill of beans in the grand scheme of things.

From a technical point of view, the film is perfectly crafted, unfolding at a brisk pace, without ever taking a wrong turn, without a single moment that is out of place. It’s one of the most quotable movies I’ve ever seen (from “Here’s looking at you, kid” and “We’ll always have Paris” to “We haven't quite decided yet whether he committed suicide or died trying to escape,” hardly a scene goes by without at least one priceless line) and its story is compelling, as demonstrated by the number of times it’s been cribbed by other films, television shows and stories. There isn’t a second of this film that I don’t cherish and adore. To me, this is absolutely and without a doubt, the best movie ever made.

The Best Picture Countdown #15: Mrs. Miniver (1942)

Director: William Wyler
Starring: Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, Terea Wright

There is no shortage of perspectives from which to tell a story about war. Most films tell war stories from the point of view of the soldiers, some from the point of view of politicians. William Wyler’s Mrs. Miniver tells its story from the perspective of a community. Centering mostly on the Miniver family but extending to their friends and neighbours as well, the film examines the effects of war on the home front with all its inherent adventures, dramas, and losses.

The Miniver family is made up of Kay (Greer Garson) and her husband Clem (Walter Pidgeon) and their children Vin (Richard Ney), Toby (Christopher Severn) and Judy (Clare Sandars). They live in a house called “Starlings” just outside of London and enjoy the trappings of a comfortable, upper middle class lifestyle. Vin, home from university, meets Carol Beldon (Teresa Wright), granddaughter of the village’s grand dame Lady Beldon (Dame May Whitty), with whom he has one of those relationships that start with clever sniping and evolve into love. They marry but then World War II breaks out and he joins the air force, where he is fortunately posted close to home.

Meanwhile, the rest of the family experiences their own adventures. Clem participates in the Dunkirk evacuation along with other locals who have boats, Kay is temporarily held hostage by a wounded German pilot, and the annual flower competition engrosses the village when the local station master, Ballard (Henry Travers), defeats Lady Beldon with his entry, named for Mrs. Miniver. Shortly after his win, however, Ballard is killed in an air raid which also claims the life of Carol and damages the local church, where a service is held for those the community has lost and the vicar delivers a sermon reaffirming the spirit of the people and the necessity of continuing the fight. “This is not only a war of soldiers in uniform,” he solemnly intones, “It is the war of the people, of all the people. And it must be fought not only on the battlefield but in the cities and in the villages, in the factories and on the farms, in the home and in the heart of every man, woman and child who loves freedom.”

The story unfolds mostly as a series of vignettes, which is an effective way to tell this particular story as it provides a sense of open-endedness, of us simply looking in on a part of the community’s life, which will continue beyond the edges of the film. This is a story that feels intensely personal because it concerns itself so deeply with the day-to-day lives and relationships of these people. In many respects it captures that same feeling of Wyler’s next effort (also a Best Picture winner) The Best Years of Our Lives and that’s what helps it resonate so deeply. It’s about ordinary people trying to carry on with their lives in extraordinary circumstances, which is what makes it so engaging.

Garson won an Oscar for her portrayal of Mrs. Miniver (and married on-screen son Ney in 1943) and would reprise her role in the film’s sequel, 1950’s The Miniver Story. She delivers a solid performance, exuding the kind of quiet strength that makes it easy to understand how the community has sort of built itself around her. There’s no flash or histrionics, just a great actress playing a great character whose very ordinariness makes her so compelling.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Best Picture Countdown #14: How Green Was My Valley (1941)

Note: this post modified from a previously published post

Director: John Ford
Starring: Roddy McDowell, Maureen O'Hara, Walter Pidgeon, Donald Crisp

How Green Was My Valley often gets a bad rap for having the misfortune of winning Best Picture in the year that Citizen Kane was also nominated. There are a number of people who like to huff and puff about this and declare it the worst Best Picture win ever, as if the Academy doesn’t have an overwhelming tendency to reward stately, well-constructed epics over subversive films that are ahead of their time (Seriously. When has this ever not happened?). Judged strictly on its own terms as a film, How Green... is a fine achievement, a family saga and an elegy to a way of life in the process of fading away.

The events of the film are narrated to us after the fact by the grown Huw Morgan (played superbly by Roddy McDowell), filtered through the gauzy veil of childhood perceptions and memories. Huw grows up in a picturesque Welsh valley where the majority of the men work up the hill at the coal mine, including his father, Gwilym (Donald Crisp) and his five older brothers. The work is hard, but everyone is happy, albeit in a formal, Victorian way punctuated by strict Victorian manners. When I saw the film for the first time, I was actually quite distracted by the rigid quality of the relationships between members of the family and chalked it up to a shortcoming on the part of the actors. As the film progressed, however, I realized that the formality has more to do with the particular cadence of the people in the valley and by the end I didn’t even notice it. Still, it is something that you have to get used to.

When the mine owners begin to lower wages, the problems in the valley begin. Gwilym is prepared to accept the change, confident in his belief that a man will always be able to earn what he’s worth. His sons, however, begin talking about forming a union and quickly gain the support of other workers, who agree to a strike. The strike is long and divisive and many people turn against Gwilym, who had opposed it. When the matter is eventually resolved, not all the striking workers are able to return to the mine, their places having been given to others. Two of these men are Huw’s brothers, who decide to set off for the US and thus begin the dissolution of the Morgan family. In time Huw’s eldest brother, Ivor, will be killed in the mine and his two remaining brothers will find themselves out of work and setting off for foreign lands, leaving only Huw, his parents, and Ivor’s widow Bronwyn (Anna Lee) and her baby in the valley.

Though the film is primarily concerned with the way that changes in industry and production have impacted the family unit, issues of class and manners are also at the forefront. Huw has a sister, Angharad (Maureen O’Hara) who is in love with the local preacher, Mr. Gruffyd (Walter Pidgeon). Because he has little money, he won’t pursue a relationship with her and encourages her to accept a wealthy suitor. She marries the wealthy man and moves with him to New Zealand, only to return to the valley alone. Gossip spreads through the valley about her relationship with Gruffyd, rooted less in their behaviour towards one another than in the jealousy of the wealthy family’s servants towards the miner’s daughter and the blood-thirsty attitude of other members of the parish who are ready and willing to heap scorn on anyone who doesn’t conform to social rules. That the two people at the center of the storm in this case are a "social climber" and a preacher who likes to espouse new/liberal ideas only makes them more eager to ostracize them. Class and manners come into play again when Huw has the opportunity to attend a fancy school where his origins make him a subject of mockery by both the other students and his teacher. Huw excels as a student and Gwilym, sensing the way things are fundamentally and irrevocably changing, encourages him to pursue a career as a scholar to get himself out of the valley, though Huw wishes to stay and work in the mine like the rest of his family.

Directed by the great John Ford, the film is well-paced and surprisingly compact given all that happens in it. The story comments on a number of social issues but does so with a great deal of subtlety, suggesting more than it says and not bashing you over the head with a series of blunt points. Before seeing it I thought that it might be hokey, but it ends up being very effective, particularly in its sad final act. This is a really well-made film in both its artistic and technical aspects and while, in hindsight, not the correct choice for Best Picture in 1941, it is nevertheless a fine achievement and a fine example of Ford's skill as a filmmaker.

The Best Picture Countdown #12: Gone with the Wind (1939)

Note: this post is modified from a previously published post

Director: Victor Flemming
Starring: Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Leslie Howard, Olivia de Havilland

To say that Gone with the Wind is a problematic film is an understatement. Its depiction of slavery is abhorrent, but it’s important to keep in mind that this isn’t meant to be a history lesson. This is an epic romance which takes place in a fairytale South that never existed, a fact which is apparent in its foreword, which states: “Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind…” With that as the set-up, you can’t expect to get anything other than a severely white-washed look at the era of American slavery. The world depicted in this film isn’t really worth exploring except for the way that it acts as a backdrop for one of the best characters of fiction, Scarlett O’Hara (played by the fabulous Vivien Leigh).

I find it strange whenever a woman describes herself as being “a traditional Southern woman, like Scarlett O’Hara,” because the entire point of Scarlett is that she’s not your typical woman - Southern or otherwise. Melanie (Olivia de Havilland) is the epitome of the nice, Southern woman while Scarlett is the iconoclast, a woman constantly going against the grain. But it’s easy to understand why women would want to identify themselves with Scarlett, a woman who isn’t entirely likeable but who is cunning, who gets things done and who is, most importantly, a survivor. This isn’t a woman who shuts down and waits to be rescued; she pulls herself up and gets things done while the women around her (especially her sisters) whine and cry. Scarlett’s drive and self-sufficiency are admirable and no doubt a large part of why and how she entered into cultural mythology, especially when you take into account that both the novel and the film entered public consciousness during the Depression. When Scarlett said, “Tomorrow is another day,” she wasn’t just speaking for herself; she was speaking for everyone living a day-to-day existence.

Personally, I love Scarlett. Is she selfish? Yes. Is she a bitch? You bet. But every time she’s swatted down, she just gets back up again, more determined than ever. She’s also kind of hilarious. The relationship between Scarlett and Rhett (Clark Gable) is one of my favourites in film because, despite the heavier scenes, there is a wonderful lightness and camaraderie between them. Rhett doesn’t just put up with her crap, he’s amused by it. He enjoys her little temper tantrums, her attempts at manipulation, and her need to be spoiled coincides nicely with his desire to spoil her (one of my favourite scenes between them takes place just after they’ve married and Scarlett is shovelling food into her mouth like it’s going out of style and Rhett jovially suggests that she might want to slow down).

However, as wonderful as the chemistry between Leigh and Gable is, it also presents something of a problem because it makes it all the more inconceivable that Scarlett could spend as much time as she does hung up on drippy Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard). It is believable to me that Scarlett would use the idea that she’s infatuated with Ashley to get under Rhett’s skin, but it takes a real suspension of disbelief to buy that Scarlett would sincerely want Ashley, who is such a non-entity that it’s surprising that even Melanie wants him. Howard apparently didn’t want the role, which perhaps explains the lack of “there” there, and his depiction of Ashley really does hurt the movie.

Of course, there are a lot of things that hurt this movie. It doesn’t particularly bother me that Scarlett is the heroine of the film and also a slave owner, because few things irritate me more than slavery/Civil War era films where a character is coded as “good” by being a Southern plantation owner whose slaves are free and work his or her land voluntarily – that’s an easy way out and not very realistic. I think it’s okay that Scarlett is a product of her time and place, a time and place where she would have been raised thinking that it was natural that she should be able to “own” other human beings, regardless of how wrong that concept actually is. Besides which, Scarlett is so self-centered that she probably assumes that everyone, black and white, male and female, is working for her in some capacity. That being said, however, the film’s depiction of slaves is deeply problematic, with the slave characters being either infantilized creatures with no hope of being able to take care of themselves (a character like Prissy), or cheerful people without any particular desire to be “freed,” who seem to want nothing more than to take care of the exasperating white people in their lives (a character like Mammy). If there is any depth to the slave characters, and in the case of Mammy there certainly is, it is due entirely to the actors. Hattie McDaniel, who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, brings shades to Mammy that wouldn’t otherwise exist and makes it almost believable that she’d stick with Scarlett to the bitter end.

There are other problems, too. At 238 minutes, this is a long movie that manages to feel even longer than it actually is. The pacing of the film is bad, perhaps because it went through three directors (Victor Flemming, the credited director and the one who was given the Oscar, as well as George Cukor and Sam Wood, both of whom are uncredited for their work), but also because I suspect that this might be a case of too literal an adaptation. Admittedly, I’ve never read the book Gone With The Wind and I know that certain things were cut out (like the fact that Scarlett had children with all her husbands, not just Rhett), but whenever I watch this, it just seems like the screenwriters were determined to cram everything from the book into the movie, which results in a film that tends to drag in places. There are some great sequences (the burning of Atlanta, the scenes immediately following the end of the war, that great shot where the camera pans back to show the wounded soldiers) but in between there are long stretches that seem to take days to watch. I have no problem calling this film a masterpiece, but it is a qualified masterpiece if ever there was one.

The Performances: Christian Bale in The Fighter

It has been said by some critics that audiences like acting they can see, which is why we tend to respond to characters who suffer from disabilities or addictions that take a physical toll, and actors whose roles require accents. I don't necessarily disagree with that concept (we all know Oscar bait when we see it, right?), but I do disagree with the related idea that an actor who takes on such a role is taking shortcuts. As Christian Bale's performance as crack addict Dickie Ecklund in The Fighter demonstrates, those supposed acting crutches can be simply one of the building blocks for a character and not the thing that defines it.

Dickie is a screw up. There's really no denying it, though his family still thinks that he hung the moon, particularly his mother. He's sustained himself on former glory, still existing in the moment when he beat Sugar Ray in the ring, and walks through his neighborhood as if he owns it; he's the king and everyone else is his subject. This delusion of grandeur/total disconnect from reality is like a shield that protects him from having to see the truth. As long as he doesn't look past the sheild, he doesn't have to admit that he's thrown everything away, that he's wasted his potential, that he's amounting to nothing.

But, every once in a while, he's forced to look beyond the shield. When his family shows up to retrieve him from the crack house he's known to frequent, for example, he attempts to run away. His panic is less the result of his worry that his family will know what he's been up to, but that seeing him in this environment will finally force them to confront him with that knowledge. Later still, he sees himself for what he is when the documentary - supposedly about his "comeback" - airs and he freaks out, confronted with the way people outside of his family view him. Bale's performance conveys not just a simple struggle with drugs, but the complex psychological effects of his character's addiction. Dickie is at once a character who is hard to pin down, his behavior dependent on the amount of time that has passed since his last fix, and terribly predictable. When he walks out the door with a certain kind of swagger, you know where he's going to end up.

Bale gets a lot of big, dramatic moments to play throughout The Fighter and he plays those very effectively, but he also gets quieter moments that make just as deep an impression. The scene in which he swallows what pride he has left and goes to see Charlene (Amy Adams) to bury the hatchet is one of the best in the film and it displays a side of Dickie that we haven't yet been privy to. There's a great little moment during this scene when Charlene questions Dickie about what he's got all over his arm and he responds offhandedly that it's icing. No further explanation, just a simple statement as if the rest of the story should be obvious. There are times during The Fighter when you could argue that Bale's performance is mannered (though I would disagree), but there are also moments like that one where the performance feels so natural, so authentic that you aren't looking at an actor, but a fully fleshed character.

The Best Picture Countdown #10: The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

Note: this post modified from a previously published post

Director: William Dieterle
Starring: Paul Muni

“What does it matter if an individual is shattered if only justice is resurrected?” Though ostensibly a biopic, The Life of Emile Zola is really only concerned with Zola’s life insofar as it facilitates an exploration of the principle at the heart of this question. As a man of means and access to a public forum, Zola sees it as his duty to shine a light on injustice, even if it puts himself at risk. The film is much more concerned with the idea of exposing corruption for the good of society than it is with the facts of Zola’s life, though it does go through the motions of a few conventions of the biopic genre.

The story begins with Zola (Paul Muni) as a starving young artist, burning the pages he’s written La Boheme-style for warmth. The film more or less ploughs through his early years, giving us glimpses of the work he does as a journalist which in turn inspires his novels. Those novels make him wealthy but also put him on the radar of people in power, who see him as an agitator with a troubling habit of exposing the various ways that the aristocracy takes advantage of the lower classes. Zola won’t be silenced by threats and keeps on writing gritty, realistic stories which expose the nasty underbelly of society, eventually becoming an influential and respected man of letters. Just as Zola is settling into a quiet life out of the public eye, Alfred Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut) is arrested and tried for treason.

It will be years before Zola actually becomes involved in Dreyfus’ defence, years that Dreyfus spends imprisoned on an island, his clothes becoming rags, bugs infesting his cell. Mrs. Dreyfus (Gale Sondergaard) is eventually able to appeal to Zola by showing him proof that not only was her husband framed, but that officers of the highest rank are aware of it and, indeed, helped to accomplish it. Zola publishes his famous “I Accuse” paper which results in the military taking him to court and the pubic turning violently against him. The trial is a joke, destined to find Zola guilty and exonerate the military of any wrongdoing, but Zola maintains his cool throughout and when the time comes, delivers a speech imploring the jury to save the army by holding it accountable for the crimes committed in its name. Zola loses the trial but, as he states, “truth is on the march” and once the truth starts to come out, there’s no stopping it.

The movie plays fast and loose with history, but that doesn’t particularly bother me. History unfolds in a calamitous way that doesn’t lend itself easily to narrative, particularly to the more compact narratives required in film. So, if a movie needs to nip and tuck the facts for the sake of telling a good story, I think that’s forgivable. That being said, I think it’s a bit disingenuous for the film to make such a show of championing truth when it goes out of its way to avoid mentioning anti-Semitism, which was the defining factor in the real Dreyfus’ persecution. There is a brief mention that Dreyfus is Jewish, but the issue is thereafter glossed over, which is a shame since a real exploration of the issue would have added depth to the story and made it all the more powerful.

While Zola is without question the protagonist of the film, I don’t think that it should necessarily be considered a biopic because the only real purpose of the scenes depicting Zola’s early life are to establish him as a man who holds the pursuit of truth in the highest regard. The centrepiece of the story – the trial and, in particular, Zola’s speech about the right of the people to call those in power to account – isn’t about Zola at all, but military corruption. That speech, it must be said, is very effectively rendered. Director William Dieterle places the camera where the jury box would be so that Muni delivers the speech directly to the audience and he speaks so eloquently and authoritatively that it’s easily one of the best speeches in film. Muni, who plays Zola as both a young and an old man, is effective throughout but seems to be most alive as the older Zola, which makes it all the more unfortunate that the film doesn’t limit its focus solely to the Dreyfus affair.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Best Picture Countdown #9: The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

Director: Robert Z. Leonard
Starring: William Powell, Myrna Loy, Luise Rainer

Oscar is no stranger to big, lavish productions and Robert Z. Leonard’s The Great Ziegfeld is certainly one of the biggest and most lavish. This musical biopic of the larger than life show biz impresario Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. charts his hard-fought rise in the early 20th Century and his sad decline during The Great Depression. Carried by a marvellous performance by William Powell, The Great Ziegfeld is a greatly entertaining film.

The story begins in 1893 at the Chicago World’s Fair, where Ziegfeld, with a clever bit of marketing, draws crowds to see his strongman Sandow (Nat Pendleton). His main competition, both at the fair and throughout the story, is Billings (Frank Morgan), whom he always finds a way to best, both in business and in love. When Billings goes to Europe to sign French performer Anna Held (Luise Rainer), Ziegfeld is close on his heels and ends up charming Anna into signing with him instead. The scene in which this happens features a funny exchange between Powell and Rainer, as he regales her with stories about how he’ll make her famous and she keeps trying to bring the subject around to how much he’ll pay her for her efforts.

Back in New York, Ziegfeld and Anna marry and he begins The Ziegfield Follies, which brings him a great deal of professional success (though not necessarily financial success as he always seems to be on the verge of going broke due to his lifestyle and the sheer scope of his productions) but starts to drive a wedge between him and Anna. The Follies is known for its beautiful performers and Ziegfeld is well-known for mentoring beautiful women, one of whom is Audrey Dane (Virginia Bruce), an alcoholic whom Ziegfeld ultimately gives up on because she’s so unreliable. Eventually Anna leaves Ziegfeld (Audrey follows shortly thereafter) and he falls in love with Billie Burke (Myrna Loy). Ziegfeld and Billie marry and have a daughter but his career is on the way down. Public taste has changed and his shows aren’t making the money they used to. He rallies briefly, managing to put on four hits on Broadway at once, but when the stock market crashes, he goes bankrupt and falls ill. Later he dies, still imagining how he’ll turn it around and put on the best show yet.

The Great Ziegfeld never seems to come up in discussions of the best movie musicals which astounds me given the number of lavish, elaborate and staggeringly ambitious musical numbers staged throughout. The “A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody” number, in particular, is amazing both for its scope and its execution. The only bad thing about the musical numbers is that they don’t actually advance the plot. The musical numbers act simply as demonstrations of Ziegfeld’s audacity and vision, which would be fine were it not for the fact that so much time is devoted to them that you sometimes start to feel anxious to get back to the actual story.

Part of the reason why one would feel anxious to get back to the story is that the actors are so good. Rainer won the first of her two Oscars for her performance here and the scene in which she learns that Ziegfeld has married Billie and calls him to offer her congratulations is really moving. Loy’s performance as Ziegfeld’s more practical second wife (who in real life would go on to play Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz) is also solid and it goes without saying that she and Powell play off each other marvellously (though this character isn’t nearly as sharp as Nora Charles). Fanny Brice makes a brief appearance playing herself in a sequence of scenes that marks one of the film’s many highlights. But, the real star is Powell who delivers a charming and, towards the end, heartbreaking performance. The final scene between Ziegfeld and Billings, both of whom have been ruined by the market crash but are pretending that they’re still on top of the world, is arguably the film’s best. They make tentative plans to go to Europe and find new talent, to keep their rivalry going, but it’s all too apparent that they’re really just building castles in the sand and that they both know it. It’s a sad, terrible end for two great showmen and those final moments really resonate. The Great Ziegfeld isn’t as celebrated now as it was at the time of its release, but it’s a really entertaining film that holds up quite well.

The Best Picture Countdown #7: It Happened One Night (1934)

Note: this post modified from a previously published post

Director: Frank Capra
Starring: Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert

The modern romantic comedy has its roots in this film, but after seventy years has not improved on the effortless charm of It Happened One Night. Propelled forward by the theory that opposites attract and various romantic misunderstandings, this is not simply one of the best comedies ever made, but one of the best films ever made. Well acted, tightly plotted, and sure-footed in its direction, it offers everything you could want in a cinematic experience.

Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) is an heiress whose father has just annulled her hasty marriage to a fortune hunter. Tired of having her father dictate her life, she runs away (by jumping off a yacht) and goes on the run, determined to teach her father a lesson. On a bus she meets Peter Warne (Clarke Gable), a reporter who agrees to help her reunite with her would-be husband in exchange for an exclusive. Various things happen on the way to New York, including an overnight stay in a cabin divided down the middle by a sheet Peter refers to as the Walls of Jericho, an attempt at hitchhiking (probably the most famous scene of the film), a night spent sleeping under the stars, and a misunderstanding which results in Ellie thinking that Peter has abandoned her and agreeing to go home, then passing him on the road as he’s on his way back to her.

The chemistry between Gable and Colbert is great, with him playing your average Joe, and her playing a pampered princess. The film is at its best when it’s just the two of them onscreen, whether it’s the aforementioned hitchhiking scene (“I’ve proved once and for all that the limb is mightier than the thumb,” she tells him after stopping traffic by showing a little leg), the scene where Peter shows Ellie how a man undresses, or when he schools her in how to dunk a donut (“Where’d you learn to dunk? Finishing school?”). The best is the sequence when they camp out under the stars and she wakes up alone and thinks he’s gone off without her. He returns, revealing that he went looking for food because he knew she was hungry. In this scene we see them begin to realize that they’re in love with each other (although we realize it long before), even though neither is prepared to inform the other of this fact. Ellie still thinks Peter sees her as a ditzy, spoiled brat, and Peter still thinks Ellie believes she’s too good for him. After Ellie finally does admit to Peter that she loves him, he sneaks out while she’s sleeping to go to New York and sell his exclusive story in order to get enough money to propose to her when he returns. However, when he returns to where he left Ellie, he realizes too late that his car has passed her father’s limousine – with her in it – on the way home. Mr. Andrews has agreed to let Ellie marry the fortune hunter, but is hopeful that he can prevent the marriage when he learns that she’s fallen in love with someone else. Mr. Andrews appeals to Peter to stop the wedding, but Peter refuses.
Peter: A normal human being couldn’t live under the same roof with her without going nutty. She’s my idea of nothing.
Andrews: I asked you a simple question! Do you love her?
Peter: Yes! But don’t hold that against me. I’m a little screwy myself.

Gable and Colbert are wonderful here, each providing depth to characters who could easily have been little more than cardboard cut-outs or caricatures. In the camping under the stars sequence in particular both actors are able to convey the complexities of what their characters feel for each other, both the push and the pull. As a director, Frank Capra succeeds by seeming to sit back and allow the action to take place. Nothing in the film feels forced; it all flows so easily. Compare this film to other romantic comedies, where it can occasionally seem like a monumental effort must be made in order to get the lovers together. Here it just seems so natural, the plot moved forward with a lightness of touch that is amazing when you consider how precisely structured the film actually is. It begins and ends with Ellie eloping and with her running away (in the first instance, she runs after eloping, in the second she runs away to elope), and the ending recreates the Walls of Jericho scene, which takes place at the campground which previously kicked Ellie and Peter out because they weren’t married. There’s a lot of repetition/recreation in the story.

There’s so much to love about this movie. It’s smart and funny and perfectly cast. It succeeds because it allows you to get to know Ellie and Peter as people, rather than just as vehicles for comedy, and it’s one of the film’s great strengths that the comedic moments between Peter and Ellie arise naturally out of their different experiences, rather than being forced on them for the convenience of the script. There’s a reason why seventy-six years after its release this film still seems so fresh: it’s just that good.

Friday's Top 5... Worst Snubs of 2010

#5: Olivia Williams for Best Supporting Actress

Yeah, I know she didn't have a chance of getting a nomination, but still. She was so good.

#4: Ryan Gosling for Best Actor

At least co-star Michelle Williams got a nomination. It would've been nice to see Gosling slip in there too, though.

#3: Inception for Best Editing

Recognizing Inception for its editing seems like it should be a no brainer. And yet... here we are.

#2: Andrew Garfield for Best Supporting Actor

As the one who gets left behind, Andrew Garfield provides the heart to the otherwise chilly The Social Network. He gives a really great performance here (and another in Never Let Me Go) and deserved some recognition for it.

#1: Christopher Nolan for Best Director

Did Christopher Nolan run over someone's dog or something? How is it that a director can received three nominations from the Directors Guild without ever once getting an Oscar nomination? Madness!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Best Picture Countdown #5: Grand Hotel (1932)

Note: this post has been modified from a previously published post

Director: Edmund Goulding
Starring: Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery

Edmund Goulding’s Grand Hotel is far from the best film to ever win Best Picture, but it is one of the more charming winners. This is a movie that could be remade today, set at any time and in any place, and work. There are aspects to the film which date it, but the overall arc and themes of the story are timeless.

Grand Hotel is a film about lonely people seeking connection. Grusinskaya (Greta Garbo) is a prima ballerina who longs “to be alone” not because she isn’t lonely, but because she’s surrounded by people who want only to use her for personal gain. Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore) is a dying man who has decided to spend his last days spoiling himself with the best that life has to offer, but finds that the best things are nothing when you have no one to share them with. The Baron (John Barrymore) has turned to a life of petty theft now that his funds have run out. People seem drawn to him, though he confesses to Kringelein that he has no friends.

The film begins with a series of establishing shots, showing the various characters on the phone, each stating his or her purpose in the Grand Hotel. There’s much talk about Grusinskaya, a famous ballerina in the midst of a deep depression. This is a character who is built up for a while before we actually encounter her, no doubt because Garbo is the biggest star in the film. Her early scenes evoke sadness – playing to half-empty houses where no one applauds, knowing that people are more interested in her as a person (the side of herself that she doesn’t want to share) than her as an artist (the side of herself that she does). This is one of the more autobiographical roles Garbo ever played. The laments seem to come easily to her, probably because she made them in real life as well. Later, Grusinskaya and the Baron will spend a night together talking (the Baron has broken into her room to steal jewellery and reveals himself in order to keep her from committing suicide). They fall in love and make plans to start fresh together somewhere else. Suddenly there is lightness to Grusinskaya’s scenes – Garbo dances around the room, full of joy. She and Barrymore play well off each other, though she eclipses him in all their scenes together. That being said, since he’s the thread that weaves all the stories together, it doesn’t much matter that he plays second fiddle to Garbo in their scenes, since he gets so many other opportunities to shine.

Barrymore and Garbo have good chemistry, but so do Barrymore and Crawford as Ms. Flaemmchen, a secretary for hire whose hard luck will eventually lead her to accept an indecent proposal from the film’s villain, Preysing (Wallace Beery). The Baron and Flaemmchen become friends, and so do the Baron and Kringelein, the former bookkeeper at Preysing’s factory. Kringlelein is all at once the saddest, happiest and funniest of the characters, which is no small feat and a credit to the abilities of Lionel Barrymore. He’s a man who has scrimped and saved and denied himself all his life and now that he’s dying, wants to spend all his money. He demands the largest room in the hotel, he buys new clothes, he orders champagne… then discovers that happiness isn’t so much what you have, as who you share it with. His attempts to live the high life seem gauche when compared to the Baron, who is so smooth and elegant. However, when compared to Preysing, who is rich but a lout, Kringelein almost seems debonair. Preysing uses his wealth to bully people; Kringelein uses what is left of his money to try to make people happy – he does nothing in this film that he doesn’t want to share with someone else and you don’t get the sense that he’s trying to buy companionship as much as you think that he finally feels that he’s worth spending time with.

There are plenty of stars in this film, but it’s not really a vehicle for any one of them; this is truly an ensemble, which is the only way the film could possibly work. The major theme of the film is expressed in the last lines by the doctor who lives in the hotel (Lewis Stone): “Grand Hotel, always the same. People come, people go. Nothing ever happens.” The characters that we’ve gotten to know have left the hotel, and we’ve watched a new couple check in. The doctor utters the last words, and then the film cuts to a shot of a revolving door. The film is about people so caught up in their own dramas that it seems as if nothing ever happens to anyone else as they come and go from each other’s lives, sometimes without even realizing their connections to other people. When they leave the Grand Hotel, so too do they leave the audience; we don’t find out if Kringelein and Flaemmchen find happiness after they leave the hotel, if Kringelein finds a doctor who can cure him, or what happens to Grusinskaya when she learns the fate of the Baron. They came into our lives and then went, and life in the Grand Hotel goes on.

The Performances: Natalie Portman in Black Swan

As Nina Sayers, the ballerina dancing on that fine line between sanity and madness, Natalie Portman delivers a performance that is startling, compelling and engrossing. The role requires Portman to essentially lay herself bare, as Nina's most deep-seated anxieties are exposed to the surface as they drive her further and further from reality.

For most of the film Nina is divided against herself, part of her still rooted in reality, the other part totally divorced from it, so far removed from the real world that she comes to believe that she's literally transforming into a swan. There is a moment towards the end of the film where this division is very apparent, when Nina is confronted with Lily, very much alive despite Nina's belief that she's killed her. It's in the way that Portman briefly flicks her eyes to the side, in the direction of the bathroom where Nina believes she's hidden Lily's body; it's a moment when her reality smashes up against everyone else's reality and she must make a choice: pull back and re-enter the real world, or take that final step into the abyss of madness.

The boldness of Portman's performance in the film's second half perhaps makes the most lasting impact, but the quieter, more subtle performance in the first half is just as important. We need to believe that Nina is fragile enough to be susceptible to the psychological attack she undergoes later, and Portman's depiction of Nina in the first half sets that up nicely. Of all the scenes in Black Swan, one of the ones that stands out the most for me is the scene in which ballet director Thomas is picking dancers to audition for Swan Lake. Nina seems so guileless in this scene, her desire to be picked written all over her face. For me, this is where Portman does her bravest work, where she's at her most exposed. To be seen so desperately desiring something is a rare and courageous thing and I don't think any other scene in the film so perfectly expresses how vulnerable Nina is.

Nina is a complex character because she must at once display such great weakness and such great strength. Portman is able to portray that contradiction in a way that is not just effective, but totally mesmerizing. She has already been much rewarded her the performance and should she win Best Actress, it will not be surprising. Certainly, it would be well deserved.

The Best Picture Countdown #4: Cimarron (1931)

Director: Wesley Ruggles
Starring: Richard Dix, Irene Dunne

Gone with the Wind gets a lot of flak for being racist but, man, it has got nothing on Cimarron, RKO’s loving tribute to Manifest Destiny and the men in whom it was manifest. This is such a weird movie, one in which Richard Dix plays a character who can, in the same breath, acknowledge the plight of Native Americans regarding the loss of land and then happily pledge his intention to go ahead and grab up some of that land for himself; while Irene Dunne plays a character who is admirable for her can-do, get things done attitude and deplorable for her very pronounced racism. Outside of that it’s a decent film but there are definitely a few things in it that make a modern audience member start and wonder how that was ever okay.

Based on a novel by Edna Ferber, Cimarron is an epic tale that spans decades, starting in 1893 when its hero, Yancy Cravat (Dix), participates in the Oklahoma land rush. His desire for a particular plot of land is thwarted by Dixie Lee (Estelle Taylor), whom he will encounter again later, and he returns empty handed to Wichita, where his wife Sabra (Dunne) is waiting for him. However, he remains determined to make a go of it in the exciting new landscape and he and Sabra pack up their belongings and their son, Cimarron, and head off. Along the way they discover that they’ve got a stowaway in the form of Isaiah (Eugene Jackson), a black servant.

The Cravats settle in the booming town of Osage and start their newspaper, the Oklahoma Wigwam. In the town’s early years, before joining the Union, it’s a lawless, dog-eat-dog territory beset by outlaws, many of whom end up being flushed out by Yancy, the town’s one man army. Once the area starts to become more settled, a curious thing happens within the story. Yancy, the center of the story for its first half, is supplanted by Sabra, a shift which is perhaps symbolically indicative of the fact that the land was settled by adventurous people like Yancy but that communities grew as a result of stable people like Sabra. Hereafter, Yancy becomes an absent presence in the story, first leaving to fight in the Spanish American War and later leaving to wander throughout the country while Sabra stays behind, raises their children and runs the newspaper. There’s an unintentionally funny exchange during one of Yancy’s returns home when Sabra tries to stop him from running what she believes to be an inflammatory editorial and he tells her that until the day comes when she removes him as publisher and editor, she doesn’t get to dictate to him. Never mind that he’s already essentially abdicated the post and that she’s the one who has been running the paper, by herself, for years.

On a technical level there are a number of things about Cimarron worth admiring. It opens with the absolutely fantastic land rush scene in which Yancy and thousands of others, some on horseback, others in covered wagons or makeshift carriages, and an unlucky few on foot, race to stake a claim for prime pieces of land. It’s a truly thrilling scene, the thundering excitement reminiscent of the stampede scene in John Ford’s Red River. Similarly, the big shoot out scene towards the middle of the story is also quite well-done, as long as you’re willing to suspend disbelief long enough to buy that Yancy, all on his own, can take out an entire gang of outlaws.

Thematically, the film is problematic in a lot of ways, particularly when it comes to its treatment of race. On the one hand, Yancy expresses sympathetic attitudes towards Native Americans and there is a sense in which the film is critical of both Sabra and society’s racism. One example of that is Sabra’s horror at the thought of a now grown Cimarron marrying a Native American woman, an idea that she comes to accept much later (and off-screen); another example has to do with Isaiah, who dies during the shoot out mentioned above. Isaiah leaves the safety of the Cravat house to go looking for Cimarron, who was out playing before the violence began, and is shot. He dies a slow, sad death which quite literally goes ignored as Yancy walks right by him without even noticing and Sabra fails to give him so much as a thought once Cimarron comes running home. It’s difficult to imagine that the film isn’t making a statement about white indifference to the suffering of minorities and yet, at the same time, the minority characters - from Isaiah and the Native Americans to Sol (George E. Stone), a Jewish friend of the Cravats - are portrayed in such negative, stereotypical ways that it’s difficult to see these efforts at balance as truly sincere.

Another somewhat problematic element of the film is Dix, who has a very... pronounced acting style which is particularly jarring when placed side-by-side with Dunne’s more naturalistic approach. I can see how his style of acting would work very well in silent films, where he got his start, but it doesn’t work that well in sound. Dunne, however, is quite good and since she carries the bulk of the film’s second half, the film ends on a fairly strong note. It has some fairly deep flaws, but there’s a lot of cinematic value in it as well.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Oscar Movies That Weren't: Cold Mountain

What It Had Going For It: An epic period piece based on an acclaimed novel, directed by Oscar winner Anthony Minghella, and starring Oscar winner Nicole Kidman and Oscar nominees Renée Zellweger and Jude Law. It had “prestige” written all over it and it was produced by Harvey Weinstein, then just coming off a hot streak by ushering films to Oscar success. It could have been a modern day Gone with the Wind but without all those racially problematic elements.

What Went Wrong: Well... Weinstein may have successfully waged a number of Oscar campaigns in years past but by 2003, it seems, many were tired of his aggressive tactics. Its hype levels reached such critical mass that the Oscar campaign essentially imploded before the nominations were even announced. It did manage to snag a few nominations – and a Supporting Actress win for Zellweger, who had managed the impressive feat of being nominated three times in as many years – but a Best Picture nomination eluded it.

Legacy: Cold Mountain didn’t go totally without love. It received nominations from the Golden Globes, PGA, and Broadcast Film Critics, and it earned a decent score on Metacritic. It may not have been a box office juggernaut, but it had a domestic take of nearly $100 million, plus another $78 million worldwide against a production budget of $79 million, so it was a fairly successful film with audiences, too. But I’ll always remember it best for the French and Saunders parody it inspired:

The Best Picture Countdown #3: All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

Note: This post is modified from a previously published post

Director: Lewis Millestone
Starring: Lew Ayres, Louis Wolheim

Very few films really succeed at being anti-war (and, strangely, many of those that do seem to be set during World War I), and All Quiet on the Western Front is one of the best examples of a film that depicts the horror of war not through excessive gore but through the humanity of its characters. Anyone who has read Erich Maria Remarque’s novel will be familiar with the power of this story, which isn’t much changed in the transition from page to screen. The final shot of the film, with the now dead soldiers looking back at us superimposed over a field covered with grave markers, is one of the most searing and effective indictments I’ve ever seen of the socio-political machinery that makes war seem not only necessary, but also seductive.

The film begins with teenage Paul (Lew Ayres) in school, where his class is whipped into a patriotic frenzy by their teacher, who takes the boys to enlist in the army. They don’t know what they’re getting themselves into and we see shot after shot of hysterical boys already imagining the roles they’ll play in their romanticized vision of war. Once enlisted, Paul becomes friends with Kat Katczinsky (Louis Wolheim), a man who knows how to get around, especially when it comes to black market goods. One by one, Paul watches his friends die needlessly while experiencing the harsh realities of trench life, which includes having inadequate equipment and insufficient food (some of the fiercest fighting in the film is between the soldiers and their mess cook). He becomes disillusioned with the war, but a leave which allows him to go home offers no respite. People congratulate him on doing his duty, telling him that they don’t mind going without because they know that the food they aren’t eating is going to the soldiers at the front. The way that Ayres plays these scenes is brilliant and makes Paul’s eventual death seem less like tragedy and more like relief. He could never have come back to live with these people who experience a reality so completely divorced from the one that he himself knows.

Paul returns to his former classroom and is asked to address the students, but instead of loading them up with romantic tales, he says: “You still think it’s beautiful to die for your country. The first bombardment taught us better. When it comes to dying for country, it’s better not to die at all.” He’s asked to leave and returns to the front where he finally feels at home among his comrades, relaxed in a way that he could never achieve when he was with his family. More friends die, including Kat and then Paul himself, who in his final moments reaches out of his trench in an attempt to catch a butterfly in his hand.

Much of the film is spent examining the political schema from which the war resulted as it is seen by soldiers at the front. When one explains that wars begin when one country offends another, a comrade breaks in, saying, “How could one country offend another? You mean there’s a mountain over in Germany gets mad at a field over in France?” They understand that they’re fighting for Germany because it’s their homeland, but they don’t understand why Germany is fighting and what the country will gain from the war. But Kat gets it. “At the next war let all the Kaisers, presidents and generals and diplomats go into a big field and fight it out first among themselves. That will satisfy us and keep us home.” This isn’t a war between countries; it’s a war between leaders who will sit far removed from the frontlines while the lifeblood of their nations is needlessly shed. The heart of the film is this examination of the nature of class in regards to war, with the upper classes getting into a dispute and sacrificing the lower classes to settle it; but its soul is in the relationships between the soldiers.

What is most amazing about this film is the way that it is still so affecting. It was made in late 1929 and early 1930 and given all the technological advances of the ensuing decades, it should look dated by now but it doesn’t. The battle scenes remain intense and realistic, with the camera in some cases filming from the point of view of the ground or the trench. These shots are terrifying, instilling in us a sense of confusion and fear that puts us right there. In addition to these very intimate shots, director Lewis Millestone also employs a variety of long shots and tracking shots which are wonderfully crafted.

All Quiet on the Western Front may be the best war film ever made because it so completely succeeds at what it sets out to do. The title card at the beginning informs us that this is not “an adventure” and it isn’t, though it easily could have been. Instead it provides us with a grim, harrowing look at the desperation, disillusionment and pointlessness of war. You will never watch any other war film the same way after seeing this one.

The Best Picture Countdown #2: The Broadway Melody (1929)

Director: Harry Beaumont
Starring: Anita Page, Bessie Love, Charles King

There is a scene in Singin’ In The Rain in which audiences watch the first sound film starring reigning screen couple Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont and are reduced to laughter even though the film is a romantic drama. That movie in the movie is like The Broadway Melody - melodramatic, cliché, and just way too stagey – only real-life audiences vociferously embraced the bad film, making it the top grossing film of 1929 and compelling MGM to make several sequels. Truth is stranger than fiction.

The plot of The Broadway Melody, such as it is, involves two sisters: Queenie and Hank Mahoney (played by Anita Page and Bessie Love, respectively) who are vaudeville performers. They head to New York to make it on Broadway and meet a fellow performer named Eddie Kearns (Charles King), who begins a relationship with Hank. It isn’t long, however, before Eddie’s affections begin to transfer to Queenie, who reciprocates his feelings but doesn’t want to hurt her sister. The solution she falls upon is to get involved with a wealthy playboy, which isn’t much of a solution at all since it only makes Eddie more attentive to her because he doesn’t want her to get hurt.

Eventually Hank clues in to the feelings between Queenie and Eddie and lies, telling Eddie that she never loved him. Not one to let the grass grow under his feet, Eddie runs straight from his break up with Hank to interrupt Queenie’s date, which results in him getting punched by the playboy. Eddie and Queenie get married and Hank starts a new act with a new partner (Mary Doran) and though she has some lingering doubts about whether she did the right thing by letting Eddie go, she accepts that what is done is done.

The plot is built according to some pretty tried and true formulas about backstage stories and love triangles and it never feels anything but contrived. I mean, even in 1929 this was a creaky, well-worn plot and screenplay, written by Norman Houston and James Gleason from a story by Edmund Goulding (director of 1932’s Best Picture Grand Hotel), never really tries to bring anything fresh to it. Then again, the writers probably didn’t feel as if they needed to bring a new perspective to it since the main draw was that this was the first all-sound musical film. The plot and the characters only needed to be fleshed out enough to connect the song and dance numbers, the novelty of the whole enterprise being the thing that would (and did) attract audiences. The musical numbers are competent enough but the camera is mostly static, something which musicals, and films in general, would quickly evolve away from (the following year’s Best Picture winner All Quiet on the Western Front, for example, features a great deal of camera movement). The Broadway Melody is perhaps most valuable, and of greatest interest, as an example of a transitional film, the kind that shows exactly what technical obstacles had to be overcome as studios moved away from silent films and towards sound. On its own, the film really isn’t much to write home about.

The actors fare well enough most of the time but there is an artificiality about the whole thing that isn’t really unusual in early sound films, the actors perhaps overly self-conscious about the way that they speak and talking in these very unnatural cadences, and being overly expressive in the way that is essential for a silent film but is at odds with sound films. Page had a highly productive career during the late silent/early sound years, retiring abruptly in the mid-30s and re-emerging in the ’90s for a series of horror films, while Love had a less high-profile career but worked fairly steadily in small roles in film and television into the ’80s, appearing in such films as Reds and The Hunger. Both would learn adjust their acting styles to the needs of sound film, but the kinks are still quite apparent here. Neither is bad in this film but the performances are flawed, as is the film itself. Ultimately The Broadway Melody is worth a look if you’re interested in that transitional period of Hollywood filmmaking, but it’s pretty forgettable otherwise.