88th Academy Awards – Live Trivia Updates!

20:32 – The ceremony is streaming, my bourbon glass is full, and I am ready for the 88th Academy Awards. Just like last year, I’ll be watching the ceremony and updating this entry as it progresses, with trivia that pops into my head (or which is created by the winners) and just thoughts that arise from the proceedings. My feeling is that Alejandro G. Iñárritu will repeat as Best Director for The Revenant, which will also win Best Picture…and it should win Best Picture, but I’d rather see Best Director go to George Miller for Mad Max: Fury Road.

the-revenant-film-still-large.jpgFor those who haven’t seen it, The Revenant tells the harrowing story of one man’s desperate search for the Oscar for Best Actor.

20:52 – Okay, so since I don’t have cable I can’t use the official ABC website to watch the awards. At the moment I’m streaming it via Colombia with rather distracting Spanish overdubbing, but can’t have everything. Spotlight‘s win for Best Original Screenplay certainly gives it a fighting chance for the top prize.

21:09 – Alright, got the streaming issue sorted. Fortunately this bastard takes so damn long I still only missed the presentation of two awards.

21:11 – Best Supporting Actress. First impressions, I am digging J.K. Simmons’ beard.

21:14 – First time winner, and thus useless for trivia. Ah well. This will not be a year in which a performer joins the elite who have won in both lead and supporting categories (indeed, it seems likely that it will be entirely first-time winners).

21:24 – Not that it means anything, but Costume Design has predicted the Best Picture winner on 20 previous occasions. Production Design (and it’s predecessor, Art Design), 27 times. Mad Max gains momentum.

21:28 – I suppose I should mention that the record for most Oscars won by a film that did not win Best Picture is eight, by Cabaret in 1972. Of course, Mad Max hasn’t come up against Star Wars yet.

21:40 – Three consecutive Oscars for Emmanuel Lubezki, nearly unprecedented (the Visual Effects team of the Lord of the Rings trilogy previously won for all three of those films, and Walt Disney won a whole bunch in a row for films he didn’t actually make).

21:42 – Film Editing…that is a good prognosticator of Best Picture success. It’s predicted the winner on 34 previous occasions, and only 10 films have won without a nomination in that category (to  be fair, that includes the last two Best Pictures).

And with that, The Bad and the Beautiful‘s record is secure against Star Wars and Carol, and after its loss for Cinematography, it is unlikely that Mad Max will match Cabaret.

22:10 – Haven’t seen Bear Story, but I was pulling for Don Hertzfeldt. World of Tomorrow is amazing. Also, I just realized my stream is about three minutes behind the broadcast, so apologies if I seem a bit slow in my updates.

22:40 – Because I’m a bit of a nerd, I figured out that of the acting categories, Best Actor is the one that has the most overlap with Best Picture–27 of 87 previous Best Pictures also produced the year’s Best Actor, and 56 had at least one nominee. The least is Best Actress…only 11 of 87, and of those 87, just 26 have a Best Actress nominated performance. After Greer Garson won Actress for Mrs. Miniver in 1942, Best Picture and Best Actress did not correlate until Louise Fletcher won for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nestin 1975.

23:10 – Very, very pleased to see Son of Saul take Best Foreign Language Film. If you haven’t seen it yet, do so as soon as possible (New Yorkers, it’s playing at Film Forum!).

This is Hungary’s first win for Best Foreign Language Film since 1981’s Mephisto.

23:41 – Alejandro G. Iñárritu becomes the third director to win Best Director twice in a row (after John Ford and Joseph L. Mankiewicz).

23:57 – No surprise, but…FINALLY. As usual, the winner that has waited the longest for the Oscar is given as much time as required for the speech.

0:01 – For the first time in Academy history, two Best Pictures in a row were directed by the same person. The Revenant becomes the…wait, what? …Wow.

Okay. For the first time since 1952’s The Greatest Show on Earth, the winner for Best Picture wins just two Oscars.

The Revenant is the ninth film to win Best Director and an acting Oscar, but not Best Picture. It is also the sixth to win Director without a writing nomination (seventh, if one counts Two Arabian Knights [Best Director – Comedy] at the 1st Academy Awards).

Spotlight is the 38th Best Picture with no acting awards.

8:47 – 2009’s Best Picture, The Hurt Locker, won six Academy Awards, and ever since then we’ve seen a succession of Best Pictures that win only a few Oscars. The King’s Speech won four, The Artist five, Argo three, 12 Years a Slave three, Birdman four, and now Spotlight with only two. This is probably a consequence of the expansion of the field of nominees, and it could mean that the time when the year’s Best Picture is expected to win the most awards is over.

When the Awards first started, this was not uncommon, and given that three of the previous four years have seen a split between Director and Picture, it seems to me that we’re swinging back to that philosophy of spreading the awards around and considering Best Picture as a separate category rather than an amalgamation of all the others.

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20th Academy Awards (1947) – Part II

(Part I.)

 

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The last two nominated films of 1947 dealt with the same topic; one was a cloyingly overt (and successful) Oscar-grab by the embittered and entitled producer of 1944’s Wilson (see below), while the other was a compromise solution to the ever-present and ever-annoying problem of the Hays Production Code. This latter film was Crossfire, an early Robert Mitchum vehicle that tells of an investigation into a seemingly motiveless murder of a seemingly random New Yorker by one of a group of returning GIs.

In the end it turns out there is a motive, of course…this isn’t a David Lynch movie. But before that revelation it’s a tough, twisting whodunit: the suspects are a completely innocent, simply naïf trying to get back to his sweetheart, and an obviously-lying, hate-filled bigot who obviously tells hateful, bigoted lies throughout the entire film. I won’t ruin it for you by revealing which is the killer, but I will spoil the motive: pure and simple anti-Semitism. The film makes it clear that being Irish is no cakewalk, either.

images.jpeg“Once, at the Four Seasons, my father was seated at a table that didn’t offer an unobstructed view of the saxophonist. So don’t tell me about hardship.”

The film rather smartly limits itself to just one unrealistic monologue about the evils of intolerance, focusing instead on crafting a solid film noir, but given its lofty intentions ends up falling a bit short. I think it would have been better, if perhaps not nominated for Best Picture, if it hadn’t attempted to turn a simple murder into a soapbox for the problems of society. When it isn’t preaching, it’s a fine film, and the lead Robert employs a very clever trick to catch the murderer…a simple yet tense and effective climax that exemplifies the best qualities of the genre.

It’s worth mentioning that in the source material, a novel called The Brick Foxhole, the murder victim is homosexual rather than Jewish. Naturally, the Hays Code prohibited the filmmakers from addressing the subject of homosexuals, even in the context of suggesting that they shouldn’t be murdered when they don’t offer guests a drink, so they had to make adjustments to ensure the fragile morality of the American public wasn’t corrupted. And, of course, to give the 1947 Oscars a theme.

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The winner by design was Gentleman’s Agreement, a film I’d been looking forward to revisiting since I started this project. I remembered it being a phenomenal film, one of the highlights of the decade, and reviewing it in the context of everything that came before it, and as part of the huge upswing in quality exhibited by Hollywood in the postwar years, seemed like the perfect way to cap off the Academy’s first 20 years. Hell, in Part I, I even describe it as “one of the best films of the 1940s”.

And all I could think when it was over was, “What the fuck was that?”

The first 80 minutes or so are great, if a little on-the-nose (literally everyone in New York City who is not Gregory Peck or his mother is a closet anti-Semite), but then the film goes seriously off the rails. The last 40 minutes are an interminably dull procession of preachy monologues that contribute nothing to the narrative or to the ideas expressed in the rest of the film; what should be a concise wrapping up instead feels like Darryl F. Zanuck smashing you repeatedly in the face  with a brick with the words “Anti-Semitism is bad” scrawled on it. When it ends with Peck running to the arms of his bigoted, WASPy fiancée, all one feels is relief that it is over and we don’t have to witness the inevitable disintegration of their marriage and their capacity to love (though arguably that would make a better movie).

Peck’s love interest Kathy Lacey, played by Dorothy McGuire, is really one of the most abhorrent humans in the history of film. I understand that the point of her character is to illustrate that those who profess to be tolerant are actually the worst bigots of all, just waiting for something to bring it to the surface, but this is played up to such a ridiculous degree that just about everything she says after roughly the 20-minute mark is dripping with entitlement and ignorance. The film works hard to present her as simply unaware of the harm she causes through indifferent racism, but the truth is she is fully aware of herself and chooses to remain this cancerous drain on the collective value of the human species. This is the person we’re supposed to hope winds up with Gregory Peck, and it’s worth pointing out that she actively loathes him for his social conscience.

images.jpeg“I just can’t talk to you about being a spoiled narcissist and a horrible bigot…you just twist it and make it sound awful!”
Disturbingly close to an exact quote

In the end, John Garfield turns her around (as he did so many women), Our Hero rushes back to her as the music swells, and we’re supposed to feel good that in the end, one rich brat caved in to feelings of white guilt for long enough to help out an unfortunate a less fortunate person. Yay, conveniently timed and insincere tolerance. The movie hopes we don’t think too much about the fact that she will absolutely cave and turn on him the second she feels threatened by her social circle, because she is an unapologetically bad person.

Of course, this isn’t inconsistent with the film’s lazy treatment of its subject matter. From beginning to end, caricatures are favored over characters, and the narrative exists only to serve the preordained message. It’s the approach to social issues that Crash would adopt sixty years later, with even less success.

It should come as no surprise that the man behind it all, Darryl F. Zanuck, also produced 1944’s Wilson, another ridiculously preachy attempt to be cutting and socially relevant. He made Gentleman’s Agreement with the singular intention of winning Best Picture to make up for the fact that the Academy justly denied him the Oscar for that travesty (since winning over Citizen Kane in 1941 didn’t satisfy him). So, seeing that “message” films like The Lost Weekend and The Best Years of Our Lives were hot, he chose the most incendiary topic he could think of, made the film, and basically dared the Academy not to honor him.

Darryl_F_Zanuck_and_Oscar_in_Gentleman's_Agreement_trailer.jpg“I knew this film would succeed in…uh, raising social awareness and stuff.”

All in all, re-watching this film was an enlightening experience, just not in the way I expected. And so we come to the end of twenty years of Oscars, on the verge of the slow shift to Technicolor that was the 1950s. I feel confident that a healthy dose of John Huston and Laurence Olivier in 1948 will remove the rather stale and uncomfortable taste left by Gentleman’s Agreement. Onward!

 

20th Academy Awards (1947) – Part I

220px-Gentleman's_Agreement_(1947_movie_poster)

  • Gentleman’s Agreement, Elia Kazan*
  • The Bishop’s Wife, Henry Koster
  • Crossfire, Edward Dmytryk
  • Great Expectations, David Lean
  • Miracle on 34th Street, George Seaton

Best Foreign Language Film: Shoeshine, Vittorio de Sica (Italy)


The Academy closed out its second decade with the lightest selection of Best Picture nominees I’ve seen since 1934. Yes, the winner was a classic examination of societal and institutional prejudice, one of the best films of the 1940s, but it was up against a prim-and-proper Dickens adaptation, two Christmas films with really bizarre morals, and an odd little B-movie film noir that is pretty decent but fails to adequately address the issues it raises (and also doesn’t take advantage of its status as a noir to slip its source material’s message past the censors).

This was also the year in which the Academy introduced Best Foreign Language Film, though at this point it was not a competitive category but a special prize awarded by the Board of Governors. It was an important step forward, and although for the first 30 years or so the Academy barely stepped outside of France and Italy in their choices, it opened the Oscars to influence from the cinemas of the rest of the world. To see how much, I will from this point on be watching the winners of this category as well…and when it becomes a competitive category in 1956, I will strongly consider watching each nominee as well. Time will tell.

Back to 1947. If you were to graph the nominees of each Academy Awards thus far on a silliness scale, I think this slate would produce the steepest incline. Therefore, I’ll take the films this year in order from most to least silly:

The_Bishop's_Wife_clean_poster

The Bishop’s Wife is a charming comedy about how angels gotta have it, and the trouble they can cause to marriages when they look like Cary Grant.

its_a_wonderful_life_3.jpgSend this guy, and the movie’s over in five minutes.

The film tells the story of an angel (Grant) who magics his way into the lives of stodgy married couple David Niven and Loretta Young and immediately starts causing discord–or, to be fair, bringing to light the discord already bubbling under the surface–in order to “help” them or something. This help consists mostly of ruining Niven’s life while showing everyone else the time of theirs, and convincing Loretta Young that her husband is and always will be dull as dishwater.

Don’t get me wrong, the movie is hilarious and charming, and all the actors play their roles perfectly, but man does David Niven’s character get a beating, all for the crime of having a beautiful wife with whom an impish angel wants some alone time. Even a random cab driver comes out of the whole thing with an epiphany, doing triple axels with Young and Grant on a Central Park skating rink, while Niven is literally stuck to a chair in the company of the film’s main antagonist. Keep in mind, Grant didn’t glue him there so that the two could come to an understanding that advances the plot…he just wanted to skate without Niven ruining his idyllic park date with Niven’s wife.

Fortunately, though, just when he’s at the brink of despair, Niven is offered words of wisdom by 1940s Hollywood’s resident Old British Curmudgeon with a Heart of Gold, Monty Woolley. Woolley is a Egyptologist who, thanks to Grant, is now well on the way to completing his history book (again, everybody wins here but the one Grant is ostensibly there to help), and tells the forlorn Niven that he can save his marriage because he has something very important that the angel lacks.

Unknown.jpeg“Seriously, he’s like a Ken doll down there.”

Okay, that’s not it…it’s uxorial love, or something. In the end, the situation is resolved when the angel just leaves and gives them all a healthy dose of Hollywood amnesia, by which they forget he ever existed but retain all the lessons he taught them. Everyone’s happy, and no one makes mention the fact that they just blacked out for two weeks and came to with entirely different weltanshauungs (and, in Woolley’s case, a first draft of a Cleopatra biography).

As far as the “angel enters someone’s life at Christmastime and helps them realize it’s a wonderful life” genre goes, it’s better than It’s a Wonderful Life, but it’s still a damned odd and incoherent excuse for the cast to play their respective typecasts: Cary Grant, the charming rogue; Loretta Young, the naive romantic; David Niven, the stiff-upper-lip bloke who just needs to lighten up; and Monty Woolley, the aforementioned O.B.C. with an H.O.G. And even if the moral isn’t really supported by the narrative, at least it’s a better message than the other Christmas film this year…

Miracle_on_34th_Street

The first of approximately four hundred adaptations of this story, Miracle on 34th Street finds Santa Claus (or maybe just a senile old man who speaks Dutch) in Manhattan for the holidays. Exactly who’s running the shop while he’s living it up in Gotham is never addressed, and if his actions in the film are any indication it would have been better for all involved if he’d just stayed home. In any event, he’s there, eager to impart on anyone who has the misfortune of meeting him the true meaning of Christmas: that children deserve all the toys and possessions they want and only bad parents don’t provide them.

This is a movie that relies entirely on schmaltz and corniness at the total expense of character development, attention to narrative detail, and even a passing resemblance to the morality it claims to espouse. Throughout the film, most changes happen off-screen and for no discernible reason, leaving the majority of characters’ motivations constantly shifting and inexplicable. It also commits the It’s a Wonderful Life sin of not giving a toss about the moral arc of the antagonist…instead, everyone just forgets he exists as soon as his function (providing an opportunity for the brilliant-because-reasons lawyer to prove Santa is real in a goddamn court of law) is complete.

imgres.jpg“And remember, Santa only cares about A-listers.”

The only people Santa helps in the film are people who are already moral, relatively stable, and sure of who they are–he has no time for anyone else who might actually benefit from someone caring about them. This is established in his first scene, when he gets Macy’s current Santa Claus fired just before the parade because the man has been drinking…not even drunk, just a little tipsy. And he drinks, one imagines, because he is a lonely man without a home who only works for a few weeks out of the year by virtue of not having enough money to buy a razor. He may have died frozen in Central Park on Christmas Eve, for all the real Santa cares, so long as he gets to give a spoiled child a goddamn house.

Oh yes, that’s the other lesson of the film: if you wish hard enough, you get everything you want. The little girl wants a house in the suburbs (which her mother, being an executive at Macy’s, should be able to afford anyway), and asks Santa for it. He demures, and later it seems like she doesn’t get this completely irrational and ridiculous gift…until, in the end, of course she does, because it’s more important to keep a child naive than to teach them that sometimes, they don’t get handed everything they want immediately and tax-free. And they should expect nothing less than that.

miracle-on-34th-street-3.jpg“I asked for a white grand piano in the conservatory, asshole.”

Amoral Santas and home wrecking angels…the year’s off to a weird start.

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Eleven years after David Copperfield failed to condense Dickens to a single film, Great Expectations, perhaps inspired by Henry V‘s success in adapting Shakespeare, tried it again. Despite being now considered one of the greatest British films of all time, it repeated many of the mistakes of its predecessor and thus, for the most part, failed again.

The problem with both films (and other films based on very long, decades-spanning novels such as Anthony Adverse) is that they had to excise so much of the source material that the result feels like a series of disconnected vignettes than a coherent narrative, despite attempting to craft the latter. In order to keep the film’s running time reasonable, events that advance the plot occur abruptly and are then cast aside without further reflection or mention, up to and including the death of a major character. Most of the time they happen because, by the Rules of Three Act Structure, they are required to.

Unknown.jpeg“Listen closely, my dear…I have only a few minutes of screen time left. String Pip along until he’s nearly broken, then marry him. Oh, and stay away from fireplaces…you’ll understand.”

All of which is a shame, because the characters are all compelling and well-acted. In addition to John Mills as lead character Pip and Martita Hunt as Crazy Cat(less) Lady Miss Havisham, the film features Alec Guinness in one of his first film roles as Pip’s irrepressibly cheerful friend with the unlikely name Herbert Pocket. The filmmakers would have done well to extend the film by forty minutes or so, or even–unheard of at the time–split it into two parts, to give adequate time to fully develop what has the potential to be a strong story.

In the event, however, the film devotes too much time to some sequences and unnecessarily rushes others, so the end doesn’t feel earned and the fact that Pip ends up with what the script tells us is the love of his life after chasing her all his life feels like a failure instead of triumphant. She in particular is woefully underdeveloped, existing solely to antagonize Pip so much that he falls in love with her (classic), and Valerie Hobson does a good job but she has terribly little to work with. I’m really not sure why this film’s reputation has remained as high as it has.

Hmm, that’s almost 1700 words already and I’m only three films in. I suppose I should call this one now, split 1947 into two parts. Alright, that’s coming soon!