About cmakas

Living in Spain, a recent graduate of Columbia Film School. I enjoy films, books, trivia, and owls.

22nd Academy Awards (1949) – Part I

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  • All the King’s Men, Robert Rossen
  • Battleground, William A. Wellman
  • The Heiress, William Wyler
  • A Letter to Three Wives, Joseph L. Mankiewicz*
  • Twelve O’Clock High, Henry King

Well lo and behold, with the 1949 awards the Academy managed to put two strong years together in a row, though this year was marred by the inclusion of one desperately boring film and a Best Picture winner that, while a scathing and sporadically brilliant indictment of American politics, suffers from a weak script and weaker characters. However, the weak script is given a boost by some clever and experimental editing, and the very weak characters are given a leg up by some very strong performances…two of which won Oscars. It is one of only two films to win Best Picture and two acting Oscars, but not Best Director, and the other is…

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Because not all trivia is fun.

Best Director, meanwhile, went to one of the most needless films ever made. But I’ll get to that. Even taking into account that waste of 105 minutes, strong performances were the real theme of 1949; it was the first of only eight years in the five-nominee/supporting acting era where every acting winner was from a Best Picture nominee.

This year’s crop is also notable for including the first postwar-era World War II nominees, Battleground and Twelve O’Clock High. Unlike the propagandistic fare we saw between 1939 and 1944, these two films each make use of the intervening years to cast an appraising, humanistic eye on the conflict, just as La Grande Illusion did for World War I in 1937. That said, they are not morally ambiguous by any means, but they both dug a bit deeper than films were willing (or permitted) to go when the war was still going on.

There’s plenty to say about these movies, so let’s not waste any more time…

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A Letter to Three Wives is a movie about…well, that. The letter, sent by one of their cattier friends, informs them that said “friend” has skipped town and absconded with one of their husbands…but neglects to tell them which. Which is absolutely something a real human with a functioning brain would do, even if she wasn’t an unseen character in the world’s dumbest screenplay. As fate would have it, our titular wives are on a day trip with a youth organization, so they are left to quietly panic and have flashbacks to why the letter could only be referring to their hubby. What a mystery for the ages…what a high-stakes thrill ride that definitely kept me interested and invested in which bland, caricatured housewives would lose which bland, caricatured husband. You won’t believe the surprise ending…but only because it is even stupider than anything you are possibly imagining right now.

ab70800ac6c9f4de62290c884e1d8e32--a-letter-academy-awards.jpg“Uh…and then they find $20!” –Joseph L. Mankiewicz in the pitch meeting, probably

Kirk Douglas is mostly tolerable as an impossibly easygoing high school teacher, but nothing else about this production has any merit and one can almost feel the brain cells dying as the film lurches from one cliché to the next with an almost gleeful abandon. I only watched it a few days ago, so it’s too soon to fully assess the damage it’s done.

It’s been a while on this project since I had to write a review of a movie I absolutely despised—that would be The Human Comedy at the 16th Academy Awards—and since I’m still in an era when I can mostly get away with it, I’m simply going to declare A Letter to Three Wives one of the worst films of the 1940s and move on. All’s I can say is, Mankiewicz better get his act together for All About Eve, next year’s winner.

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Based on the above poster, I’m guessing that at the initial studio meeting, Battleground was pitched as an extravagant MGM musical comedy about a bunch of kooks and knuckleheads fighting the Battle of the Bulge. Then, some new personnel were hired, producers added and removed some ideas, the script went through some rewrites, backs were patted and heads rolled, and eventually they landed on the quiet, almost philosophical, study of the stresses of combat that is the finished film…but no one told the art department, and they never revised their original concept.

I was very pleased to find this film among the nominees, because it’s one of the first movies I have a memory of watching, way back in the mid-1990s, while I was preparing a school project about the experiences of the 101st Airborne at Bastogne in 1944. Battleground was a favorite of my grandfather, a WWII veteran who was able to confirm, in realtime, all of the tiny details the movie got right–as well as fill us in on a few that got left out (for instance, there were a lot more f-bombs amongst soldiers than Code movies would have us believe). Just about every scene in the movie reminded me of his stories, and of him.

Upon returning to the movie twenty years on, all I remembered was a pair of scenes involving a soldier who refused to sleep with his boots on, and the consequences of his boot-hubris.

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Spoiler: they’re not good.

Battleground was directed by William A. Wellman, who, devotees will remember, directed the very first Best Picture winner, Wings. The film dramatizes the events of the Siege of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944, wherein the 101st Airborne Division held the Belgian town for just over a week before being relieved by the Third Army under Patton. However, the film shows almost none of those “big” events, focusing entirely on the day-to-day lives and struggles of a single regiment as they try to cope with the weather (the Germans had worked out the timing of the offensive specifically for the bad weather that would prevent the Allies defending from the air), short supplies of food and matériel, and the constant threat of sneak attack from the dense, claustrophobic forest.

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Here they are, enjoying the “gags and glory” promised by the poster.

One of the things I really like about the movie’s structure is that, since it never leaves the soldiers’ sides, the audience experiences the same disorientation, uncertainty, and disappointments that they do. We open on the regiment as they are ready to ship out to Paris for some well-deserved R&R…only to be sent to a tiny Belgian town they’ve never heard of, told to defend it at all costs, and soon find themselves surrounded by an unseen, ghostly enemy hiding in the foggy woods. Along the way, sporadic and often confusing news trickles in, which often only serves to isolate the troops more…just like it did for the real 101st.

Unlike most of the propaganda films made during the war, in which the soldier characters were merely moving scenery through which Western audiences could cheer the inevitable defeat of the Nazis, Battleground does the opposite: the war itself, its causes and outcomes, and even its purpose are unimportant next to the lives and minds of the participants. With the benefit of hindsight (and victory), the film was able to portray the human gripes, foibles, and even cowardice that the soldiers faced, and show that these were not only perfectly normal, but perfectly alright. In the heat of battle, any faults are secondary, and are quickly forgotten…even for Khan himself.

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Years later, he would find Lt. Frank Drebin far less forgiving, but that’s another story.

Of course, as I said in the opening, the film is not morally ambiguous, nor does it resist the temptation for an upbeat ending, as we finish with all of the soldiers (the ones who survive, anyway) marching and singing in unison as fresh troops arrive to relieve them. The ending is reminiscent of that of Grand Hotel, as the protagonists leave and are replaced by new ones with just as many stories to tell. In the end, like La Grande Illusion before it, the film is hopeful without bathos, celebratory without propaganda, and tender without sacrificing objectivity. Nostalgia aside, it’s my favorite of the nominees.

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Twelve O’Clock High, like Battleground, is a war film that barely shows any war, and, again like Battleground, features a very odd poster that I’m certain could have been improved with a little less (or maybe a little more) drinking. The tagline definitely could have been workshopped a bit more, and the copywriters must have been kicking themselves eight years later when they couldn’t use it for the gay porn parody 12 Horny Men.

Film_591w_12AngryMen_original.jpgWhich was notable for reuniting all of the original cast.

Anyway, Twelve O’Clock High tells the story of a ragtag group of aviation misfits in the early days of American involvement in the war, the Eighth Bomber Command carrying out daytime precision strikes on Luftwaffe airfields and munitions factories from their base in Surrey, England. They are becoming undisciplined and careless, and it’s up to General Gregory Peck to whip them into shape. The unit is so undermanned and short of supplies that he is quickly forced to fly missions with them, improving their performance but earning himself some pretty severe PTSD in the process.

It’s an extremely well-made film, if a bit overlong (more on that later); the script is lean and the editing brisk, as befits a movie in this genre. We’ve seen quite a bit of Henry King amongst the Best Picture nominees–In Old Chicago (1937), Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938), and The Song of Bernadette (1943)–and his strong eye for mise en scène serves the story well. One scene in particular is a masterclass in lighting, blocking, writing, and acting, a five-minute unbroken take of Peck mercilessly dressing down an errant officer. The fluid movements of both the camera and Gregory Peck raise and lower the tension perfectly.


Since this is a 1940s WWII movie, you’ve probably already guessed that, by the film’s end, this officer is the bravest, most capable pilot in the entire war.

As professionally made as the film is, it does run longer than it should, mainly because of an extended air battle sequence late in the film. The scene is partly comprised of actual aerial combat footage filmed by Allied and Luftwaffe planes during the war, though as far as I know they stopped short of having Gregory Peck fly missions (after all, the film was directed by Henry King, not Howard Hughes). However, the whole thing takes place well into the third act, and though I understand why it’s there, it feels jarring and out of place within the human drama we have been watching and which picks up again immediately afterwards. Because of this, I lost the tension and excitement of what should have been a pulse-pounding spectacle, which wouldn’t have happened if it took place earlier in the film’s runtime.

Although I enjoyed Twelve O’Clock High, and although it features great performances and more than a few classic scenes, I don’t think it succeeded in portraying the physical and mental toll of war as successfully as did Battleground. Aside from the opening scene, the tribulations of the men flying the missions are largely ignored, instead focusing on those of the General and his command staff. When the men are shown to be at their breaking point, the commanders–and, since we are seeing the men through their eyes, the film itself–treat them as cowards and slackers who need to be pushed even further, and this is never really resolved in the end. In fact, the moral of the story seems to be that, while it may tax the emotional stability of the commanding officers, pushing soldiers beyond their limit is what makes them good soldiers.

876d4a0f81b04b7c788fdf30dfd27680--stanley-kubrick-movies-arliss-howard.jpgFuture war films would disagree.

The film very briefly makes a halfhearted attempt at a better moral late in the film, as the squadron’s studious adjutant, Major Stovall–whose flashbacks from present day England bookend the film–remarks that he has dreams of all the men of the unit who have died, and how their faces all blend together, “and it’s a very young face.” It’s a powerful, understated moment…which is immediately laughed away by Peck and the others present, who brush it off as maudlin ramblings brought on by whisky–which, the film makes clear, it is. When Peck does finally snap in the next scene, it gives a little bit of weight to Stovall’s words, but he snaps back pretty quickly, so not a lot.

On the whole, Twelve O’Clock High is a good film, if not a great one. Dean Jagger won the Best Supporting Actor award for his role, though it was more of a “thanks for a great career” Oscar and for my money it should have been Ralph Richardson. In fact, aside from Battleground,  there’s only one film this year that I would describe as “great”…and I’ll be covering that, and the year’s winner, next week in Part II!

 

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21st Academy Awards (1948) – Part II

(Part I.)

Before we get started, I should give honorable mention to a film that was not among the nominees this year: I Remember Mama, directed by George Stevens. With nominations for Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and two for Best Supporting Actress, it is one of four films in Oscar history to receive four acting nominations without a nod for Best Picture, the others being My Man Godfrey (1936), Othello (1965), and Doubt (2008). Perhaps tellingly, none of these films’ acting nominations was successful. Anyway…

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The last two films of 1948 went even further than the previous three in their exploration of obsession, isolation, and the tragedy of the human condition; the winner is generally thought to be the English language’s foremost authority on these subjects. But first, there was The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, one of the best cinematic depictions of greed ever filmed and certainly the most visually stunning (the runner-up would probably be 2007’s There Will Be Blood, which was strongly influenced by this film).

It tells the story of three gold prospectors who go off into the wilds of the Sierra Madre Occidental range in search of the prosperity that has eluded them all their lives. One of them confidently declares repeatedly that gold will not absolutely, definitely not turn him into a greedy, murderous madman, only to immediately turn into one almost before they even find any.

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Try to guess which one.

That ragtag trio of ne’er-do-wells are Humphrey Bogart as Fred C. Dobbs, Tim Holt as Bob Curtin, and director John Huston’s father Walter (remember him from Dodsworth?) as a wizened, sagely prospector known only as Howard. Dobbs and Curtin are decent men who have fallen on hard times, and when they hear Howard’s tales of gold lying about waiting for them, they ignore his warnings of its malicious effect on the soul and strike out to make good.

Howard, of course, knows better, and Walter Huston is absolutely brilliant. He portrays Howard as old and wise, but his wisdom has come at a great cost, one only hinted at in his dialogue and actions. He is confident that the enterprise will end bloody, having seen it all before–perhaps even been driven to madness himself. Nevertheless he takes Dobbs and Curtin under his wing, resigned to his fate, but spurred on by a glimmer of hope that his cynicism will be proven wrong. And maybe, it’s because he sees Dobbs and Curtin as two sides of his younger, ambitious self. It’s a wonderful performance that justly trounced the competition for Best Supporting Actor.

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He’s just lucky Hedy Hedley Lamarr wasn’t in the running that year.

As I said, the greed sets in almost immediately after they find the gold, for the compelling narrative reason that filming on location in Mexico was really, really expensive. I’ve read a few analyses of the film, most of which conclude that Dobbs was already greedy and ready to go insane (kind of like Jack Nicholson in Kubrick’s The Shining), but I think this is unfair to the realistic and compelling character created by Bogart and Huston. Dobbs certainly is prideful when the film opens, but Bogart plays him as generally moral and unaffected by materialism, a man of shallow tastes to be sure but only trying, by honest means, to get a little ahead.

A pivotal early scene shows Dobbs and Curtin confronting a swindler who cheated them out of an honest salary. After one of the most realistic barfights in movie history, Dobbs grabs the man’s wallet, stuffed with ill-gotten gains, and promptly takes only what is owed to him and Curtin, throwing the rest back in the man’s battered face. This is consistent with his earlier pledge to Howard that, if he did strike gold, he would take only what he set out to make and not gorge himself, and makes his later descent into madness and murder all the more tragic.

Eventually, of course, Dobbs (or “Dobbsie,” as he liked to be called) is consumed by avarice and meets a bloody end, as must befall all men unlucky enough to be movie antagonists during the Production Code era.

treasure2.png“If this were sixty years later, I’d be caving in your head with a bowling pin.”
“Well, it’s not.”

He ends up beheaded by bandits, the same ones who earlier told him they didn’t have to show him any stinking badges (by the way, the line is often misquoted, most notably in Blazing Saddles, as “Badges? We don’t need no stinking badges!”, when in fact it is, “Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges! I don’t have to show you any stinking badges!”). The scene in the film is violent, to be sure, but very tame compared to what Huston wanted to show us (and did, in fact, shoot, though the footage is lost): a shot of Dobbs’ severed head rolling down the hill into the dirty water from which he’d just drank. Shockingly, the censors had a problem with it.

Tim Holt’s quiet turn as Curtin is generally overshadowed by the legendary performances turned in by Huston and Bogart, but he holds his own in every one of his scenes. Howard and Curtin quickly develop a father-son bond, and Curtin soon proves himself the most honorable of the three as he desperately tries to hold the rocky fellowship together, at least long enough to return to Durango in safety. He could easily be seen as the obligatory “good” character, a one-dimensional foil for Dobbs and Howard to react against, but Tim Holt manages to show us a real person who chooses morality, despite fully understanding the temptations to which Dobbs succumbs.

In the end, the gold is lost, and we’re treated to one of the best denouements I’ve seen in this enterprise, as Curtin and Howard share a genuine, emotional, and cathartic laugh about the universe’s dark sense of humor before going their separate ways, as poor as they were at the beginning, but richer in wisdom and friendship.

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I’m not sure I would be so happy to accept this over a lifetime of financial security and knowing where my next meal was coming from, but it’s still a nice moment.

I should also mention the minor character of James Cody, a man who shows up just long enough to bring tension to the film and is swiftly killed by bandits. However, he proves to be the moral center of the whole story, thanks to a letter from his wife the prospectors find on his person after his death. I won’t go into too much detail, as I feel this review is already getting long and I still have Hamlet to cover, so I’ll just say that this letter, read with real emotion by Curtin, in just a few minutes imbues this otherwise forgettable character with a rich, fulfilling life outside the story we’re watching, and makes his death one of the most gut-wrenching I’ve ever seen in a film. He is, simply put, the person that our three protagonists all wish they were, and if only for that moment makes them forget all about their gold.

From a technical standpoint, Treasure was the first American film shot on location in Mexico–with the exception of night scenes and some reshoots, the entire movie was filmed in and around Tampico and Durango, as well as the Sierra Madre range–and, quite simply, it looks gorgeous. Being a psychological drama, however, the film refrains from too many wide shots, preferring instead to emphasize the isolation and entrapment of the characters without too many establishing shots.

Walter Huston finally earned himself an Oscar (Best Supporting Actor) for his alternately over-the-top and quietly philosophical portrayal of Howard. John Huston, who this year beat out Laurence Olivier for Best Director, would go on to direct his daughter, Anjelica Huston, to a Best Supporting Actress win for Prizzi’s Honor (1985). The Hustons, then, became the first three-generation Oscar family, and John Huston remains the only person to direct two family members to Oscar wins.

However, the real surprise at Oscar night this year came when they opened the envelope for Best Picture and found it went to…

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Full disclosure, I have never read Hamlet nor seen a serious performance of it. Until I watched Laurence Olivier’s version, my experience with what is regarded as one of the finest plays in the English language was: a rather shitty modern-day reboot performed by a local theatre troupe in Dearborn; the comedy stylings of The Reduced Shakespeare Company in London in 2007; a throwaway joke in A Shot in the Dark (1964); and, of course, The Lion King (1994).

The_Lion_King_II-Simba's_Pride_poster.jpgI wanted to write a joke caption about the direct-to-VHS sequel being an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, but Wikipedia informed me that that’s actually true.

So, what with that rather embarrassing lack of context, I cannot comment on the many, many criticisms Olivier received from Shakespeare enthusiasts who were mortally offended by how much of the play he cut out to fit it into an acceptable film adaptation. I can only comment on the film per se, and damned if it’s not a perfectly distilled, beautifully photographed, and–of course–exquisitely acted rumination on grief and the human psyche. It was the second sound adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, and the first in English (the previous adaptation, the 1935 Hindi/Urdu film Khoon ka Khoon or Blood for Blood, shockingly failed to win any Oscars).

Olivier excised all of the political subplots and characters from the film and confined all of the action to the dimly-lit, cavernous, and often smoke-filled rooms and turrets of Elsinore Castle. We’re left with, in the words of Olivier’s opening voiceover, “the story of a man who could not make up his mind,” an austere portrait of suspicion, betrayal, and psychological unraveling. In many ways, the story of someone becoming increasingly unsure of what his mind perceives anticipated the paranoid thrillers that would dominate American cinema in the late 60s and early 70s.

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And none of those films was dark enough to have a character rap about mortality with a human skull.

As plots go, the film follows a pretty basic one: Hamlet learns from his father’s ghost that he (his father) was murdered, and that Hamlet must avenge him. Through a cunning combination of feigned-then-real madness and soliloquies, he exacts the requested revenge, but at a greater cost than he anticipated (typical of costs). Along the way, there’s a lot of death, but also a lot of laughter, mostly from Peter Cushing‘s deliciously campy portrayal of Osric.

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“That’s…great, Peter. Do you want to maybe try it with a different costume?”
“…’Costume’?”

Hamlet is started on his quest by the appearance of his father’s ghost, who has the good manners and foresight to appear to other witnesses who can corroborate his existence in the likely event that no one believes Hamlet’s claims. He helpfully tells Hamlet things about his murder that are objectively true, so when Hamlet does go off in search of vengeance, we don’t have much reason to doubt his righteousness. I think it goes a bit deeper than that, though.

Elsinore itself is a character in the film, and as Hamlet wanders its labyrinthian halls, both he and the audience find themselves trapped in its cold, oppressive confines. It’s a giant metaphor for Hamlet’s mind that lends a wonderfully distorted ambiguity to the entire film and leaves one questioning how much of what we see is real. Many of the scene transitions are slow, methodical pans and tilts through the empty halls, gradually becoming more and more frantic as Hamlet’s mental state deteriorates. So in the end, I was left wondering if I had just seen a character avenging his father’s murder, or a quintuple-homicide through the eyes of a deluded maniac driven insane by grief.

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“I’m fine. This is normal.”

Either way, the film was unambiguously praised in two areas: the performances and the direction, both courtesy of Laurence Olivier. As I said when discussing Henry V back in 1946, Olivier had the rare gift of understanding and interpreting the bard both as a director and as an actor, and he manages to keep his production balanced on the delicate tightrope between Shakespearean grandiloquence and sombre realism. Under his meticulous eye, no word is superfluous and every look, gesture, and action is perfectly staged and delivered. And, just as in Henry V, he is simply masterful in his use of the camera as storyteller.


The film would deserve Best Picture for this scene alone.

Of course, as is the case in all of his films that don’t co-star Joan Fontaine, Olivier stands miles above his co-stars and delivers one of his greatest performances in a career that pretty much only includes great performances (though he himself considered John Gielgud to be the century’s greatest Hamlet). Even in the aforementioned graveyard scene, he is so mesmerizing that you don’t even think about how freaking weird it is for a person to pick up a skull and start talking to it.

His Hamlet is brooding, dark, and more than a little dickish, and yet he still has moments–particularly later in the film, as he starts to believe his schemes will succeed–of boyish charm and humor, especially in his interactions with his mother, Gertrude. Their somewhat odd relationship drives the film, as he watches his uncle take the place that he–in true, then-trendy Freudian fashion–thinks of as his. And to make sure audiences got it, Olivier cranked the Oedipal undertones up to eleven by casting the role with Eileen Herlie, who was 11 years younger than he.

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“Hm, cut the bodice a bit lower.” “Um, it’s already pretty l–” “FOR ART.”

For his efforts, Olivier became the first person to direct himself to an acting Oscar–only one other has done it since: Roberto Benigni for Life is Beautiful (1998)–and Hamlet shocked the pundits by winning the top prize at the 21st Academy Awards. It was the last film to win Best Picture without a screenwriting nomination until The Sound of Music (1965), probably passed over due to the fact that, despite the adaptation that went into trimming it to two-and-a-half hours, the surviving scenes retain the dialogue from Shakespeare pretty much exactly as written. However, he was denied Best Director, which went to John Huston. Much as I just heaped praise on his work on Hamlet, I can’t say I disagree with the Academy’s decision.

So, in a very strong year, did it deserve Best Picture over the likes of The Treasure of the Sierra MadreJohnny Belinda, and The Red Shoes? (The Snake Pit, while great, is not in the same class as these four.) As I said at the beginning of Part I, the Academy’s choices in 1948 were uncommonly consistent in terms of themes and preoccupations, and in comparing the films based on this, and their artistic merit, I would say they got it exactly right. Hamlet is, to my mind, a nearly perfect encapsulation of the trials of isolation and obsession, and Olivier’s innate understanding of the language of film both in front of and behind the camera made it possible.

I happen to agree with all the top choices this year, in fact. John Huston deserved his win for Best Director (and Best Screenplay); he wove a beautiful, humanist tale and brought out three truly remarkable performances. Given Humphrey Bogart’s (inexcusable) absence from the list of Best Actor nominees, Olivier was the only real choice in that category; Jane Wyman’s wordless turn as Belinda MacDonald was captivating; Walter Huston was sublime as the grizzled-yet-tender Howard, again the only just winner in his category; and even though I didn’t cover this film, Claire Trevor was definitely Oscar-worthy in her supporting role in Key Largo (which was also directed by John Huston and starred Humphrey Bogart).

So, the Academy got it all right in 1948, not just in the winners, but in the films they chose to nominate! Not since the 3rd Academy Awards have I said that…and they immediately disappointed me one year later. We’ll see if they can keep it going longer as we move into the 1950s! Stay tuned for the 22nd Academy Awards.

21st Academy Awards (1948) – Part I

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  • Hamlet, Laurence Olivier
  • Johnny Belinda, Jean Negulesco
  • The Red Shoes, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
  • The Snake Pit, Anatole Litvak
  • The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, John Huston*

1948 was a recovery year for the Academy. Having gone from the existential depths of The Lost Weekend to the cautious post-war optimism of The Best Years of Our Lives to the sloppy and overblown bathos of Gentleman’s Agreement in just two years, they needed to take a break from overt social commentary and reassess. As such, the winner this year came as a surprise to many (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was heavily favored, and Johnny Belinda‘s 12 nominations led the field–both won Best Picture at the Golden Globes).

One can argue the merits of Hamlet‘s win over such stellar competition, as I intend to do here, but this was the first time in Academy history when every nominee for Best Picture deserved to win. They are all fantastic and timeless films, made by directors at the peak of their creativity and craftsmanship.

Also for the first time, there is a remarkable consistency in the five nominees, and boy did they get serious. Just one year after seeing two Christmas comedies among the nominees, here we have five films each as dark and brooding as the next, reflecting on themes of greed, obsession, anguish, insanity, and isolation both physical and mental. Watching how each film treats these subjects and how they resolve them is a rich and rewarding experience, making this the first of these Oscars where I am unreservedly and enthusiastically recommending all five films…to both of my readers.

speechless2.jpgYes, both of you!

I’m excited to talk about these, so let’s get to it! This entry is a bit long, but let’s face it…I’ve been ruminating on these films for about 18 months!

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You may remember Anatole Litvak as the director responsible for the ultra-syrupy All This, and Heaven Too back in 1940. Full of florid Charles Boyer/Bette Davis swanning and overwrought declarations of love, the memory of that film made me rather reticent to dive into The Snake Pit, as the director combined with the very unsubtle title led me to expect another film where the actors compete to see how much scenery they can eat in an hour and a half.

Unknown.jpegThey say the trick is to dip the dialogue in water and swallow it whole.

And it wasn’t–mostly. As I said, it was the peak of Litvak’s creativity, but for him that means the peak of his penchant for schlockiness and lust for schmaltz.

The story of a young woman, Virginia Cunningham, who finds herself in a mental institution after having a nervous breakdown, The Snake Pit manages to present a (comparatively) sympathetic view of the mental health profession but continuously falls victim to Litvak’s melodramatic indulgences. Overpowering music and garish camera angles abound, particularly when any attempt is made to show an actual psychological tool. Early in the film, there is an electroshock therapy sequence that is shot, scored, and edited exactly like a horror movie, and every doctor in the hospital but one is startlingly (and one-dimensionally) incompetent and callous.

Litvak’s uncontrollable bathos also ruins the best shot in the film: a slow track up and up from Virginia’s face to show the whole ward of writhing, confused, and forgotten patients, losing focus as it draws away, the faces melt into anonymity. It is powerful, dramatic, and, for once, perfectly scored…and then Virginia’s voiceover comes along, laboriously working her way to the perfect analogy for her present situation: “It was like I was in a…deep hole…and the people in it were…strange animals! …I was in a pit, and it was full of snakes. A snake pit!” No, seriously. She then compares her position to the medieval practice of throwing insane people in with snakes in order to cure them.

While I appreciate the unspoken rule that 90% of films must feature a character saying the title at some point, this seems a particularly harsh metaphor.

Unknown.jpeg“Yes, yes, go on…it’s a very good sign when patients start dehumanizing each other.”

And the payoff of the story is…not great. The script idolizes Freud to an uncomfortable degree, and when all is said and done, the root of Virginia’s descent into a dissociative episode and her continuing inability to find stability and happiness comes down to: her father didn’t love her enough. Even though flashbacks and her own words show that he really did, and so did her mother…she was just a spoiled, jealous brat. By the end of the movie, it’s clear that what she needs is less gentle coaxing and more of this:


2:20 – 3:30, though feel free to enjoy the rest.

Despite all of these very major faults, I still enjoyed the film. Its saving grace was the acting, particularly the three starring roles: Olivia de Havilland as Virginia, Mark Stevens as her husband Robert, and Leo Gann as Dr. Mark “Kik” Kensdelaerik. Honorable mention should also go to character actor and founder of Newfoundland, Lief Erickson, as one of Virginia’s former beaus. They manage to keep their cool and deliver grounded, well-crafted performances in the midst of the Litvakian excess surrounding them.

This was de Havilland’s second foray into the portrayal of mental illness, having previously starred in dual roles in the less-realistic thriller The Dark Mirror (1946) in which she played a set of identical twins, one of whom is a murderer. She prepared for her role in The Snake Pit by immersing herself in the world of psychiatry, having become interested in method acting years before Marlon Brando made it cool.

Annex - Brando, Marlon (A Streetcar Named Desire)_04.jpgFun fact: she was also considered for Stanley Kowalski. Here’s a still from her audition.

So while The Snake Pit was undoubtedly the weakest of the nominees this year, it’s still a great film, far better than any of the nominees in 1947. It has its shortcomings, but it fits in well with the themes of 1948, as Hollywood’s finest continued to examine the challenges of the post-war world.

original_flyer_for_the_film_22the_red_shoes-22_from_the_red_shoes_28194829_collection_at_ailina_dance_archives

We’ve seen the team of Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell before, back in 1942 with the superb 49th Parallel, easily the second-best of the wartime propaganda that dominated the period. Here, they reunite with Anton Walbrook (I’ve already shown his clip from 49th Parallel four times, so I won’t do it again…much as I’d like to!) for The Red Shoes, a beautiful tale about the human price of art–though in the end, is there anything more human?

Is there?

giphy

The emotional, sumptuous, stirring film tells the story of Vicky, a gifted dancer, torn between her love for Julian, an aspiring composer, and her need to dance…specifically, dance for ballet director Boris Lermontov, who grooms them both as rising stars in his company. Since love is supposed to conquer all, the movie does its best to make us hate Lermontov, as he cold-bloodedly manipulates Vicky and Julian and destroys their love through his singleminded desire to keep Vicky dancing.

The whole thing is mirrored by the ballet-within-the-film, The Red Shoes, which tells the exact same story but with less words, more dancing, and slightly sillier make-up. Indeed, as Vicky sinks deeper into her quandary and hurtles towards her inevitable choice between Julian and Lermontov, the two narratives begin to synch up until they are indistinguishable. The highlight of the film is the 15-minute Ballet of the Red Shoes, perfectly distilling the film’s essential drama into one wonderfully-choreographed fantasy sequence.

I spoke of the evolution of movie musicals in my last two posts, and talked about the wild and crazy climax of 42nd Street, which blurred the line between stage musical and cinema…this sequence continues that trend (although if we’re being nitpicky, what the hell is the audience within these films so excited about?). Fans of Gene Kelly will probably recognize this as the genesis of his amazing climactic ballet in An American in Paris three years later, and it’s because of the success of The Red Shoes that he was able to include it, and have such creative control over it, at all (and the one in Singin’ in the Rain the following year).

One of the reasons I love this movie is that it makes no attempt at realism…Powell and Pressburger allow the actors to commit fully to their characters’ raw emotions and motivations, which become more and more pronounced as the structure and plot gradually merge with that of the The Ballet of the Red Shoes. However, true to their manifesto, “not realistic” does not mean escapist. As the film progresses, from its slow, inauspicious beginnings to the transcendent climax, everything from the music to the acting to the set design draws the audience into the minds of Vicky and Lermontov–and P&P never forget that art is beautiful, even in a tale of psychological torment.

Regarding the story and the ultimate moral, that art destroys love but love is just the bee’s knees…I don’t think viewers are supposed to side with Lermontov, but I found myself on his side, largely for two reasons. First, it’s hard not to when he’s played by Anton Walbrook…

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And Julian is…well…

Unknown.jpegEarly anti-smoking campaigns were simply this. Teen smoking was nearly eradicated.

Second, studying Lermontov’s motivations reveals nothing but steadfast pursuit of perfect art, and seeing the potential for perfection in Vicky, he sees it as his duty to steer her in that direction. In addition, “hero” Julian seems to me selfish, irresponsible, and annoyingly short-sighted. Late in the film Lermontov tells Julian that he is in fact jealous of his (Julian’s) relationship with Vicky, “but for reasons you could never understand.” He’s right, damn it…Julian writes fine music, but it’s clear he’s not at Vicky’s (or Lermontov’s) level.

He was also right, earlier, when he asked Vicky why she had to give up her dream of dancing while Julian writes and produces operas at Covent Garden. She never gives an answer, and in that moment she finally realizes what she’s lost. She remembers the first conversation she had with Lermontov, when he asks her, “Why do you dance?”, and her response is, “Why do you live?”

All the beautiful moments of the film are those of the dancing, the music, and the performance, while all the moments of love between Vicky and Julian are sappy, juvenile, and empty. No one watches The Red Shoes to see them cuddling in a horse-drawn carriage, they watch it for the aforementioned ballet tour de force, for the majestic visuals. and for its celebration of art triumphant in post-war Europe. So in the end, for my money Vicky chooses correctly, even if her fate is predictably tragic.

Unknown.jpegAnd the red shoes held illimitable dominion over all.

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Despite the horror film promised by the poster, Johnny Belinda is a black-and-white film about a deaf-mute farm girl living on a remote island in Nova Scotia, which I realize sounds like a great premise for a horror film but I assure you it’s not. Instead, it’s a well-crafted morality play about misperceptions, loneliness, and the consequences of evil, in which every person not nominated for an Academy Award is an irredeemable, insensitive shitheel.

Fortunately, that leaves a solid moral center of four great performances. The two leads are Jane Wyman (Best Actress winner) as the half-titular Belinda MacDonald, a simple farm girl in the Song of Bernadette tradition, who is deaf-mute and thus ridiculed and shunned by society; and Lew Ayres (Best Actor nominee…remember him from All Quiet on the Western Front?) as Robert Richardson, a sympathetic doctor who befriends Belinda and teaches her sign language, saving both of them from their isolation. Their mutual respect and friendship that eventually grows into love is one of the most honest cinematic relationships of the era.

The Lost Weekend 1.jpg
I mean, after these kooky kids.

Supporting them are Charles Bickford as Belinda’s traditional but sensitive father, and stern but loving Mercury Theatre alumna Agnes Moorehead as her stern but loving aunt. And as I said above, the four of them stand alone against a town full of horrible people.

The film caused quite a stir when it was released due to its treatment of something heretofore prohibited by the Production Code. Unfortunately, by today’s standards, it doesn’t do a bang-up job. The central drama centers on the rape of Belinda by local thug Locky McCormick and the troubles that follow when she brings the child to term, while the attack itself is treated as a plot device. Belinda gets over the trauma remarkably quickly…in about 12 hours, in fact, thanks to a pep talk by Richardson. Even though it is explained away as repression, I can’t say I found this to be convincing.

In fact, the reaction of everyone to what happened, once it comes out, are rather muted on that aspect. The focus is more on what will happen to the child than what happened to bring him about in the first place. This is particularly noticeable in the case of Locky’s wife Stella, who is jealous of Belinda and Richardson’s relationship. She had previously told Locky not to “get sweet on” Belinda, and once she finds out the truth, her response is less shock, horror, or disgust than spousal indignation.

Unknown.jpeg“I can’t believe you raped that girl after I specifically asked you not to.

We do see a bit of Belinda’s torment later on, when she sees Locky in church and is noticeably afraid (a scene that would be repeated, much more graphically, in Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs [1971]), but aside from that, she quickly regains her old composure and the focus of the film becomes what will happen to her, her child, and Dr. Richardson. The townsfolk all believe the baby is the doctor’s, and make plans to steal him (the baby, not the doctor) and run the MacDonalds off their farm (haha).

Eventually, since the Production Code was still the Production Code even as it began to show signs of crumbling, Locky gets his comeuppance when he is shot dead by Belinda while attempting to steal her baby, and the truth comes out in her subsequent murder trial. Of course, the townspeople don’t learn any lesson and will probably facilitate more such violent hooligans in the future, but what does it matter once the credits roll?

Despite its contrivances, this is a great film. Like The Snake Pit, its performances are a joy to watch, as well as its focus on humanity, what drives people to do good even in the face of evil (“There’s only one shame: failing a human being who needs you”), and what it means to be alone. Each of the four main characters struggle with each of these in their own way.

In fact, it deals with many of the same themes as 1947’s winner, Gentleman’s Agreement: bigotry, ignorance, hive-mindedness, and violence against the unknown and misunderstood. The difference is that Johnny Belinda doesn’t tell us these things at every opportunity, or fill the last twenty minutes with monologues about what we’ve learned…it just tells a deceptively simple story with compelling characters and a lot of heart.

Well, that’s the first three films of 1948! I’ll be back soon with Part II, covering two of the greatest films ever made!

Musicals at the Oscars (Part II)

During the first 24 years of the Academy Awards, four musicals won Best Picture (The Broadway MelodyThe Great ZiegfeldGoing my Way, and An American in Paris), and the nominees reflected the growth and development of the film musical. However, as with the musicals themselves, their performance at the Oscars peaked in the 1950s and the Academy has struggled with them ever since.

The main problem with the Oscars in general has always been that, since they only reward films of the preceding year, they often miss their chance to honor films that are, in retrospect, superior. Citizen Kane‘s loss to How Green was my Valley in 1941 is the classic example, as well as, say, High Noon losing to The Greatest Show on Earth in 1952, or Crash winning over any other film released in 2005. It seems that when they do get it right, it’s the exception rather than the rule, and even then they rarely know what they have until it’s too late.

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It’s worth pointing out that none of these films won more than three Oscars.

The musical is no exception, as we’ve seen. Two of the most important musicals ever made, The Love Parade and The Gay Divorcee, were nominated but failed to win (though, admittedly, they lost to great and timeless films), and 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain, Gene Kelly’s triumphant follow-up to An American in Paris, wasn’t even nominated. Musicals became less and less represented in the following years, with the exception of the nominations for Seven Brides for Seven Brothers in 1954 and The King and I in 1956.

But just after the Golden Age of musicals ended in the mid-50s–not coincidentally, around the time when the Hays Code finally faded into deserved irrelevance–the Academy suddenly caught the fever. For a brief but very weird time, between 1958 and 1968, musicals were the most potent Oscar bait on the market.

Unknown-2.jpegSimilar to the brief and weird time we’re in now, when it’s Michael Keaton.

It was a time when American movies, and society, were changing fast, and the Academy held off acknowledging it for as long as they possibly could. Gigi kicked off the Musical Decade with a win in 1958, followed by West Side Story in 1961, My Fair Lady in 1964 (with 12 nominations, while another musical, Mary Poppins, received 13), The Sound of Music in 1965, and Oliver! in 1968.

With My Fair Lady, I get where they were coming from. They denied Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller back in 1938 when the story was called Pygmalion and saw a chance to make things right. It all makes sense, and damn it, I commend them for thinking of it.


He could break into song, if he wanted. He chooses not to.

But as I have often said, the road to hell is paved by George Cukor, and this otherwise noble gesture meant that the Academy had to ignore the likes of A Hard Day’s Night (the third Great Leap Forward in movie musicals, although this one didn’t have the lasting impact of the previous two) and Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

Even when they poked their heads out from under their comforters to look at the real world, it didn’t last long. Hell, 1967 scared them so bad–what with In the Heat of the NightThe GraduateBonnie and ClydeGuess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Cool Hand Luke, and many more iconoclastic films–that come 1968 they ignored 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Battle of Algiers in favor of lavishing 11 nominations and 5 Oscars on G-rated Oliver! 

To be fair, though, they did renew their hip cred in one regard, awarding Best Original Screenplay to a wonderful satirical film I’m going to go ahead and call a musical so I can show a clip of it:


A musical in the pre-Love Parade style, sure, but still…it’s got something.

But the tide turned the very next year. Instead of establishing a pattern of determining the winner by exclamation points and giving Best Picture to Gene Kelly’s feel-good Hello, Dolly!, 1969 saw the only X-rated winner, Midnight Cowboy (although it’s been downgraded to an R in the years since). This time, there was no rebound musical the following year…the New Hollywood had arrived, and the Oscars were finally onboard. And with that, the musical fell from grace with astonishing speed.

The last gasp of the genre came in 1972, when Bob Fosse’s masterful Cabaret swept up eight Oscars–including Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actor–but was denied Best Picture by The Godfather. It’s one of my favorite films of all time, and it manages to emotionally depict the slow and inexorable rise of Nazism while still entertaining with its beautiful choreography and catchy songs. Its eight awards without winning the top prize remains a record.


No film featuring a man making love to a gorilla has ever won, not counting that one deleted scene from 
The King’s Speech.

After that, musical nominees became few and far between. There was All That Jazz in 1979 (should have won), then nothing until Beauty and the Beast in 1991 (pretty sure Silence of the Lambs was the right call here), and Moulin Rouge! in 2001, desperately trying to recapture the exclamatory magic of Oliver! And finally, in 2002, the tenth and, to date, final musical film won Best Picture: Chicago.

Again, musicals dropped off the radar, with the exception of Les Misérables in 2012, which brings us to the 89th Awards on Sunday, where La La Land looks ready to become the eleventh musical to win Best Picture. I haven’t seen it, so I can’t comment too much on it, but unless it features a scene as awesome as this…

…I can’t imagine I’ll think it’s as amazing as everyone who has never seen Gene or Fred thinks it is.

Musicals are, in their best form, magical dreamscapes of pure, distilled joy, as the clips I’ve shared in this survey attest. I can’t watch Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling or Gene Kelly dancing on roller skates or Maurice Chevalier literally charming the pants off everyone he meets and feel anything but optimism and happiness that we’re all alive and able to experience such wonder. I wish someone would come along and revitalize the genre the way it deserves to be, even if we’ll never see the likes of the Golden Age again.

And that’s the musical at the Academy Awards! We’ll see if La La Land joins the pantheon of Best Picture winners on Sunday, and possibly even sets a new record for wins. Time, as it often does, will tell! Stay tuned as always for trivia on the night itself!

Musicals at the Oscars (Part I)

With La La Land leading the nominees this year by quite a wide margin, and having cleaned up at the Globes, it looks poised to become the first musical since Chicago (2002) and the eleventh musical overall to win Best Picture. This, combined with the fact that I am a late-blooming Hollywood musical enthusiast, made me think that I should take a look at the presence of musicals at the Oscars through the years.

Musicals started popping up in the Best Picture nominees, and winning Best Picture, as soon as sound was a thing. The second winner ever was The Broadway Melody, even if it only won that one award and was the best of a pretty weak year even by the standards of 1928/29. The nominees even included a silent film, The Patriot, Frank Lloyd won Best Director for the silent The Divine Lady, which gives an idea of just how little forethought was put into the whole thing back then. I suppose it could have something to do with one of the Academy’s more prominent members, Irving Thalberg, confidently predicting that “talking pictures are just a fad” (he also passed on the chance to produce Gone with the Wind because “Civil War movies never make money”).

Unknown.jpegIf he’d been head of Decca Records when the Beatles auditioned, he’d have signed the rejection slip without a second thought.

The Broadway Melody is a good film but not a great one, and if I weren’t writing this specifically about Academy Award winners, I wouldn’t even mention it in a history of the musical. I’d skip right over to next year’s The Love Parade, Maurice Chevalier’s entrance onto the Hollywood scene and the first “true” movie musical. I talk about it extensively in my entry about the third Academy Awards, about how it pretty much invented the genre as we know it today. Its most important innovation was that its songs were not stage performances within the story…they were fantasy sequences of characters breaking into song to sing about what was happening in the story. We take this breakthrough for granted today, because it has been copied in about 99.9% of all musicals made since.


No joke caption here. Without hyperbole, this scene changed movies forever and captures, in its simplicity, everything we love about films.

Like movies in general, musicals kept getting better and better for the next twenty years or so, and a few of them won or were nominated for Best Picture. Maurice Chevalier surfaced again with two films nominated at the 5th Awards, One Hour with You and The Smiling Lieutenant, and the next year, 42nd Street followed the old Broadway Melody approach but showed some inventiveness with a highly entertaining turn to fantasy in its closing number.

The next big leap forward was in 1934 with The Gay Divorcee, which finally struck the right balance between catchy songs, witty dialogue, and outstanding dancing courtesy of the great Fred Astaire. Writers and directors found that the screwball comedy template established by The Thin Man and It Happened One Night worked perfectly with the musical, and thus, in 1934, the last piece of the musical puzzle that everyone is still using today fell into place.

Even so, the next musical to win Best Picture was The Great Ziegfeld in 1936, which returned to The Broadway Melody‘s “let’s make audiences watch stage performers sing songs to an audience that is in the movie itself” approach. It wasn’t until 1944’s Going my Way that a film with “meta,” fantasy musical numbers took the top prize. In between, only two musicals were even nominated: The Wizard of Oz in 1939 and Yankee Doodle Dandy in 1942.

And the next one to win, in 1951, starred a man very dear to my heart, someone who left the world an immeasurably better place just by having the decency to exist in it. As amazing as Fred Astaire was…and he was amazing, just take a look at this clip:


He did this when he was 52 goddamn years old, and I get winded opening a can of pickles.

Anyway, like I said, as amazing as he was, he wasn’t–


Pssh, look at that decrepit 71-year-old. (Start at 2:30)

Ahem. What I’m trying to say here is–


Drums arrange themselves in a semi-circle at his approach. Science has yet to explain it.

OKAY. I get it, Fred Astaire was beyond incredible. The man breathed the same air as the rest of us, yet exhaled pure grace, dexterity, and charm. And yet, he received only one Academy Award nomination, for Best Supporting Actor in The Towering Inferno (1974), but in one of Oscar’s greatest upsets, lost to Robert de Niro for The Godfather Part II.

And speaking of great film and Broadway dancers who received only one acting nomination but starred in two films nominated for Best Picture…

tumblr_lbzhxxUiP51qe5vzdo1_1280.pngAnd at the end of the day, is there anything else really worth talking about?

…Gene Kelly brought the musical to new heights in the 1940s, after being brought to Hollywood by Judy Garland for Me and My Gal. He had all the grace of Astaire, all the genius for choreography and snappy dialogue and roguish charm, and he took dancing and musicals to the next level by taking them out of the ballrooms and into the navy yards, into the ballparks, and into the rain. He once remarked that “if Fred Astaire is the Cary Grant of dance, I’m the Marlon Brando.”

The Academy took notice of Gene Kelly early on with Anchors Aweigh (1945), his first of three films with Frank Sinatra (who also acted alongside the Marlon Brando of movies in general, Marlon Brando, in the musical Guys and Dolls [1955]). It was nominated for Best Picture that year, and Kelly received a nod for Best Actor (both nominations lost to The Lost Weekend, because obviously they did).

But in 1951, the Academy decided that they’d had enough of the gritty realism they had embraced following World War II, and were ready for bit of good, old-fashioned escapism. To that end, Kelly’s An American in Paris scored a major upset by winning Best Picture over the likes of A Place in the Sun and A Streetcar Named Desire. The highlight of this undeniably great film is undoubtedly the 20-minute ballet fantasy towards the end, choreographed by Kelly at the height of his imaginative powers:


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/60145841″>&quot;An American In Paris&quot; Ballet with George Gershwin’s Original Music</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user16602560″>Movie Musicals</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

This also led to a similar ballet sequence gracing Singin’ in the Rain the following year, which failed to garner any serious Oscar nominations. The next time Gene Kelly would turn up at the Awards would be 1969’s Hello Dolly!, which he directed but did not star in.

That takes us to 1951, and the first four musicals to win Best Picture at the Oscars. There have been six more, mostly in the late ’50s and ’60s when the Academy went a bit crazy with the musicals to try to stem the tide of all those newfangled, Code-violating films that kept threatening to change the way Hollywood made motion pictures. They did not succeed, making the 1960s one of the most aggravating decades in Oscar history…but that story will be told in Part II!

Trivial Matters #32 – The Evolution of the Oscars nomination record

As I mentioned in my trivia for the upcoming 89th Academy AwardsLa La Land, after setting a record by winning all seven Golden Globes for which it was nominated, leads the pack this year with a whopping 14 Academy Award nominations. This ties the record for most nominations at the Oscars, so I thought I’d tell the story of how this record evolved, and which films set it along the way to 1950’s Everest, All About Eve, as well as films that tied the record in between.

  • 5: At the first Academy Awards in 1929, there were only 12 awards to give, four of which were immediately retired. And Frank Borzage’s WWI love story Seventh Heaven picked up the most nominations, and also tied for the most wins with Sunrise (three).
    • In Old Arizona (2nd)
    • The Patriot (2nd)
  • 6: The Love Parade set a new record at the 3rd Academy Awards, but despite being my favorite of the Best Picture nominees that year, it didn’t win a single Oscar. This would be the last time to date that a film set the nominations record but did not win Best Picture.
  • 7: The godawful Cimarron, the Best Picture winner at the very subpar 4th Academy Awards, was one of the two first films to receive multiple acting nominations (the other was A Free Soul). It also won the most awards of the evening, picking up three.
  • 8: The record held for four years, until Mutiny on the Bounty scored eight nominations (including three for Best Actor, in the last year before supporting categories were introduced) at the 8th Academy Awards. Alas, it didn’t fare too well, becoming the third film, and last to date, to win Best Picture and nothing else.
  • 10: The Life of Emile Zola raised the bar at the 10th Academy Awards, but came away with only three awards. If you’re noticing a trend of the big nominees failing to win many awards, that’s about to end.
  • 13: The year was 1939, widely considered the best year in the history of American cinema, and the 12th Academy Awards‘ ten Best Picture nominees reflected that. But against all logic, even with films like Wuthering Heights and Goodbye Mr. Chips and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and The goddamn Wizard of Oz competing, the Academy bestowed 13 nominations and 9 Oscars, both a record, on the ridiculous Gone with the Wind. Sorry, I’m still upset about this one, all these months later.
  • 14: No film tied Gone with the Wind‘s record for the next decade or so (though a few films came close, with Mrs. MiniverThe Song of Bernadette and Johnny Belinda scoring 12 nominations at their respective ceremonies), but it was beaten by All About Eve at the 23rd Academy Awards. These nominations included four female acting nominations, a record that has never been matched to this day, although none of them were successful. The film came away with six awards, including Best Picture.
    • Since then, the record has been tied twice, by Titanic in 1997 and La La Land in 2016.

And now, as a treat for those who have stuck with me, here is the progression of the record for most competitive Oscar wins (and those who tied it along the way):

  • 3: Again, we have to start at the beginning, at the 1st Academy Awards. As I mentioned above, Seventh Heaven and Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans each came away with three Oscars.
    • Cimmaron (4th)
    • Cavalcade (6th)
  • 5: The record stood until the 7th Academy Awards, when It Happened One Night swept the Big Five (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay). Interestingly, every time a film has won these five awards (as regular readers or anyone who has ever talked to me knows, there have been three), they have never won a single other Oscar.
  • 8: Again, I have to deal with Gone with the Wind, so let’s make it quick. In addition to its eight competitive awards, it also received two special awards.
    • From Here to Eternity (26th)
    • On the Waterfront (27th)
  • 9: This time it took a while for the Academy to lavish so much love on a single film…Gone with the Wind‘s record stood for 19 years, until Gigi scored 9 Oscars at the 31st Academy Awards in 1958. But it didn’t last long…
  • 11: At the 32nd Academy Awards, William Wyler’s epic Ben-Hur won 11 of its 12 nominations, losing only Best Adapted Screenplay.
    • Since then, only three films have received 10 or more Oscars: West Side Story received 10 at the 34th Academy Awards, while Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King tied Ben-Hur‘s record at the 70th and 76th Academy Awards, respectively.

Trivial Matters #31 – Regarding the 89th Academy Awards Nominees

It is that time of year again! Today the Academy announced the nominees for the 89th Academy Awards, with nine films in the running for Best Picture of 2016. As I mentioned in my New Year’s post, I have seen so few films from the past year I was certain none of them would be nominated for the big prize…and, indeed, none was. So, I enter Oscars season totally bereft of predictions for Best Picture and, since Inárritu didn’t direct anything this year, I have nothing for Best Director, either.

77290-004-94E6E6AB.jpgSo even though he’s not nominated and is dead, I’m predicting William Wyler.

But anyway, as is the custom here at Oscars and I, here is some trivia that leapt out at me regarding this year’s slate:

  • La La Land is the third film to be nominated for 14 Oscars (following All About Eve [1950] and Titanic [1997]). It would have to win 11 Oscars to tie the record set by Ben-Hur (1959, out of 12 nominations) and later tied by Titanic and by The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003, out of 11 nominations).
    • It’s the first film since American Hustle in 2013 to be nominated for the “Big Five” awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay (Original). If it wins all five, as it did at the Golden Globes, it would join It Happened One Night (1934), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), and The Silence of the Lambs (1991) as the only films to do so.
    • If it does not win Best Picture, it will hold the record for most nominations without winning the top prize–currently at 13, set by Mary Poppins in 1964 and later tied by Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), and, of all damn films, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008).
  • No film not nominated for Best Picture received more than one acting nomination.
  • Of the Best Picture nominees, only Hacksaw Ridge was not nominated for its screenplay. As recent years have shown, this puts it at a significant disadvantage.
  • Arrival has no acting nominations. The last film to win Best Picture without any acting nominations was Slumdog Millionaire in 2008 (the eleventh film to do so).
  • Except for Mel Gibson, all of the nominees for Best Director are first-time nominees in that category (two, Damien Chazelle and Kenneth Lonergan, have been nominated previously for writing).
  • La La Land has six more nominations than the next-most nominated films (Arrival and Moonlight, with eight apiece). This ties the record for largest gap between the first- and second-most nominated films, set by Forrest Gump in 1994, with 13 nominations to 7 each for Bullets Over Broadway, The Shawshank Redemption, and Pulp Fiction.
  • Meryl Streep, with her 20th acting nomination, could tie Katharine Hepburn for most acting wins (though all four of Hepburn’s were in the Lead Actress category, while Streep’s first win was Best Supporting Actress for Kramer vs. Kramer). Nicole Kidman and Jeff Bridges could join the roster of performers to win in both Lead and Supporting categories.
  • If Fences wins Best Picture, Denzel Washington, a two-time Best Actor winner, would become the sixth person in Academy history to win for acting and something else…following Laurence Olivier (producing), Barbra Streisand (original song), Michael Douglas (producing), Emma Thompson (writing), and George Clooney (producing).
    • And if he wins Best Actor, he would not only join Daniel Day-Lewis as the only male actor to win it three times, but would also be the fourth person, after Mary Pickford (Coquette [1928]), Laurence Olivier (Hamlet [1948]), and Charlize Theron (Monster [2003]), to win an acting award for a film that he also produced.

That’s all that comes to mind now…I’ll post more as I think of them!