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!

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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!

Christmas at the Oscars

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

220px-Its_A_Wonderful_Life_Movie_Poster

Sigh.

Here it is, the Ultimate Christmas Film, the one that gets trotted out every December on basic cable and in cinematic revivals–even in France–to lift the maudlin spirits of those who need a refresher course on how angels achieve winghood. Need your faith in humanity restored? The first step, so says conventional wisdom, is to watch It’s a Wonderful Life.

I must admit, when I first started on this journey a year ago, I wasn’t looking forward to this one. I first saw It’s a Wonderful Life some time ago, and it soured me to Capra for years afterward. I was annoyed by the pomposity, the triteness, the lack of believable performances, and the naïveté of its message. But then I embarked on this little project and I saw It Happened One NightMr. Deeds Goes to TownLost HorizonYou Can’t Take it With You, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and I realized…goddamn, can Frank Capra direct a motion picture. So I approached this film with at least a little bit of optimism, imagining (in the spirit of the season) that within the context of the rest of his catalogue, perhaps It’s a Wonderful Life is not so sickeningly saccharine as it at first appears.

And lo and behold, I discovered that within the context provided by Capra’s previous efforts, it is even worse than I’d remembered.

All the subtlety, the subtext, and the restraint of those films I mentioned above are gone, and the clear technical and artistic progression I observed between 1934 and 1939 just disappeared entirely. I understand that World War II had just ended and people needed a bit of moral boosting in its wake, and not every film can be The Best Years of Our Lives…but come on. I’m pretty sure Disney showed this film to the lemmings in White Wilderness to make them throw themselves off that cliff.

Look, I’m all about optimism in motion pictures, and I’d come to expect it from Capra, but he’d grown so much as a storyteller in the 1930s, able to weave it in to plots and characters that don’t gloss over the dark path that lies ahead after the credits roll. For example, Mr. Smith took on Washington and Capra had the cajones to end it on a deeply troubling note, implying that American politics was irreparably damaged and that the effort of one righteous person ultimately doesn’t change much. Here, he actually seems to believe that to be true, and that he’d filmed a happy, uplifting ending…and so do most people who watch it, it seems.

The story, for those lucky few out there who have avoided the film until now, is about a man named George Bailey who wants nothing more than to get out of the one-horse town in which he finds himself, only to be stymied at every turn by accidents and his indefatigable sense of right. So he watches as everyone close to him goes off to lead the lives he dreams of for himself, while he never leaves Bedford Falls. Things just go from bad to worse as he marries the love of his life, successfully stands up to the machinations of the materialistic Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore, playing pretty much the exact opposite of his character in YCTIWY), and enjoys the love and respect of literally everyone in the town and beyond.

jimmy_stewart_in_its_a_wonderful_life.jpgThe fuck are you complaining about, again?

Nothing about George Bailey suggests he would do anything with his “freedom” besides travel around the world for a while as a tourist and then settle right back into Bedford Falls where he clearly belongs. Still, he’s so obtuse–and, one could argue, just as materialistic as Potter…he just buries it to feel superior–that he’s driven to the brink of suicide, only to be saved by the intervention of a slightly senile angel named Clarence (who only steps in because he wants to earn his wings…if he’d already had them, the film ends with Bailey drowning while Clarence watches and then flies away).

So he sees all the harm that befalls Bedford Falls when he’s not around, thanks to the contrivance of growing up in a town dominated by a One-Dimensional Antagonist up to whom no one will stand but him. He’s finally convinced of his worth when he is told that his wife remained single, and thus was never fulfilled by the bearing of his children. The camel’s back breaks when he sees her and discovers that, in this horrifying alternate timeline, she is a librarian who wears glasses.

images.jpeg“My god…no one should have to live through progressive myopia!”

(I’d argue that she’s doing more with her life in this reality, keeping a library operating and, it seems, relatively unscathed in a town as hedonistic and slummy as Pottersville. She’s needed here far more than in Bedford Falls, but since her role is to serve the protagonist, the film just glosses over that. Where’s her angel?)

And so George prays to get his old life back, Clarence gives it to him, and he returns to his family and friends, ostensibly a better man for his ordeal. Clarence gets his wings, George learns he’s not a complete failure, and everybody sings and laughs and cries. In the end, of course, everything is exactly the same as it was when George was standing on the bridge…actually, it’s worse. Much worse.

I mean, sure, the town and its inhabitants are better off than if he hadn’t been born, but nothing’s changed about the real world, the one in which he exists. He’s still deep in debt, managing a business with a patently unsustainable business model, and his rich friend is just advancing him $25,000, so that’s just more debt. Being in debt to friends is far worse than being in debt to enemies. Also, Potter’s still out there, and he’s not going to stop…Capra forgot the most important part of this story, the moral change that Potter must go through if anything is to get better. But his epiphany never comes, and indeed nothing implies that it will…he’s happy with who and what he is, and if he doesn’t consider himself a failure, what does it matter if Bailey and the rest of them–or we the audience, for that matter–do? What’s standing in his way besides a suicidal nudnik and a gaggle of indifferent townies?

In fact, Potter’s in a more powerful position than he’s ever been, because all the struggling townsfolk just gave their pocket money to George Bailey to save his business/etc. So now the next time Potter decides to make a move, no one will be able to stop him. The town is fucked.

In a month’s time, when the feelings have worn off, the business collapses, and George is driven to suicide again, the only thing different will be that he now knows he’s better off dead. His existence has merely delayed the inevitable. Bedford Falls becomes Pottersville all the same, only Mary can’t run the library because she’s a widow with four children to support, so all intellectual pursuits dry up and the town ends up worse than Bailey’s nightmare.

The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

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 (1947)

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.

John Lennon

In 1970, the Beatles won the Academy Award for Best Original Song Score (a category still active, though now it’s called Best Original Musical and hasn’t been awarded since 1984) for Let It Be. So, this tribute makes perfect sense.

John Lennon did just about everything creative during his brief life, and if that whole Beatles thing hadn’t panned out (for example, if they hadn’t drawn George Martin as a producer, or Brian Epstein hadn’t taught them how to appeal to a wider audience than the basements in Hamburg dance clubs), he could have fallen back on his acting. While all of the Beatles proved they could act (particularly Ringo), only John had that wonderfully British surrealist sensibility that brought the world A Spaniard in the Works and delightful comic scenes like…


I have no evidence, but I am convinced this a word-for-word interaction he had in real life.

That scene is from the cinéma vérité tour de force A Hard Day’s Night, which was made to cash in on the Beatlemania fad (EMI expected to make more from the soundtrack than the film itself) but is today recognized as one of the greatest films of the 1960s. John’s sardonic, quirky performance is the highlight of a film full of highlights, and although Ringo is a better actor and justly provides the dramatic fulcrum of the story, I don’t think A Hard Day’s Night would be the classic of British comedy that it is were it not for John.

A consummate comic performer, John would have been right at home as a member of The Goonies or Beyond the Fringe–he appeared a couple of times on Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s early show, Not Only…But Also–and even though he hated Help! (commenting that the Beatles were extras in their own movie), the movie was the forerunner of the kind of absurdist humor that would find its peak in Monty Python a few years down the road.


This bit required Ringo to stay at home so as not to cause a time travel paradox when his 1974 self arrived to shoot the scene.

John got sick of being a Beatle around the first time they had to be chauffeured from a concert in the back of an armored vehicle, and when tensions in the group reached such a height in 1966 that they had to take an extended break from the group, he starred in his only non-Beatles film, How I Won the War. The film, also directed by Richard Lester, is a pitch-black, absurdist anti-war film, in which Lennon plays Musketeer Gripweed, a British army soldier who constantly clashes with his superiors due to his fascist political ideology. It fared poorly at the box office, but it’s one of my favorites, full of dark satire and surrealism, and definitely worth a watch. Just don’t expect a happy ending.

73628Unless you count John coming away from it with a new sense of optical style.

It was while waiting between scenes that John wrote “Strawberry Fields Forever,” definitely in his top five Beatles-era songs, which in turn led to this beautiful music video (sorry it’s shortened, blame Apple Corp.):


Fun fact: Every shot in this video is backwards, except the one of Paul jumping into the tree.

Of course, in the late 60s John met Yoko Ono, and began a dedication to social justice and peace that lasted the rest of his life.

On this date in 1980, John Lennon was murdered outside the Dakota apartment building, where he lived, in New York City. These days, every year on this night, hundreds gather in Strawberry Fields, a section of Central Park established in 1985 as a memorial to Lennon, to sing Beatles songs and pay tribute to the man and his memory. If you get a chance, stop by the next time you find yourself in the city in December. It’s well worth the biting cold, the often poor musicianship, and the occasional drunks…standing there, head bowed, during the moments of silence, followed by a quiet rendition of “Imagine” or “Across the Universe”, is a truly moving experience.

4 “Good” Characters who are Horrible People

I have nothing against horrible people as cinematic or literary characters. Many of the great protagonists throughout film history have been bastards: Charles Foster Kane, Michael Corleone, Ferdinando Cefalù, and so on. They are profoundly interesting, challenging characters with whom I am usually far more engaged than straight-up “good guys.”

Unknown.jpegSeriously, fuck this guy.

What I want to talk about is when Hollywood pulls the wool over our eyes, presenting us with a character who is shown as the embodiment of all that is good in ourselves and our spirits, for whom we cheer when they win and weep when they lose, and who represents an ideal for which we should strive—when in reality, the person is an egotistical, selfish sociopath disregarding the rules of society for their own ends. Like I said, this kind of character is fine, if that’s what the creators were going for, but here are four times when they were not.

Ethan Hawke in Gattaca

What the Film Shows:

It’s a terrible future, wherein one’s genes are mapped before birth to create superior humans designed for greatness while rejects are cast aside to work with Ernest Borgnine. No longer is one’s station in life determined by one’s own achievements, but by sequencing that consigns one to a preordained position. If you’re told you’re not good enough to be an Olympic athlete, discover a cure for cancer, or go on some purposeless space mission, there’s no point in even trying, because science has spoken.

It’s enough to strike terror in the hearts of anyone who values individual freedom and believes in the inherent ability of anyone to do anything they want, so long as they’ve got grit (and a passing resemblance to Jude Law). Well, Ethan Hawke isn’t taking that guff, and despite the drawbacks in having been born via the old method of random gene shuffling, he’s going to go up on the next space shuttle and fulfill his childhood dream, because everyone, everywhere, has the basic human right to decide their own destiny at every second of every day. He is us in our struggle to assert our freedom!

Actually…

The reason Hawke is denied a place in the space program is that he has a life-threatening heart defect. I may be out of line here, but I wouldn’t want to send someone with that condition into space. In today’s world, he would be bounced out of the running as soon as this condition was detected. And it’s not as if they’re unfairly discriminating against him because he might have this defect: he’s shown collapsing and clutching his chest after running on a treadmill set to “Arthritic Snail” for less than three minutes. If he can’t even take a pleasant jog, what makes him think he’ll be able to handle a goddamn shuttle mission?

I don’t want to exaggerate anything, so I’ll word this very carefully: this guy is the worst person in the world. If he gave a damn about space exploration, or about anyone other than himself, he could easily have gotten an education and worked as a technician or engineer or something else on the ground, but for him, that’s not what this is about. He doesn’t give a single shit about the success of the mission—hell, he probably doesn’t even know what the purpose is—about the realities of space travel, or about the safety of himself or others—he just wants to go to space, full stop. And so, instead of accepting that it is his own body, not the mean, party-pooping, gene-altering government, that is keeping him earthbound, he decides to endanger the mission, the program, and the lives of the actual astronauts.

Unknown-2.jpegI almost wrote “his fellow astronauts,” but he’s an astronaut in the same way this guy is a doctor.

The film ends with his sublime face staring out the shuttle window as the rocket takes off, probably because if it had lasted five seconds longer we’d be treated to his sudden, feckless, violent death as his heart explodes in his chest, and the frantic attempts by Gattaca to return his faceless, blood-spattered colleagues safely to Earth through the wreckage of his shitty behavior. And the moral of the story would be “Don’t put others in mortal danger to pursue your pipe dreams,” rather than “Go ahead and scam your way to your dreams, because rules and basic human biology are for quitters.”

Ferris Bueller in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

What the Movie Shows Us:

Who wouldn’t want to be this authority-defying, devil-may-care, roguish sweetheart? Who wouldn’t want to just cut out of that boring, beige purgatory, borrow his friend’s father’s Ferrari, and just gambol around Chicago without any sense of consequence? What a fun day, and what a great guy this Ferris Bueller is, popular enough rally support from all corners of the city and filled with so much confidence he can bring a goddamn parade to its knees with a lip-synch of “Twist and Shout.” And that ingenious dummy-in-the-bed ruse…such tomfoolery!

Actually…

This one is pretty obvious, and I’m certainly not the first to point out that Ferris Bueller is a narcissistic, self-centered prick. People have already identified Ed Rooney as the true, tragic hero of this sordid tale, a man whose ruin comes about from the sin of giving a shit about his job.

But I’ll focus on Bueller. First of all, he holds his parents, both of whom wither away at thankless jobs to give him the lifestyle he feels he’s entitled to, in open contempt: it takes a special kind of egomaniacal psychosis to think that that dummy in the bed would fool anyone with an IQ above 0, but that’s the regard he has for his parents. The fact that it works is not a testament to Ferris’ ingenuity but to the screenplay’s need to show Ferris as correct in everything he does.

Second, he constantly narrates his life to an audience he is certain is hanging on his every word, deed, and thought. There is no sense of irony in his self-righteous monologues about how great it is to drive a Ferrari; he honestly believes he is teaching us, the poor little rule-followers, how to live the dream.

Unknown-3.jpeg“If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up.” Oh, you mean stealing it, you condescending shit-for-brains?

But what really gives us our deepest, most disturbing glimpse into Ferris’ black soul is the fact that he treats his supposed best friend like shit. Clearly he only calls Cameron up because he has designs on Cameron’s father’s vintage, incredibly valuable automobile. Don’t tell me he only demands it after Cameron’s “screw up”; Ferris goddamn Bueller doesn’t putter around Chicago on his day off in some jalopy. His end game was always the theft of the Ferrari. And even that doesn’t tell the whole story of his solipsistic douchery: remember, Cameron’s father is angry and abusive, so Cameron is almost guaranteed a beating as a result of Ferris’ need to always be the center of attention, even amongst strangers on the street.

Ferris knows this, because he’s been fucking with poor Cameron, by the latter’s estimation, since fifth grade, always pulling the “find yourself a new best friend if you don’t do my bidding” card. Ah, yes, emotional manipulation, the cornerstone of any good friendship. He has a clear understanding of how Cameron’s father will react, and he doesn’t give a shit, because Cameron is not Ferris Bueller and so is not worthy of consideration. Sure, Ferris pulls Cameron out of the pool when he thought he was drowning, but given what we know about Ferris, it’s only because an actual death would violate his blinkered, sociopathic certainty that the purpose of the world is to show him a good time.

Despite Ferris’ pseudo-sadness at the thought, the best thing that will ever happen to Cameron is when he and Ferris split up and go to different colleges, and Cameron realizes he doesn’t have to acquiesce to a friend who so flippantly disregards his emotional and physical safety. Fortunately for Ferris, he has a girlfriend who is equally selfish and immature (“I think I’ll tongue-kiss Ferris now, despite the fact that he’s pretending to be my father and the principal is watching, because how could that possibly go wrong?”), so he’ll have company when Rooney completes his investigation and he is Steve Holting his way through his fourth senior year.

Unknown-4.jpegUnless she dumps him for hitting on random sunbathers two minutes after telling her he loves her…

 

Rita in Groundhog Day

What the Movie Shows

“Gosh, you’re an upbeat lady!” exclaims about-to-be-redeemed Phil Connors, when it finally dawns on him that Rita’s inexhaustibly cheerful and optimistic Weltanschauung is his path to both salvation and her vagina. And she is such an inspiration, isn’t she? Always smiling, always with a kind word, smart, witty, well-read, ambitious, everything a person should be! And she saves Phil from his path of nihilistic self-destruction, and now they’re goin’ to the chapel and they’re gonna get married.

Actually…

Just what the hell does Rita have to be happy about, anyway? This is a question that is not asked enough in this world, and it’s a pertinent one. And the cold, hard fact is that she’s just one of those “happy for no reason” people who normal, decent citizens just want to punch in the face.

Let’s start with the obvious: her advice to Phil after he reveals to her his existential nightmare is irresponsible at best and deeply harmful at worst. Sure, we, the audience members who are experienced in the ways of Hollywood resolutions, are confident that if Phil applies himself to becoming a better person, the magic loop he’s in will suddenly break at exactly the right moment, but within the Groundhog Day universe, Rita has no reason to believe that to be the case. Essentially, she’s telling Phil that he ought to learn languages, read books, and try to find meaning in what will most likely be an endless parade of February 2nds in which it doesn’t matter whether or not he performs good, altruistic deeds or mean, selfish ones.

Unknown.jpegHe could just let this kid drop and then harvest his organs, and the outcome would be the same.

This is worse than telling someone with a terminal disease that everything is going to be all right because you “know” it will be. At least in that situation, the person will die soon and not have to think about how much you deluded them for reasons only you, the Happy Person, can understand. In Phil’s case, what if things had turned out differently, if Groundhog Day had been directed by Werner Herzog instead of Harold Ramis? He would have been trapped forever, and eventually it would have dawned on him that Rita’s (for that matter, everyone’s) philosophy becomes absurd in the face of immortality. He would have stopped learning the piano, reading her favorite novels, and sculpting creepy ice angels, because they would cease to have any meaning or satisfaction, and his disappointment would quickly turn into psychotic, passionate hatred for the person who so cruelly gave him such reckless hope.

Unknown-1.jpegAnd this will be the last thing Rita sees…every day, for eternity.

“Okay, maybe in some weird nightmare that happens, but not in the film!” you say. All right, then, we’ll concentrate purely on what is in the film as it stands. Even then, I maintain that Rita is arrogant, entitled, and annoyingly self-righteous.

All one has to do is look at a single scene to realize how horrible Rita truly is. It comes at the beginning of the sequence in which Phil begins to woo her through the romantic tactic of learning her likes and dislikes and pretending to change. He orders her favorite drink, and she asks him what they should drink to. He gamely suggests, “To the Groundhog!”, which is hardly Oscar Wilde but is nevertheless a fine, adequately funny toast that should have been enough to break the ice and lead to a relaxed conversation. Instead of responding like a normal human being, however, Rita turns away with a look of haughty disdain and, with as much pretention as she can muster, declares, “I always drink to world peace.”

maxresdefault.jpg“I’m also a vegan. Fuck you for not knowing that.”

What just happened?! First, even if that’s her preferred toast, why does she have to be so mean about it? There’s no way Phil could have known she always drinks to that. Second, if she’s so committed to toasting world peace, why does she even ask him what they should drink to? Why not just say, “To world peace!” If she had, and Phil had acted the way she does to his toast, she’d be (justly) offended and have nothing more to do with him. Instead, she is the one to get angry and blow him off, and he is the one left feeling like a twat.

There’s no reason Phil shouldn’t just leave at this point and spend infinity banging Nancy.

kissingflorence.jpgHe’s got a promise here, too.

Kevin McAllister in Home Alone 2: Lost in New York

What the Film Shows Us:

Everyone’s favorite social services case study is abandoned by his family again, only this time they lost him at the airport so he managed to get himself lost in…some city, I can’t remember. And as luck would have it, the same two endearingly incompetent burglars from last Christmas are in the same town, and since it’s a pretty small hamlet, they inevitably run into each other and hijinks ensue. Once again Kevin must set up a series of elaborate traps to subdue the criminals until his family reunites and they get to spend Christmas in a plush suite at the Plaza, complete with half the stock of a grateful department store owner. Things go so well that next year they’re going to strand Kevin in Mogadishu and wait to inherit the Saudi family fortune.

Actually…

Kevin isn’t the protagonist of Home Alone 3, and that’s probably because he was committed to a psychiatric asylum shortly after the events of Lost in New York. The Kevin we see here is not the innocent child of the first film…he’s been warped psychologically by ongoing familial neglect, and it has turned him into a manipulative, amoral, borderline psychopathic compulsive liar who delights in inflicting physical pain on others (mental pain is beyond his ken, as he does not view other humans as real and therefore is concerned only with their outward manifestations. Visible bruises are what satisfy him).

rope-on-fire.gifHe came just thinking this up.

Kevin’s actions in the first film make sense, once one accepts the curious absence of law enforcement in his clearly upscale neighborhood. like any normal American eight-year-old, he’s seen Straw Dogs a few times, and he feels that it’s his duty to defend his home against invaders—he only settles for HotWheels when he can’t find his father’s bear trap. And given Marv and Harry’s disturbing fixation on him and his house, he is right to go a bit overboard with the preparations.

Cut to a year later, though, and we witness a sociopath with nothing on his mind but torture and death. The intervening time has been spent sitting in the attic watching Cannibal Holocaust over and over, and he’s just soaking it all in and thinking how he let Marv and Harry off easy because he was just a careless kid. Just give him another shot, he thinks…and he gets it.

Finding himself in New York, he feigns shock but quickly shows just how much he’s grown up since last time by committing credit card fraud without batting an eye, and conning the entire staff of the Plaza Hotel into doing his bidding.

Unknown.jpeg“And when we’re through with this, I’ve got a clown costume for you.”

Soon he comes across Marv and Harry again, who now have a legitimate reason to obsess over Kevin (all the maiming), and here’s where a normal person would go to the police and return to his suite to watch the arrest on television. But as we’ve seen, Kevin is far from normal, and instead thinks, “I’ve got access to an empty building that is conveniently free of squatters and rats, the perfect chance to show these fools pain they’ve never dreamed could exist. Marv will be begging me for a nail in his foot by the end of the night!” Then he laughed maniacally and found a few homeless people to stab while he choreographed the carnage in his twisted mind.

In the first film, as I said, he was in his house, so it made sense that he had to get creative to keep Marv and Harry at bay. Here, he doesn’t have even that flimsy excuse to indulge his murderous improv. He straight up lures them to his chthonic playground, knowing they are fueled by vengeance and the combined IQ of a pretzel, and he has moved up from toy cars and broken glass to lead pipes, blowtorches, and bags of goddamn cement. There is not a single apparatus in that house that is not designed to kill.

Just as in the first film, it all goes flawlessly, as Marv and Harry blunder into one nightmare after another until they are probably convinced that they are still in prison and have dropped some bad acid. And just as in the first film, Kevin is eventually bailed out by the creepy person who turns out to be…still pretty goddamned creepy, but a creep who Kevin can manipulate into participating in his morbid schemes. And just as in the first film, the family bounds in after it’s all over and, all of them being oblivious morons, fail to notice the deadness in Kevin’s eyes as he looks forward to the day when he picks them all off, one by one.

Home-Alone-home-alone-30912226-2560-1740.jpg“You, mother, shall be last so as to witness my TRANSFORMATION.”