Trivial Matters #38 – Regarding the 90th Academy Awards nominees

It’s that time of year again, the time when the discerning members of the Academy announce their nominations for the Oscars. Haha, I’m just joking…it’s that time when members go on Wikipedia, copy-paste the nominees and winners from the Golden Globes and the SAG awards, and change them just enough so it looks like they made an effort. No big surprises this year amongst the nominees…and thus far, of the nine films up for the top award, I have seen only Call Me By Your Name and Lady Bird.

I’m writing off four nominees immediately from the running: Darkest HourDunkirk, The Post, and Phantom Thread. Of those, only Phantom Thread has nominations for both acting and directing–The Post has only the obligatory Meryl Streep nomination, Darkest Hour may finally give Gary Oldman an Oscar but that’s about it, and Dunkirk received a nod for Christopher Nolan but nothing in acting. But what seals the deal–devotees of Oscars & I will know the reason before I say it–is that all four of these films lack a nomination for writing. No film since Titanic (1997) has been named Best Picture without one, and the last one before that was The Sound of Music (1965).

Based on Oscars history, we can also probably eliminate Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and Call Me by Your Name for their lack of nominations for Best Director. Only four times has a film been named Best Picture without a nomination for its director, most recently in 2012 when Argo won. However, Billboards did win the Golden Globe (although director Martin McDonagh was nominated there).

So that leaves, effectively, three nominees: Get OutLady Bird, and The Shape of Water. If I had to choose a likely winner, it would be The Shape of Water, given that Guillermo del Toro won the Globe for Best Director, and it leads the field with 13 nominations.

It’s actually kind of astounding to me that The Post was nominated for Best Picture, considering Meryl Streep’s Best Actress nod is its only other nomination. If it does win, it will be the only Best Picture in history without nominations for directing, writing, or editing (except for Grand Hotel [1931/32], of course, which received no nominations outside Best Picture).

I’m also waiting on tenterhooks to see if the Academy will again split the winners of Best Picture and Best Director. It has done so the previous two years (and four of the last five), and if it happens again, it will be the first time since 1935-1937 that the awards were split three years in a row. In case you want to know, the films were: :

  • 1935: Best Picture, Mutiny on the Bounty; Best Director, John Ford – The Informer
  • 1936: Best Picture, The Great Ziegfeld; Best Director, Frank Capra – Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
  • 1937: Best Picture, The Life of Emile Zola; Best Director, Leo McCarey, The Awful Truth

Some other things I noticed:

  • This is only the second year that there is both a woman (Greta Gerwig for Lady Bird) and an African-American (Jordan Peele for Get Out) amongst the Best Director nominees, both for their directorial debuts. This happened previously in 2009, when both Kathryn Bigelow and Lee Daniels were nominated.
    • Gerwig is the fifth woman to receive a Best Director nomination, following Lina Wertmüller for Seven Beauties (1976); Jane Campion for The Piano (1993), Sofia Coppola for Lost in Translation (2003); and the aforementioned Bigelow for The Hurt Locker (2009), the only one to win (it also won Best Picture).
    • Peele is the fifth African-American nominated in the category, after John Singleton for Boyz N the Hood (1991); the aforementioned Daniels for Precious (2009); Steve McQueen for 12 Years a Slave (2013), and Barry Jenkins for Moonlight (2016). It’s worth noting that the latter two films won Best Picture.
  • Mary J. Blige is nominated for both Best Original Song and Best Supporting Actress for Mudbound, meaning she could conceivably join, in a single evening, the elite group of people who have won Oscars for acting and in a different category. There have been only five so far:
    • Laurence Olivier: Best Actor and Best Picture for Hamlet (1948); the first to accomplish this feat and the only one to do it in a single year
    • Barbra Streisand – Best Actress for Funny Girl (1968) and Best Original Song for A Star is Born (1976)
    • Michael Douglas: Best Picture for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Best Supporting Actor for Wall Street (1987)
    • Emma Thompson: Best Supporting Actress for Howards End (1992) and Best Adapted Screenplay for Sense and Sensibility (1995)
    • George Clooney: Best Supporting Actor for Syriana (2005) and Best Picture for Argo (2012)
  • Three Billboards received two nominations for Best Supporting Actor (Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell, who won the Golden Globe), the first film to do so since Bugsy (1991).
  • With its Best Picture nomination, The Post inches Steven Spielberg closer to William Wyler’s record of directing 13 Best Picture nominees (The Post is Spielberg’s eleventh). However, without a matching Best Director nomination, Spielberg remains well behind Wyler (12) (and Scorsese [8]) with only seven.
  • Both Daniel Day-Lewis and Meryl Streep could tie Katharine Hepburn’s record of four acting Oscars. However, only Day-Lewis could tie her record of four lead acting Oscars, if he wins an unprecedented fourth Best Actor award for Phantom Thread.
  • Christopher Plummer, already the oldest acting winner of all time at 82 for his Best Supporting Actor in 2010 for Beginners, became the oldest acting nominee at age 88, surpassing the previous record holder, Gloria Stuart (nominated for Best Supporting Actress at age 87 for Titanic).
    • If he wins, he’ll be the oldest winner in any category. Right now, the record is held by Ennio Morricone, who won Best Original Score two years ago at age 87 for The Hateful Eight (2015).

And there we have it! If I think of any more, I’ll update the post…but those are what leapt to mind first!

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Trivial Matters #37 – William Wyler

It’s been a busy start to the year, and before I begin watching the nominees of 1952, I’d like to take a moment to talk about William Wyler, the most fêted director in the history of the Oscars. I’ve mentioned him before in a trivia entry about directors, but that was before I’d seen any of his movies and grown to appreciate what a genius he was.

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Wyler cut his teeth on Westerns, and as the sound era dawned he began to branch out into all sorts of genres. Along the way, he gained a reputation as a perfectionist, taking his time to craft every detail of every scene, and as a director for whom actors loved to work. He had many early collaborations with Walter Huston, and went on to direct some of the finest performances of Laurence Olivier (who credited Wyler with teaching him how to act for film), Bette Davis (who won her second Oscar under his direction and, through their numerous films together, said he made her a much better actress), Olivia de Havilland, Fredric March, Kirk Douglas, and many others.

I admit it took me a while to pay attention and realize how many of Wyler’s movies I was seeing among the Best Picture nominees, but the first one that really made me step back and consider who was behind all these amazing films was The Little Foxes (1941), starring Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, and Teresa Wright. Davis is at her most cold and cruel as Regina Gibbons, and this scene, when she admits her deep contempt for her husband and then sits, scheming and unmoving, as he suffers a heart attack is one of the finest scenes of the decade:

Wyler’s decision to keep the camera on Davis while Marshall struggles, in the background and out-of-focus, was inspired. He could have gotten the whole thing in crisp focus (Gregg Toland was cinematographer, after all, the same Gregg Toland who brought the world Citizen Kane the same year), but instead he allows Marshall to fade away, keeping us riveted on Davis, and sparing us none of her cold, calculating stare. It’s probably one of the most terrifying death scenes I’ve ever seen in a non-Disney film.

He didn’t dabble in comedy much, but when he did, he went big. His third-to-last film, released in 1966, was How To Steal a Million, starring Audrey Hepburn, the always-hilarious Peter O’Toole, and Hugh Griffith. The whole movie is worth a good watch, but here’s a brief clip, with Audrey Hepburn being gracious as ever, and Peter O’Toole further honing the “devastatingly charming yet perpetually confused” look that he developed in What’s New Pussycatthe year before:


Also his trademark flit…seriously, do his feet even touch the floor in this scene?

Basically, there was nothing Wyler couldn’t do, and he had a creative streak of brilliance that lasted over 30 years and 20 films. Here are his Oscars records, most of which are nigh unbreakable:

  • Most films nominated for Best Picture (13), from Dodsworth (1936) to Funny Girl (1968).
    • Next on the list would be Steven Spielberg, who has directed 10 Best Picture nominees. He could conceivably tie or surpass Wyler, but I doubt it…it took him 40 years to get to that number (from Jaws [1975] to Bridge of Spies [2015]).
  • Most consecutive years with nominations for Best Picture (7) (* = also nominated for Best Director). This run was only interrupted by his enlistment in the Armed Forces.
    • Dodsworth (1936)*
    • Dead End (1937)
    • Jezebel (1938)
    • Wuthering Heights (1939)*
    • The Letter (1940)*
    • The Little Foxes (1941)*
    • Mrs. Miniver (1942)* – Won Best Picture and Best Director
      • Only Frank Capra ever had a run that came close, with four in a row  between 1936-1939, inclusive.
  • Most films to win Best Picture (3): Mrs. Miniver (1942); The Best Years of Our Lives (1946); Ben-Hur (1959).
    • The only active director with two Best Picture-winning films is Clint Eastwood–Unforgiven (1992) and Million Dollar Baby (2004).
  • Most nominations for Best Director (12).
    • His nearest active rival is Martin Scorsese with eight nominations, and much as I love him I doubt he has five more in him.
  • Directed more Academy Award-nominated performances (36) and -winning performances (14) than anyone else.
    • For nominations, his only active rival is, again, Scorsese (22); Woody Allen has directed half as many Oscar-winning performances (7).

One Wyler record (wylerd) that has been broken is most overall Oscar nominations for films he directed, in all categories. His films earned a total of 127 nominations at the Oscars, a record which stood until 2015 when Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies gave his filmography its 128th Oscar nomination. His latest film, The Post, a historical drama starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, is pure Oscar-bait and, when the nominees for the 90th Academy Awards are announced on Tuesday, will likely increase his total (and probably raise his Best Picture nominations to 11).

I have several more Wyler films yet to see for this project: Roman Holiday (1953), Friendly Persuasion (1956), Ben-Hur (1959; his third and final Best Picture winner), and Funny Girl (1968). He was also nominated for Best Director for Detective Story (1951) and The Collector (1965), which did not receive a Best Picture nomination. I never miss a chance to watch one of his films, so I did have a look at Detective Story, and I think he certainly deserved the Oscar that year more than George Stevens. Though maybe not over Elia Kazan and John Huston.

Wyler’s influence in the development of American cinema, and his indelible mark on Hollywood’s Golden Age, is hard to overstate. I’ll close with a quote from Laurence Olivier, which sums it up, predictably, better than I could:

If any film actor is having trouble with his career, can’t master the medium and, anyway, wonders whether it’s worth it, let him pray to meet a man like William Wyler.

–Laurence Olivier

CAUHLvYWAAAOx_u.jpgOr if you just need a steady hand for your mustache.

Another Oscars and I New Year’s Eve

Hello, it’s the end of 2017, and even more so than last year, I am woefully unprepared to comment intelligently about this year’s potential Oscars. Last New Year’s Eve, I had seen five films of the previous year…this time, I’ve seen just three, and none of them in the theatre. At least this year I can blame that on living in Spain, even though I think the list would be roughly the same in any case. Here, then, is Oscars and I’s official ranking of 2017 films, none of which will–or should–receive any serious attention by the Academy:

  1. Logan, James Mangold
  2. The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Yorgos Lanthimos
  3. Logan Lucky, Steven Soderbergh

Logan, which I saw on a plane in a trilogy with Deadpool and La La Land, takes the top spot because, though ostensibly an X-Men film, it was a surprisingly excellent, well-written road movie that rose above its material. It was understated, touched on some interesting motifs, and had some fun with the superhero genre along the way. Logan Lucky, by contrast, was Ocean’s Eleven for rednecks, and was ultimately unfulfilling, despite some enjoyable moments and the joy of seeing Daniel Craig stumble through a southern accent.

maxresdefault.jpgThis is a behind-the-scenes shot, as Steven Soderbergh assures him he’s nailing it.

I had intended on seeing John Carroll Lynch’s Lucky next, completing a nice Logan-Logan Lucky-Lucky trilogy and then never seeing another 2017 film again, but I forever ruined that once-in-a-lifetime chance by watching The Killing of a Sacred Deer. This turned out to be a disappointing experience, especially given how much I enjoyed Lanthimos’ last film, LobsterSacred Deer isn’t bad, but it’s a stagnant feature without much in the way of innovation or commentary, and I almost ranked it last on this extensive list because of that.

Anyway…last year, I wrote about New Year’s Eves of Oscars Past, and about the Best Picture nominees down the years that have at least addressed this only-important-in-movies holiday. There weren’t many last year, and this year there are no more to add, unless Moonlight was about New Year’s Eve…still haven’t seen it. So instead, I’ll use this short post to make a few Oscars & I resolutions for the coming year.

  1. Continue updating this blog at least once a week.

I was on a good roll going into December, and I’d like to keep it up. This resolution is for both of my loyal readers, who are right to expect more of me.

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And if you’re sick of the “both my readers” joke, one of you could recommend this blog to a friend.

2. Watch more than three new theatrical movies in 2018

Now that the aforementioned Logan-Logan Lucky-Lucky ship has sailed, it wouldn’t be remiss for a blog based on films to watch more of them, so that maybe on 31 December 2018, I can actually reflect on the year in film instead of faffing around with a list of resolutions.

On the other hand, I missed seeing La La Land until after the Oscars were over, and I found it well worth missing, so maybe I’m doing the right thing by letting these films percolate in the collective unconscious a while.

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These are the only three films to ever score 14 Oscar nominations, which kind of makes me want to scream.

3. What other resolutions can I really make for a blog? Two is enough.

I suppose I could pledge to write better reviews, be more objective and less biased in my coverage of the nominees, and be more forgiving of the effects that the ravages of time have had on some of the nominees. Oh well…maybe next year.

And, of course, 2017 is the last year (presumably) that we will see a new film from Daniel Day-Lewis, which is obviously cause for grieving for the loss to film that his absence portends. Over the past forty years, from his first appearance playing a young hoodlum in John Schlesinger’s classic Sunday Bloody Sunday:

…to his unprecedented three Best Actor-awarded performances in My Left Foot (1989), There Will Be Blood (2007), and Lincoln (2012)…


Be honest, we all want to do this to Paul Dano.

…and everything in between, showing such a range, a talent, and a commitment to character that I’d be hard-pressed to name a single performer in cinema history as his equal. The only one to come close isn’t even real…I’m thinking of Anthony John, Ronald Colman’s character in 1947’s A Double Life, who drives himself to Lewisian immersive depths in search of the perfect performance.


I’m guessing this kind of thing happens to Daniel Day-Lewis roughly twice a day.

It does make me a little sad to know that there is a finite number of Daniel Day-Lewis films, and that one day, there will be no new ones to watch. And after a bit of a Day-Lewis binge this year, the number is already dwindling. It’s the same way I feel about Leslie Howard, Greer Garson, and a select few others…there are just some performers I never want to be finished with. Fortunately, even if there are no new films, one of the things I love so much about cinema is that there are some movies, some performances, that can be watched countless times and always offer something new, something previously unseen. That’s Daniel Day-Lewis to me. He may be off to a well-earned retirement, but what he’s given to the world through his work is forever.

And so, since Hollywood ignored my plea from last year to add more quality films to the genre of New Year’s Eve, I’ll close with the same two clips I did last year, from Charles Chaplin’s 1925 The Gold Rush:

Happy 2018, everyone!

Three Years of Oscars and I – Another Clip Show

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Today marks three years since my first post here at Oscars and I. It started on a wicked pace, and within one year I was already posting on the 17th Academy Awards (1944), dotted throughout with trivia. Unfortunately my updates have slowed down considerably since then, as I am now two years later working on the 24th Academy Awards for 1951, but I hope to maintain this momentum and continue with weekly updates until I finally finish! As of this moment, I have seen all 182 extant films nominated for Best Picture from 1927-1951 (if anyone finds a copy of 1928’s The Patriot kicking around, let me know).

I should probably start watching more films from this year, since I doubt that the one I have seen (Logan), good though it was, will receive much Oscar attention. I eagerly await Daniel Day-Lewis’ swan song, which I’m sure will be both interesting and well-represented in the 2017 nominees. Until then, and as I mull over the nominees for 1951 (I’m beginning to think that An American in Paris really was the right choice, after all!), here is a collection of some of my favorite moments from the Oscars between 1944 and 1951:

Oh, I know this clip of Gaslight isn’t from the 1944 Ingrid Bergman-Charles Boyer version which was nominated for Best Picture at the 17th Academy Awards…but this one, the original British production from 1940, is just better. Not only because it stars two of my favorite actors, Diana Wynyard and (*sigh*) Anton Walbrook, but it has a much creepier, noirish feel throughout, full of unsettling close-ups and odd camera angles, and the final confrontation between Bella and Paul is tense and unforgettable.

I also wanted to show it because when MGM acquired the rights to remake Gaslight, part of the deal was a demand, thankfully ignored by BNF, that all of the prints of the 1940 version be destroyed so their own film wouldn’t have competition…so naturally I have to disseminate the original.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945) was one of the first films to actually represent mental illness as something that could be scientifically studied and treated. Yes, we had Gaslight the year before, but the moral of that one was more how one can use mental illness as a weapon against a conniving, thieving husband who is stealing from you and cheating on you with Angela Lansbury. Arguably, Spellbound has the more universal message.

Even if the ideas of Spellbound are outdated today, it is full of great moments and fine performances by Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck. This sequence, designed by Salvador Dali, originally ran over 15 minutes but was cut down by studio execs. You can see its influence on future dream montages, particularly the one towards the end of Father of the Bride (1950)!

William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (Best Picture of 1946) remains powerful in my memory despite the fact that it’s been nearly two years since I watched it. This scene is one of many that stand out in an almost perfectly-made film, and its imagery–an air force veteran wandering aimlessly through the rusted, dusty remains of thousands of disused aircraft about to be melted down and turned into cheap, mass-produced housing–is one of the best cinematic representations of the problems of the postwar world I have seen.

Olivier’s Henry V brought Shakespeare back to prominence after A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) and the curiously adult-filled Romeo & Juliet (1936) ruined it. From this magnificent opening he transported us back further and further in time until we were on the very battlefield of Agincourt, then guided us. with just as much grace, back to the present. Four years later he topped himself with Hamlet, but he would never have had the chance to make that film if it hadn’t been for his inspired genius with this one.

Ah, The Bishop’s Wife, the result of a $50 wager that no director could possibly make an uncharismatic film starring Cary Grant, Loretta Young, and David Niven. Well, Henry Koster proved them all wrong. The above clip is pretty representative of the movie’s schlocky and misguided “wisdom”…here, Grant waxes poetic that “not everybody [grows old]. The only people who grow old were born old to begin with.” Which is why all of our nursing homes are filled with old 6-year-olds and why you find so many Korean War veterans in primary school.

The demise of Fred C. Dobbs at the end of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre isn’t the best scene in the movie by any stretch, but I still wanted to post it as an example of the well-crafted piece of tension-building that Huston did so well. You can see the reuse of the machete attack shot, since Huston decided against using the image of Dobbs’ disembodied head rolling into the water…though if you look closely you will notice the ripples in the puddle that it made in the originally conceived sequence.

Anton Walbrook continues to smash it in every role I’ve ever seen him in, and he never looked more at home than as the arrogant, charming, and thoroughly brilliant Boris Lermontov in The Red Shoes. His exchange with Vicky Page (Moira Shearer) here, in particular her response to his question, is one of my favorite moments in all of cinema.

I posted this clip of Twelve O’Clock High in the main article about the 22nd Academy Awards, but I wanted to show it again because it is such a wonderfully self-contained piece of filmmaking at its finest. Even though Hugh Marlowe (as Ben Gately) barely moves or speaks, he goes through all the stages of grief as his career dies under the relentless and calculating verbal blows from Gregory Peck…as I believe we all would.

One of the few memorable and resonante scenes of King Solomon’s Mines, a rumination on life in the jungle and, by extension, life everywhere. This, combined with some beautiful shots of African fauna, make the movie worth a watch, but it’s nothing to do with the story or the acting, all of which was old-hat even in 1950.

Nothing to add here…just a little preview of the Best Picture of 1951, An American in Paris!

And now I’ll leave you with this before we move along to the 24th Academy Awards…Anton Karas performing (with some accompaniment) his brilliant theme for The Third Man.

See you next week!

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.