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.”

 

Gene Wilder

The Waco Kid…Skip Donahue…Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced FRONK-un-steen)…Leo Bloom…(nearly) Royal Tenenbaum…and, of course, the true Willy Wonka. The world lost a legend today with the death of Gene Wilder.

220px-Gene_Wilder_1970.JPG

Because my father knew the value of a good comedic education, my introduction to Mr. Wilder’s particular, inimitable blend of laughter and adorableness came with Mel Brooks’ 1974 comedy Blazing Saddles. Considering that this is a film known primarily for a minute-long flatulence sequence and enough use of the N-word to make Quentin Tarantino blush, what I remember most is Wilder as the washed-up, gin-soaked gunfighter with the fastest hands in the West (correction…in the world). He breezes into the film at the end of the first act and simply owns it from there on out…nothing, not even a man punching out an horse, can match his effortless good nature, his timing, and the contented smile that comes to your face whenever he’s onscreen.

 
Not to mention his inspirational speeches.

This was one of three corroborations with Mel Brooks, along with 1968’s The Producers (for which he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, legitimizing this post) and 1974’s Young Frankenstein. In fact, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein were, respectively, the first- and fourth-highest grossing films of that year.

If I had to pick a favorite Wilder film, and I would hate to have to, it would be Young Frankenstein, for which he also wrote the screenplay (which was nominated for an Academy Award, but lost to The Godfather Part II…we’ll argue the legitimacy of that when I get to the 47th Awards). The story of Victor Frankenstein’s relatively-sane grandson, desperate to forge a reputation untainted by his “accidental relationship to a famous cuckoo,” the film manages at once to be a irreverent parody of and a loving tribute to its source material, making the case that destiny can be a force for good and that embracing it can lead to wonderful things, like scientific breakthroughs and marrying Teri Garr.


And the finest charades game ever committed to film.

Beyond his work with Brooks, Gene Wilder also distinguished himself in Start the Revolution Without Me, a 1970 comedy about the French Revolution which Orson Welles is not in. He co-stars with Donald Sutherland, and if you haven’t seen this underrated gem I suggest you do so now.

Wasn’t that amazing? Even though you just watched it, I’m going to post one of several of my favorite Gene Wilder moments:


The rest of humanity wishes it could strut like this.

I suppose the role for which he will always be remembered is the one that frightened the shit out of us all as children, the unpredictable, amoral, lovable psychopath that is Willy Wonka. It’s one of those parts that would never have worked with someone else (to which the recent Tim Burton remake attests), and he plays it with a manic, childlike enthusiasm that no one else can match…it was the role he was born to play.

That introduction was his own invention…the idea was that it would instantly establish Wonka as a prankster whose motivation would never be clear and whose verisimilitude would always be questioned. Not only that, it was the first time any of the main cast had seen Wilder as Wonka…Charlie’s shocked expression is completely real.

I haven’t even touched on Stir Crazy, his wild, mostly improvised pairing with Richard Pryor; his sheep-loving doctor in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex *But Were Afraid to Ask; or even the supremely weird The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother. All of these I saw at an early age…Gene Wilder films have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. In short, a big part of my childhood died today, and at the young age of 83. I can’t imagine anyone else like him, or any of the films he made without him. His films will be a part of the world of comedy for as long as there are humans to watch and admire them, and his contribution to the art will never be forgotten. I, for one, will never cease to be inspired by his unquenchable optimism, his sublime, inspirational, unassuming genius.

So much time, and so little to do. Wait a minute…strike that. Reverse it.

Gene-Wilder.jpg

It’s Hammer (Films) Time

For devotees of British horror films and lovers of sonorous voices that dance on the ears like a favorite melody, this is a weekend of celebration and tribute: yesterday (May 27) was the birthday of both Christopher Lee (1922-2015) and Vincent Price (1911-1993), and the day before was that of my favorite of the trio, Peter Cushing (1913-1994). While none of them found success at the Academy Awards, making this entry a bit of an extravagance (and a digression I can ill afford, given my recent neglect of the amazing 21st Academy Awards), I feel I’d be remiss if I didn’t pay homage to this trio who–and I don’t think I’m exaggerating here–changed life on this Earth for the better in every conceivable way.

4018747705_90cff03a51_oPictured: the high watermark of the human species.

We’ve seen Vincent Price a couple times on Oscars and I…he played the Evil Atheist in The Song of Bernadette, a film so saccharine you can sweeten your coffee with it, and the hilariously-named William Gibbs McAdoo in 1944’s travesty Wilson. I was first introduced to him in Roger Corman’s delightfully campy The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), but my favorite of his films (so far…I still have roughly 600 to watch) is William Castle’s 1959 House on Haunted Hill:


I could post a clip, but do yourself a favor and watch the whole thing.

I also love his turn as The Devil in The Story of Mankind, which I only heard about and saw because it was the last film to feature the Marx Brothers (in separate scenes). My memories of the film are vague, but as I recall it, there’s a new Super Bomb available and the Devil and someone from the Other Place are debating whether humanity, up until 1957, has been a force for good or evil. Being as it was that era’s equivalent of an Ocean’s movie, you can guess the verdict. It’s not a good film by any stretch, but the collection of Golden Age talent is without equal and who other than Vincent Price could make the case for the irredeemability of the human species?

priceless“I know my mere existence suggests otherwise, but hear me out.”

This footage of Price reading Poe’s The Raven just confirms that his was the greatest speaking voice in cinema history. If I had one wish, it would be for his voice to narrate my internal monologue.

Christopher Lee, of course, needs no introduction for anyone who’s been to a movie theatre in the past 75 years. He appeared in over 200 movies and is the champion of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, able to be connected to literally anyone who has ever been in a feature film in an average of 1.2 steps. And, to justify this article a bit further, he holds the record for longest gap between appearances in Best Picture-winning films. He played a spear carrier alongside best friend Peter Cushing in Hamlet (1948), and then played Saruman in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), an interim of 55 years (and yes, I know he only appears in the latter film in the Extended Edition).

A lot of people know that he was an avid Tolkien aficionado who read the books once a year, but my favorite bit of trivia is his involvement in the technical side of his character’s death scene in ROTK: a former SAS operative, he advised Peter Jackson on exactly the kind of noise a man will make when stabbed in the back. He is a great example of how a person can simultaneously be a lovable, grandfatherly figure and literally the most dangerous man alive.

Saruman's_death_3“No, no…when a body drops 200 feet and is impaled on a wooden spike, you get more of a starburst pattern when the blood sprays out. Amateurs.”

I suppose he’ll be remembered by many for his turn as Saruman, but he considered his best film to be the deeply creepy 1973 cult classic The Wicker Man, in which he played the mysterious leader of a pagan cult on a remote Scottish island. I’d have to agree with his assessment, even though for me it’s a close race between this and Taste the Blood of Dracula.


I consider myself a fairly incredulous person, but I’d probably join this cult if he were the leader.

Finally, Peter Cushing. who lived in Whitstable. He’s probably best known nowadays for his role as Admiral Tarkin in the original Star Wars, a film now considered a classic but which starred fewer Oscar-winning actors than Caligula (true story). His role in the film might have been minor, but it was the one that always stuck with me. I don’t know about you, but when I saw the movie I got the sense that Princess Leia’s snide comment about him and Darth Vader wasn’t just a bit of space sass. There was definitely more to their relationship than the classic commander/weird-shiny-helmet-guy dynamic.

petercushingstarwarstarkin5756Sometimes, Vader held the leash.

But anyway, Cushing got his first major role in Lawrence Olivier’s Hamlet, 1948’s Best Picture, as Osric, and the fact that he didn’t get typecast as the go-to Dandy Courtier in every period piece made in the next 45 years speaks volumes towards his versatility as an actor (even if I’d absolutely watch his entire oeuvre if it consisted only of that). The majority of his film career was spent alongside Christopher Lee in the Hammer films, often playing the scientist/policeman battling against Lee’s monsters, and he brought a quiet, avuncular dignity to every role he played.

star-wars“I can’t stay mad at you. Alderaan was a boring planet, anyway.”

He and Christopher Lee made many films together and became best friends over the years.  I love their Dracula films, with Lee as the vampire and Cushing battling him as Van Helsing, though occasionally their “roles” were reversed, as in the wonderfully silly Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, also available in its entirety online:


The film that tried to make us believe that a disembodied, malevolent hand is some kind of threat. Seriously, man, just pick it up and throw it away…its mobility is really limited.

These three combined to make some of the greatest films of the 20th century in any number of genres, but will always be remembered for their indelible impact on the horror film genre. Watching them perform, in particular watching Cushing and Lee perform together, is to witness three actors who adored their craft, who never took themselves too seriously and who must have been amazing to know and work with.

Christopher Lee’s words after Cushing’s death might just be the best eulogy to a lost friend I have ever heard, and the last line accurately describes the legacy of Price, Cushing, and Lee: “[A]t some point of your lives, every one of you will notice that you have in your life one person, one friend whom you love and care for very much. That person is so close to you that you are able to share some things only with him. …And then when that person is gone, there will be nothing like that in your life ever again.”

hys-price-lee-cushing-thumb-630xauto-61299

Trivial Matters #30 – Oscar Siblings

If the Internet is to be believed, today is Sibling(s) Day (a.k.a. Parents’ Poor Financial Decisions Day). Coming from a family of four, this is a particularly meaningful day for me, and also for my three sisters; when I called my oldest sister and told her about this article, before hanging up she allowed me to post the photo below, albeit begrudgingly and with the caveat that I do not use her name.

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My youngest sister, R., responded with “How did you get this number?”, so at least she’s interested in hearing about my life.

So in further honor of this occasion, I thought I’d take the time to consider the achievements of brothers and sisters at the Academy Awards through the years. Lately Joel and Ethan Coen have held the spotlight in this regard, winning for producing, directing, writing Best Picture No Country for Old Men in 2007, and writing Fargo in 1996, but siblings have been vying for and winning Oscars almost since the beginning.

It only took until 1929/1930, the 3rd Academy Awards, for the first set of siblings to take home Oscars (perhaps unsurprisingly, given that there were only about 25 people in the Academy at that time). That year, Norma Shearer won Best Actress for The Divorcee, and her brother, sound pioneer Douglas Shearer, took home the inaugural award for Best Sound Recording for The Big House, the first of his fourteen Oscars.

features-02bBy 1940 he was using them to fix wobbly tables.

These two were, to my mind, the most successful sibling pair at the Oscars, with Douglas being the first person to win consecutive Oscars (for Naughty Marietta in 1935 and San Francisco in 1936), and Norma getting to play Leslie Howard‘s romantic partner three timesBut they were only the beginning.

Probably the most famous sibling rivalry at the Oscars was between Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine, intensely competitive actresses who are, to date, the only siblings to each win Oscars for acting in leading categories. Their disparate surnames neatly sum up the sisters’ troubled relationship: elder sister Olivia was the first to pursue an acting career, and when Joan tried to follow her lead, their mother Lilian wouldn’t allow her to use the family name, for fear it would detract from Olivia’s career.

abcwalter61She was used to it, though, after trying to break into professional Go after her father.

Between the two of them, they won three Best Actress statuettes in the 1940s–the first was Fontaine for Suspicion (1941), with de Havilland also nominated for her role in the hard-to-find melodrama Hold Back the Dawn. According to legend, de Havilland refused to congratulate Fontaine, and their mother’s manipulation was so extreme that Fontaine actually felt guilty for winning over her sister. De Havilland, of course, went on to win two Oscars herself, for To Each His Own (1946) and The Heiress (1949), but their relationship continued to deteriorate and they allegedly did not speak to one another from 1975 until Fontaine’s death in late 2013.

Aside from them, the only sister duo to be nominated for Best Actress in the same year are Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave (in 1966, both lost to Elizabeth Taylor for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?).

As far as brother-sister teams go, the only other acting duo were Ethel and Lionel Barrymore, who respectively won Best Supporting Actress for None but the Lonely Heart (1944) and Best Actor for A Free Soul (1931). Years later, Shirley MacLaine won Best Actress in 1983 for Terms of Endearment, two years after her younger brother Warren Beatty was named Best Director for Reds (1981), for which he was also nominated for Best Actor.

Other, less well known sibling winners include:

  • Twins Julius and Philip Epstein, who won for their screenplay for Casablanca (1943).
  • James Goldman won Best Adapted Screenplay for The Lion in Winter (1968); the next year, younger brother William Goldman took Best Original Screenplay for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (and would later win Adapted Screenplay himself for All the President’s Men [1976]).
  • Joseph L. Mankiewicz got his own back for elder brother Herman J.’s Best Original Screenplay win for Citizen Kane (1941) by winning Best Screenplay and Best Director two years in a row (A Letter to Three Wives [1949] and All About Eve [1950]).
  • Composers Alfred Newman and Lionel Newman between them received 56 nominations and 10 Oscars for their film music (though I’m sure Alfred, who won 9 of them from 45 nominations, always qualified that statement at parties).

Finally, the Coppolas, one of only two families with three generations of Oscar winners, have two sets of Oscar-winning/nominated siblings:

  • Francis Ford Coppola (multiple wins, including three for Best Screenplay) and sister Talia Shire (nominated for Best Supporting Actress for The Godfather Part II [1974] and Best Actress for Rocky [1976]).
  • Francis’ children Sofia Coppola (winner of Best Original Screenplay for Lost in Translation [2003]) and Roman Coppola (nominated for Best Original Screenplay for Moonrise Kingdom [2012]).

Trivial Matters #29 – Years in Which All Four Acting Winners were from Best Picture nominees

A long while ago (in fact, during my live trivia updates for the 87th Academy Awards), I discovered that there have only been three years in which all acting winners came from films not nominated for Best Picture (1930/31, 1969, and 1995). So I got to wondering how often all of the acting winners were from Best Picture nominees, and as you might expect, it’s far more common…15 times so far:

(* = Best Picture winner)

  • 3rd Academy Awards (1929/30)
    • Best Actor: George Arliss, Disraeli
    • Best Actress: Norma Shearer, The Divorcee
  • 7th Academy Awards (1934)
    • Best Actor: Clark Gable, It Happened One Night*
    • Best Actress: Claudette Colbert, It Happened One Night*
  • 10th Academy Awards (1937)
    • Best Actor: Spencer Tracy, Captains Courageous
    • Best Actress: Luise Rainer, The Good Earth
    • Best Sup. Actor: Joseph Schildkraut, The Life of Emile Zola*
    • Best Sup. Actress: Gale Sondergaard, Anthony Adverse
  • 12th Academy Awards (1939)
    • Best Actor: Robert Donat, Goodbye, Mr. Chips
    • Best Actress: Vivien Leigh, Gone with the Wind*
    • Best Sup. Actor: Robert Mitchell, Stagecoach
    • Best Sup. Actress: Hattie McDaniel, Gone with the Wind*
  • 16th Academy Awards (1943)
    • Best Actor: Paul Lukas, Watch on the Rhine
    • Best Actress: Jennifer Jones, The Song of Bernadette
    • Best Sup. Actor: Charles Coburn, The More the Merrier
    • Best Sup. Actress: Katina Paxinou, For Whom the Bell Tolls
  • 22nd Academy Awards (1949)
    • Best Actor: Broderick Crawford, All the King’s Men*
    • Best Actress: Olivia de Havilland, The Heiress
    • Best Sup. Actor: Dean Jagger, Twelve O’Clock High
    • Best Sup. Actress: Mercedes McCambridge, All the King’s Men*
  • 32nd Academy Awards (1959)
    • Best Actor: Charlton Heston, Ben-Hur*
    • Best Actress: Simone Signoret, Room at the Top
    • Best Sup. Actor: Hugh Griffith, Ben-Hur*
    • Best Sup. Actress: Shelley Winters, The Diary of Anne Frank
  • 49th Academy Awards (1976)
    • Best Actor: Peter Finch, Network
    • Best Actress: Faye Dunaway, Network
    • Best Sup. Actor: Jason Robards, All the President’s Men
    • Best Sup. Actress: Beatrice Straight, Network
  • 50th Academy Awards (1977)
    • Best Actor: Richard Dreyfuss, The Goodbye Girl
    • Best Actress: Diane Keaton, Annie Hall*
    • Best Sup. Actor: Jason Robards, Julia
    • Best Sup. Actress: Vanessa Redgrave, Julia
  • 57th Academy Awards (1984)
    • Best Actor: F. Murray Abraham, Amadeus*
    • Best Actress: Sally Field, Places in the Heart
    • Best Sup. Actor: Haing S. Ngor, The Killing Fields
    • Best Sup. Actress: Peggy Ashcroft, A Passage to India
  • 69th Academy Awards (1996)
    • Best Actor: Geoffrey Rush, Shine
    • Best Actress: Frances McDormand, Fargo
    • Best Sup. Actor: Cuba Gooding, Jr., Jerry Maguire
    • Best Sup. Actress: Juliette Binoche, The English Patient*
  • 70th Academy Awards (1997)
    • Best Actor: Jack Nicholson, As Good as it Gets
    • Best Actress: Helen Hunt, As Good as it Gets
    • Best Sup. Actor: Robin Williams, Good Will Hunting
    • Best Sup. Actress: Kim Basinger, L.A. Confidential
  • 77th Academy Awards (2004)
    • Best Actor: Jamie Foxx, Ray
    • Best Actress: Hilary Swank, Million Dollar Baby*
    • Best Sup. Actor: Morgan Freeman, Million Dollar Baby*
    • Best Sup. Actress: Cate Blanchett, The Aviator
  • 83rd Academy Awards (2010)
    • Best Actor: Colin Firth, The King’s Speech*
    • Best Actress: Natalie Portman, Black Swam
    • Best Sup. Actor: Christian Bale, The Fighter
    • Best Sup. Actress: Melissa Leo, The Fighter
  • 85th Academy Awards (2012)
    • Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
    • Best Actress: Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
    • Best Sup. Actor: Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained
    • Best Sup. Actress: Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables

Regarding the Second Decade of Oscars

Slowly but surely I have come to the end of the 20th Academy Awards and thus, the World War II era is closed. Just as I did with the first ten years, I’d like to pause and consider the films I’ve seen in the Academy’s second decade. It was a period of rapid growth, when the Hollywood formula solidified and produced some of its greatest films, and sometimes the Academy even managed to pick the right winners.

220px-How_Green_Was_My_Valley_posterAnd other times…

Obviously the biggest influence on the films of this time was the war…the prelude to America’s involvement saw the slow build from neutrality, even pacifism, to direct anti-Naziism; the aftermath of Pearl Harbor produced a torrent of moral-boosting propaganda films of varying potency and quality; and the outbreak of peace in 1945 prompted an examination of some of the problems of postwar society and a struggle to find balance between entertainment and commentary.

1938’s Best Picture was You Can’t Take it With You, Frank Capra’s most overtly peacenik film before he lost his goddamn mind and made It’s a Wonderful Life, and on the whole that year was packed with escapist fare (Four DaughtersAlexander’s Ragtime Band, Pygmalion, etc.) and also featured La Grande Illusion, a celebration of the triumph of humanism in the face of war. Then, in 1939 I can only assume everyone was distracted by the fall of Poland and forgot what the words “Best Picture” meant, because they awarded it to that Technicolor monstrosity Gone with the Wind.

images.jpg
Not pictured: One of the greatest films ever made.

The war films started rolling in 1940 and kicked into high gear after Pearl Harbor, and the slew of great films that came from this period–49th ParallelMrs. MiniverForeign CorrespondentCasablancaWatch on the Rhine, etc.–showed how well the now-solidified Hollywood formula could harmonize with propaganda. Of course, there were colossal misfirings (Since You Went AwayIn Which We Serve, and others), but on the whole 1940-44 was a solid run, and the non-war-focused films were steadily rising in quality as directors like Hitchcock and Wyler continued to hone their craft.

The Oscars themselves also solidified:

  • Best Picture and Best Director came into alignment (in contrast to the first ten years, when they only matched three times, in the second decade they differed only once).
  • The writing awards came to be closely associated with Best Picture, as every winner received at least a nomination (after four of the first ten lacked nominations for their writing).
  • Acting nominees and winners increasingly came from Best Picture nominees and winners:
    • None of the winners in this decade lacked acting nominations, compared to three of the first ten.
    • Only three failed to win any acting awards (in the first decade, only three Best Pictures won any acting awards).

In my last “look back” I chose some alternate winners for what are, in retrospect, embarrassing Academy oversights, and so here are some of those in the period from 1938-1947…mostly acting-related:

Best Actor, 1944: Charles Boyer, Gaslight. I guess his role and his performance were a bit too dark to win over Bing Crosby’s aggressively cherubic Father O’Malley.
Best Actress, 1940 Joan Fontaine, Rebecca. Such an amazing job…as I said in my article, holding one’s own against Olivier when he wasn’t playing a French-Canadian fur trapper is no mean feat.
Best Supporting Actor, 1943: Claude Rains, Casablanca. Rains’ nearly O’Toole-level losing streak at the Oscars should have been broken by this understated, supremely self-assured portrayal, but instead Charles Coburn’s senile old duffer in The More the Merrier won out (and I’m not convinced Coburn was actually acting in any of his movies, since he always portrayed the exact same character).
Best Picture, 1947: None.
Best Picture and Director, 1941A no-brainer. Here Comes Mr. Jordan, of course.


And I must say, the second decade did not disappoint. I’m supremely happy to have seen Mrs. Miniver and The Best Years of Our Lives (and all the other Wyler films from the period), as well as witness the brief period when the Academy at least noticed that Alfred Hitchcock was making movies. Goodbye Mr. Chips introduced me (and, in its time, the world) to Greer Garson; Double Indemnity and The Maltese Falcon gave us film noir; and watching Gentleman’s Agreement, I learned that my younger self cannot be trusted.

Not to mention Laurence Olivier exploded (literally) onto the Hollywood scene, first with his game-changing portrayal of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, then the second-best performance in Rebecca, and finally reinvigorating his beloved Shakespeare by producing, directing, and starring in Henry V. And I may have already posted this clip twice now, but good things come in threes, so here again is his brilliant French-Canadian fur trapper in 49th Parallel:


I really can’t get enough of this.

So now I’ve watched 163 films (the 162 extant Best Picture nominees from the first twenty years, plus Shoeshine), just over 30% of 528 nominated as of the 88th Academy Awards. The Oscars’ third decade will take us from Hamlet to The Bridge on the River Kwai, from black-and-white to Technicolor, from gritty postwar social commentary to the optimism of the economic boom of the 1950s. It’s a decade that will lead the the frustrating Fourth Age, but we’ll come to that…for now, onward to 1948!

88th Academy Awards – Live Trivia Updates!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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