21st Academy Awards (1948) – Part I

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

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

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

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

speechless2.jpgYes, both of you!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Is there?

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

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

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

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

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

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And Julian is…well…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I mean, after these kooky kids.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Musicals at the Oscars (Part II)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Musicals at the Oscars (Part I)

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

Ahem. What I’m trying to say here is–


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Oscars and I New Year’s Eve

Hello, it’s the end of 2016, and the first thing I’m thinking right now is I am even more behind than usual when it comes to preparing for the Oscars. A quick glance at the Golden Globe nominees is usually a good way to gauge how the Academy will divvy up its picks, but as is my wont, I have not seen all that many films from the current year. In fact, I’ve seen just five. Here, then, is Oscars and I’s official ranking of 2016 films, with the almost certain knowledge that none of them will pick up a nomination for Best Picture:

  1. ‘Til Madness Do Us Part, dir. Wang Bing (shot in 2013)
  2. Zootopia, dir. Byron Howard & Rich Moore
  3. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, dir. Gareth Edwards
  4. I.T., dir. John Moore
  5. Hail, Caesar!, dir. Coen Brothers

I should say: Rogue One was not a good film at all…not just because of the CGI desecration of Peter Cushing, but because it was lazily written, sloppily directed, poorly paced, and overall just felt like the filler that it is. It is only so highly ranked because a) I saw very few movies, and b) the two below it are just awful. I initially placed I.T. at the bottom, because it is almost unwatchably bad, but decided to put it ahead of Hail, Caesar!, which is bloody terrible, because it was made by the Coen Brothers, which makes it all the more disappointing.

maxresdefault.jpgThey got this shot by showing George Clooney the dailies.

So, of the five films I’ve seen from this year, three were bad-to-awful. It doesn’t bode well for this awards season, especially after the Academy awarded Spotlight the top prize last year, indicating they’ve lost their damn minds. Hell, maybe Rogue One will get a Best Picture nod…as usual, it’ll get all the technical nominations, and without a Mad Max to compete with, maybe it’ll take them (however undeservedly). And Zootopia will doubtless score Best Animated Feature.

But I wanted to dedicate this post to the New Year’s Eves of Oscars Past, and think about the Best Picture nominees down the years that have at least addressed this only-important-in-movies holiday. There have not been many.

image.aspx.gifSadly, ignored by the Academy. Really thought de Niro would pick up his third Oscar for this one.

As far as I can tell, two Best Picture winners have heavily involved New Year’s Eve in their narratives. The second, 1960’s The Apartment, is sadly one I have not yet seen…and if I continue Oscar and I’s slow pace, expect my review of it sometime in the year 2029. But I do know the basic plot, and I can say its treatment of New Year’s Eve as some magical night where all the people who forgot to obtain the Love of Their Life at Christmas are given another chance. In a way, it led us to 2011’s New Year’s Eve, which I also haven’t seen, and you can expect my review of that sometime next never.

The first, which I covered…damn, two years ago…is Cavalcade, the winner of the 6th Academy Awards for 1932/33. It opens on New Year’s Eve 1899, with a ridiculously prim and proper English couple such as only Noël Coward could imagine coming home at midnight and optimistically predicting a wondrous and peaceful 20th century. It’s supposed to be ironic, I guess, but the whole film is just so full of stiff-upper-lippedness–especially when it condenses the First World War into an almost jubilant montage that doesn’t scar its participants in any way whatsoever–that it just flops through its overlong runtime like a salmon trying to make it to a fishing hole across a frozen lake.

In my review, I mentioned I could only obtain a grainy copy of the film that looked like it had been re-recorded several times, with subtitles in Portuguese that not only could not be turned off, but oftentimes directly contradicted the dialogue in English. This is because Cavalcade is the only Best Picture winner never to be officially released on home video.

Unknown.jpegAnd if we’re accepting suggestions to add to that list…

I suppose my favorite New Year’s-themed film has to be The Poseidon Adventure, a raucous film from the early 1970s disaster boom that also gave us The Towering Inferno and Earthquake. In this one, an ocean liner gets hit by a rogue wave and flips over, and it’s up to Gene Hackman and Ernest Borgnine to save the day. It did win an Academy Award, for the almost impressively awful song “The Morning After”, and also received a nomination for its original score.

Unknown-1.jpegBecause Academy rules dictate that John Williams must receive at least one nomination per year.

And speaking of Best Original Score at the 45th Academy Awards, it was to be the only Oscar Charlie Chaplin ever received, for his film Limelight (which had actually been released 1952 but, due to a technicality, was not eligible for the Oscars until 1972). And even though it predated the Oscars, there’s also that almost unbearably touching New Year’s Eve scene in his 1925 classic The Gold Rush:

So unless ships are flipping upside down or there’s gold in them thar hills, it seems that New Year’s Eve is a pretty barren holiday when it comes to great films. That’s something someone can work to correct in 2017 and beyond…the Oscars deserve a win on this date. In any event, I’m off to see if I can eat 12 grapes in thirty seconds to portend prosperity in the coming year. And since I’m eager to go and start the obligatory drinking (since I rarely touch the stuff any other time of year…I may try this “beer” thing I keep hearing about), here’s another scene from The Gold Rush:

Happy 2017, everyone!

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.