25th Academy Awards (1952) – Part II

(Part I.)

The last two nominees left in 1952 are the ones everyone remembers, and are very similar thematically: each has some things to say about what it means to be a “real man”. To that end, they star the two realest men the early 1950s had to offer: John Wayne (playing John Wayne) and Gary Cooper (playing Gary Cooper). While they are both enjoyable and entertaining, for different reasons, I just can’t bring myself to share the widespread admiration these movies continue to inspire in people.

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The Quiet Man was a movie I’d been looking forward to for some time, though maybe because I didn’t know very much about it. On paper, it looks great: directed by John Ford, it tells the story of an American boxer, Sean Thornton, who, after accidentally killing an opponent in the ring, retires and moves to his childhood village in Ireland, where he hopes to be the titular quiet man. John Wayne stars, in what appeared–again, on paper–to be an against-type character, a soft-spoken, nonviolent individual who has forsworn machismo despite moving to the country that invented it. Add to the mix Maureen O’Hara and Barry Fitzgerald, always good for a lark, and I was intrigued and excited to see what kind of mature, thoughtful insights of manliness and tradition the film had to offer.

Turns out, not a whole heck of a lot. If you don’t have 130 minutes to invest in the movie, the narrative can be boiled down to: “violence doesn’t solve anything haha jk it solves everything.”

maxresdefault.jpgNope, nothing wrong here.

95% of the film sees Thornton lose the respect of literally everyone in Ireland, for refusing to engage in fisticuffs with the local idiot, Will Danaher, played by John Ford’s go-to local idiot, Victor McLaglen. The conflict arises when Thornton buys his family cottage, which Danaher had set his blurry sights on, and then escalates when he falls in love with and marries Danaher’s sister, Mary Kate (Maureen O’Hara). Out of spite, Danaher withholds MK’s dowry, which to her represents her independence but means nothing to Thornton. As such, still haunted by his past, he quietly allows himself to be ridiculed and thought a coward rather than fight Danaher for the money.

That is, until she threatens to leave him. Then, finally getting over his sissiness and “being a man,” he pulls her off a train and literally drags her across five miles of rolling Irish hills while being cheered on (and encouraged to beat her) by everyone he encounters. Upon meeting Danaher, he obtains the dowry (which Mary K. promptly burns, proving something), then promptly gets into the very brawl that, not twelve hours earlier, he’d sworn would awaken his PTSD, which immediately solves all his problems and makes he and Danaher BFFs.

ohara25n-6-web.jpgMaybe I’m doing it wrong, but not one of my friendships has ever begun with drunken ass-kicking.

So, in one fell swoop, the film abandons all the lessons and character development of the first two hours in favor of a ten-minute slapstick sequence and a denouement straight out of a screwball comedy. And it reminds us that violence is not only hilarious but is also the only way to win and keep the respect of your friends, family, and spouse.

Is the film a comedy or a drama? I think it depends on knowing the ending. If you don’t know how it turns out, then it definitely feels like a drama, watching Thornton struggle against his own demons but keeping them hidden from everyone, including his wife. The quiet man, we are led to believe, keeps a low profile and doesn’t rise to the bait of loud, blustering brawlers like Danaher. Thornton even confesses that whenever he fought in the ring, he felt real anger, enough to kill a man–and now, he never wants to feel that way again. Is, in fact, afraid of what will happen if he loses control. Better to be thought a coward than risk ending another life over something so insignificant as money or even pride.

o9rGWqP.jpg“On second thought, fuck it.”

But if you know that ridiculous fight is coming, then the whole film becomes hilarious, as we watch Thornton foolishly believe that violence isn’t the answer even though it’s obvious to everyone that it is. All the moments where he appears to take the mature, high road are actually just set-ups for the story’s (literal) punchline. You watch the other people laugh at him, all the while chuckling and thinking, “Just you wait, he’ll show you that he’s got what it takes to be respected and admired. He only needs to get over himself and listen to the truth the world is telling him.” Then he triumphs and, like all who settle their differences by punching them in the face, becomes the true quiet man, because it’s very hard to speak when your jaw is wired shut.

Being in the former group, I was not happy to see two hours of my life, and of investment in what I thought was a fairly progressive story for 1952, so glibly swept aside. Not that the “serious” portion of the film was all that progressive, mind you. Even before the aforementioned dragging that leaves Mary Kate bruised, bloodied, and without a shred of dignity or agency, Thornton forces himself on her twice, but since it’s all in the name of taming the shrew it’s portrayed as perfectly alright.

quietman-windyot.jpgDespite what the film wants you to think, this is not a dance scene.

So yes, maybe The Quiet Man is entertaining, and maybe it is a comedy (of that, I am still not convinced), but its conflating of machismo with manliness, violence with tradition, and assault with courtship just didn’t do it for me. On the plus side, it’s well-acted (for the most part) and the filmmakers’ clear love of Ireland comes through in every exterior shot. It’s worth a watch, but not an Oscar…though it did earn John Ford his unprecedented fourth Best Director award. But to me, the film most deserving of the top awards this year was…

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Upon rewatching High Noon for this blog, having seen it many, many years ago, I was expecting greatness (as I remembered it as being very, very good), but at the same time, I was apprehensive, knowing what I now know about the kind of movies Gary Cooper makes when he isn’t playing Lou Gehrig. My apprehension was well-founded, and now as I sit down to write this, I’m realizing that High Noon is, and probably ever will be, a very confusing movie for me.

pigsandbttlshps2.jpgAt least as confusing as Pigs and Battleships, but for different reasons.

On the one hand, it’s one of the best-made films I’ve ever seen…the pacing, the photography, and the direction are all masterful, and though the score can, at times, be over-the-top and distracting, overall it does its job admirably as the tension builds. Clocking in at a mere 85 minutes, unfolding in real time, there is not a single ounce of fat on this movie: every line of dialogue, every action, and every shot of the advancing clock feels just right, and not a foot of film is wasted. Had it won–which, despite all my reservations about it, it definitely should have–it would have been the shortest Best Picture of all time (the current recordholder is Annie Hall [1977], coming in at a bloated 93 minutes).

But on the other hand, the film is almost insultingly manipulative and transparent, ensuring that the audience is firmly on the side of the hero without him having to do much of anything to earn it. Said hero is, of course, Gary Cooper, grimacing his way through the film as Will “One-Marshal-To-Rule-Them-All” Kane, the only decent human being in a town full of cowards, rogues, and other assorted ne’er-do-wells.

As a story, it’s full of promise, the very definition of high-concept: Will Kane, the just-married marshal of a backwater town, is retiring, but upon hearing that his old nemesis, an outlaw named Frank Miller whom he had sent to jail, has been released and is arriving in less than an hour to reunite with his gang and wreck havoc upon the town once more, Kane decides to stay and confront them. His new wife immediately threatens to leave him, and as he tries to rally support from the townsfolk, he quickly finds they all range from cringing vermin hiding in their homes and taverns, to Miller sympathizers actively hoping he (Kane) gets gunned down. And yet, he feels it’s his duty to stay and fight Miller, even if it means doing so alone.

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“The Babe wouldn’t run
.”

Like I said, the story starts promising, but once I realized that everyone besides Kane is meant to be hated, once I started hoping Kane took his stand alone, since he was the only one with the stones to do so anyway, I got a sneaking suspicion that Kane would be the villain in any movie with three-dimensional supporting characters. It’s easy to forget, in the fervor of watching Gary Cooper stand up for Truth and Justice, that he’s technically not the marshal anymore…he had officially retired that morning. What he is, is a man without any legal authority, demanding the townsfolk form a posse against a group of outlaws who have a personal vendetta against him, not the town.

He even manages to make a hypocrite of himself for claiming to be there to defend the town, not himself, and to be an instrument of the law, not vigilantism. For most of the film, Miller’s three buddies are calmly waiting for him at the train station, and when one citizen asks Kane why he does not simply arrest them, he replies that there is no law against sitting around. Fair enough, spoken like a true lawman…but the very first thing he does when, united with Miller at last, the outlaws stroll into the deserted streets is sneak around and shoot one of them in the back, initiating the climactic gunfight. I’m not sure what ordinance he was enforcing there.

3c5189d4f4c4cb9a1ace509a14af4e89--high-noon-western-movies.jpg“Nobody jaywalks in my town.”

Said climactic gunfight, by the way, for all the buildup, lasts less than five minutes and, like the rest of the film, is disappointingly one-sided. Even as the film jump-cuts and raises the tension unbearably as the noon train approaches and Kane writes out his will, I don’t think anyone watching High Noon even once thinks that the outlaws stand any chance of victory. That about sums up the whole movie: Will Kane is always right and always will be right, and will do the noble thing even if everyone around him refuses to help.

In the end, he defeats the outlaws, with a little help from his wife, and the film concludes with the justly-famous shot of Kane surveying the ungrateful townsfolk with contempt before throwing his tin star in the dirt and riding out of town. It’s an iconic moment that has become the signature of films about people rejecting The System in pursuit of justice, and was famously copied by Clint Eastwood at the end of Dirty Harry (1971).

I understand that the story is meant to be an allegory for blacklisting, that standing up not just for yourself, but the people around you, is a noble act to which everyone should aspire. But High Noon goes to ridiculous extremes to make its point, and in the end I found it hard to see through the dangerous idea that, in times of crisis, we should bestow the roles of judge, jury, and executioner on one person. Which works out great here, and in all such situations where the people are actors reciting words written for them advancing towards a satisfyingly complete story arc, but seldom goes so well in the real world.

Also, the fact that High Noon‘s producer, Stanley Kramer, and star Gary Cooper were both staunch anti-Communists who sat back and allowed the film’s screenwriter, Carl Foreman, to be run out of Hollywood for refusing to name names to the HUAC doesn’t help me see it as an exercise in standing up for what’s right.

tightly-directed-by-fred-zinnemann-and-written-by-the-blacklisted-carl-foreman-earned-the-hatred-of-1950s-mccarthyists-including-john-wayne-and-howard-hawks.jpg“Listen, Gary, I’m starting to think you guys are missing the point of this thing…”

Still, none of these problems detracts from what I said at the outset, that High Noon is one of the best-made films I have ever seen. Few other films can match it for its slow ratcheting of tension, its hopeless atmosphere, its simultaneously triumphant and bleak climax, and the way Fred Zinnemann managed to make a shot of desolate train tracks so goddamned heart-pounding. For all of these reasons, High Noon was the clear choice for Best Picture…though I’d rather have seen Best Actor go to Marlon Brando for Viva Zapata!.

607404060.jpgIs it me, or does he look a hell of a lot like Gene Kelly with that mustache?

But in the end, the Academy gave the top prize of 1952 to a circus ad, and for the next sixty-three years, no Best Picture won as few Oscars as this one did. The Bad and the Beautiful won the most Oscars of the evening, the second and, to date, last time a film not nominated for Best Picture was the year’s most awarded. On to 1953, which, unlike this year, features a slate of nominees still well-regarded today, including Audrey Hepburn’s film debut. Onward!

 

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25th Academy Awards (1952) – Part I

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  • The Greatest Show on Earth, Cecil B. DeMille
  • High Noon, Fred Zinnemann
  • Ivanhoe, Richard Thorpe
  • Moulin Rouge, John Huston
  • The Quiet Man, John Ford*

1951 was one of those 1934-esque years, when a generally weak selection of nominees was buoyed by the top half, which more than made up for the rest. 1952 was…well, not. Maybe it was the hangover from whatever wild party the Academy threw to honor its 25th birthday, but whatever it was, it was bad, and the results speak for themselves.

The top Oscars at the 25th Academy Awards were spread exceptionally thin; for the first time since the introduction of the Supporting Actor and Actress awards, Best Picture, Best Director, and all four acting Oscars went to six different films. Not only that, but two films not nominated for Best Picture received more nominations than the winner: The Bad and the Beautiful and Hans Christian Andersen, with six apiece. The exceptionally misleadingly-named The Greatest Show on Earth received just five, and was the last Best Picture to win only two Oscars until Spotlight (2015).

I could go on, so I will. The Bad and the Beautiful won five Oscars, the most of the evening, and the most ever for a film not nominated for Best Picture. And it is a damned fine film, but with it lacking a nomination and all, we won’t go into it here.

MV5BYmRmMmIyYWQtYTJkNS00OTIzLTg0ZTEtMThkN2U2ZjE0ZjVkXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMDI2NDg0NQ@@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_.jpgJust imagine Citizen Kane but in Hollywood and you’ll get the general idea.

It was a terribly weak year, all around…none of the nominees was mind-crushingly great, and even though The Quiet Man and High Noon are still well-regarded today, they haven’t aged all that well. Especially considering the Academy made the unforgivable decision to all but ignore Singin’ in the Rain, which received just two nominations: Best Supporting Actress (Jean Hagen) and Best Musical Score.

So weak was 1952, in fact, that I’m going to break with my usual O&I format and talk about the winner first. The better to get past this mediocre year all the faster.

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Once one accepts the truth that the Academy Awards are really, really bad at their stated mission, it’s not hard to see why The Greatest Show on Earth upset the odds and won Best Picture. It may not have been well-paced, well-acted, well-written, or well-anything, but it was produced and directed by Cecil B. DeMille, a man who had been instrumental in founding…well, Hollywood itself. Yet despite a previous nomination in the form of the (equally dumb) Cleopatra (1934), he had never won an Oscar. The Academy was worried that this bloated, two-and-a-half advertisement for Ringling Bros. was the last chance they’d get to honor the 70-year-old legend, so they jumped at it.

This was a bad decision. The Greatest Show on Earth is rightly vilified as one of the worst Best Picture winners of all time, failing at just about every level. It wastes its amazing cast, especially poor Jimmy Stewart, stuck in face paint for the whole film and showing a level of commitment to his craft utterly out of place amidst the hammy melodrama surrounding him. He plays a clown named Buttons who, wanting to hide a dark secret, never removes his makeup, even between shows.

25766804112_f2f26042f8_b.jpgNope, nothing suspicious about that.

Naturally, the film wastes a good set-up. Is he some kind of nameless djinn, without identity or past, flitting through the circus world dispensing wisdom and spreading love as only Elwood P. Dowd could? No, of course not…he’s just a fugitive on the run for killing his wife. It’s a “shocking” “twist” that could only have been invented by filmmakers for whom dialogue was just the boring bits between watching imprisoned elephants dance for the amusement of popcorn-guzzling schoolchildren.

I’m getting worked up now, and I haven’t even mentioned the plot. Here it is: Charlton Heston runs a circus, Betty Hutton is a trapeze artist who is in love with both him and Cornel Wilde, and Gloria Grahame is a silver-tongued vixen who loves Heston but ends up with Wilde. They work out their insane love quadrangle while DeMille gives screen time to every performer working for Barnum and Bailey during the production period. At least the actual performers are shown with dignity, which is less than can be said for the professional actors at the periphery.

23805642033_70077d71a3_b.jpgJimmy Stewart, weighing finishing the film against life in prison for murdering his agent.

It’s a thoroughly forgettable affair in all respects, and I think it’s time to move on to marginally greener pastures. Unfortunately, they’re not much greener…

 

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Robert Taylor did not impress me with his doofy performance as a Roman legionnaire in last year’s Quo Vadis, and he’s even doofier as a Saxon prince. Here, he plays the same kind of “aghast that cultures different from his own exist” character, in the form of Ivanhoe, an illiterate knight fighting valiantly in his attempt to show more than one emotion.

pop-up-beijing-classic-movie-tuesday-ivanhoe-1952-robert-taylor-elizabeth-taylor-joan-fontaine-4_2.jpg“I must show them Ivanhoe’s deep unconsciousness.”

Actually, Ivanhoe is trying to raise the money to free King Richard I, whose brother John has usurped the throne in his absence. Along the way, he must deal with the dastardly Sir Brian De Bois-Guilbert (George Sanders, less bitchy than he was in All About Eve but still damned bitchy), and fight off the attentions of Rebecca (Elizabeth Taylor) while still keeping her on the hook until her wealthy father helps to pay Richard’s ransom. Ivanhoe’s lady love (since all knights must have a lady love) is Rowena, played by Joan Fontaine, though she contributes little to the plot aside from being supremely capturable. Meanwhile, De Bois-Guilbert falls for Rebecca, but since his name isn’t on the poster she rejects his admittedly coercive advances.

This tangled web of predictable romance is a bit more believable than the one in The Greatest Show on Earth, but it is still little more than window dressing, as the plot itself moves forward largely without its help. In fact, it moves forward without help from anything…things just kind of happen, without suspense or agency from the characters. It must have been hard for the performers to look invested in their roles, seeing as how none of them had much effect on the final outcome.

One scene that does deserve credit, though is the final duel between Ivanhoe and De Bois-Guilbert.


Kind of like how the Thunderdome fight in Mad Max 3 makes the rest of it worthwhile.

Even though the outcome of the fight is never in doubt, it is still excitingly staged, paced, and blocked. The sound mixing brings every crunch of mace-on-metal to life, and the timing of Ivanhoe’s snatching victory from the jaws of defeat is played just right. Naturally, this is followed by De Bois-Guilbert’s obligatory redemption and a happy ending for all concerned. Yes, even De Bois-Guilbert’s future isn’t as bleak as it looks.

ivanhoe-1952-2-300x225.jpg“Don’t worry about me, I’ll be playing opposite Peter Sellers in twelve years.”

It was also great fun when I realized the Scottish castle used for the film’s exterior and battle scenes is none other than Doune Castle, which was to be used some twenty-two years hence as the primary location of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Unfortunately, all of the interiors were shot at Elstree Studios, so I didn’t get the pleasure of seeing George Sanders look out the same window as Terry Jones and Michael Palin did in this classic scene:


I got to see it myself in 2004, though, so my life is pretty much complete.

So, pretty slow start to 1952. Fortunately, the year began to get a little brighter, with…

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I believe that Moulin Rouge was nominated for Best Picture over Singin’ in the Rain because the Academy looked at An American in Paris‘ success the previous year and decided that the takeaway was that what audiences really wanted to see was not Gene Kelly’s genius, but just films set in Paris.

an-american-in-paris-gene-kelly-and-dancers1.jpg“Can’t we get those dancers out of the way so the audience can see the fountain?”

Based on the poster, one would be forgiven for thinking that, despite being directed by John Huston, Moulin Rouge is a musical extravaganza, a wild and crazy celebration of Belle Époque Paris, and not a depressingly, unrelentingly bleak portrait of a tortured artist. Of course, the contrast between the perception of that champagne-soaked time and the real life of painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec is one of the film’s main motifs, but it’s still a bit misleading to not even feature him on the advertisements.

Moulin_Rouge_(1952)-Caratula.jpgOn second thought, maybe they had the right idea.

Moulin Rouge tells the story, as I said, of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, played by José Ferrer (who also plays the painter’s father in a few scenes). It is less a feature than it is two short films in succession: the first hour concerns Henri’s early struggles as an artist, his heavy drinking, and his disastrous affair with a Parisian prostitute; while the second follows his artistic success, his heavier drinking, and his disastrous affair with a Parisian socialite.

The story begins with the painter sat the Moulin Rouge in 1890, drinking bottle after bottle of cognac and sketching the dancers onstage–one of whom is Zsa Zsa Gabor (whose performance Huston later glowingly described as “creditable”). He falls in love with a prostitute, Marie, on the way home from the club, but the courtship ends after roughly three days after she admits she was only using him for his money. Cut (literally) to ten years later, and Lautrec is becoming a sensation in the Parisian art scene, still depressed but now an “eccentric artist” instead of a “pathetic drunkard.” The second half, as I said, sees him fall for another woman, this one with sophisticated Myriamme Hyam, who, unluckily for him, is also being wooed by Peter Cushing.

CushingPeter_MoulinRouge.jpg“You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Having learnt all the wrong lessons from his first failed romance, he aggressively sabotages his relationship with Myriamme, driving her into Cushing’s arms more efficiently than his puppydog looks and soulful eyes ever could. Myriamme, ironically, possesses a Lautrec original: a portrait of Marie from all those years ago, which stares down at him in mute judgment during his climactic, acidic tirade against her.

Being directed by John Huston, the two halves, though clearly delineated, are not disparate at all; the second half features numerous callbacks to and mirrors of the first, unflinchingly (for 1952) showing Henri’s steady personal decline even as he struggles to maintain a proper façade commiserate with his newfound respectability. José Ferrer imbues the role with a fine balance of panache and almost painful bitterness, and Huston’s direction steers them with ease in all the right directions. The result is a Toulouse-Lautrec that at once inspires pity and fear.

moulin_rouge_1952_film_a_round_of_cognac 333.jpgExcept when he has Christopher Lee by his side…then it’s mostly just fear.

Toulouse-Lautrec’s undesired rise is mirrored by that of his favorite burlesque, the eponymous Moulin Rouge, which gradually transforms from a gin joint to a sophisticated haunt of Europe’s elite. Huston uses the club as a manifestation of the price to be paid for such an era as  La Belle Époque, which swept aside the undesirables that birthed it as soon as it became trendy and left them to languish in the gutters and the dives not yet discovered by the hipsters of the 1890s.

It’s a fine film, but one with a few melodramatic touches that keep it from being amongst Huston’s best. Still, it was nice to see him experimenting across genres, and the finished product mostly pays off. Like all the nominees this year, it’s really feeling its age in 2018, but the strength of the direction and performances more than makes up for it.

The last two films of 1952, The Quiet Man and High Noon, were the odds-on favorites for Best Picture this year. They’re also the only two of the nominees still talked about today with anything other than derision, so we’ll see what can be said about them in Part II!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some other things I noticed:

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

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

24th Academy Awards (1951) – Part II

(Part I.)

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It’s been a while on this blog since I’ve pointed out sea changes in Hollywood, or cinema in general. One of them was Lubitsch’s The Love Parade (1929) with Maurice Chevalier; another was Laurence Olivier’s film debut in Wyler’s Wuthering Heights (1939), an otherwise ignorable adaptation highlighted by the master’s commanding performance; then we have Hitchcock’s arrival in Hollywood with Rebecca (1940), and who–besides the Academy–could forget Citizen Kane (1941)?

Well, A Streetcar Named Desire was more important than all of those except the last, because it established a new benchmark against which all future acting would be measured. I’m not just talking about Marlon Brando’s game-changing performance as Stanley Kowalski, though obviously that one was the most influential…every actor in this film took it to a new level, all the time, and instantly a new paradigm was born. The Academy recognized this by bestowing three of the four acting awards on this single film. Many considered it all but a lock for Best Picture, as well.

A_Streetcar_Named_Desire_(1951)_4.jpgIt was the feel-good movie of the year, after all.

Being based on a Tennessee Williams play, the plot is fairly straightforward: Scarlett O’Hara Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh) appears in the French Quarter and moves in with her sister, Stella (Kim Hunter) and her scary, perpetually-sweaty husband Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando). Being from a formerly wealthy family, Blanche is immediately disliked by Stanley, and for her part, is openly and vocally dismissive and condescending towards her sister’s husband and lifestyle. The majority of the film, like the play, is set in the Kowalski’s squalid apartment, and tensions rise and rise until, in typical Williams fashion, everything and everybody is miserable, detached, and existentially terrified.

Vivien Leigh, as Blanche, is pathetic and depressing from the very moment she appears, and throughout the film it is awkward and painful to watch her descent into a final break from reality. In watching her attempts to “rescue” her sister and her doomed courtship Mitch (Karl Malden)–seemingly the only decent man in all of New Orleans–one can’t help but see Blanche as the logical older version of Scarlett O’Hara. They share a lot of traits, including a string of unsuccessful relationships, a failed Southern plantation, and being hated by literally every man they meet, making Leigh the only logical choice for the role (though it was initially offered to fellow Gone with the Wind alumna Olivia de Havilland).

The film not only broke new ground in the field of acting, which I’ll get to in a minute…it also brought heretofore unfilmable themes and subtexts to the American screen for the first time. Even though Williams, in adapting his play, had to excise a great deal to comply with the Production Code, the film still kept in enough to enrage the Catholic Legion of Decency and push the boundaries for cinematic portrayal of such themes as domestic violence, rape, insanity, obsession, and even homosexuality (though still heavily disguised by euphemisms and evasions). Its unflinching presentation of a woman’s ultimately futile fight against the forces driving her over the edge was shockingly unrelenting for 1951, and even today the film retains much of its power.

A big part of that power comes from the stark cinematography of Harry Stradling, best known for his work with Alfred Hitchcock and one of the era’s most sought-after photographers. As I said above, most of the action takes place in the dimly-lit, seedy interior of the Kowalski’s tiny apartment, and the black-and-white photography lends the whole film a claustrophobic atmosphere in which the viewer can all but feel the humid, steamy New Orleans air. Even when the camera ventures outside, the sets are always dimly lit (due to Blanche’s compulsive need to hide her aging face), so the audience never gets a break…the feeling of suffocation that the characters are going through is ours, too, and it never relents until the final moment.

It should continue even after the final moment, in fact…but one of the major Production Code compromises was the alteration of the play’s ending. Onstage, after Blanche is led away to an asylum, Stella silently allows Stanley to embrace her, even though she knows exactly what he did to her (Blanche) to drive her over the edge. In fact, all of Stanley’s buddies, despite being disgusted by him, will continue to keep him in their lives because it’s all they know. It’s a perfectly bleak, pessimistic, Williamsian ending in which no one ever truly confronts Stanley over his actions.

a-streetcar-named-marge10Fortunately, this was rectified in future adaptations.

But the Code said otherwise; if the film was to be made, Stanley had to be shown to pay for his crimes. And so, the film ends with Stella defiantly taking her newborn son away from Stanley and vowing never to return. The music swells triumphantly, as if this were a happy ending and we hadn’t just seen a rape victim with a broken mind committed to a mental institution, and in so doing releases the tension of the previous 120 minutes. Had Streetcar been made ten years later, in the wake of the eroding influence of the Code that began in earnest with its release, they have had stood a chance at preserving the play’s dismal conclusion.

Finally, we have the performances. All of the main cast and crew had come from the stage play: Brando, Hunter, and Malden had all been directed by Kazan on Broadway in the show’s first run, and Vivien Leigh had originated Blanche on the West End stage (in a production directed by Laurence Olivier). As such, they were already intimately familiar with the material and with each other’s performances, and since the film was staged and blocked very much like a play, they were able to easily transfer their roles to the cinema. Kazan made sparse use of close-ups, preferring instead to let the actors inhabit the gritty world around them. At the forefront of it all is Brando, inhabiting his role like no actor had ever done before…and far from shrink in the presence of such intensity, his co-stars rose to the challenge and (mostly) held their own.

As mentioned, Brando had originated the role of Stanley Kowalski on Broadway, and was disappointed by the reaction he received. One of the reasons he was keen to make the film partly because he was tired of receiving fan letters (and…let’s just say “articles of clothing”) from women saying how dreamy Stanley was. He saw Kowalski as barely human, manipulative, and not sexy at all, and it was his hope was that the film, when seen by a wider audience than the play, would convince the world of this.

81Qk8T3NWHL._SY450_.jpgCan’t imagine why it didn’t work.

In spite of its darkness and lack of likable characters, both the play and the film were rapturously received by audiences and critics. For all the concessions to the Code, the movie still manages to retain the raw, powerful emotions and pessimistic themes of Williams’ original, and the force with which the actors threw themselves into their roles–creating realistic, intense performances that blended elements of stage and film acting–established a high watermark to which future films could aspire.

In the end, despite receiving twelve nominations, Streetcar won only four Oscars…Best Actress (Leigh), both Supporting Acting awards (the first of eight films to do so) for Hunter and Malden, and Best Art Direction, Black and White. Amazingly, Marlon Brando lost his Best Actor bid to Humphrey Bogart for The African Queen, which was meant to be a “Sorry we never gave you an Oscar” honor. You can’t blame them; no one could have known Bogart still had The Caine Mutiny in him, but that year, the Academy stiffed Bogart by giving Brando a “Sorry we didn’t give you an Oscar in 1951” award.

on-the-waterfrontIt was also a well-deserved Best Actor award, but still.

So with all that going for it, how could this masterpiece lose out on the top prize? Well…

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I’ve read in a few sources that the audience at the 24th Awards was already filing to the exits as the year’s winner was announced. It’s not surprising…the race had been presumed to be between A Place in the Sun and Streetcar, and with the former just having won Best Director, it seemed an opportune time to skip the final, predictable speech. George Stevens was the producer, anyway, so what more could he possibly have to say? Another reason for the early egress may have been that the award for Best Picture was being presented by this guy, Jesse L. Lasky, Sr.:

Jesse-lasky-1915.jpgThough he went by “Chuckles”.

So it was to the shock of all when the announcement rang out that the winner was in fact An American in Paris, which had swept up most of the technical categories but was not believed to be a serious Best Picture contender. I can see their point of view…no musical had won since The Broadway Melody (1929), and none had been nominated since Gene Kelly’s own Anchors Aweigh (1945). As recently as this morning, I fully expected to be on the side of Streetcar, for all of the reasons outlined above…but after re-watching it, I have to admit that, even though it may only have won due to a split in votes between the two “top” contenders, this film fully deserved the win.

An American in Paris opens with establishing shots of Paris, and the following narration from our protagonist: “This is Paris, and I’m an American living here.” Following that merciful explanation of the incomprehensible, Beckett-like title, we follow one Jerry Mulligan, an ex-GI living in Paris trying to make it as a painter despite being able to sing and dance like Gene Kelly.

82076_full.jpgAnd being able to paint like…well, like Gene Kelly.

As so often happens both in Paris and in musicals, he falls in love with a girl, Lise (Leslie Caron), but she is already engaged to a dashing Frenchman, fellow triple-threat Henri (Georges Guétary). And so, in between breaking into song and teaching English to the local children, he must win her heart and defend his own against lecherous socialite Milo Roberts (Nina Foch).

14947-604.jpgThough she has Dr. Bellows to fall back on, so she’ll be fine.

That’s about it for plot, and this being a musical directed by Vincent Minnelli, you can guess how it all turns out: Henri recognizes where Lise’s heart truly lies and, after giving Jerry time to stew in his failure and dream up an exquisitely-choreographed 18-minute ballet about his unsuccessful courtship, he graciously breaks his engagement with Lise and she returns to Jerry. The film is about as realistic a portrayal of a love triangle as it is of the living conditions of poverty-stricken artists in postwar Paris, but who cares?

003-an-american-in-paris-theredlistNot us!

The film is also an Impressionist love letter to Paris, celebrating the city as a romantic and beautiful place with thousands of cinematic stories happening at any given moment. In the climactic ballet sequence, Kelly and Caron dance their way through a beautiful pastiche of all the great landmarks of the city, to the tune of Gershwin’s titular score, and even though the sequence cost approximately half a million dollars to film, I think we can all agree it was worth every penny:


<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>

Much of the comic relief of the film comes from Jerry’s friend and fellow struggling American, Adam Cook, played by eccentric musician and actor Oscar Levant. Cynical and worldweary in all the ways Jerry is not–and in all the ways his successor, Donald O’Connor’s Cosmo Brown in Singin’ in the Rain, is not–Adam is an out-of-work pianist who does not have the charm or good looks to attract rich patrons, and as such serves as the voice of reason…who turns out to be completely wrong about everything, as, despite Adam’s misgivings, Jerry’s fairy tale romance ends in the happiest way possible. At the end of the film, we have no idea what happens to poor Adam, as his two best friends–and the only two people he knows in Paris who speak English–have left him for greener pastures, but I have to imagine it involves a lot of alcohol and despair.

Hm, that’s probably the saddest ending I’ve ever written to a paragraph that started off talking about comic relief. To fix this, here’s a clip from the film in which Levant’s bored reactions to Jerry and Henri’s exuberance utterly steals the show.

And I’m going to imagine that after the credits roll, Jerry and Lise go out a few times but, without the thrill of their initial, titillatingly forbidden courtship, they find they have little in common and awkwardly drift apart. After an amicable breakup, Jerry then returns to his flatshare with Adam, and finally gives him the friendship he needs and deserves. Let’s face it, in the final analysis, Oscar Levant needs a win more than Gene Kelly.

Sorry about that…back to the film. As I said above, An American in Paris astounded the critics and the industry by winning Best Picture, but it’s easy to see in retrospect how right it was. Both it and Streetcar are, by almost any definition, perfect films, but in very different ways; both productions were emboldened by the geniuses driving them, and as a result they elevated and pushed the boundaries of their respective genres to heights no one had imagined possible before. And while Streetcar‘s influence extended well beyond its genre, it was also dark as hell (though not as dark as its source material), and I think, seven years after Going my Way, the world was ready for another happy Best Picture.

B001EBYM62_singinintherain_UXWB1._RI_SX940_.jpgIt also helped ensure we got Singin’ in the Rain the following year, although by then the Academy was over Gene Kelly and ignored it completely.

In many ways, musicals are the quintessential cinematic genre. The great musicals, which sadly fell out of vogue not long after An American in Paris, exemplify the best qualities of the art form, the ones that give movies their magic. Done right, and musicals can do anything…more than comedies, they make us smile at life’s idiosyncrasies; more than drama, they express the emotions and the troubles of being alive; more than science fiction, they transport us to wildly different dreamscapes where anything can happen and usually does. Done wrong, and they are La La Land.

And An American in Paris is done absolutely right. Even now I can’t watch the climactic ballet without forgetting the outside world exists…it’s that beautiful, that well-made, and that perfect. It’s the feeling of knowing you’re watching a master at the height of his creative genius, and all his energy and enthusiasm is brilliantly present in the final product. Again, musicals seem to be the ideal genre for this sort of thing.

marlon-brandon-main-lr.jpgThough the energy and enthusiasm is undoubtedly there, it just doesn’t fill me with the same joy, for some reason.

This love of musicals will probably come as a shock to my 21-year-old self when time travel is perfected and I show him this blog in an attempt to create an alternate timeline in order to test the Novikov self-consistency principle. Nevertheless, I stand by my assessment that, for the first time since The Best Years of Our Lives, the Academy nailed it…except, of course, in not naming Brando Best Actor and, I would say, John Huston Best Director for The African Queen.

And now to 1952, which has a reputation as one of the most disappointing Oscars in history…The Greatest Show on Earth is considered one of the worst Best Pictures of all time, and it won over High Noon and The Quiet Man, so this should be interesting. Onward!

24th Academy Awards (1951) – Part I

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  • An American in Paris, Vincente Minnelli
  • Decision Before Dawn, Anatole Litvak
  • A Place in the Sun, George Stevens*
  • Quo Vadis, Mervyn LeRoy
  • A Streetcar Named Desire, Elia Kazan

Since the uniformly great 21st Academy Awards, the field of nominees seems to have settled into a pattern of two near-perfect films, one pretty damned great film, and two that have earned their obscurity as Academy Awards also-rans. While this may have made the job of choosing the best picture of the year a bit easier (and even given that 50-50 chance, they still rarely get it right), it does make writing these introductions a bit of a chore.

Before we get to the five films, I should point out that this was the year that Hollywood legend Humphrey Bogart finally won an Oscar, for his performance as a tough, hard-drinking cynic (surely the acting challenge of a lifetime) in John Huston’s un-nominated The African Queen–though Huston did receive a nod for Best Director.

560ecdf9a9cab__humphrey-bogart.jpgLong overdue.

One of my favorite bits of film trivia is Bogart’s account of how, during filming in Uganda and the Congo, everyone in the cast and crew became seriously ill with dysentery–except for he and John Huston, who didn’t touch the local water and instead ate and drank nothing but baked beans and Scotch for the entire shoot. He later quipped, “Whenever a fly bit Huston or me, it dropped dead.”

Anyway, 1951 finally took a break from the brooding postwar gloom that had reigned as Best Picture since 1945, heralding what would be a decade of (mostly) honoring escapist fare. The winner, An American in Paris, was only the second color film to win Best Picture, and the first since Gone with the Wind (1939), and represents the genius behind it, Gene Kelly, at the height of his powers. For that reason, and for its many, many other merits, it would have earned my approval as the year’s best, if it didn’t happen to be competing against one of the best and most influential American films ever made.

americaninparis2.jpg    showimg_eve21_tablet
Although the category of Best T-Shirt would have been a very tight close race indeed.

But we’ll get to that next week. First, let’s have a look at the less successful films of 1951.

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Quo Vadis, a Sunday school special disguised as an historical epic, tells the story of Marcus Vinicius, a Roman legionnaire who, over the course of three insufferable hours, overcomes his hatred of Christianity in order to boff Deborah KerrShe, being a good Christian, falls for his rapey charms after a rousing speech by Saint Peter makes Vinicius reconsider his opinion of this Jesus fellow. Meanwhile, Nero is an aggressively idiotic emperor who spends his days playing the lute, burning Rome to the ground, and eating grapes. He is played by Peter Ustinov, easily the second-greatest portrayal of Nero in film history.

historyofworld2309.jpgThe greatest, obviously.

Marcus Vinicius returns to Nero’s Rome to find a new sect has formed called Christianity, which he wouldn’t care about if it didn’t keep interfering with his attempts to bed Lygia, a hostage from the Punic Wars. When his literal enslavement of her attempts to court her are rebuffed, his only way to get in her frock is to accept her new religion…which he doesn’t, but the moment he shows the slightest sign of being willing to not kill every Christian he meets, Lygia immediately falls in love with him. You would think a three-hour film would be willing to spend any amount of time building a nuanced, believable connection between its romantic leads, but you would be wrong.

Very, very long story short, Nero burns Rome on the advice of his architect (in a scene that is basically the scourging of Atlanta from Gone with the Wind but in tunics) and blames it on the Christians, but during their persecution in the Coliseum they Christian so hard that the people of Rome realize that Nero is guilty and cheer the subsequent military coup that seizes power. Nero dies and our heroes survive, newly married, with Vinicius not quite Christian but finally willing to share Deborah Kerr with Jesus. Everyone lives happily ever after.

rt4262.jpgWell, except Ferdinand there.

This is a film that could easily have been a tolerable, if forgettable, 90 minutes, but is an unforgivable, and still forgettable, 179 instead. To that end, a lot of things that might have been merely bad become annoying at best, and outright offensive at worst. A case of the latter is the aforementioned rape-centric pursuit of Deborah Kerr by Vinicius, which takes up the first hour of the film. I understand that characters must have an arc, and Vinicius’ is to go from clueless, reactionary Roman to clueless, progressive Christian, but when your hero spends the first third of a three-hour movie forcing himself on his “love” interest and talking about how great it is to own people, it’s very hard to root for him. And when, as I said above, she falls in love with him simply because they appear in love on the poster, it becomes even creepier.

Add to the mix that the only reason they end up together at all is because Nero’s wife, Poppaea, is jealous of them, and it may be the least compelling and most amateurishly executed love story in Hollywood history. Poppaea, by the way, is one of the most two-dimensional characters I’ve encountered in this project, whose only function is to be horny and catty to everyone she sees. Nero never even jumps on her. Not a great character.

e8209eadc790cd05bbb1b6bae40e33c7--madeline-kahn-history-of-the-world.jpgAgain, we all know which film got it right.

The movie blows, is what I’m saying. But it does have one great and memorable element, and that is Peter Ustinov’s campy yet undeniably engrossing performance as Nero. Ustinov plays him not as the evil conniver of history (and myth), but as a pathetic manchild so desperate for attention he doesn’t care if it’s good or bad. In this interpretation, Nero becomes a pitiable creature, and although he is unquestionably the antagonist one feels no elation when, as his world crumbles and the people whose approval he so cravenly sought finally turn on him, he meets his inevitable end. One just feels sorry for him.

2204_1.jpgIt’s the same way I felt when Cujo died. He was a good boy.

It’s also worth pointing out that Quo Vadis is one of the most historically inaccurate movies ever made and almost nothing about its portrayal of Nero or his administration or the behavior of humans is faithful to reality, but what can you do.

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The token melodrama on the list this year was A Place in the Sun, winner of Best Director. I had high hopes for this one…directed by George Stevens, starring Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor, photographed by William C. Mellor, it had no excuse to be as bad as it was. After being hugely disappointed, I thought how much better it would have been if it were a half hour shorter, better paced, and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, who would have withheld more information and given the film some much-needed tension (of which there was none). When I told someone this, they responded, “So, basically, it would have been better if it was a different movie?” As odd as it may seem, the answer is…yes. Yes, A Place in the Sun would have been significantly better if it was an entirely different movie.

But, until time travel is invented and the multiverse theory is proven true, we are stuck with the film that inexplicably won six Oscars and was nominated for three more in 1951. Its plot is the very definition of high-concept: a socially ambitious young man, George Eastman, is entangled in affairs with two women, one of whom is Alice, a plain factory girl, and one of whom is Elizabeth Taylor, and he must choose.

024-a-place-in-the-sun-theredlist.jpgOh, the suspense.

Alas, he gets his factory girl (Shelley Winters) into trouble, and as his worlds threaten to collide, must consider increasingly drastic solutions to his problems. He takes F.G. out on a lake to kill her, but at the last second chickens out…only for a poorly-built canoe to do the dirty work for him. The canoe gets off scot-free but he gets sent down for murder.

3422258.jpgThough they do bring the canoe in as a prosecution witness.

Like Quo VadisA Place in the Sun suffers from too much air, and a subtext-phobic script intent on spoon feeding the audience every detail that may otherwise have made it a fine picture. We are privy to everything that happens before, during, and after Alice’s death, so there is no question that George is innocent of the crime. As a result, the last forty minutes of the film is spent laboriously showing us what we already know, to set up the big payoff that since he didn’t want to be with her, he is guilty anyway and definitely deserves the electric chair. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a courtroom sequence with less drama.

This problem runs throughout the film, and the finished product feels forced right from the opening sequence. The only scene that plays naturally is probably the film’s most famous, in which George, bored being a fish-out-of-water at a high-class dinner party, passes the time in the billiard room by himself. As he pulls off a trick shot, Elizabeth Taylor happens to be wandering past the open door and sees it. Her quietly impressed and slightly breathless “Wow!” is the most honest moment in the film.

It falls apart after that, of course, but it’s a classic scene for a reason. It’s just not enough to save the other 118 minutes.

Another thing that dates the film is the justification for George’s fate, the fact that he “wanted Alice out of the way” and so murdered her in his heart or whatever. It’s terribly unconvincing, and highlights one of the more offensive repercussions of the Production Code: namely, that we are supposed to feel that George “got what he had coming to him” through being executed for a crime he did not commit. It may have been effective in 1951 but feels forced and ridiculous today.

Charlie Chaplin proclaimed it “the greatest movie ever made about America.” I wonder if even he knew what he was talking about.

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I’ve been harping a lot about the posters for the nominated films, and how they often fail to capture the essence of the movies they were supposed to advertise. That’s not the case with Decision Before Dawn, as the above poster definitely conveys the tone of a tense, shadowy espionage film…but there’s still something about it that makes no sense: the title. Not once in the entire film is there any decision that is made, or needs to be made, before dawn, or really anywhere near as quickly as that. I don’t think there is even a single scene set at dawn. Oh well, it’s still not a bad title, considering it was a compromise after German audiences objected to director Anatole Litvak’s original idea, Legion of the Damned.

Anyway, the movie takes place in the closing days of World War II, as allegiance to the crumbling Nazi regime began to break apart. The story centers on a young, idealistic German POW Karl Maurer, who is recruited by Allied counterintelligence and agrees to return to his hometown of Nuremberg to gather details of a planned secret surrender by a German general. Despite being really, really bad at spying (basically just openly asking everyone he meets if they know the information he has been sent to find out), he makes it to the rendezvous with his American partner Colonel Devlin, and ends up sacrificing himself so that the intelligence can make it back to the Allies.

The film is a great one, particularly notable for its compassionate and nuanced portrayal of Germany in late 1944 when it was clear to all but the most obstinate Party hardliners that the country was on the verge of calamitous defeat. Karl Maurer is a fascinating and well-written character, based on a real person, whose patriotism and love for Germany is exactly what compels him to work for the Allies: he sees that the continuation of the war will only increase his countrymen’s suffering. His idealism is contrasted with fellow spy Rudolf Barth, who is only in it for the money and ultimately proves himself unreliable at the worst possible time.

Decision Before Dawn 008.jpgWho could have anticipated it, with that innocent puppy-dog face?

As he makes his way through the devastated country (filmed on location in Germany’s ruined cities), Maurer encounters a population wearied by the long war, and an army falling apart as soldiers who can see the end coming clash with superiors bound by duty to continue the fight. His mission is often threatened by the true believers who dot the countryside, who keep a sharp eye out for dissenters and traitors; the film continually contrasts the effects of their actions and Maurer’s on the fate of Germany and asks, what is treason?

callittreason00howe.jpgMakes sense, given the title of the novel on which the film is based.

I’ve left a lot of details of the plot out, partly because the film is definitely worth watching and I’d hate to spoil it, but mainly because the plot is secondary to the examination of the psyche of a population of a country about to lose a war, and lose it badly. I’m quite impressed by Litvak’s sympathy and sensitivity to the Germans he presents, and it seems that he really did take pains to treat them as people, and to counteract the then-prevalent notion that the country was united and monolithic in its support of the Third Reich. It was a bold move to make such a movie only five years after the end of the war, and to film it in the country itself.

In the end, I think he nailed it. Every person who crosses the frame is a fully-realized individual with a past, and we see them at a turning point in their own lives and in that of the world. How they deal with it, and how it affects those around them, is what Decision Before Dawn is all about; and for those of them who still have a future when it’s all over, one gets the sense that they are strong enough to make something out of it. The coming Wirtschaftswunder would prove this prescient.

image-604151-galleryV9-dnsc-604151.jpgThis is the first image I got when I searched Wirtschaftswunder. Says it all, I think.

And so we have the first three films of 1951! Next week, for the third year in a row, I’m about to disagree with the choice for Best Picture…but these two films are undeniably two of the best films ever made. Part II coming soon!

Three Years of Oscars and I – Another Clip Show

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you next week!

23rd Academy Awards (1950) – Part II

(Part I.)

I apologize in advance for what will be a long entry, but there’s a lot to say about these next two films!

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Every so often at the Oscars, there is one film amongst the nominees that clearly stands above the rest. Occasionally, that film does win (Casablanca is one example from the years we’ve already covered, along with The Best Years of Our Lives and All Quiet on the Western Front), but more often, its genius isn’t recognized (enough) at the time and it misses out on the Best Picture award (e.g., Citizen KaneLa Grande Illusion, or all of the losing nominees in 1939). I love it when I get to talk about the former, because it means the Oscars were doing their job, but the flip side is that I get so frustrated when the superiority of a film is so obvious and the Academy swings and misses. 1950 is an example of the second one.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Sunset Boulevard deserved to win Best Picture this year…there’s no doubt in my mind that it would deserve to win in most years. A William Holden noir directed by one of the era’s great cynics, Billy Wilder, it is a wonderfully perfect film that captures the essence of Golden Age Hollywood, and how the studio system could be so magical from without, and terrifying from within. Working on dismantling the myth of Hollywood from the inside out, Wilder reveals how the industry destroys even its brightest stars, yet continues to attract multitudes of hopefuls desperately fighting for their close-up with Mr. DeMille.

It’s quite possibly the greatest movie about movies ever made, excluding perhaps only Singin’ in the Rain (1952), which is also about the struggles faced by silent stars in the transition to talkies.

e1af035e1b71e94aa8f68eec33d8924d--lina-lamont-hagen.jpg   Norma_Desmond_smoking.jpg
In fact, Singin’ works almost too well as a Norma Desmond origin story…

The film opens with its protagonist already dead, and is told entirely in flashback from the point of view of the very man we see floating lifeless in a swimming pool, Joe Gillis (William Holden). The story unfolds with tongue firmly in cheek, narrated by the dead man and following the unlikely series of events that led to his demise. Since the dead are notoriously unreliable narrators, we must take Gillis’ word for all that happens, but being deceased seems to give him such a sense of freedom and dark humor that one gets the feeling that he is not all that upset about being murdered. Though as the story proceeds, we find out why.

Gillis is a hack writer trying to make it in the cruel Hollywood system, but his almost total lack of talent continually prejudices studios against him. Fortune smiles on him, however, in the form of psychotic former silent film star Norma Desmond, who lives nearly alone in a decrepit mansion on…some street in LA, I can’t remember offhand. Anyway, she takes him in as her script doctor/gigolo as she plans her Big Comeback, and all she asks in return is his utter acquiescence to being a kept man.

born-yesterday-1950.jpgHe really couldn’t catch a break this year.

He puts up token resistance to the idea of being romanced by a 1,000-year-old woman trying desperately to look 600, but she wins him over with a few tweed suits and the prospect of not starving to death waiting for that big Paramount contract to come though. With the benefit of supernatural hindsight, Gillis-the-Narrator knows that the power dynamic shifts against him within minutes, but Gillis-the-Idiot-Protagonist takes a while longer to figure it out. Too long, in fact, though the moment when she has his car towed away, leaving him stranded and at her mercy in the middle of the Hills, should have been a big clue.

Their relationship grows in fits and starts, and he more than once considers flying the coup, but Norma is the master here, and soon they end up where we all knew they would…though the film has the good grace to fade to black before the heavy stuff starts.

article-1126430-0323044E000005DC-334_468x286.jpgGood, because it was about to get a little…yuck.

The whole arrangement ends about as well as you might expect, and I won’t spoil how Gillis ends up in the pool, but see it for yourself…it’s a wild ride. Gloria Swanson turns in a wonderful (and, in any other year, I would say Oscar-worthy) performance as Norma Desmond, able to act over-the-top and neurotic in a completely realistic and believable way. Of course, the character helps, since Desmond is slowly going mad and usually believes she is giving a performance in a silent film at all times, but Swanson manages to play a delicate balance, keeping the audience engaged with and sympathetic towards Desmond without making her (too) sad and pathetic.

Every performance in the film is solid gold, but the one who steals the show is silent film director Erich von Stroheim as Norma’s steadfastly loyal–and domineeringly Austrian–butler Max, who caters to her every whim to maintain the illusion of her solipsistic madness. He even finds the time to write her bogus fan mail every day, and Norma is so wrapped up in neuroses and feather boas that she never notices that they all have the same handwriting and come exclusively from fans in a zip code that only covers her house.

The casting of von Stroheim–a silent film giant whose monumental achievement, Greed (1924), is easily the greatest film of the pre-sound era and a strong candidate for the greatest film, period–was a stroke of genius; his very presence adds layer upon layer of complexity to an already rich plot. Von Stroheim imbues every line, every movement, with a gravitas that feels completely natural, a rock against which Norma’s histrionics crash and echo in their shared mausoleum. And when Gillis finally gets around to asking Max why he is so devoted to Norma, the answer is so dark, twisted, and perfect, and encapsulates everything that is great not just about Max, but also Norma, Gillis, and even Cecil B. DeMille…and the myth of Sunset Boulevard itself.

Add to the mix Nancy Olson as idealistic and aspiring screenwriter Betty Schaefer, a dead monkey, several hilarious Hollywood in-jokes (such as the producer who turned down Gone with the Wind), and an enchanting cameo by Buster Keaton, and Sunset Boulevard is pretty much a perfect film.

c0f4b008bd9b3450992591ffce0527d0--boulevard-.jpg“This is the most fun I’ve ever had without trains.”

Part of what makes it so perfect—aside from the biting satire, the flawless acting, and the moody black-and-white cinematography—is Billy Wilder’s penchant for injecting extremely dark and bitter themes with such acerbic and self-referential humor. We saw him do it five years ago with alcoholism in The Lost Weekend, and we’ll see him do it with adultery in about a decade with The Apartment, and here he does it while eviscerating the very system that was allowing him to make movies in the first place. Every scene in Sunset Boulevard is dripping with bitter irony, and it’s handled with such deftness that we are laughing, maybe a little uncomfortably, even as the situation spirals out of control towards an inevitably tragic climax.

Even for 1950, in the wake of the postwar cynicism and examination of society that Hollywood embraced, and even for a noir, it’s a remarkably nihilistic film. In the end there is no redemption, no justice, and certainly no optimism…everything remains as hopeless and cruel as it was before. The only difference is that there is one less failed artist wandering down Hollywood Boulevard desperate, destitute, and rejected. In other words, the film ends as organically and realistically as possible…like I said, a perfect film.

That said, however, it’s easy to see why it lost to All About Eve for the top Oscar. Sunset Boulevard is unrelentingly dark and cynical in its treatment of the studio system, laying the blame for Norma Desmond’s descent into irrelevancy and madness squarely at the feet of the executives and filmmakers who cast her aside when she stopped being profitable. Considering this was the exact same system still in place in 1950, it’s hardly surprising that the Academy offered it a bunch of nominations but couldn’t bring itself to lavish too much honor upon it—though it received the second-most nominations of the evening, its awards were limited mainly to technical categories, and its acting was completely shut out despite being nominated in all four categories.[1]

idqIv.jpg“Sure, we could give Best Actor to the performance that lays bare all the profit-driven selfishness and evil deeds of our industry…but how about we give it to this guy with the goofy nose? Sound good?”

That brings us to this year’s winner, a film that also examines the aging-actress theme, but which comes to an altogether dumber conclusion:

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As I stated in Part I, with All About Eve Joseph L. Mankiewicz repeated his double win in Directing and Screenwriting from 1949, becoming the first and, to date, only person to do so; he’s also one of three to win consecutive Best Director awards (the other two being John Ford for The Grapes of Wrath [1940] and How Green was my Valley [1941], and Alejandro G. Iñárritu for Birdman [2014] and The Revenent [2015]). And, also as I stated in Part I, he probably didn’t experience a great deal of suspense on Oscar night.

Like A Letter to Three Wives before it, All About Eve is pure Oscar bait, starring big names and telling a story with a “wholesome” moral in which career and family are mutually exclusive concepts–for women, that is–and it is very obvious which one is best–again, for women. It is a propaganda film pure and simple, sending American women a very clear message: it was real cute when you all were working, but the war is over, the men have returned, now go back home.

Annex - Davis, Bette (All About Eve)_03.jpg“Don’t worry, sweetheart, I’m whipping out the answer to your ‘career’ problems right now.”

Before I get into all that, I must say that the film does endure as a classic, and the reason is the acting. Bette Davis is masterful as aging Broadway star Margo Channing, who finds her career stalling as she gets older but her roles do not. Enter Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), a young, starstruck simpleton who worms her way into Eve’s lives and those of her friends.,.namely her director/boyfriend Bill Sampson, playwright Lloyd Richards, and his wife Karen Richards (Celeste Holm).

The plot is fairly simple. Eve appears in their lives with little fanfare or ambition, but as the story progresses, slowly reveals her true purpose: to replace Margo as the darling of the Broadway scene and be a great actress. She pursues this goal ruthlessly, abusing and throwing away everyone in her path…with one exception, veteran theatre critic and silver-tongued devil Addison DeWitt (George Sanders, in one of the most deserved Best Supporting Actor-winning performances I’ve yet seen), who sees through Eve in an instant but guides her along for his own amusement.


Which was his M.O. for everything, really.

Eve, so used to casually using everyone in her path, doesn’t see DeWitt coming until it is far too late. For his part, he gleefully strings Eve for yuks along until she goes too far, even for him, and then the gloves come off in truly glorious fashion. The climactic, almost triumphant scene in which he lays bare her sordid past is amazing, and is enough in itself to justify his Oscar. It is her well-deserved comeuppance, and is, thankfully, handled very realistically and doesn’t feel forced by the Code or by the story’s questionable morality.

Despite the film’s title, it is Margo, not Eve, who is the story’s true protagonist, the one whose decisions and agency truly move the plot. Her anger with Eve’s interference, which gradually morphs into outright manipulation, combined with her aforementioned frustration at not receiving parts commiserate with her age and experience, pushes her to her very limit. Davis, as ever, handles the role with grace and aplomb, and it’s a real shame she didn’t receive her third Best Actress award for her efforts.

Now for the bad stuff. Like I said, the film is a propaganda piece, one that, in its own way, is more over-the-top and offensive than the most forced and jingoistic wartime flicks we saw flood the Oscars a decade ago. All About Eve firmly and unambiguously tells women that they must choose between a man and happiness, or a career that leaves them crushingly empty and unfulfilled. What’s more, it is only immature, shortsighted women who choose the latter anyway…the film’s emotional climax comes when Margo Channing has an emotional epiphany in which she realizes that, in pursuing a career, she “gave up” being a woman, and that a woman is “nothing without a man.”

hqdefault.jpgThey also spelled it out in the trailer, presumably so women in the audience wouldn’t need to bother their husbands asking for an explanation.

In the end, Margo gives up her career and is instantly happy…Karen was always happily married, her only moment of unhappiness being when she’s worried Eve might steal her man…and then there’s Eve, at the top of her field due as much to her talent as her machinations, with a promising and still ascendant career ahead of her, dead inside. The men, meanwhile, never had anything to worry about, because they never had to make the choice between love and career…though I suppose they did have to grapple with the terribly difficult decision of whether to step out with Eve or not.

120715041019-celeste-holm-story-top.jpg“Dolls, I’d say you owe us a few drinks for keeping it in our pants.”

This message has, to put it mildly, not aged well, and as a consequence of this, combined with the story’s subtle but still icky treatment of homosexuality, the film is an uncomfortable one to sit through in 2017. In terms of dated stereotypes it falls short of Father of the Bride, but it is made worse by the fact that it tries so, so desperately to be taken seriously as a cautionary tale.

Still, as I said, the film abounds in great performances, particularly the lead actresses, all four of whom were nominated for Oscars (the only time one film received four female acting nominations). They are all rich and compelling characters, even taking into account the oppressive script, but unfortunately come Oscar season they were split evenly between Lead and Supporting Actress, and thus canceled each other out. The film could have taken three acting categories this year if Anne Baxter had been nominated for Supporting Actress instead of Lead Actress for her role as Eve Harrington. The role really was a supporting one, and if she’d be in the right category, I’m sure Bette Davis would have taken Best Actress and Baxter, even against Celeste Holm and Thelma Ritter, Best Supporting.

But, this was not to be. As it stands, of the film’s five acting nods, only George Sanders, whose only real competition in the category was Erich von Stroheim, came away with a win. I can’t say I’m disappointed, either, that Josephine Hull took Best Supporting Actress for her role as James Stewart’s long-suffering sister in the classic comedy Harvey.

And thus, the 23rd Academy Awards were decided, and before we move to 1951 I’d like to leave you with a clip from the real best picture of 1950…a little British movie that came out in 1949–but premiered in New York and Los Angeles in 1950–and should have swept the awards this year.

See you all in 1951!


[1] It joined My Man Godfrey in having the distinction of receiving nominations in all four categories and not winning a single one; the next film to do this was American Hustle (2013), though that was justifiable.