34th Academy Awards (1961) – Part I

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  • West Side Story, Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins*
  • Fanny, Joshua Logan
  • The Guns of Navarone, J. Lee Thompson
  • The Hustler, Robert Rossen
  • Judgment at Nuremberg, Stanley Kramer

Ugh…full disclosure, I hate hate hate the story of Romeo and Juliet. It’s possibly the worst idea for a narrative anyone has ever had. No matter what actors are in it, what time period it’s set in, what “exciting twists” are added to the story, it remains the tale of two morons and their idiotic pursuit of “love” (read: a high school crush that lasts somewhere between 20 hours and six days, depending on the version) which costs them, and others, their lives.

Image result for romeo and juliet norma shearerAnd when even these two can’t save it, it must be awful.

But people won’t let it go, and so Hollywood just keeps going back to that well over and over and over again…James Cameron’s pitch for Titanic (1997) was, “It’s Romeo and Juliet on a ship,” and studio execs couldn’t throw enough money at him. I’ll see another goddamn version of it in 1968, and then have to sit through a dramatization of its creation in 1998. So, I was not looking forward to this year, simply because I would have to see it again…and more than that, see it win Best Picture and nine other Oscars.

But we’ll get to that…fortunately, it wasn’t all bad, and the rest of the slate (with one glaring exception) was very, very good. As usual, let’s start with the glaring exception…

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Fanny, which I’d never heard of before looking up this year’s nominees on Wikipedia, is a garbage movie about a garbage person that is only watchable because it co-stars Leslie Caron, Maurice Chevalier, and the great Charles Boyer. The poster promises “all the love stories of the world rolled into one,” which is stupid to begin with, but in the end it’s just the one love story, about a genuine creep who ruins people’s lives and won’t stop whining about how mean everyone else is to him.

This creep is Marius, whose father César (Charles Boyer) runs a small bar on the waterfront of Marseilles. Marius is a live-action version of Belle from Beauty and the Beast (1991), moping around sneering (in private, because he’s a craven coward) at his boring, provincial life and the boring, provincial people around him. Fanny (Caron) is in love with him, because the script says so and they appear together on the posters. Every time their together, their passion (and the musical score) cannot be contained.

Image result for fanny 1961Expressing that passion by rubbing their open mouths back and forth against each other’s faces. You know, like humans do.

At the same time, she is pursued by Panisse (Chevalier), an older but wealthy widower who wants to marry her. Marius (unknowingly) knocks Fanny up before running away on a merchant ship, leaving Fanny to accept Panisse’s proposal, which he extends even after he knows she’s pregnant with another man’s child.

That would be a great comedic set-up, but instead, because it’s directed by Joshua Logan, the film tries to desperately shoehorn in needless melodrama. Recounting the plot in detail would cost me too many braincells, but suffice it to say that, upon returning, Marius takes every chance to be an asshole about the situation. Because he’s young and handsome, he is automatically the protagonist, so the goal of the entire film is to get him and Fanny together so he can be with “his” son. Fanny, meanwhile, stops being a human being very early on and spends about 95% of the story just crying about her love for this steaming pile of goat shit in a sailor’s cap.

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This sums up the depth of their relationship…physical contact.

The film could have been an examination of what it truly means to be a parent, and while it does address it briefly, it also is clear that the only way the situation can be “right” is if Marius Jr. ends up with his “real” father. This is done by showing the kid as a smaller, shittier version of Marius, who is ready to abandon his family and sail around the world with Marius after having known him for two fucking minutes. And this is meant to elicit an “aww, he’s just like his true father!” instead of “What the fucking fuck is wrong with you, you spoiled little brat, that you would run away with a stranger and leave behind your loving parents?!”

It gets worse, even, as Logan will not stop unless he clears the way for Marius as completely and tidily as possible. The story goes out of its way to explain, multiple times, that the marriage between Fanny and Panisse is completely sexless, so that Marius is free to marry Fanny after Panisse’s (inevitable) death without always comparing himself unfavorably as a lover to Maurice Chevalier losing face.

Image result for fanny 1961Along with a deathbed confession that Panisse was adulterous, just to eliminate any remaining scruples the story may have had about killing him off.

After Auntie Mame, I didn’t think I would have a worse experience just trying to slog through one of these films, but damn it, it turns out there’s no ground floor in cinema hell…movies can always be worse. What a disaster.

It got better from here, thank goodness…

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The Guns of Navarone–following The Bridge on the River Kwai and anticipating The Great EscapeThe Longest Day, and others–continued the transition in the focus of Hollywood epics from the Bible to World War II. This one is different, though, in that it is entirely fictional, based in only the loosest possible sense on the Dodecanese Campaign in the Aegean. This made me question why I’m reviewing it here in the first place, as it is not very strong in most areas one would expect from a Best Picture nominee, and the fact that it’s not actually a real story meant it could have, and should have, been.

It really had potential, though, and for what it is, it’s quite entertaining. The cast is, predictably, very strong; World War II films were all the rage, and ensemble films were just as big, so it was probably very easy to get Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, David Niven, Irene Papas, Stanley Baker, and even Peter Grant (yes, future manager of Led Zeppelin) onboard. With a cast like that, it would be very hard to make a bad film, but it turns out it’s not enough to guarantee a great one.

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Sorry, guys.

The story is straightforward and predictable down to the minute: a group of elite commandos are sent to the fictional island of Navarone to destroy a set of artillery guns that threaten to scuttle the fictional attempt to rescue a fictional garrison of Allied troops from the–let me just check…oh yes–fictional island of Kheros. Every archetype of the genre is present: the stiff-upper-lipped British commander (Anthony Quayle); the experienced but harried spy out for one more big job (Peck); the grizzled, morally-dubious local guerrilla fighter (Quinn); the civilian expert unwillingly pressed into military service (Niven); the tough local resistance fighter (Papas); and, of course, the friend who turns out to be a traitor (Gia Scala).

Image result for gilligan's island creditsthe Professor and Maryann…

Anyway, the success of the mission is never seriously threatened, and the audience never doubts that it will come off…as we saw in Twelve O’Clock High, when Gregory Peck takes command, the war is already won. That leaves a lot of room for improvement in the areas of plot development, character study, and maybe a bit of insight into the life of the Greeks under German occupation, but unfortunately, the film skips over most of these opportunities in favor of moving frenetically from one action set piece to another. The pace is exciting, to be sure, but it leaves the whole thing feeling very light, so that when characters we should feel close to die, it’s just shrugged off.

The closest we get to any kind of thematic depth is Niven’s character, the chemistry expert who openly disdains all military solutions. Throughout the film he tries to hold Peck, Quinn, and the rest accountable for the violence and mayhem their escapade is causing, eventually reaching a point where he concludes they are all no different from the Germans and the success or failure of their mission will not affect the war, nor prevent the next one (and the next one, and the next…). What has the potential to be a truly sobering moment is instead quickly brushed aside so the team can Get On With the Job.

Related image“Never mind, only joking. Let’s get back to that lovely war.”

In the end, after the guns are (of course) destroyed, he and Peck share a moment together after being rescued by a local ship…which would be the perfect chance to reflect on the mission and decide if, in fact, it was worth it. Just a word or two, chaps? Nope. They just smile and talk about how dashed lucky they were to have pulled it off. I’m not saying Niven needed to go on a pacifist rant about the futility of armed conflict, but just a little bit of introspection would not have been remiss, I think.

Like I said, it’s an entertaining and well-made action-adventure war film, but I don’t understand why it’s here. I mean, I understand it more than Fanny, but still, it doesn’t have that little something extra that a Best Picture nominee should have, and it’s all the more noticeable when it’s this generic. It’s one of those movies I could always watch, because it is fun and the cast is brilliant, but Best Picture? And for that matter, J. Lee Thompson as Best Director…and zero acting nominations? Hell, even The Alamo got a Supporting nod last year. I’m sorry, but no. Let’s move on.

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Speaking of ensemble casts, here’s a film with so many big names that they couldn’t fit them all on the poster and make it have any connection with the story itself, so they just stuffed a bunch of profiles together and called it a day. If the film was Seven People Watch a Movie on the Same Barcalounger, they could have used the same design.

Image result for judgment at nuremberg 1961In the alternate versions, they are at least on a sofa.

Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg is pretty damned powerful, telling the (condensed) story of the famous war crimes trials that followed World War II in Nuremberg in 1948. In the real Judges’ Trial, sixteen jurists were prosecuted; in the film, in the interests of saving time and set space, this was reduced to four.

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And of course, Burt Lancaster counted as 13 judges.

The film clocks in at three hours, and still feels a bit rushed, as they try to cram in every possible viewpoint, argument, and counter-argument about post-World War II Germany as possible. The characters range from unapologetic former Nazis, to victims of the regime, to civilians in denial, to idealistic, anti-Nazi (and, of course, anti-Communist) lawyers and judges, and they all–and I mean all–get their moment in the spotlight. Not that the film is morally ambiguous…it is very clear throughout who is right, and who is German.

Spencer Tracy plays Dan Hayward, the lead judge in the case, who despite a penchant for overturning the prosecution’s objections has clearly made his mind up long before the trial begins. He befriends a war widow, Frau Bertholt (Marlene Dietrich), in an attempt to learn a bit about life under the Third Reich, but only seems to succeed in deepening his own prejudices about it. He’s out of his depth, by his own admission, and routinely makes legal decisions based more on emotion than precedent…just like the real NMT. It’s a great performance from Tracy, who succeeds in making Hayward a sympathetic character despite his inadequacies.

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Who supplemented his income with fashion modelling, it seems.

This encapsulates one of the main criticisms the film received at the time of its release; namely that it relied too heavily on emotional appeals and cinematography gimmicks than actual examination of the themes and philosophies it was purportedly investigating. There is a lot of truth in this…every witness is treated to at least one slow, meandering 360º tracking shot, held tight on their distressed, put-upon face, as they struggle to come to grips with what they did–or what was done to them–during the years of the Third Reich. Maybe the camera operators were getting paid for distance traveled?

Related imageIn which case, well done, lads.

Because it sure loses its impact around the 120-minute mark. The film also severely overuses sudden, dramatic zooms out to reveal the person the witness is implicating and, probably, glaring resentfully at, to be followed by equally sudden, but no less dramatic, zooms in so we are again treated to their startled, distracted visage. I don’t think a single legal point was actually scored throughout the film.

The German defense attorney, Hans Rolfe (Maximilian Schell), is tasked with the unenviable job of defending the decisions made by the four judges that aided and abetted the Nazi agenda. Schell plays him extremely well, as a harried, sensitive German citizen desperate to stem the international condemnation of his country and give his people a chance to move on. In the process, however, his defense crumbles into a simplistic “It was legal at the time!” line, to the point where he actually appears to argue in favor of the totalitarian, racist extralegal measures his clients championed…and getting increasingly angry and shouty in the process.

Image result for judgment at nuremberg 1961 maximilian schellYou can almost hear Stanley Kramer shouting, “MORE LIKE HITLER! EVEN MORE!!!”

And, of course, we have Burt Lancaster as Dr. Ernst Janning, a formerly renowned judge now disgraced by his support of the Nazis. Lancaster plays him to stoic, icy perfection, in marked contrast to the flamboyant Elmer Gantry…though seeing his appearance, I can’t discount the possibility that he’s so calm and collected because he is in fact future Burt Lancaster, who traveled back in time to 1961 from the set of Field of Dreams, still in his “Moonlight” Graham makeup.

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Anyway, his character is meant to represent the apologetic Nazi, the one who recognizes the evil that was done and can explain how good, well-meaning people could go along with it, and wants Germany to atone rather than forget. Weirdly, though, Janning begins the film as a silent, contemptuous figure, refusing to enter a plea because he does not recognize the authority of the court…only to suddenly turn on the yakkity-yak and admit his guilt later, just in time to ruin his lawyer’s day.

I’m glad he had his say, though, because it sets up one of the greatest finales in movie history, played to perfection by Lancaster and Tracy:

With all that criticism, I think the film has aged very well with the benefit of hindsight and some more distance from the period. While the extremely graphic and genuine footage of concentration camps (including one shot of a mound of naked corpses being bulldozed into a mass grave) is still deeply disturbing, the viewpoints and difficult moral positions involved in the post-war years can be appreciated and considered without (as much) emotional baggage. This includes Rolfe’s summation, which immediately follows Janning’s utter torpedoing of his entire case:

I love the “Thanks a lot, asshole” look he gives Janning at the beginning.

It’s definitely a movie worth watching, and pondering…it’s technically brilliant, and each and every performance is powerful and grounded; the film’s considerable length means that none of the many, many A-list stars have to crowd each other to be able to shine. This includes a couple of late-career gems from Montgomery Clift (whom I didn’t recognize at first, after an automobile accident in 1956 took its toll) and Judy Garland, both of whom received Oscar nominations. As a time capsule, it captures the issues and attitudes of America and Germany in the years following the war, and for that reason alone it is supremely interesting. It’s an important, if flawed, picture that probably should have won the top prize.

In the end, out of its eleven nominations it won only two Oscars, with Schell winning for Best Actor and Abby Mannfor Best Adapted Screenplay…it lost all the rest to either The Hustler or West Side Story. Which just happen to be the two remaining nominees for 1961, so…we’ll get to those next week!


33rd Academy Awards (1960) – Part II

(Part I.)

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With the last two nominated films of 1960, including the winner, the Hays Code continued its overdue slide into irrelevance and ignoration as films became more and more willing to tackle “controversial” topics and themes. (Of course, the biggest blow to the Code this year came from Psycho, but again, the Academy decided to nominate John Wayne’s vanity project The Alamo instead, so that discussion will have to wait.) Sinclair Lewis’ novel Elmer Gantry took aim at religion–or more specifically, revivalism–in such a powerful and uncompromising way that it took 33 years until Hollywood was comfortable making it into a movie.

Image result for burt lancaster elmer gantryIt also took years before Burt Lancaster’s hair was prepared for the role.

Elmer Gantry is the rags-to-rags story of an unscrupulous conman who gets wound up in the profitable world of itinerant tent revival meetings, helping a painfully naïve young preacher named Sharon Falconer turn her rural enterprise into a full-blown force of nature. Along the way he alternately charms, beds, or tramples anyone in his path to get what he wants (money, Sharon, etc.), sometimes all three at once, until in the end, when it all comes crashing down, he learns an invaluable lesson…that he’s really, really good at conning idiots, and will continue to do so forever more.

Gantry’s arc, which takes him from fabulist to more successful fabulist, is wonderfully exhausting to watch at times. He is never off his guard and is always cranked up to 11, as he constantly scans situations for angles and humans for signs of weakness. If you told me that an early draft of the script involved a scene in which Gantry arrives on a spaceship from another planet, or enters our dimension as a shapeshifting imp who takes on the appearance of the human animal to study its habits, I wouldn’t doubt it for a second.

Image result for elmer gantrySee how he tries out this thing called “laughter” and then checks to see if he’s doing it right.

He is played, of course, by Burt Lancaster, and if I had to choose a role to define him, this would definitely be in the top three (along with General James Scott in Seven Days in May [1964] and Archibald “Moonlight” Graham in a movie we’ll be discussing about thirty Oscars from now, Field of Dreams [1989]). Everything about his performance oozes pure smarminess, amorality, and charlatanism, and it’s a wild, wild ride. There are times when he is so over-the-top, when his teeth are just so white and predatory inside a smile that always seems inches away from just tearing his face in half, that my suspension of disbelief was challenged by the idea that anyone could possibly be taken in by his act…but, credit to Lancaster for always pulling me back in, just like a true Gantry would.

Lancaster won the Academy Award for Best Actor–the only one of his career–for this role, though he himself was always dismissive of his performance and said he wasn’t really acting at all. I have to believe he was exaggerating a little, but this truly was the part he was born to play, one of those vital characters on whom the entire success of the film depends…too much, or too little, and the enterprise comes apart. I believe no one else could have done Elmer Gantry justice.

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The real unsung hero of the cast, though, is Jean Simmons (remember her as Ophelia in Hamlet [1948]), as the enigmatic Sister Sharon Falconer (née Katie Jones). She is the leader of her revivalist sect, and allows Gantry to insinuate himself ever more forcefully into her work and her life (and her lady parts) until they are full-fledged partners. Beginning the movie as charmingly innocent, she reveals herself to be as ambitious as Gantry, but also truly devout, allowing his increasingly disturbing machinations for the sack of spreading her gospel to a wider audience that she genuinely believes will benefit from it.

In a way, I thought of her character as an alternate, less pious and more noisy version of Jennifer Jones’ Bernadette Soubirous in The Song of Bernadette (1943), only instead of seeing a vision in a small French cave, she lives in the Bible Belt, has access to radio broadcasting, and dreams of preaching in Madison Square Garden. Oh, and also batshit insane.

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That’s from the climax of the film, when Sharon refuses to leave her church as it is engulfed in flames because she’s finally come to believe her own bullshit about being protected from harm by the love of God. Not only that, but she actively tries to prevent her parishioners from fleeing to safety for the same reason. It’s meant to be sad and tragic, but comes across as ludicrous and hilarious, rather like the old joke about the man trapped on his roof by a flood, who refuses all aid because he is sure of God’s help, which ends about as well as you’d expect. The scene is also forced and ridiculous, because Sharon shows no signs of mania, or suicidal inclinations, prior to this moment.

To be honest, I was rather hoping for a twist that revealed Sharon to be a conner, just like Gantry, who turns out to be the one person he can’t cheat, because she has been cheating him all along. That would have been a great use of her character, instead of being just a saintly foil to Gantry’s unscrupulousness, and would have allowed Gantry to change even a little in the end, even if it was just to become a better charlatan. As it stands, Gantry rides off into the sunset, adored by his victims and ready to find a new squeeze in the religion industry…and it’s a great ending. It just could have been that little bit better.

Image result for elmer gantryRemoving his face would also have been a great twist.

Gantry’s confident swagger as he dashes off to commit new crimes and misdemeanors was another chip in the crumbling wall of the Code, which always stipulated that bad deeds could never go unpunished. Usually, this punishment meant being tossed in prison (even if the bad deeds were not actually illegal) or being righteously slain by the omnipotent hand of fate. In Elmer Gantry, despite 140 minutes of doing nothing but lie, cheat, and steal, our hero emerges with nary a scratch and no redemption whatsoever, and it’s fantastic. The one concession the film makes is to warn the audience, in a pre-title crawl, to keep “impressionable youth” from seeing the film, lest they decide that revivalism is a great way to make a quick buck.

“Gee, thanks for telling us that when we’re already in the theatre…”

I haven’t even got to the supporting cast yet, which includes Dean Jagger as Falconer’s friend and business partner, Arthur Kennedy as a *gasp* atheist newspaperman who doggedly prints the truth about Gantry despite his (Gantry’s) populist appeal, and Shirley Jones as Gantry’s former lover turned prostitute, who tries to blackmail him but ends up just loving him even more (to be fair, we’d all do the same when confronted by Burt Lancaster). Jones won Best Supporting Actress, though it really should have been Jean Simmons (or else, Simmons should have won Best Actress…or at least been nominated).

It’s a powerful, well-made, incredibly well-acted film, that runs over two hours but flies by in a whirlwind of religious furor and Lancaster teeth. I’d have given it Best Picture without a second thought had it not been for the film that, justly, beat it…

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Another film that had to wait until the Hays Office loosened up, The Apartment is one of those classic films that is perfect in almost every way, from the casting to the writing to the directing, as well as the score, the cinematography, and the tone of the story. The idea, it seems, came to Billy Wilder while watching a very dramatic British film, David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945), about two stiff-upper-lip postwar lovers, each in happy–if boring–marriages to others, who arrange for a tryst in a friend’s apartment. Wilder, being Wilder, found himself caring less about the actual protagonists, and more about this mysterious friend who would lend his apartment out for clandestine affairs…who would, in Wilder’s words, have to “crawl into the warm bed.”

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“I’m gonna need the hazmat team back again.”

And, just like with Sunset Boulevard (1950), Wilder took inspiration from some real-life Hollywood scandals…in this case, an agent who was caught using a low-level employee’s apartment for a liaison with a producer’s wife. That one ended with someone getting (non-fatally) shot, which might have spoiled the comedic tone and so was left out of the film version (though Lemmon’s character’s backstory does involve shooting himself in the leg, in an unsuccessful suicide attempt).

The story, in a nutshell, is this: “Bud” Baxter (Jack Lemmon, playing the kind of nebbish, crawling hero that we love so damned much) is just one of nearly 15,000 office drones at a Manhattan insurance company…

Image result for the apartment 1960 officeOur hero.

…who, to try and climb the corporate ladder, lets four influential executives use his well-located apartment for their extramarital affairs. He takes it all without complaining, even allowing his neighbors and landlady to think it is he who comes home with a different girl every night (or sometimes twice in the same night), because somehow they are nosy enough to notice yet not enough to realize that it’s four completely different (usually drunk and disorderly) men.

Meanwhile, he has his eye on Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), one of the firm’s elevator operators, without knowing that she is tied up in an affair with the married head of personnel, Jeff D. Sheldrake, played to oily perfection by Fred MacMurray. In exchange for his desired promotion, Bud opens his apartment to Sheldrake as well, who uses it to string Fran along while promising to divorce his wife for her. Hijinks ensue, as one might expect.

Image result for the apartment 1960 doctorPictured: one hijink.

One of the many things I love about this film is the way Wilder deftly blends comedy with drama, moving seamlessly from broad humor to nimble satire to near tragedy and back again without missing a beat. Even when things take a dark turn–an extended sequence in which Fran, jilted by Jeff once again, tries to commit suicide by taking a bottle of sleeping pills, only to be saved and nursed back to health by Bud–the story remains consistent and true to its characters, which keeps it on course and allows the comedy to continue even at its characters’ lowest points.

Jack Lemmon is, naturally, delightful as Bud, playing him as an unapologetically spineless sycophant who slowly but surely finds just enough courage to (finally) do the right thing in the end. Even at the beginning, when he is an objectively despicable character, Lemmon’s inborn charm and, let’s face it, pitifulness make it impossible not to like him.

Image result for the apartment 1960 officeAlso because he perfectly captures that feeling of sitting down at your desk in the morning and thinking about the day ahead.

Another great aspect of the film is its cinematography and overall design. Wilder takes pains in all his films to ensure that the visuals are just as important as the characters, and The Apartment is no exception. It opens with the famous office shot that parallels The Crowd (1928, remember?), tracking through a sea of anonymous employees before finding Bud. Wilder and art director Alexandre Trauner created the set using forced perspective, using increasingly smaller desks, and people (ending with children!), to create the illusion of a gigantic, symmetrical office.

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The film also breaks with tradition (at least, tradition outside of films noir) in showing a Manhattan apartment, on the Upper West Side no less, that is somewhat less than luxurious:

Related imageBut the rent includes all hijinks.

It helps us identify Bud as an underdog who is willing to put up with a little–okay, a lot of–squalor now for the big payday he’s sure he’ll get in the future.

I suppose if I had to pick on one thing in The Apartment, it would be the not-exactly-progressive portrayal of Fran as little more than a damsel in distress. When we meet her, she has allowed herself to be taken in by an obvious liar (Jeff), and spends most of the film having to be taken care of by Bud when Jeff repeatedly lets her down, She is, to put it bluntly, a tool by which Bud’s character arc is completed…if she wasn’t in the film, there’d just have to be another catalyst for Bud’s redemption. As it stands, it’s her, because romance in comedies puts bums in the seats, and I suppose because the film is drawing a parallel between casual sex and true love. I know it’s Bud’s story and, come to think of it, he’s actually the only three-dimensional character in the whole picture, but a little more depth to Fran wouldn’t have been remiss. Shirley MacLaine does her best with the material…she could have done a lot more.

One character who needs no additional depth, because he has none to begin with, is the lecherous Jeff Sheldrake. Fred MacMurray plays him with an almost gleeful, boyish enthusiasm, as a man who has always gotten what he wants and doesn’t know the meaning of the word “subtle”…nor of the words “integrity”, “decency”, and “empathy”.

Image result for the apartment 1960 fred macmurrayBut damn, does he know the meaning of the word “style”.

It’s a wonderful film that manages the very tricky task of having a real moral that emerges organically from the material, which never feels forced or hamfisted and which never gets in the way of the comedy. Like most of Wilder’s oeuvre, it’s technically brilliant without being overproduced, sharply written and directed, and acted to perfection by an inordinately talented cast. I haven’t even spoken about the marvelous character of Dr. Dreyfuss, Bud’s sardonic, longsuffering neighbor, and I could go on for another 1,000 words about all the little things about Jack Lemmon’s performance that makes it so endearing and satisfying. But I won’t…just go watch the movie, right now, even if you’ve seen it before.

1960 definitely started slow, but ended with two legitimate classics, each close to perfect in their own way, each featuring performances that I will forever rank among my favorites. 1961’s winner has a reputation as being something very special, and one could argue that it was the first remake of a previous Best Picture nominee to win the prize. So, let’s not waste time…into the ’60s we go!

33rd Academy Awards (1960) – Part I

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  • The Apartment, Billy Wilder*
  • The Alamo, John Wayne
  • Elmer Gantry, Richard Brooks
  • Sons and Lovers, Jack Cardiff
  • The Sundowners, Fred Zinnemann

I’m not really sure what to make of the nominees for 1960…it’s one of those years with a couple of great films, one that has no business whatsoever among the nominees, and two that feel like throwbacks to an earlier period just mixed in for the sake of nostalgia. It’s an oddly limp mix of films, and after watching them all I don’t find myself feeling any different than I did before.

Image result for mehM-e-h. Meh.

Which isn’t to say that the aforementioned great films aren’t, you know, great. I think of the options, the Academy made the right call, but it was an easy choice only because they didn’t provide a level playing field…it was like if the Rumble in the Jungle was between Mohammed Ali and a goldfish. (Full disclosure, I would watch that.) As a result, I came away just thinking, “Yeah, of course that movie won, what the hell else could?”

Well, besides Psycho, which wasn’t nominated for whatever reason. Let’s get started with the film that stole took its place amongst the five:

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The oddly blank and uninterested faces of the three “heroes” depicted on the above poster tells you everything you need to know about The Alamo, a three-hour-long sermon by director/producer/star John Wayne disguised as a historical epic. It’s everything a film shouldn’t be: overblown, self-indulgent, badly staged, clumsily written, and, most damning of all, boring. So, so, so boring.

The sluggishly-paced “plot” consists of a series of pointless dick-measuring contests between Jim Bowie (Richard Widmark) and William Travis (Laurence Harvey), interrupted every so often by repetitive speeches about honor or patriotism or whatever thinly-veiled anti-Communist platitudes were going through Wayne’s head as he shot a scene. Wayne himself plays Davy Crockett, whose calmer nature means he’s the one who gets to measure their dicks and decide whose is bigger after each feud.

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“Boys, I ain’t gonna lie, I’d rather ya didn’t look me in the eye right now.”

That’s really it…the Alamo siege is such a legend that the movie doesn’t bother with any backstory beyond “the Mexicans are coming” and doesn’t develop any of the three main characters beyond the aforementioned dick-waving. Instead, it relies heavily on such clichés as the damsel(s) in distress, Manifest Destiny, the moral superiority of America as a given, and drunken comic relief. The performances are painfully stilted and dull, probably because, as Widmark later complained, Wayne as director refused to let the actors interpret their characters and instead just told them exactly what to do and how to look doing it. The result is some truly embarrassing shit.

This extends to the film’s climax, when the Alamo is finally attacked by the army of Santa Anna, in a sequence staged shot with all the imagination and excitement of a third-grade play. It’s mainly very wide, static shots of people running, or sometimes just walking, from one place to another, punctuated by volleys from magic, recoil-less guns and cannons (except when they need to, to serve the plot). The battles are so poorly put together and badly timed–with men dying after seeing the air bayoneted about ten inches from their chest–that I suspect Wayne simply shot the rehearsals, then ran out of film and was forced to use what he had.

Image result for the alamo 1960“John, should we be, maybe, reacting to that?”
“Naw, I’m just gonna…say somethin’ about freedom.”

I don’t have a whole lot else to say about The Alamo, other than it’s absurd that it was nominated for Best Picture at all. Rumor has it that John Wayne campaigned pretty heavily for it, showing once again that sometimes the Oscars have less to do with the films themselves and more to do with the people behind them. This push got pretty tasteless at times, as witness this little gem:

Image result for chill wills alamoHoo boy…

Thankfully, he didn’t win, not least because his performance was stupid but also because of that ridiculously tone deaf advert. John Wayne distanced himself from it, but he made the movie in the first place, so I can’t resolve him of all blame.

Anyway, with that out of the way we can move on to the two “also-rans” which are not amazing by any means, but at least had enough merit to defend their inclusion amongst the nominees:

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Like most films of the time adapted from novels of the previous hundred-odd years, Sons and Lovers falls into the swamp of its source material’s sprawling narrative and only extricates itself by shedding more and more of the plot. We’ve seen this before on this very blog, in films like Anthony Adverse (1936), Wuthering Heights (1939), and Great Expectations (1947), which is what makes Sons and Lovers feel very old and out-of-place in this new era, even with its slightly more daring subject matter.

What’s more, it feels very repetitive, as many of its plot points mirror those of Room at the Top from last year, which was a much better film and thus makes this one suffer greatly in comparison. The protagonist struggling to escape his provincial background; his “agonizing” choice between women; getting beat up near the climax; in the words of George Harrison…

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It’s a good film, but not a great one, and like The House of Rothschild in 1934, feels like a relic of the past wholly out-of-place in its time, especially when viewed together, as I did, with the much better movies in the running, or the much, much better films that are not. Now that I’ve thoroughly explained how it has no business being here, let’s talk about the plot.

Taking its cue from How Green was my Valley, the film returns us to a coal town in Great Britain to tell the story of a young man, Paul Morel, whose sensitive, artistic nature puts him at odds with his workman father and the general blue-collar nature of his town. It borrows the earlier film’s “accident in the mine” scene for dramatic effect to kill off the protagonist’s brother, whom we only knew from a single scene, before relegating it to the background to focus on Paul’s attempts to…well, it’s not really all that clear (or compelling) what he’s attempting to do. One minute he wants to be an artist; the next, just a good mamma’s boy; or maybe he just wants to sleep with someone?

The movie looks great, but the acting–with one exception–is really boring to watch. Each character is just a caricature of whatever trope is needed to advance the plot: Paul Morel is the troubled artist; his mother Gertrude, played by Wendy Hiller, is the controlling, unhappily married housewife; his father Walter, the bitter drunk; and his two love interests, the repressed but “pure” farm girl and the “liberated-for-turn-of-the-century-Nottingham” married suffragette. There are also various side characters who surface long enough to tell the audience their role in the story before vanishing.

Image result for sons and lovers 1960“Mrs. Dawes here is a feminist. As you know, I am utterly against women voting because I represent the typical middle-class husband of the age. Now that I’ve fulfilled my duty, I’ll be off.”

After slogging through The Alamo, I did appreciate the film’s trim 98 minutes–wow, it seems like I’m focusing a lot on runtime these days…–but it was still 98 minutes too long. Maybe it was daring as a novel in 1913, and maybe it would have been daring as a film in, say, 1945, but it comes across rather tame and toothless in 1960. Opportunities to really examine the issues at hand are ignored in favor of characters just trading exposition about their motivations and feelings, which might have been necessary twenty years earlier, but storytelling had come a long way by this time and there’s really no excuse for it.

Thankfully, from here on out the year got much better, starting with…

Image result for the sundowners 1960

With above-the-line talent like this, it’s reasonable to expect a really good, if not great, film, and The Sundowners delivers just that. It’s not especially groundbreaking, just a solid and well-told slice-of-life story with lush cinematography, genuine characters, and fantastic acting, which makes it more than okay in my book, wobbly Australian accents aside.

Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr star as Paddy and Ida Carmody, nomadic Australian sheepherders with increasingly differing goals in life. Paddy wants to continue wandering around, being a “sundowner” (pitching their tent wherever they are when the sun goes down), while Ida and their son Sean pine for a farm and a more stable existence. They’re a very sweet and loving couple, but the fight begins to take its toll on their relationship throughout the film.

Image result for deborah kerr sundownersShe’s Deborah Kerr, so it’s pretty obvious who’s going to win.

Along for the ride is Nero himself, Peter Ustinov, as an upper-class Englishman who also favors the wandering life of the sundowners. I’m not really sure what he’s meant to do in the proceedings; he’s not really used to contrast any of the characters, nor offer much in the way of sage Ustinovian wisdom, nor does his involvement affect the plot in any meaningful way. Still, I wouldn’t trade him for anything, as Ustinov is such a wonderful screen presence that he automatically improves any film he’s in.

Image result for peter ustinov the sundownersThough his Brylcreem was a substantial production expense.

The plot is straightforward and unremarkable: a series of (mis)adventures and a few soul-searching set pieces lead our heroes to an understanding, a deeper love, and a brighter future. Along the way we get a lot of endearing and funny moments between Paddy and Ida, and it’s to the film’s credit that it takes the time to lay the groundwork for why they’re in love and together, and why they stick by each other even when it seems like they have irreconcilable differences. It was also refreshing to see a film in which a parent tells their child, in no uncertain terms, that they will choose their partner if it came down to such a choice.

Image result for deborah kerr sundownersNot that such a choice is ideal, but come on, who would you go with…Robert Mitchum, or this wiener?

What I really liked about it, though, was Robert Mitchum’s portrayal of Paddy as a man entrenched in his principles and beliefs, but also extremely loving and sensitive to the needs and wants of Ida. He has his pride, and is capable of being wounded, but he in the end he never lets it get in the way of doing what’s right. Paddy and Ida are truly great together, and the happiness they regain at the end of the film (I won’t spoil it, but I will say that it was a tribute to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which should give you enough to go on) is extremely sweet and played to perfection by Mitchum and Kerr.

Just a fantastic portrayal all around, and a good indication of the kind of changes ahead for male characters (in good films, anyway), moving away from the types seen in The Alamo and more towards those of From Here to Eternity. After other films I’ve seen for this blog such as Cimarron and The Quiet Man, which, without a hint of irony, show a “real man” as one who takes what he wants and just browbeats women until they go along with it, it was incredibly refreshing to watch this film and see a character who can be at once tough and not a complete shithead. Sure, he almost punches out his son at one point, but nobody’s perfect.

Related imageBesides, who wouldn’t want to take a poke at that wiener?

So yes, a good film, maybe even great at points, and of these three I’ve covered today, the only one that can be logically defensible in its inclusion amongst the five nominees. Peter Ustinov took home Best Supporting Actor this year, though not for this movie (for Spartacus, the only Oscar-winning performance in a Stanley Kubrick film), and Deborah Kerr earned her sixth and final unsuccessful Best Actress nomination, losing this time to Elizabeth Taylor in BUtterfield 8 [sic]. The Sundowners was the only Best Picture nominee this year to go home empty-handed.

Overall, rather a slow start…and you know, it’s kind of sad to think that I haven’t seen a year with wall-to-wall greatness since 1948. As ever, though, I live in hope. The two films remaining, however, more than earned their place…both amazing, both enduring classics. We’ll get to them in Part II!

32nd Academy Awards (1959) – Part II

(Part I.)

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Way back in 1940, James Stewart won a consolation Best Actor award for The Philadelphia Story after being denied the award the year before for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington by Robert Donat (which, as great as he was as Mr. Chips, was also a consolation prize, since Donat really deserved the win in 1938 for The Citadel). I guess that’s why the Academy felt they’d given him all the recognition he needed…it’s the only reason I can think of for why Stewart didn’t win for Anatomy of a Murder this year. Stewart’s Paul Biegler, a seemingly unambitious small-town lawyer, is in nearly every scene in the film, and his performance is nothing short of spectacular.

The film continues the decade’s fascination with courtroom dramas, telling the story of a man, Frederick Manion, arrested for the murder of another man who (allegedly) raped his (Manion’s) wife Laura. It’s considered one of the greatest trial movies ever made, and for good reason…a good chunk of the film’s monumental 160-minute runtime is devoted to the trial of Manion, as Biegler tries to prove a subset of a subset of the insanity defense called “irresistible impulse”, and the State of Michigan (aided by George C. Scott’s no-nonsense Asst. A.G. Claude Dancer) tries to prove that Manion is just a murdering dick.

Image result for anatomy of a murder manion
The movie is 160 minutes only because “Come on, look at him” isn’t a recognized legal argument in Michigan.

The film gets a lot of things wrong about the law (for example, playing into the myth that being found “temporary insane”—or, in legalese, “guilty but mentally ill”—automatically entitles the defendant to one Get Out of Jail Free card), but it gets more right. Paul Biegler, far from being the UP hick he pretends to be, is in fact an outrageous showman in the courtroom, pushing the rules of conduct to the limit in his quest to win over the jury with flash over facts…exactly as real lawyers do. His amorality is wonderful to behold, and since he’s played by James Stewart, All-American Hero®, we the audience get hoodwinked right along with the judge and jury.

Of course, Biegler’s good-old-boy antics aren’t limited to the courtroom, or even to the legal…he’s not above manipulating his client to suit his case. And by “manipulating his client,” I of course mean committing perjury: in his first meeting with Manion, Biegler tells him straight away that he (Manion) is guilty as charged, and so must instead plead an excuse…and wouldn’t it be great if he could come up with one that meant he wasn’t in his right mind when he committed the crime?

Image result for jimmy stewart anatomy of a murder“Just, just try, Mr. Manion, p-picture it in your tiny little mind. What’s another word, what’s another word for, for ‘crazy’? You take your time.”

It takes a while (Manion being an idiot), but in the end Biegler gets his point across without technically telling his client to lie, and Manion suddenly remembers he can’t remember the killing. Lo and behold, temporary insanity, a one-way ticket to freedom (except, again, it absolutely isn’t).

Again, if he weren’t played by James Stewart, Biegler would never be forgiven this act of legal malpractice. Sure, it’s partly his persona in the real world that helps us overlook it, but I think it’s to Stewart’s credit as an actor that he can play someone so ruthless, cynical, and amoral, and still finish the picture as the hero.

About the only person who sees right through Biegler is Claude Dancer, played with an almost sinister stoicism by George C. Scott. I have to say I felt very bad for Dancer throughout, despite his being presented as a villain…unlike Biegler, Dancer acts as a consummate professional, continuously attempting to steer the case back to the facts rather than Biegler’s folksy distractions. When he does drop the ball at the end, it’s less because he loses his cool and more because, I don’t know, the defense willfully withholds information that should have been shared with the prosecution and therefore committed yet another act of malfeasance. Which, just like in real life, the jury doesn’t realize.

Image result for jimmy stewart anatomy of a murder“Well, I-I’ll be darned, I, I guess I’m disbarred then.”

All of this adds up to an amazing movie. It doesn’t feel 160 minutes at all, only 10 minutes shorter than The Diary of Anne Frank, which plods along until it grinds to a halt halfway through. This film is very deliberate, taking its time to lay the groundwork for every moment (just like good lawyers must do!), and rewarding the patience and attention of its audience. Unlike every other nominee this year, director Otto Preminger keeps the proceedings at a respectful distance and avoids moral judgment, allowing the characters and the story to unfold organically and leaving the viewer to decide for him- or herself who was right, and who won.

Of course, I haven’t even touched on the fact that the movie was one of the great harbingers of the death of the Hays Code, which was already on its last legs by 1959, even if many people weren’t aware of it. Preminger was one of the directors hastening its demise, having made The Man with the Golden Arm (1956), which dealt frankly with heroin addiction, and The Moon is Blue (1953), which dared to, in the words of the Hays Office, exhibit “an unacceptably light attitude towards seduction, illicit sex, chastity, and virginity.”

Important as those films were (The Moon is Blue‘s controversy paved the way for a Supreme Court decision guaranteeing the art of film First Amendment protection), all of that was child’s play compared to Anatomy of a Murder. Since the story involved rape, language that was heretofore barred from “respectable” films had to be used to keep the story realistic. Words like “panties”, “sperm”, “ejaculation”, and others were used, clinically and without fanfare or scandal, and amazingly, the US did not immediately collapse under the weight of its moral turpitude.

The controversy led to, or at least probably inspired, one of the funniest scenes in the film, as the attorneys–standing in for the censors–try to decide on an alternative word for “panties” and discovering that all the ones they can think of are even more scandalous:

It’s perhaps appropriate, given the film’s status as a trailblazer for free expression in cinema, that the judge is played by real-life jurist Joseph N. Welch, who served on the panel in the infamous Army-McCarthy hearings in 1955, and became a goddamn legend for this moment:

It’s an inspired choice of casting, as part of an overall inspired film. Though the ending may not be entirely realistic (at the very least, with this verdict Manion would have been sent to a mental hospital for a minimum of 60 days psychiatric evaluation), it is perfect for the world and for the story, as even in the face of knowing he won an acquittal for a murderer (and probably a domestic abuser), Biegler still has a wide grin at the thought of an upcoming fishing trip. He’s a scoundrel and a cad, but a brilliant, if unethical, lawyer, and a welcome change from the saintly protagonists you see in most legal dramas of the period.

Image result for juror #8 12 angry menYeah, I’m looking at you.

It’s without question the film that deserved to win this year, at least out of these five nominees. However, the one that did was not at all bad, either…

Image result for ben-hur 1959

It’s clear what was the main selling point of MGM’s remake of the 1925 silent film Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ…its director, William Wyler, the biggest name on the advertisements and above even the actors. This wasn’t a variant poster, either, it was the design on all of them. This was quite unusual…while big-name directors (Hitchcock, etc.) were often given high billing, it was rare to see them above the stars, especially ones like Charlton Heston and Jack Hawkins.

But there he is, on the last film I expected to see him after seeing so, so many of his other films over the past 20-odd Academy Awards I’ve covered. He was known for low-key, black-and-white, character-driven dramas, so I did not know what to expect from a Wyler-directed Bible epic starring Charlton Heston. I was especially worried after I watched the 1925 silent version of Ben-Hur, which confirmed that the story is pretty damn thin, and short on depth.

Image result for ben-hur 1925 chariot raceAnd long on horse death.

I’m happy to say that, as usual, Wyler impressed me. It was with the intention to make a “thinking-man’s” Bible epic that he agreed to direct the film, and it shows; while the film is definitely overlong (an ass-numbing 220 minutes) and pretty damned unsubtle, particularly in its final act, much of the film is devoted to developing the characters, especially those around the title character, Judah Ben-Hur (with whom Wyler could only do so much, given the actor he had).

Image result for ben-hur 1959 charlton heston“Make way for Moseeeeeeeeeeessss!”

Unlike Heston’s previous Bible outing, The Ten Commandments (1956), in which the characters may as well have been cardboard cutouts decorated with post-it notes reading “good” or “evil”, here Wyler actually takes the time to flesh out the supporting cast, and even gives minor characters the attention they need to emerge on the screen as real, three-dimensional people. And I do mean minor characters…there is an unnamed Roman legionary who appears in a single scene, and his sole purpose is to react to seeing Jesus as a young man; when Wyler found out an assistant director had fired his original actor because of salary demands, Wyler shut down production for a day (costing $18,000, or about $130,000 today) to fly the actor back from Italy to complete the scene.

As I said, the entire cast performs well apart from the lead. This is unfortunate, since other actors might have been able to bring more to the character of Ben-Hur beyond simply his “I want revenge” arc. Also, they may have brought more than one facila expression to the mix, so that when Judah does finally abandon his vendetta against Rome in favor of pacifistic Christianity, he wouldn’t have to actually say so.

Just to speculate on what might have been, Wyler originally had Heston in mind as Messala, the film’s main antagonist, probably due to Heston’s decent turn as the dickish Steve Leech in Wyler’s The Big Country (1958). Apparently the role of Judah Ben-Hur was first offered to Burt Lancaster, but at a very early stage of development, and Lancaster refused because the script bored him; Paul Newman said no because he didn’t have the legs to wear a tunic (seriously). They also approached Marlon Brando, and in the end it came down to Kirk Douglas and Heston, and we all know who they went with.

Related image“I can do grizzled and tough, or tough and grizzled. I have range.”

The attention to character is nowhere more apparent than in the interactions between Ben-Hur and Messala (Stephen Boyd), his childhood friend who has since become an arrogant and ruthless Roman tribune, assigned to Judea to restore order. In the 1925 film, Messala is a villain from his first moment, making no effort to hide his disdain for Judah, and for Jews in general, so his actions are not so much a betrayal as the actions of any Roman in his position. Not so here; while Judah and Messala have, obviously, very different views on Roman-Jewish relations, they also have genuine affection for one another and both try hard to maintain their friendship, even after it becomes clear such efforts are doomed.

When Messala betrays Judah and his family, condemning Judah to the galleys and his mother and sister to life imprisonment, Judah’s quest for vengeance drives the rest of the film, so Wyler knew their initial interactions were critical if what followed was to mean anything. I think he succeeded admirably, with the help of some cunning subtext. There are conflicting accounts of the motivation behind Messala’s actions, but Gore Vidal, who worked on the script at an early stage, claimed years later that he and Wyler decided that Messala’s acrimony towards Ben-Hur stemmed from the fact that the two had been lovers, and Messala felt spurned and betrayed by Judah.

Image result for charlton heston ben-hur 1959Ah, to return to these carefree days…

The idea, Gore said, was that he and Wyler discussed this with Stephen Boyd, and agreed that Boyd would play the part with this in mind, but that it would be kept secret from everyone else in general, and Charlton Heston in particular. Wyler himself was always equivocal about this, only saying that he “didn’t remember” such a conversation, and I have to say, there is a lot in the finished film to suggest that it is true. Just watch their reunion scene towards the beginning; the way Messala breathlessly says, “I said I’d come back” after their first embrace says everything.

Also, the way the music swells is pretty telling.

Personally, I believe Vidal, and that Wyler did direct Boyd’s performance to bring this out. It certainly does explain the ruthlessness and vindictiveness of Messala’s actions, which go above and beyond simply being mad at Judah for not helping him persecute his (Judah’s) countrymen. I’d also argue that it was Boyd, not co-star Hugh Griffith, who deserved Best Supporting Actor, for making Messala more than a simple, brutish villain.

From a spectacle standpoint, the highlight of the film is of course the chariot race, which takes place roughly two-and-a-half goddamn hours in, and is definitely a sight to behold. It’s an almost impossibly well-edited sequence, beginning with a slow-build promenade of the chariots around the vast arena (historically inaccurate, but added by Wyler to improve the pacing, contrast it with the madness of the race itself, and show off the multimillion-dollar set he’d had built) before exploding into a blur of wheels and hooves. The wide shots were done with doubles, but Heston and Boyd did many of their own stunts in the close-up shots, and both drove their own chariots.

Initially, the directors of the sequence (Andrew Marton and Yakima Canutt) wanted to use cars in front of the chariots to get some nice wide-angle shots of the race, but no matter what cars they used, even Ferraris, the horses always overtook them before they could get up to speed. They switched to smaller lenses, mounted on cars that drove only a few feet in front of the racing chariots; while very dangerous, it made for some much more exciting and engaging shots that faraway, Cinemascope shots would have.

As I said, it’s not a perfect film by any means…just like with Friendly Persuasion in 1956, even William Wyler can’t make a film this long without some fat showing. The galley scenes could definitely have been cut down by about half, and the whole final act of the film after Messala’s death, chronicling Ben-Hur’s slow grasp of Christianity, plods along compared to the rest. I think this was deliberate, bringing the film to a peaceful close reflective of Jesus’ pacifist message (and mirroring the equally deliberate pace of the opening), but it still feels bloated, especially all the scenes in the leper colony.

This last section is also painfully unsubtle, as it beats its message like one of the horses that died in the silent film (but not, contrary to myth, in this version). Everyone gets painfully sacrosanct and preachy, there are about six hundred plaintive glances up at either the sky, or Jesus, or both, and what could have been done in ten minutes (or, better yet, in a different movie) instead takes forty. Its treatment of Christianity–or, more specifically, the life of Jesus–is typical of movies of the period (e.g., Quo Vadis and The Robe): conversion to Jesus’ ways is simply a given, and anyone who resists or questions it just earns an eye-roll from everyone else (and the entire audience) who know that he or she will obviously see the light by the end.

Image result for ben-hur 1959 jesus“I can really taste the symbolism…”

So, not a perfect film, but it’s clear why it won Best Picture (and ten other Oscars, a record since only tied by Titanic [1997] and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King [2003]). Like I said above, I think Anatomy of a Murder deserved it more, and continues to deserve it, since it was groundbreaking in a way Ben-Hur just wasn’t. And that’s not said with the benefit of hindsight…everyone in 1959 knew it, too. James Stewart should have won Best Actor over Heston, and much as I love Hugh Griffith, his googly-eyed, blackface turn as an Arab sheik hasn’t aged well; give me Stephen Boyd (who, incredibly, wasn’t even nominated) or George C. Scott any day.

Also, amazingly, Otto Preminger wasn’t nominated for Best Director, making Wyler the clear choice out of the nominees (and I’d be in his corner, in any case). 1959 was smack in the midst of the emergence of auteur theory, and many of the critics of that school argued that the film showed Wyler was merely a craftsman rather than an artist. I definitely support the auteur theory, but I also think that’s an unfair way to describe (read: dismiss) Wyler; firstly, the two terms are by no means mutually exclusive, and secondably, he was a master craftsman, imbuing material with a humanity and a perfectionist’s eye that changed the way Hollywood directors work, and continues to influence films to this day. He might not have been an auteur in the strict sense of the word, but he was the closest to one he could be within the studio system in which he worked for most of his career.

So, I’m glad he made Ben-Hur, and I’m glad he picked up his third Best Director award for it. The Golden Age of Hollywood would not have been without him. And so the ’50s come to a close, beginning with the austere black-and-white of All About Eve and ending with the bright, shiny technicolor of Gigi and Ben-Hur. Quite a ride, and more radical changes are still to come before the fourth decade of the Oscars comes to an end. Onward!

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

I’ve decided to take a quick break from Oscars and I’s chronology to take part in this blogathon hosted by Moon in Gemini, to fix a major blind spot on my films-watched list. I would have gotten to this movie eventually, assuming I ever make it to the 55th Academy Awards (for those just joining me, I’m currently working on the 32nd), but it’s one of those “classic” films that elicit shocked looks when people find out I’ve never watched it. (I seem to have a lot of these…I didn’t see the original Star Wars trilogy until I was 28.)

I kind of like saving up a backlog “classic” films that I haven’t seen, because the thrill of watching a great movie for the first time, and feeling it stay with me for hours, or days, or weeks afterwards, is the best experience I know. It’s the same reason why I have books at home that I bought but have yet to read, and why I still haven’t been to Vancouver. Sure, this can occasionally backfire…when a movie starts to loom so large, to be recommended and lauded by so many people, and to take on an almost mythic status, the actual viewing experience can’t help but be a letdown. But just as often, it’s the opposite, that the movie met or even exceeded the (unfairly) high expectations I had set for it.

But unfortunately, this was a case of the former.

Image result for george bluth snoopy walk

Here’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

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Okay, first question I have is: why did they go for the creepiest poster imaginable, with that distinctly horror-movie font for the title? This looks more like an advertisement for an ’80s Stephen King movie (not one of the major ones, but one of those countless B-movies made from his short stories that made up 80% of your local video store’s horror section) than for one of the most beloved children’s movies ever made. I know Spielberg’s early drafts of this story were horror-based, but did no one send the marketing team word of the change of direction?

Image result for e.t. posterHow many therapists were able to buy a summer home because of this poster?

I really wanted to like this movie, and indeed, there is a lot to like. The titular extra-terrestrial is appropriately bumbling and loveable, even if he does move and walk like his puppet-master flunked out of a Jim Henson Foundation workshop. I could tell throughout that this was something of a labor of love for Spielberg, and that it meant a lot to him to be able to make this film and for it to do well. And the obligatory ’80s-movie dog is passably adorbs.

Image result for e.t. 1982 dogIt was nice of Spielberg to let him bring his pet Drew to the set.

I also liked that, for the first two-thirds of the film, the perspective was kept firmly at Elliott’s level, with no adult faces shown apart from his poor mother. This gave the whole story a very Peanuts vibe, though the adults=evil formula gets very tiresome (especially after it is shown that the adults are absolutely not evil, by any standard).

However, it was obvious by about twenty minutes in that I would not be a fan of this movie. I like whimsy, I like movies about aliens, I like stories that celebrate the beautiful power of friendship. And, perhaps most importantly, I like Steven Spielberg films, because among other reasons I think of him as a director who always just has a ton of fun making movies (except for maybe Schindler’s List, but I wasn’t there). Like Martin Scorsese, he’s basically a film nerd with a camera and ever-increasing budget dollars. So this should have been a slam dunk.

Alas, it was not. It was, in fact, the opposite of a slam dunk…it was like watching Michael Jordan breeze in for an easy lay-up, only for him to hurl the ball into the ceiling and slam his face into the stanchion. Then the ball falls back down and knocks him out. My biggest complaints were, in order from least-to-most serious, and with headings taken verbatim from my viewing notes:

John Williams needs to shut the fuck up. And by that, I mean he needed to let even a single second of non-dialogue runtime pass without a sweeping orchestral arrangement telling me how to feel. He may not realize it, but when I watch a movie I know when I’m supposed to be feeling sad, or happy, or wonder, or scared, or relieved. Every emotion does not need a musical motif…the images can speak for themselves. It’s lazy and hacky to let the soundtrack carry all the weight, and that’s what it felt like here. Moments that should have filled me with joy instead bored me, because John Williams wouldn’t let me enjoy them without screaming, in a crescendo of violins and percussion, “NOW YOU NEED TO FEEL THIS WAY!!!”

Image result for john williams composerTo stay true to the mission of this blog, I’ll just mention that he has been nominated for 51 Oscars, the second-most for an individual, and he won Best Original Score for this film. So with all due respect…shut the fuck up, John.

Why do you want to poison a whole forest, Elliott?? This was when Elliott goes hunting for E.T. by scattering Reese’s Pieces, or some similar chocolate treat, all around the forest near his home, before he’s stopped by the sight of the Evil Man (more on him later). First of all, why the hell is he using Reese’s Pieces at all? This is before E.T. starts guzzling them at Elliott’s home, so why does Elliott think this will work?

But more importantly, chocolate–especially this kind of preservative-filled chocolate–is terrible for animals, and he’s just scattering it all around. Animals are dumb…they’ll eat those Pieces, and while they probably won’t die, they’re going to at least get sick or suffer some adverse health effects. I’m not saying Elliott should be an expert on animal toxicology, but maybe…just use nuts? Or don’t do this stupid thing at all? It makes zero sense and serves only to advance the plot (when Evil Man finds them and thinks, “There’s only one child in this area who likes Reese’s Pieces…”)

He better say “I love you” to his mom before this is over… Elliott spends the entire movie forging a friendship with a little brown turdmonster whom he knows for a grand total of, what, three days, and never once tells his mother that he loves her, or even that he’s sorry for being such a tactless little shit in the beginning (when he snidely comments how much better dad is, then watches soullessly as his mother cries in the corner). This is supposed to be an uplifting, happy film, but it features a family that is absolutely on the brink of collapse and E.T. does nothing to fix that. In fact, he hastens their demise.

I could forgive all my other issues with this movie if it weren’t for this. Elliott’s mother, Mary, is patient, kind, and doing her best to raise three children alone while her ex-husband bounces to Barbados or some such place with his secretary. It’s obvious that Mary didn’t know this before Elliott just casually drops it while sulking, so clearly he’s absent and a shitty father…yet this twerp still thinks of him as amazing and rubs it in Mary’s face every chance he gets.

YOUR LIFE IS PRETTY GOOD, ELLIOTT. You have zero reason to form an instant connection with a stranded alien at the expense of your relationship with your own goddamn mother.

Image result for e.t. 1982“That’s my mom, who showed very valid skepticism when I told her I found you, a space alien, in our tool shed. We hate her.”

This would be fine if there were some kind of arc at work here…if, upon E.T.’s departure, Elliott and his mom reconcile in some way. Maybe they do, but we’re forced to speculate, because the movie sure as hell doesn’t care enough to show us. E.T. zooms off, leaving a rainbow behind (somehow), and there the film ends, accompanied by John fucking Williams’ ridiculous “Here we are at the end of the movie, everybody go ‘awwwwww!'” music.

There’s no arc, no resolution to this horrible problem…Elliott will go on being distant and cold to his mother, pining for his goblin friend, for years until he moves out and never speaks to her again. In fact, it will be even worse than before, as he will hold her initial disbelief over her head forever, and she will feel remorse and guilt at not trusting her son…and Elliott, dead-eyed little shitbird that he is, will absolutely use this remorse and guilt to his advantage.

Okay, deep breath, it’s over. At the end of the movie, I admit I was a little worked up. My note just before this one was “OH, FUCK YOU, ELLIOTT.” So here, I just took a moment to appreciate that the movie was over, and I could step back and consider it from a calmer perspective.

In the final analysis, E.T. seems like the kind of movie that, yes, I may have liked if I watched it as a child, but absolutely would not hold up if I was watching it again, instead of for the first time, at my present, adult age. And plenty of movies have, even if adult me notices issues with them that child me missed: The Lion KingCharlotte’s WebHome Alone, and so on are all films I can still watch and enjoy. Hell, that last one even has a John Williams score, and even that can’t ruin it.

I’m glad to have seen this movie, though…it’s a part of the zeitgeist, especially for people born in the 80s, so it’s important to at least see it once. But once, I believe, is more than enough.

32nd Academy Awards (1959) – Part I

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  • Ben-Hur, William Wyler*
  • Anatomy of a Murder, Otto Preminger
  • The Diary of Anne Frank, George Stevens
  • The Nun’s Story, Fred Zinnemann
  • Room at the Top, Jack Clayton

I’ve been looking forward to covering the 32nd Academy Awards for a while now, for a few reasons. First, all five nominees are films I had never seen before, which is always exciting, and all five are by directors whom I, if not love, at least expect to make watchable films. Second, this is one of 16 years in which all four acting winners came from Best Picture nominees, so I could, in theory, look forward to some fine performances. And third, the winner is William Wyler‘s unprecedented third Best Picture; he also joined Frank Capra and John Ford as the only three-time winners of Best Director.

As of this moment, I’ve watched every one of the nominees apart from the winner, and I have to say, the year has more than met my expectations. This came as a welcome relief from the distinctly lukewarm slate of nominees that opened the decade in 1958.

Vertigomovie restoration.jpgThey nominated Auntie Mame for Best Picture, while this was only up for Art Direction and Sound. Sometimes I wonder if the Academy really knows what it’s doing.

There’s a lot to say about these films, so let’s not waste any more time…

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Over the course of this blog, I’ve discovered that I am not a huge fan of George Stevens as a director. He has an annoying habit of taking human interest stories and filling them so full of clichés and bathos that I lose all sense of connection with the characters (as in A Place in the Sun), and all to often find it a chore just to make it to the closing credits (as in Giant). He also made The More the Merrier, for which I will never forgive him.

Related imageSeen here swearing to skeptics that the Oscar he’s holding doesn’t actually belong to Walter Lang.

My opinion of him was not improved by The Diary of Anne Frank…but it didn’t suffer, either, so I’ll count it as a win. Though I did find out that William Wyler was the first choice to direct the film, so now I’m tortured by dreams of what might have been.

On the face of it, one would think that a film based on this (true) story shouldn’t have difficulty creating tension and suspense. It’s set almost entirely in one location, the Amsterdam attic in which Anne Frank and her family–along with a second family and, later, a dentist named Albert Dussell–are hiding from the Nazis from 1942-1944. It should be a claustrophobic, sweaty, intense experience. Yet somehow, the only way the film can think to show tension is by repeating a “there’s a noise downstairs, everyone be quiet” scene about five times, and by kinda showing that there is some animosity between Anne and her mother, because teenagers.

Image result for joseph schildkraut diary of anne frankWhile her father is a saint of patience and understanding…which I’m sure had nothing to do with the fact that Otto Frank was the one who edited his daughter’s diary.

It’s been a while since I read Diary of a Young Girl, so I can’t be certain that the source material isn’t just a string of scenes in which none of the characters really show the effects of malnourishment, lack of true bathing, or claustrophobia, and in which disagreements are settled and put aside immediately after hearing a bit of good news on the radio. But I kindly doubt that it is.

A major problem, I think, was the decision to film in Cinemascope, creating a widescreen sense of space instead of a cramped, uncomfortable attic. This is a format suitable for vistas, the Great Plains, and the vastness of outer space, not (what should be) an intimate drama confined to a single, small set of rooms. I don’t think it was entirely George Stevens’ decision, but maybe he should have fought a little harder against it…he was the producer, after all. While he tries to make up for it by (sometimes) confining the action to the middle of the screen, the damage is done. It’s typical of Stevens’ style-over-substance approach to filmmaking that he couldn’t make this silver-platter scenario work.

Image result for 12 angry menIf only a film already existed that could have shown him how to do it properly.

The film also, unforgivably, runs almost three hours. That’s only ten minutes longer than Anatomy of a Murder, another nominee this year, yet it feels so much more bloated, full of unnecessary scenes and drawn-out arguments that go nowhere and are repeated over and over with no variation. Despite being trapped in an attic for two years, none of the characters develop or change whatsoever, aside from Anne becoming interested in Peter, which the film portrays as true romance (while in the real diary, Anne Frank eventually dismisses the crush as fleeting and based solely on the fact that Peter is her only option). The characters may as well be cardboard cutouts.

In the end, it’s a (barely) watchable film, and has some moments of fine acting, particularly from Joseph Schildkraut as Otto Frank, Ed Wynn (nominated for Best Supporting Actor) as Albert Dussell, and Millie Perkins as Anne. Shelley Winters won Best Supporting Actress, though she doesn’t do very much other than a) brag about how much boys chased her in her youth, and b) hysterically proclaim their doom every time there is a noise downstairs. It’s watchable, but forgettable, and I can only imagine how much better it would be with Wyler behind the camera.

Audrey Hepburn was actually George Stevens’ (and Otto Frank’s) first choice to play Anne, but she turned it down, feeling she was too old to play a 13-year-old. Probably a good career move. Instead, she starred in…

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The Nun’s Story is just that, following the life of Gabrielle Van Der Mal (monial name, Sister Luke) from her decision to be a nun to her decision to…not. It’s one of the clearest arcs I’ve ever seen in a movie, sombrely examining themes such as doubt, duty, and humanity, and Audrey Hepburn, as the center of the whole thing, holds it all together beautifully.

Gabrielle enters the convent in order to become a nun and a nurse, though it’s not entirely clear why she needs to become the former when her heart is clearly 99% set on the latter. She is shown to be unsuited for the cloistered life from the start, and it’s not as if secular nursing schools didn’t exist in the 1920s, when the story begins. It was also, in real life, possible to train as a nurse at a nunnery without actually taking the vows. Still, she goes through with the process, despite knowing, as soon as she hears the first rules of the convent, that it’s not for her.

Captura de pantalla 2018-11-11 a las 12.44.45.png“I’ve made a huge mistake.”

The film is episodic: the first thirty minutes concern Gabrielle’s time spent going from novice to postulate to full-on nun, trying to adapt to the rules of the convent such as the Great Silence (which basically means no talking, no thinking), and cutting all ties with her family, worldly possessions, and even to her fellow nuns. This proves impossible, given her strong will and sense of self.

Image result for roman holiday 1953This is Princess Ann, after all.

At the end of her training, in which she excels and earns the respect and admiration of her professors, she is asked by her Mother Superior to fail her nursing exam as a show of humility and devotion to God (and also because another student is feeling butt-hurt that she’s not as good at nursing as Gabrielle). This is, of course, a patently idiotic request, not to say a wildly irresponsible one to make to a medical practitioner, and Gabrielle rightly refuses to do so…the result is, she is sent to practice not in the Congo, her greatest goal, but in a mental asylum.

At the asylum she again lets her compassion get the better of her, putting herself in a dangerous situation with a violent inmate (though to be fair, this one is less a failure to follow orders than an utter lack of common sense), after which she finally gets sent to the Congo (in scenes that were shot on location and are quite stunning). Once there, she works herself to exhaustion and to tuberculosis trying to juggle the demands of nun and surgical assistant, under a constant barrage of harsh life truths from Dr. Fortunati (Peter Finch). Back in Belgium at the outbreak of World War II, she finds it increasingly impossible to obey her superiors’ exhortations to ignore the horrors of the outside world, and finally gives up the veil and, it is implied, joins the underground resistance.

All of these little vignettes show different sides of the same basic conflict, when Gabrielle is forced to choose between acting like a compassionate, caring human being, or honoring some vague devotional rule that, more often than not, constrains her ability to perform her duties as a nurse. She is reminded over and over again that she is a nun first and a nurse second, and while Hepburn does a great job showing Gabrielle’s inner struggle, all of this continually raises the question I had at the beginning…namely, why she is a nun in the first place when all she really wants to be is a nurse.

Image result for the nun's story 1959I guess getting to work with Peter Finch is a nice perk.

I mean, I understand why in a storytelling sense…the film is meant to examine this very conflict, between duty to oneself and duty to a higher power, and whether it is possible or worth it for someone like Gabrielle to smother her individuality and strong will. In the end, the answer is…no, of course not. But I’m just saying it would have been stronger if she was shown to have any motivation for putting herself in this awkward situation to begin with. Hell, there’s not even any family pressure for her to be a nun…just the opposite, in fact, as her father is an internationally renowned surgeon who could easily get her the medical education and experience she desires.

Still, she tries her hardest to be the best damn nun she can be, and I think it’s to the film’s credit that it doesn’t treat her decision to leave the convent as a failure on her part. Zinnemann (who, like Wyler, had a talent for making stories about people) shows it as a very difficult choice, and Audrey Hepburn’s performance really shows us Gabrielle’s struggle and her reluctance to give up, even in the face of everything that has happened. Again, I wish the groundwork had been laid at the beginning to show why the choice is so hard, but within what the film offers us, director and actress do the best they can.

Hepburn was nominated for Best Actress, but the film failed to win any Oscars out of eight nominations. I am kind of surprised that Peter Finch wasn’t nominated for Best Supporting Actor, as his performance as world-weary Dr. Fortunati was the highlight of the film’s second act. Like many of his characters, he manages to convey Fortunati’s impatient, take-no-guff approach to his practice that belies the compassionate, insightful person that emerges as he becomes aware of Gabrielle’s troubles. Much as I love Ed Wynn, I think Finch should have taken his place in the nominees this year.

Moving up from a merely watchable film, to a good film but not a great one, and now we get to the great ones, starting with…

Room at the Top poster 2.jpg

Finally, a tagline that gets it exactly right. Room at the Top is all the poster promises, an outright savage story about a man who wants it all, and will do anything to get it…or so he believes at first. It is an amazing film, one of the first non-Shakespearean British films to crack the Best Picture nominees, and one can immediately tell that this is a movie made outside the strictures of the system, and of the Hays Code.

I knew nothing about this film going in, other than the fact that Simone Signoret won Best Actress. It’s the story of Joe Lampton, who moves to a new town in Yorkshire and immediately sets about getting to the top by wooing the daughter of the town’s richest citizen. Unfortunately for Joe, he’s played by Laurence Harvey, whose seduction face looks like he’s trying to unhook a brassiere with the power of his mind.

Related imageIt works for a brainwashed veteran, but less for a charming roué.

Despite having all the charm of a dead otter, Joe singlemindedly harasses courts Susan Brown until she goes on a date with him, more out of embarrassment than anything else but he chalks up a win nevertheless. Again out of embarrassment, she begins to care for him after seeing how her family and her actual boyfriend look down on Joe for his common background. He doesn’t care…he can fake pride with the best of them, but if pity is what it takes to get that sweet, sweet Brown money, then pity he will get.

Image result for george costanza pity is underrated

So already, you may have noticed the major difference between this and the typical Hollywood films of the period, at least the non-noir films: the protagonist is an unapologetic shit, purely out for his own sociopathic interests, and the movie fully acknowledges it. Laurence Harvey, for all his lack of romantic prowess, plays him perfectly: as we follow Joe through his tortured path to the top, we’re not rooting for him, yet at the same time we’re not hoping he’ll fail too badly. Harvey is great at expressing the constant self-loathing and self-doubt that Joe lives in every minute of every day, trying not to stop long enough to fully realize the pointlessness of his existence.

Understandably, Susan’s family is not willing to let their daughter get involved with someone who is less a man than he is a swarm of locusts in a cheap suit, so they send her abroad. Joe passes the time with Alice Aisgill (Simone Signoret), an older, unhappily married French émigrée who acts in the local theatre troupe. Unfortunately, even though she falls in love with him, she’s a bit too much for him to handle, being the exact opposite of Susan: a strong, independently-minded woman not afraid to tell him off or call him out on his (many, many…many) faults and hypocrisies.

Joe breaks it off with Alice when he finds out she does not suffer fools…and man, does he make a fool of himself in this scene. Aside from Harvey’s sometimes shaky Yorkshire accent, it’s a grimly realistic depiction of a fight starting from something so trivial, and escalating until all the tensions in the relationship blow up at once:

It’s acted perfectly by Harvey, but especially by Signoret, who goes from happy to confused to angry, and it’s marvelous to see her on the offensive in the face of Joe’s childish tantrum. He doesn’t stand a chance, and he knows it.

So, back he goes to Susan, whom he knows he can manipulate and control. Sure enough, within hours he manages to guilt her into sex, which causes her to fall in love with him…but Alice has gotten into his head for good, and he immediately dumps Susan to go back to Alice. Suffice it to say, despite a romantic weekend together, during which Joe is happy for probably the only time in his entire life–or, if not the only time, it’s certainly the last–everything falls apart. I don’t want to give away what happens…I’ll just say it is a tragic ending in the literal sense of the word, and it’s done without melodrama or contrivance. Watch this film, you won’t regret it.

Image result for laurence harvey queen of hearts
Maybe now you’ll watch it?

As I said at the beginning, Simone Signoret took home Best Actress for her nuanced and gripping portrayal of Alice Aisgill. She was the first actress to win the award for a non-American film, and the second French actress to win an Academy Award (after Claudette Colbert). It was well-earned…her performance is magnetic, conveying strength and independence with vulnerability all at once, and was a strong harbinger of dramatic acting in the years to come. French audiences already knew all about her, of course, but Room at the Top introduced her to the Anglophone world.

It’s worth mentioning, too, from a trivia point of view, that Room at the Top contains the shortest performance ever nominated for an acting Oscar, that of Hermione Baddeley as Alice’s roommate Elspeth. She is onscreen for only two minutes and thirty-two seconds, and received a nod for Best Supporting Actress. I don’t really get it, myself…she basically just tells Joe not to hurt Alice, then yells at him when he does. Oh well, it wasn’t a strong year for that category.

So, pretty strong start to the 32nd Awards! If Anatomy of a Murder is any indication, it’s going to keep getting better. Part II coming soon!

31st Academy Awards (1958) – Part II

(Part I.)

Image result for the defiant ones 1958

Despite what the adverts promised, The Defiant Ones is not a homoerotic wrestling epic starring a disturbingly abdomen-free Tony Curtis and an equally-shirtless, tiny-headed Sidney Poitier. Also, that tagline, while technically true, is a bit grandiose and the repetition of “ones” just sounds wonky.

Image result for black mama white mama poster nothing in commonStill, better than “nothing in common but the hunger of 1,000 nights without a man!”

Aside from that, though, this is a really great movie, and is, for my money, the best American film of 1958. Unlike hamfisted attempts at relevance like Gentleman’s AgreementThe Defiant Ones manages to be both a compelling social commentary and a truly well-crafted narrative, without having to lapse into monologues at the end in order to make its point. And although as a take on race relations it doesn’t totally hold up–to me, it works better as a story of friendship–it was at least a step in the right direction.

The story is as simple as it gets: two convicts, Noah Cullen (Poitier) and John “Joker” Jackson (Curtis), escape while chained together, and must stay ahead of the law and overcome their mutual hostility to survive. There’s no real suspense as to how the film is going to end–“No law defeated,” stated the Hays Code, no matter how incompetent or irrelevant to the plot–which frees the story considerably and allows us to concentrate on the personal drama between the two unlikely protagonists.

Image result for the defiant ones 1958Spoiler alert: It ends with a wedding.

The dialogues and conversations that arise between Cullen and Joker as they awkwardly sprint through forests and swamps are all beautifully written, gradually breaking down the barriers between the two men without seeming forced or on-the-nose. However, they all do tend to revolve around the same situation and problems, so Curtis and Poitier (and Stanley Kramer’s direction) deserve a lot of credit for keeping them fresh and realistic. There aren’t a lot of startling revelations or unexpected truths, just a gradual unraveling of each man’s psyche and the different paths that led them to this strange partnership.

Apparently, Robert Mitchum was an early choice for playing Joker, but turned the role down because he felt it was unrealistic: given the film’s Southern setting, a white man and a black man would not have been chained together in this manner. Mitchum knew what he was talking about, being a chain gang escapee himself (as if he wasn’t already the coolest actor in Hollywood, ever), and so the role went first to Marlon Brando and finally to Tony Curtis; the movie explains away the pairing with a throwaway line about the warden having “a sense of humor”, and thus the stage is set for its allegorical study of race relations in America.

It’s definitely a steep learning curve for both of them, but Joker definitely has a harder time acknowledging, and letting go of, his prejudice and privilege. In an early conversation with Cullen, Joker tries to explain to him that his (Joker’s) use of racial epithets is merely descriptive rather than prejudicial…Cullen makes little effort to correct him, and through Poitier’s patient-yet-simmering performance, we know he’s heard this justification his entire life.

“No, go on, next tell me how many black friends you have.”

Later, when they are captured in a mining settlement and nearly lynched before the Wolfman himself, Lon Cheney, Jr., saves them, Joker sincerely and unashamedly tries to save his own life by pointing out his whiteness. This does nothing to satiate the mob–because, remember, the whole point of the movie is that there is really no difference between Joker and Cullen, deep down–but definitely does not sit well with Cullen, and leads to the fight depicted on the above poster.

Related imageThough you’ll note they are both fully clothed and have body fat.

However, their row is cut short when they happen upon the most desperate single lady in the entire South, Billy’s mother (seriously, that’s how she is credited), played by Cara Williams. Williams was nominated for Best Supporting Actress, even though her entire character can be expressed with the word “thirsty”, and she does nothing but look suspiciously at Cullen and lust after Joker. Billy is no better, just the typical whiny ’50s-movie kid character who exists solely to mess things up for the people who matter–in this case, shooting Tony Curtis in the shoulder when he rightfully rejects his crazy mother’s advances (who, by the way, was totally going to abandon Billy to run off with a career criminal whose name she only learns just before he skedaddles).

Anyway, they at least break the chain, but find themselves still chained together by the power of friendship…and even though they don’t make it, finally succumbing to the relentless but humane Sheriff Max Muller, they have forged a bond and will…probably never see each other again and be sent to separate prisons and likely forget each other within the first six months of the lifetime of maximum security hard labor that awaits them.

Image result for the defiant ones 1958“You know, there are times when I hate living in a parable.”

Like I said above, as a story of friendship developing amidst hardship and forced cooperation, the film is a slam dunk. But though it tries very hard to make its race relations message work, I don’t think it entirely succeeds. It does manage to avoid a lot of clichés that befoul movies like this…not only the aforementioned preachy monologues, but also sidestepping the “white savior” trope towards the end, when Joker sacrifices his own escape to save Cullen from the dangerous swamp, only to find Cullen calmly having a smoke and entirely in control.

This sequence still undercuts the essential message of the film, though. The movie shows Joker making a noble choice by renouncing the easy life to stand by his friend, and while this is true, it also underscores the unavoidable difference between the two that the story tries so hard to prove doesn’t exist: namely, that the option for an easy life exists for Joker, but not for Cullen. The uneven odds that await both of them if they remain free are swept under the rug, and the film just hopes nobody stands over them long enough to notice.

The chance to truly escape, and to blend in with society, is never an option for Cullen…he never gets his horny housewife ready to protect and bed him after knowing him for fifteen minutes, as does Joker. Trying to pretend that both men have it equally rough by virtue of being convicts is just ignoring the very problem with which the film purports to concern itself, the systemic prejudice that exists in the country (not just the South). It’s a huge issue that cannot be adequately addressed within the bounds of the film, but not even making any attempt to even acknowledge it strikes me, especially watching it sixty years later, as disingenuous and naïve (at best).

Image result for the defiant ones 1958I’m not sure why, but this picture seems to sum up my point.

Both Curtis and Poitier were nominated for Best Actor for the film, as well they should have been, but lost to David Niven. In fact, of its nine nominations, it only managed to take home two Oscars: Best Original Screenplay and Best Cinematography, Black and White.

Did a well-crafted, perfectly-acted social allegory deserve to lose Best Picture (and Best Director) to a wildly entertaining Parisian-set musical? Well, we already know that the answer to this was “yes” in 1951, but was it the case with…

Image result for gigi 1958

When I was writing about the 24th Academy Awards, I argued, brilliantly, that An American in Paris deserved Best Picture over the almost-perfect A Streetcar Named Desire. On the face of it, Gigi appears to be largely the same as that one…both are musicals set in Paris, both star Leslie Caron, and both were directed by Vincente Minnelli, produced by Arthur Freed, and written by Alan Jay Lerner.

Image result for alan jay lernerBit of juicy Oscars trivia: Lerner set a record by writing three Best Picture winners–An American in ParisGigi, and My Fair Lady. His mark was later tied by Francis Ford Coppola.

But from there, the movies diverge wildly. The first and most notable difference, of course, is the presence of Maurice Chevalier, finally in a Best Picture winner after a trio of nominations early on (remember The Love Parade at the 3rd Academy Awards, and The Smiling Lieutenant and One Hour with You at the 5th?). He plays the role he was born to play, and indeed the same role that won my America’s heart in the ’30s, Honoré Lachaille, a charming, optimistic, indomitable roué, flush with money and desiring nothing more than pure enjoyment of life. He’s so damned lovable that, when he sets the tone of the film at the beginning, it’s almost possible to miss how incredibly creepy this song is:

To be clear, this is a musical comedy that begins with an old man musing about how nice it will be when the seven-year-old girl beside him is old enough to bone.

Let’s not mince words about Gigi: it is the story of an adolescent who “becomes a woman” over the course of a few months and marries a man about 20 years her senior with whom she has had a purely fraternal relationship her entire life. Gigi (Leslie Caron) begins the film as you see above: a schoolgirl young enough to still enjoy playing tag and keepaway with her friends. Gaston (Louis Jourdan, whom we last saw romancing bored American girls in Three Coins in the Fountain), Honoré’s nephew, is initially closer to Gigi’s grandmother, and regards Gigi as a little sister.

Image result for gigi 1958
Honestly, I was rooting for these two so bad.

Knowing nothing about the film going in, I was very pleased with Gigi and Gaston’s platonic friendship at the beginning…it echoed the wonderful dynamic between Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner in The King and I, an honest and believable relationship unmired by forced romance. They have genuine chemistry as friends, and their convivial and relaxed conversations and romps together speak to their long history as such; they really do come across as siblings who have genuine affection for one another, built over the course of Gigi’s entire life (which, again, began when Gaston was about 20).

It lulled me into a false sense of security, though, as over the course of the subsequent (undeniably entertaining) two hours, I had to watch with horror as it became clear what the film had in store.

Image result for gigi 1958I know, Gigi, I know…I had the same expression.

In a nutshell, sweet little (and did I mention underaged?) Gigi grows into a woman, in the matter of a few months it seems, and suddenly Gaston realizes that he has fallen in love with her (read: realizes she’s reached the age of consent) and, after a brief song in which he weighs the existential dilemma of having sexual feelings for someone whom he has spoonfed, decides he wants to wine and dine her.

What makes it worse is the dedication that Gigi’s grandmother and aunt show in turning her into, essentially, an escort. Her entire home education is spent teaching her how to dress, speak, and act like a courtesan…basically, they want her to know enough to be charming to a man for a few weeks, but not interesting–or, you know, human–enough that he doesn’t grow bored with her and pass her on to the next man to repeat the cycle until, like her aunt, she has accumulated enough gifts, cash, and social status to retire and teach other young girls to do the same.

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No joke here, just Gigi’s aunt showing her niece the kind of swag you get as a high-class prostitute.

Well, lo and behold, it works. All Gigi has to do to win Gaston’s heart is stop dressing in plaid and do her hair up, and suddenly she’s a Little Girl no longer. After a rocky start (being a rich, devastatingly handsome member of the Parisian elite who has slept with just about every woman in the city, Gaston’s potential as marriage material is seen as tenuous at best), which sees Gaston storm out in anger only to return minutes later no less than three times, the two get hitched and the film ends where it began: Honoré gamboling though the park, mentally tallying the number of years before he can hit on the various girls he sees.

Like I said, disturbing as all get-out. So, damn it, why do I love it so much??

Image result for gigi 1958Ah, yes.

It’s not just Maurice Chevalier, but the fact is that anything he’s in just immediately gets better, lighter, more enjoyable simply by his incredible presence. In anyone else’s hands, that opening number wouldn’t stand a chance:

Fair warning: if you press play you can never unsee this.

Yet, as I said above, I almost missed it when it was the Smiling Lieutenant singing. And throughout the film, he just infuses the proceedings with his unbridled joy and infectious smile, always on hand with a bon mot or a whimsical eyeroll to brush away all troubles and worries. And he also gets a second number that is just incredible to watch:

Added to the film after Chevalier himself was talking to Minnelli and Lerner about how much he was enjoying being older, it’s a marvelous, uplifting song about the joys of one’s twilight years. In any other film, or with any other singer, you’d be waiting for the turn in the lyrics, when the happy façade finally falls and they finally realize that, actually, it’s terrible to not be young…but not so here! It is simply an unabashed paean to old age, probably the most positive depiction of ageing ever in cinema. And no one else could have sung it. Thank heaven for Maurice Chevalier.

Unfortunately, it’s not enough to convince me that The Defiant Ones, for all its faults, did not deserve Best Picture (and Best Director) this year. If this were a few years ago, Gigi would have (justly) cleaned up on the technical awards…but here we are almost in the 1960s, 1956 and Around the World in 80 Days‘ win were still fresh in everyone’s minds, and Gigi was just the film to win in this new, spectacle-laden decade on which we have just embarked.

And so, ahead! 1959 should be a good one, as I have not yet seen any of the five nominees, and the winner is the unprecedented third Best Picture directed by William Wyler…I’m very excited! Onward!