35th Academy Awards (1962) – Part II

(Part I.)

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It’s funny how memory affects films…hardly a groundbreaking observation, of course, but I was still struck, when re-watching these last two nominees of 1962, by how my childhood/teenage memories were so wildly divergent from the reality of these films. Not that they affected me so differently (though of course they did), but just the gaps in my understanding of what actually happens in them.

This happens a lot when I revisit a film I haven’t seen since I was, say, six, but To Kill a Mockingbird was a particularly jarring example. In my memory, the trial of Tom Robinson, and saintly Atticus Finch’s noble attempt to prove his innocence, was the “meat” of the story, and the rest (the bits with the rabid dog, “Boo” Radley, etc.) were subplots. Imagine, then, my shock when I realized how little the film focuses on poor Tom Robinson and his plight, and how that is actually the subplot to the main action, which is mostly Scout’s furtive attempts to catch a glimpse of Robert Duvall.

Image result for boo radleyI bet he cleans up real nice.

It’s still a good, classic film, though difficult, in 2019, not to view through a “white savior” lens (especially after Green Book‘s Best Picture win last month). It definitely takes a very sanitized, borderline naïve view of race relations in the 1950s South–as Roger Ebert pointed out, could a little girl’s whiny pleas really stop a lynch mob?–and though Tom Robinson kills himself after being found guilty by the racist jury (dark), he is very quickly forgotten as the narrative focuses instead on the white protagonists…who completely forget he exists in the film’s final sequence, his narrative usefulness exhausted.

Image result for to kill a mockingbird trial“We find the defendant guilty by reason of plot convenience.”

Then again, is it really a white savior movie when the supposed savior fails so spectacularly? Atticus bungles the hell out of Tom Robinson’s defense from the get-go, and while it might be more cinematically dramatic to make an impassioned plea for justice and acceptance, it was definitely not the right move, legally speaking, at that time and place (or at any time and place outside of TV and movies, really). By ignoring all the tools at his disposal in favor of theatrics, Atticus basically torpedoes any slim chance Robinson might have had at getting acquitted.

This begins when he forgets that there’s such a thing as a “change of venue” and goes on pretty much the whole trial…especially when he puts the poor guy on the stand without, apparently, coaching him even the slightest bitFirst of all, he doesn’t need to do it at all…hearing Tom’s side of the story was never going to win over the jury, so there’s that. But second, he forgets to tell Tom that most basic of all witness preparation principles: namely, keep your answers short and don’t volunteer any extra information. So when Tom is cross-examined by the prosecutor (a far better lawyer than Atticus, racist or no), this inevitably happens:

(A note for film historians: this look by Gregory Peck, right after Tom blurts out that he “felt right sorry for” Mayella Ewell…

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Even though he tries to roll with it in his closing argument, any hope he had of winning the case is snuffed out in that moment. I’m sure there were grounds for an objection when the prosecutor maneuvers Tom into saying he is strong enough to brutally assault and rape a woman, but again, Atticus just lets it slide.

Image result for to kill a mockingbird trial“I think I’ll have hoppin’-john for lunch…wait, what just happened?”

One more thing…after Tom is found guilty and is killed “trying to escape”, Atticus blithely accepts this as the truth (instead of thinking, “Hey, they wanted to lynch him earlier…wonder if it’s time to call the feds?”) and bemoans the fact that Tom fell into such despair even though Atticus told him they were going to appeal the verdict. Except…no, he fucking didn’t. His last words to Tom were a promise to inform his wife of the verdict and a halfhearted attempt to lift his spirits…he never mentions an appeal. So…doouuuche.

The majority of the film, as I said, focuses mainly on Atticus’ children, Scout and Jem, as they try to torment and confuse the reclusive family down the block. In the end, they learn a valuable lesson about tolerance and the evils of prejudice (since I guess that hadn’t sunk in after the whole Tom Robinson fiasco, but you know, sometimes kids take a while to pick up on things). The moments with the children (romping along with their new friend Dill, whose character Harper Lee apparently modelled after Truman Capote) are generally well-done, evoking the innocence of bygone summers, as Scout and Jem’s eyes are slowly opened to some disturbing realities that they can’t fully understand. Atticus seems a far more competent single father than he is a lawyer…his musings on respect and being a good person are far more suited for lazy evenings on the front porch than a courtroom.

Oh, and he shoots a rabid dog at one point, which proves to Jem and Scout that he (Atticus) isn’t a sissy…which is, of course, a very important moment in the life of any father-child relationship.

Related imageAs he contemptuously sheds his nerd glasses before getting all manly.

Going in, I remembered Gregory Peck’s portrayal of Atticus Finch being one of his career highlights, and it’s certainly the one for which he is best remembered. However, after having seen some of his other films (such as Twelve O’Clock High [1949], Roman Holiday [1953], and, especially, The Big Country [1958]), I am less impressed by this performance. For one thing, Atticus Finch is (ostensibly) so goddamned pure and righteous that I found him a bit boring as a character…as well as a bit dense, if I’m honest (seriously, how did he ever become a lawyer?). Peck always does a fine job, but here he was very much playing his own persona, and he didn’t have much of an arc to work with. For my money the Oscar should have gone to Marcello Mastroianni.

The rest of the cast tries its best to keep up, but it’s pretty clear that Peck is in a class apart (obviously Robert Duvall would go on to great things, but here he doesn’t have to do much besides fidget nervously), which probably further enhanced his chances of the Best Actor award. I suppose, then, that credit must go to the director, Robert Mulligan, who definitely displays a steady hand and manages the pacing well, particularly the trial scenes. Not surprising, then, that he was the only one of the Best Picture-nominee directors, aside from David Lean, to get a nod for Best Director.

And David Lean, of course, directed the winner…a film that, if it’s even possible, had as much ego as its main character…

Image result for lawrence of arabia posterThis poster actually came out a month before the ceremony.

Of the five nominees, Lawrence of Arabia was the clear stand-out, in almost all respects, the only one with that je ne sais quoi that a Best Picture winner needs (I wouldn’t be saying the same thing if The Miracle WorkerThe Manchurian CandidateCape FearCléo from 5 to 7, etc. had been nominated, but never mind). From a technical point of view, it is an outrageously gorgeous film, and I’m not just talking about Peter O’Toole’s beautiful blues.

Image result for peter o'toole lawrence of arabiaThough I could.

I definitely found myself hypnotized and impressed by the luscious, lingering desert photography that dominates the film’s opening sequences. Like Ben-Hur, the film takes on the mighty challenge of maintaining focus on character in the midst of an epic, and for the most part I think Lean walks the line brilliantly. In fact, the melodic pace of Lawrence’s first trip to Arabia seems to mirror his character’s psyche, as he, like the audience, unhurriedly drinks in the splendor around him…later, as he becomes more jaded and his flaws come to the fore, the landscape similarly loses its lustre.

The story takes some truly monumental historical events and condenses them into a single narrative (and I use the word “condensed” advisedly, since, at 222 minutes, Lawrence of Arabia is the longest Best Picture winner of all time). Right after a brief scene of his death and funeral, we flash back to plucky ne’er-do-well T.E. Lawrence as, in the midst of World War I, he bounces to Arabia to see what’s what. Within days he has inserted himself into the conflict between various Arab tribes with the intention of unifying them (largely, it must be said, against their will, but white saviors never let something like that deter them).

Image result for lawrence of arabiaOf course, it helps when most of the Arabs were Britons anyway.

One thing I had forgotten about the movie is how much of it focuses on Lawrence’s bloodlust, which is never really meaningfully explored but dominates his choices throughout the film’s second half. To quote Blackadder, under this playful, boyish exterior beats the heart of a ruthless, sadistic…maniac. It starts when he is forced to execute a friend to maintain the shaky alliance between two tribes, and later confesses to having enjoyed doing so…and quickly grows into sheer insanity as he spends most of his time literally quaking as his good and evil selves fight for control.

Spoiler alert, evil wins.

This beat happens a few times…confronted by the potential for mindless violence, Lawrence has a brief internal struggle, then gleefully gives in, then feels terribly about it, then repeat. Again, we don’t really get much of an exploration of this…nothing happens during the film that twists him around or sets him on a path that culminates in the bloodbath seen above. It’s just kind of part of him from the beginning.

Enough about bloodlust, this scene is much more “O’Toole”.

Even beyond all the slaughter and mayhem that Lawrence endures/effects, this is a very dark film, in the sense that it gradually chips away at Lawrence’s hopes and dreams until he is left a friendless, stateless husk, useless to everyone and without any clear idea who he is or what he’ll do next. Peter O’Toole plays him brilliantly…he has some hammy moments, to be sure, but overall one can feel Lawrence’s tragic fall and see his doomed struggle to hold onto his youthful ambition and idealism in the face of larger forces conspiring against him at every turn. The blossoming and subsequent withering of his friendship with Sherif Ali (played with passion by Omar Sharif, already a star in his native Egypt but about to explode onto the international scene after this film) is the movie’s emotional center, and the chemistry the two display makes it all the more crushing when it ends.

As often happens with “larger-than-life” characters like Lawrence, they quickly become the least interesting part of their eponymous films, and this one is no exception. Mind you, I love Peter O’Toole and think it’s one of the worst mistakes in Academy history that he never won a competitive Oscar (starting with this nomination he went 0 for 8, lifetime), but if anyone deserved an Oscar it’s Omar Sharif, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, but lost to Ed Begley in Sweet Bird of Youth. His respect for Lawrence grows from begrudging acceptance into genuine admiration, only to be beaten down as he witnesses his friend’s fall and cannot do anything to help.

Related imageThe real reason, of course, is the tragic truth that two such perfect jawlines cannot stay united for long.

Alec Guinness is typically stellar and unique as Prince Faisal, another character first impressed and intrigued by, and then disappointed in and repulsed by, poor old Lawrence. Guinness’ scenes are peppered throughout the film as he brings his considerable poise to bear in Faisal’s negotiations and bickering with the British occupiers, and he serves as a kind of meter measuring Lawrence’s fall. He’s quiet, charming, and devilishly clever…all of which comes to beat in this amazing story/impression from Peter Sellers:

There’s a lot wrong with the film, of course…once again, the “white savior” rears its ugly head, and as I pointed out in my introduction to this year, it has the dishonorable distinction of being the only Best Picture winner with no female roles whatsoever. The historical accuracy of the film has been a point of contention since the day it was released, not just in its treatment of its title character–T.E. Lawrence’s brother said he didn’t even recognize him as depicted–but also in its choice/need to amalgamate and alter the Arabic leaders portrayed. Also, Jose Ferrer was paid more than O’Toole and Sharif combined for a day’s work in a single scene.

Image result for jose ferrer lawrence of arabiaThough he blew his entire salary on a new hat.

However, it was the clear standout of the 1962 nominees, rising above them in the same way Ben-Hur did in 1959 by telling an epic story that manages to flesh out its characters and give the audiences a brief, if fictionalized, glimpse into a short but tumultuous period of their lives (and the life of the world). It has its indulgent aspects, to be sure, but it’s entertaining and beautiful to look at, so a lot can be forgiven. Not all, but a lot. In the absence of better nominees, it deserved all the Oscars it got, and maybe a few more besides. (O’Toole deserved the Oscar over Gregory Peck, for example…though, again, not over Mastroianni).

So that’s the longest Best Picture winner of them all (to date, anyway)…and now, as we head to 1963, we get to consider the longest Best Picture nominee of them all, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s interminable Cleopatra. I’m sure that will be just a marvelous experience. Onward!


35th Academy Awards (1962) – Part I

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  • Lawrence of Arabia, David Lean*
  • The Longest Day, Ken Annakin et al.
  • The Music Man, Morton DaCosta
  • Mutiny on the Bounty, Lewis Milestone
  • To Kill a Mockingbird, Robert Mulligan

Oh, 1962…I don’t know what to make of this year. On the one hand, I thoroughly enjoyed four of the five nominees, each of them outstanding in their own way and evocative of the epoch. On the other hand, no clear stand-outs amongst the nominees in terms of acting, directing, or writing…three of the five pictures didn’t even get nominations in any of those categories. So how, I wondered and still wonder, could they be even in consideration?

Another thing: without having (yet) done the appropriate legwork, I think this is by far the most male-centric collection of nominees in Academy history. Which is definitely saying something. The longest three nominees, which includes the winner, have just five credited female roles in total between themand of those five, only three have lines…and of those three, only two actually have substantive dialogue…and of those two, only one appears in multiple scenes. Oh, and by “substantive dialogue”, I only mean she says something that isn’t to do with how handsome/amazing Marlon Brando is, not that she is in any way relevant to the advancement of the plot.

Image result for the longest day irinaThough at one point she ineffectually grapples with a German guard before having to be saved by a man, so…#girlpower, I guess?

Not exactly “The Year of the Woman”. Hell, Lawrence of Arabia doesn’t feature any women whatsoever, the only Best Picture winner with that dubious distinction. It’s even stranger when one considers The Miracle Worker, which won Best Actress (Anne Bancroft) and Best Supporting Actress (Patty Duke), was left out of Best Picture in favor of Mutiny on the Bounty, one of the worst nominees of the decade.

But while they may not pass the Bechdel test, the nominees this year are, with one exception, really damn good. As usual, we start with the exception…

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I’m guess The Mutiny on the Bounty earned its spot amongst the Best Picture contenders the same way The Alamo did in 1960…it cost a lot of money, was very long, and featured a lot of big-name stars. The cast is undoubtedly impressive and the film sure looks pretty, but by 1962 Marlon Brando had lost whatever vestige of humility he had ever had (if he had any to start with) and the result is a meandering, inconsistent, and ultimately hilariously bad train wreck of a movie. I get the sense that it was pegged as a BP nominee as soon as it was greenlit, and so despite being justly pilloried at the time, I still had to slog through its interminable three hours while other, better films got left in the cold.

It’s a very different take on the story of the HMS Bounty than the one that won Best Picture (and nothing else) in 1935, mainly due to Brando’s–what’s a polite way of putting it?–fucking weird interpretation of Fletcher Christian. In the first film, Clark Gable’s dashing, man-of-the-people Fletcher is pushed to his limit by the tyrannical, obsessive mania of Captain Bligh, finally snapping when Bligh’s abuse against the men of the Bounty becomes too much to bear, even for a man with his dedication to duty.

Image result for clark gable fletcher christian“I shaved my moustache for you, you son of a bitch.”

Brando’s Christian…goes in a different direction.

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“To answer your unspoken question, dear boy: no, this shit-eating grin never leaves my face.”

From the moment he prances onto the Bounty with two nameless lady admirers in tow, dressed like an egomaniacal actor’s idea of a minor 18th-century British noble, Fletcher Christian tries his best to secure his position as the most punchable character in cinematic history. I don’t know how Brando got the idea that the story’s presumed hero should be portrayed as an insufferable, pseudo-intellectual, elitist boor, or why the production didn’t just give him a different address and carry on without him…no matter the explanation, the result is one of the worst performances I have ever seen in a movie, from Brando or from anyone else.

It’s not just distractingly awful acting, combined with a gratingly inauthentic accent…it actively ruins the story. Within minutes, I found myself feeling sympathy for poor Captain Bligh, who is only trying to do his job and finding himself stymied at every turn by a one-percenter who bought his way into an officer’s berth and, right from the beginning, openly sneers at everything Bligh says or does. The film goes on pretending this isn’t true and that Bligh is the true monster, so instead of the promised “might sea spectacle”, we just get three hours of vacuous preachiness and dimwitted Brando scene-chewing.

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“In addition to my pouty face, I also put my hand on my heart so the audience truly understands my turmoil.”

Once the mutiny finally takes place, roughly two hours into the damn film, the rest of the runtime is spent watching Fletcher morosely bemoan his actions and then turn around and threaten to betray his crewmen by insisting they all return to England to face the court martial, in order to quiet their restless souls or some bullshit. Naturally, the men are not entirely willing to slip their necks into a noose, so they burn the ship…only for Christian to do what he does best:

Image result for mutiny on the bounty 1962 fire

Once more, the film expects us to side with Christian here, even though he’s acting the fool once again and endangering the lives of the men he’s supposed to be leading. Never mind that in reality, Christian himself ordered the Bounty to be burned precisely because he didn’t want the Admiralty to find them and hang them for mutiny. Brando wanted the film to make some point about the balance between liberty and duty, or something like that…honestly, it doesn’t come across at all.

From what I can gather from reading about the production, the main problem seems to be that Brando wanted to do whatever he wanted, and the studio just let him. If he didn’t like how the director (originally Carol Reed, who was replaced early on by Lewis Milestone due to “health reasons”) wanted a scene to go, he would simply stand in front of the camera and do nothing until his demands were met. These demands included ad-libbing his dialogue and changing the ending of the story to something grotesquely ridiculous and historically inaccurate.

There’s no denying that Brando was a genius, but it was around this time that he got so far up his own arse that his career went seriously off the rails and never returned to its former glory. Even taking his (brief) 1970s resurgence into account (which we’ll get to, one of these days), I think Mutiny on the Bounty is a very clear demarcation between the “genius Brando” of The Wild OneA Streetcar Named DesireOn the Waterfront, and others, and the “coasting Brando” (or, often, the “what-the-fuck Brando”) that would last the rest of his life.

Image result for marlon brando island of dr moreau
I’ll just leave this here.

By my reckoning, this catastrophe took the place of a more deserving film in every one of the seven categories in which it was nominated. A Best Picture nod, over The Miracle WorkerThe Manchurian Candidate?! Pull the other one. Anyway, on to happier things, and fortunately, 1962 does provide one glowing ray of sunshine…

Image result for the music man 1962

Pure joy distilled into musical form, The Music Man is easily one of the most upbeat and jovial films I’ve seen in a long while, and manages to do it with genuine heart that never becomes schmaltzy or overwrought. After the debacle that was West Side Story last year, it restored my faith that I will see some good musicals in the 1960s, despite being past the genre’s glory days.

Going in, I knew nothing about this film, but I was looking forward to seeing it because when I checked the list of 1962 nominees, I recognized the name The Music Man from Paul McCartney’s introduction of the song “Till There Was You” at the Beatles’ Royal Variety Performance in 1963:

Anyway, the story, as is the case with most musicals, is simple: a con-man shows up in a small town in Iowa, looking to make some fast cash by pretending to be a band teacher, selling everyone instruments and uniforms, and then skipping town with the money. It’s a scam he’s pulled up and down the country, but never in a town like this:

Though why they even need music lessons when they break into synchronized songs so readily is never explained.

The con-man in question is Harold Hill, played with barely-contained, infectious glee by Robert Preston, and I have to admit he could probably sell me a trombone and band uniform if he showed up at my door. His main nemesis in River City is chaste librarian Marian (Shirley Jones, in a polar-opposite performance from her Oscar-winning turn in Elmer Gantry in 1960), the only one of the townsfolk to immediately see that he is full of shit. Naturally, these kooky kids are in love by the end credits.

I say “naturally” because their names appear together on the poster and that’s just how musical comedies work, but one of the things I love about The Music Man is that it actually does the work in showing how and, more importantly, why Marian and Harold fall for one another. It’s an age-old problem: so many movies, no matter the genre, simply throw two people at one another and make them a couple because the script demands it, even if they are established as entirely incompatible–a recent glaring example is La La Land, which is a horrid film for many reasons besides this one.

Related imageThey have these same facial expressions when they make love.

To be sure, The Music Man follows the standard pattern of “boy meets girl, girl hates boy, boy pursues girl, girl falls for boy”, but it isn’t lazy about it. Neither Harold nor Marian have any thought of love for the first half of the movie: Harold just wants to keep Marian quiet about his deception, and Marian just wants Harold to leave her alone. I won’t give away the details, but suffice it to say that when they do fall in love, it feels natural, realistic, and, most importantly, earned. In a genre where this kind of foundation is least required, I was surprised and delighted to see it.

Shirley Jones is wonderful as Marian, toeing a difficult line between “repressed and posh” and “charmingly naïve” in the wake of the madness ensuing in her quiet little town.

This cuts off before the dancing really starts, so do yourself a favor and watch the whole movie for full effect.

The film hits the ground running and establishes itself early, and proceeds at a healthy pace. Despite being nearly as long as The Mutiny on the Bounty, it never feels bogged down or drawn out…almost as if someone knew what they were doing (something the producers of Bounty definitely lacked). It helped that director Morton DaCosta, also the director of the original Broadway run (which also featured Robert Preston in the lead), produced the film himself, ensuring it kept the energy of the stage production.

The Music Man won Best Scoring of a Musical, but no other Oscars, and amazingly wasn’t even nominated for Best Song. Hell, even Mutiny on the Bounty was…again, doing the only thing it did well, stealing nominations from more deserving films. Oh well…showered in Oscars or no, it’s still a fine film and a worthy entry in the musical canon, the kind to be watched when one needs to be reminded of the magic of movies.

Image result for the longest day 1962

Hollywood’s obsession with World War II continued with The Longest Day, a docudrama focusing on roughly 18 hours covering the run-up to, and the initial stages of, the Allied invasion of Normandy on 6 June 1944. And as you can see from the poster above, it stars…everyone.

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As with most WWII films of the period, I saw this one long ago, and multiple times, with my grandfather, himself a veteran (though not of Normandy). I wasn’t sure how I would feel about it, revisiting it now after at least a good 15 years and without the benefit of his commentary, and with more experience with what makes something a “good” movie. However, I was happy to find that it’s still a damned fine picture, for the same reasons I had when I was 10 and then more besides.

Image result for curd jürgens the longest dayFor example, Curd Jürgens.

For one thing, The Longest Day succeeds as a film–not just a war film–for some of the same reasons Battleground (1949) does: because it keeps its focus on the people caught up in a massive conflict at once beyond their control and entirely reliant on them. Roughly a third of the film’s three hours is taken up with little vignettes, episodes, and moments, from soldiers and civilians appearing only briefly, all of them taken from the accounts of real people involved in the D-Day operation on one side or the other. Some of them are funny, some are sad, some are touching, but all of them show the humanity that existed…and it kept the story grounded in the experience of individuals, while still maintaining the epic, grandiose scale of the events.

Something that 10-year-old me missed was that the movie takes a lot of inspiration from the then-current neo-realist style that had emerged in Germany and Italy in the post-war years. Shot in stark black-and-white, with a minimalist score, and with native languages all the way (i.e., the Germans speak German and the French speak French, not merely English with accents), it evokes a very real, documentary-style quality, almost as if one is watching actual footage of the events. (Sanitized, bloodless footage, but hey, it was still 1962.)

Image result for the longest day 1962It’s possible they didn’t have any money left for blood effects because John Wayne demanded a salary 10x higher than anyone else. Seriously.

Usually a film like this gets at least a nod in the Best Supporting Actor category, just in acknowledgement of the evergreen popularity of the genre, but The Longest Day received no acting nominations whatsoever. However, I take issue with that, as it seems to me that the participants in this film took their roles a bit more seriously, and managed to do more with their limited screentime, than in other epic, ensemble pieces. Richard Burton, for example, is onscreen for less than five minutes, but I could have seen him recognized for his role as a cynical, aging RAF pilot who’s seen it all and doesn’t want to watch more young men go off to die. Or, even more, the aforementioned Curd Jürgens as Günther Blumentritt, struggling to respond to the invasion in the face of crippling bureaucracy and a Panzer division that can’t be used because Hitler isn’t awake to give the order to mobilize it. He steals every scene he’s in with his soft-spoken fatalism.

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And Oscar-worthy or no, it’s fun to see James Bond and Norm from A Hard Day’s Night palling around:

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It is, simply put, a classic World War II film, and while I’m glad it didn’t win Best Picture over Lawrence of Arabia, I’m also glad that it got nominated. Acknowledging its importance to its genre, and its role in showing the steadily increasing influence of European cinema on Hollywood, was an important and timely move by the Academy. It deservedly won Best Cinematography – Black and White, as well as Best Special Effects (in the latter category, it was up against Mutiny on the Bounty…strange, since I can’t recall any special effects in that film).

So, overall a great start to the year! Hopefully next week I’ll have managed to watch all 12 hours of Lawrence of Arabia so I can conclude 1962 and keep moving through the ’60s! Onward!

Trivia Regarding the 91st Nominees

Image result for roma 2018

The Academy announced the nominees for the 91st Academy Awards today, and unlike previous years that were so predictable as to not even warrant an entry, this year has some good trivia. The eight Best Picture nominees have an interesting spread of nominations, and trivia abounds.

  • This is the second time in Academy history that two non-English language films have received nominations for Best Director: Alfonso Cuarón for Roma, and Paweł Pawlikowski for Cold War. If one of them wins, they would be the first director to win the award for a (primarily) non-English language film.
    • The previous instance was in 1976; the two nominees were Lina Wertmüller for Seven Beauties and Ingmar Bergman for Face to Face.
    • This is the first year that two nominees for Best Foreign Language Film received Best Director nominations.
  • If Pawlikowski wins, he will be the first director since Frank Lloyd way back at the 2nd Academy Awards to win Best Director for a film not nominated for Best Picture (third overall, after Lloyd and Lewis Milestone for Best Director, Comedy at the 1st Awards).
    • This is just the second time since the expansion of the Best Picture nominees that a film not nominated for Best Picture has received one for Best Director. The other was Foxcatcher at the 87th Awards.
  • Roma is the sixth film to be nominated for both Best Foreign Language Film and Best Picture. Of the previous five, all but The Emigrants (1971) won the former. Roma is the tenth non-English language film to be nominated for Best Picture, and stands a solid chance of being the first to win.
  • This is Glenn Close’s seventh nomination, and Amy Adams’ sixth; neither have ever won, and if Close loses again she’ll pass Thelma Ritter for the record for most nominations without a win by a female performer (the all-time record holder for performers, of course, is Peter O’Toole, with eight).
  • A Star is Born marks the seventh time a remake of a previous Best Picture nominee was itself nominated for Best Picture. It is actually the fourth version of the film, but the 1954 and 1976 iterations failed to score nominations for Picture or Writing.
  • If Black Panther wins, it would be the first Best Picture without nominations for directing, acting, writing, or editing. (Spoiler alert: It isn’t going to win.)

If I can think of more, I’ll add it, but those leapt out at me right away! Should be an interesting year!

Still Another Oscars and I New Year’s Eve

¡Feliz Nochevieja! This year, Oscars and I rings in the New Year from Spain, complete with marisco, twelve grapes, and starting the night out at roughly 1:30 a.m. It also means that I have six hours less to finish this post than in years previous.

Image result for timeLiving in one’s own future has its drawbacks.

Anyway, I’ve been slightly more active in my movie-watching this year, but since Spain is one of those countries that favors dubbing over subtitles in foreign language films, my opportunities to see non-hispanophone films are rare. Still, I’ve seen a few, and here’s my year-end list:

  1. Roma, Alfonso Cuarón (just amazing, and a cinch for a Best Foreign Language Film nomination)
  2. Isle of Dogs, Wes Anderson (restored my faith in him after the predictable, if still quirky and enjoyable, The Grand Budapest Hotel)
  3. The Other Side of the Wind (solid late-period Orson Welles; glad it’s finally out, though like all of his not-fully-baked later ideas, it has some issues)
  4. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (great, uneven-in-a-good-way Coen Brothers, a nice rebound from Hail, Caesar!)
  5. Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (enjoyable, engaging, and surprising, but didn’t stay with me the way some of the best Black Mirror episodes have)
  6. First Reformed (Winter Light + Taxi Driver, not impressed)
  7. A Quiet Place (way over-hyped and peters out p. badly at the end, but not too shabby for a first-time horror director)
  8. Operation Finale (just watched it for Ben Kingsley and Oscar Isaac, but both kinda phoned it in on a rigidly formulaic “thriller”)

The Favourite is getting good awards buzz, but I was disappointed by Yargos Lanthimos’ last (The Killing of a Sacred Deer) and TF has not received a particularly glowing recommendation from someone who I trust pretty implicitly on films, so I’m apprehensive about it. I still need to see Cold War, another lock for a Best Foreign Language Film nomination, BlacKkKlansman, and a few others.

Still, I fulfilled by second resolution from last year by watching more than three current-release movies, but I certainly fell short of the first one (weekly updates on this blog). I plan to keep both for 2019, as well as adding a third: since my films-watched count now stands at 1,843, I resolve to make 2019 the year I reach the milestone of 2,000. Once I reach 1,906, I will, whenever possible, choose a film that was released in the matching year (e.g., film #1,942 will have been released in 1942, and so on). This will not always happen, as I am currently on 1962 for this blog and that obviously takes precedence, but when it does, it will carry a certain satisfaction.

Anyway, that’s the plan. Since Hollywood remains steadfast in its refusal to make Oscar-worthy New Year’s Eve films, and Daniel Day-Lewis can only retire once, I suppose I could use this post to talk about some of the, shall we say, controversial decisions of AMPAS in 2018.

I know it’s hard in this day and age to remember everything that has made us angry or upset over the course of a few weeks, much less an entire year. Often these are serious issues with no easy or short-term solutions, and thinking about them only hammers home the futility of individual action and the unlikelihood of success. Fortunately for me, I write a blog about the Academy Awards, so I don’t have to worry about addressing things that actually matter.

Related imageEverything is wonderful!

The Academy Award for Best Popular Feature

I wouldn’t be surprised if no one really remembers this, as it happened way back in August, and the Internet moves at the speed of now (thank you, Daniel O’Brien, for that charming phrase). So, to refresh: the Academy announced that it was addressing a problem no one had by instituting a category for Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film, as a kind of co-equal award with Best Picture. The reaction was, to put it mildly, resoundingly negative, and the idea was shelved indefinitely.

Image result for i'm sorryOnly their pride prevented them from including this with the repeal.

I’m not going to pretend that this idea was “out of place” with the Oscars…they began as, and ever have been, a marketing scheme, meant to simultaneously draw audiences to “smart” films while dangling a carrot in front of filmmakers and performers. And they have, until very recently, generally awarded popular films anyway…up until the turn of the century, better than half of all Best Picture winners were in the top five box office earners of their year, and most were at least in the top ten. This has led to the (absolutely correct) criticism that the creation of this award would imply that there is a fundamental difference between a film being “popular” and being “best”.

Image result for mon oncleThen again, we’ve swallowed their split between “best” and “foreign”, so given time maybe we’d accept this, too.

Granted, there hasn’t been a Best Picture in the year’s top five since The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King way back in 2003, and that’s exactly the kind of film that is now almost guaranteed to gross a billion plus these days. But, right or wrong, it won Best Picture, and ten other Oscars, as recognition for the entire trilogy. No film like it has won Best Picture since, and likely won’t, because in 2003 it was weird to see a fantasy epic with such success.

The reasoning behind the creation of Popular Film seems to have been “changing with the times,” but I would argue that, by “failing” to include Jurassic World or Avengers: Age of Ultron in the nominees for Best Picture, they have indeed been changing. As the template for “top-grossing film” continues to develop, so too has the template for “Oscar-worthy film”, and now we’re seeing Best Pictures that, while they might not rake in the dollars the way Deadpool 2 does, still warrant critical recognition.

This doesn’t mean they’re “getting it right” all of a sudden…since 1929, we have–and until the Oscars meet their end, always will–argue over the wisdom of awarding Best Picture and other top awards to individual films over others. And rightly so…if there were no contest, no critical divides, then the film world would be boring as fuck. But the Academy has (ostensibly) an obligation to recognize cinematic excellence and innovation, and in an era when that is not required for a film to be “popular” (whatever that means), I think it’s more important than ever to stay true to that ideal, even if they do get it wrong in the details.

Image result for spotlight 2015 oscarsViz.

To that end, the creation of a Best Popular Film category would be a monumental misstep, and I hope it never comes up for serious consideration again. “Epic” films that make billions are, rightly, given Oscars in the technical categories, which they certainly earn, and if we should change anything, it’s the passive discrimination against these as “lesser” awards.

The Whole “Hosting” Thing

Actually, I have no opinion on this because I never watch the ceremony anyway. I’m only in this for the trivia. Turn the Oscars back into a 15-minute dinner party, or bring Bob Hope back from the dead, and we’ll talk.

Image result for bob hope oscarsI love this picture because it takes a minute to be able to tell which is Hope and which is Brando.

Anyway, 2018 was a fine year for Oscars and I, and 2019 looks to be even better. I’ve got some great years to cover ahead of me, and a couple ideas for the blog that I’m excited to try out.

I know I usually close these New Year’s posts with a clip from Chaplin’s The Gold Rush, but this time I’ll change it up and sign off with this valuable lesson from 1972’s The Poseidon Adventure, a very popular film (second-highest grossing of the year, after The Godfather) starring no less than five Oscar winners.

Poster - How the West Was Won.jpgQuick aside: This film holds the record (I think) for most Oscar winners (once and future) appearing in a Best Picture nominee, with nine.

Anyway, The Poseidon Adventure is not only an Oscar winner, but it is a New Year’s movie, as the eponymous ship turns over on the high seas just about at the stroke of midnight, just after the band has a chance to sing the Academy Award-winning song, “The Morning After”. It’s a great movie, one that I will always watch if given the opportunity (twice, so far…okay, so it’s not a favorite), and definitely captures the spirit of the epoch.

The aforementioned lesson, of course, is never doubt Gene Hackman. If you do, instant karma’s a bitch.

Y ahora, necesito café para sobrevivir la noche. ¡Feliz año nuevo!

34th Academy Awards (1961) – Part II

(Part I.)

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I remember watching The Hustler years and years ago, mainly for the pool games. I was riveted by the opening match between Eddie Felson and Minnesota Fats, and sitting through the “boring” middle part of the film waiting for the climactic rematch. I was probably 12 or 13, too young to really get what was happening…but I liked pool and my dad told me that Jackie Gleason shot his own game during his scenes, and that was enough for me to be fascinated. So now, revisiting it at the age of [REDACTED], I was hoping to appreciate it on a deeper level than “Ooh, nice shot!”

Image result for the hustler 1961A deeper level, as in “Ooh, nice shot!”

I was not disappointed. The Hustler is a fantastic film, a mash-up of noir and neo-realism without a shred of romanticism or melodrama. The story, as bare-bones a tragedy as one could ever hope for, is told by Rossen at a minimalist, slow-and-steady pace, patiently ushering our hero further and further down until, in the end, he wins…one of the emptiest victories in cinematic history.

It begins with Eddie Felson (Paul Newman)–feeling on top of the world when everyone else can see he’s little more than an arrogant, delusional kid–breezing into the Big City to take on Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason), a legendary, unbeatable pool player. When the game begins, all we know about Eddie is his name, that he shoots pool, and he’s there to beat Fats. By the end of the film, we know very little more than that, except the lengths he will go to in order to make that happen, and in a film like The Hustler, that’s all we need to go on.

Director Robert Rossen, a former pool hustler himself, shoots the game with an enthusiast’s glee, and editor Dede Allen deserves a lot of the credit for her fast-cutting, with plenty of quick shots of balls going in, cues being chalked, angles being assessed, all set to the lively jazz of Kenyon Hopkins (who previously did the score for 12 Angry Men). There’s plenty of amazing shots of Minnesota Fats watching Eddie move around the table, as he begins to think that maybe this kid isn’t just a punk after all, and Gleason’s subtlety against Newman’s wild abandon completely steals the show. One of my favorites is a slow transition shot towards the middle of the clip above, as we slowly fade from Gleason to Newman, and the two images linger for a moment in a perfect juxtaposition, as Gleason stares right into Newman’s eyes as he sizes him up:

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Soon, of course, Felson’s hubris is his undoing, as he first goes up $18,000 only to lose it all. Also his undoing is the appearance of demonic gambler Bert Gordon, played with coiled malevolence by George C. Scott, who encourages Fats to teach Felson a lesson because Felson is “a loser”. And, as happens time and again throughout the film, Gordon is proven to be completely right.

Back to square one, Felson then falls in with Sarah Packard (Piper Laurie), a failed…everything who spends her time at the bus station getting drunk; what appears to be a mutually toxic relationship slowly becomes the only healthy thing either of them have ever had in their lives. Laurie’s performance as Sarah is painful to watch, as she infuses the character with such self-destructive humanity, using alcohol not to numb the pain of her failures so much as the pain of hope, hope for a better life that just can’t seem to vanish, and that is slowly killing her.

The first moment she sees on Eddie, at a bus stop diner the morning after his humiliation, you can see their entire future in her eyes. He may not know the story, but it’s one she’s been in many times before, and like Llewelyn Moss in No Country for Old Men, she foresees everything, even her own death, and says “…Yeah.” Again, the minimalist story and characterization leave a lot to the performances, and Laurie delivers, making Sarah such a believably pitiable creature.

Image result for the hustler 1961 piper laurieWriting that made me sad, so I was happy to find this picture of Piper Laurie with four puppies in stockings.

Their relationship is doomed, of course, because Eddie has only one thing on his mind: a rematch with Minnesota Fats. The trouble is, he can’t raise the money himself without getting his thumbs broken, and so, like so many who have never bothered to read Faust, he gets himself beholden to Bert Gordon. Gordon promises to make Eddie a “winner” so he can take on Fats without letting his (Eddie’s) natural inclination to lose get in the way. Eddie surrenders to Gordon’s tutelage, both financially and psychologically, which ends about as well as you’d expect.

Without giving too much away, I’ll just say that Eddie gets his needed stake and, sad and alone but full of character, returns to challenge Fats again. This time, he plays without emotion, without braggadocio, and without pleasure, and wins handily in just ten minutes of screentime. This time, there is no lively jazz score, no dancing around the table, and no crowd-pleasing trick shots; the game is a grim, cold affair, and Eddie goes through the motions while admitting to the watching Bert that he (Eddie) is now a winner, thanks to him.

This is what sets The Hustler apart, which Roger Ebert noted in his review: that the “hero wins by surrendering, by accepting reality instead of his dreams.” Felson gives up his chance at love, unable to tell Sarah his feelings until after it is too late, to chase what he wants and to become a winner as Gordon defines it: someone who puts winning above all other considerations, and who always knows the angles. And Eddie realizes, when he does win, that it is meaningless when one is “dead inside.” Still, he does it, because he knows he has no other choice.

And there it ends, after Felson escapes with his thumbs intact but a warning from Bert to never enter a big-city pool room again. One of the saddest moments comes just before the credits roll, when Felson and Minnesota Fats sombrely compliment one another’s pool abilities…for just one moment, it’s all about the game again, even though neither of them truly believes it. The last shot shows Gordon sitting alone in the middle of the abandoned pool hall, delivering the moral that It’s a Wonderful Life utterly failed to: namely, that being a “winner” without humanity is the worst life one can live.

Related imageBut don’t worry, he learned to laugh again.

Quite rightly, The Hustler was nominated for all sorts of Oscars, including two Best Supporting Actor nods for Gleason and Scott (who refused the nomination). But, because this was 1961 and the Academy had just given Best Picture to a black-and-white character-driven film, it (rather ridiculously) lost Best Picture, Director, etc. to a splashy musical, namely…

Image result for west side story 1961

There’s a lot wrong with the idea that this film is forever in every reference book as the ten-Oscar-winning best film of 1961, not just because there are two films in the list of nominees that are objectively better in every way, as well as many others not on the list. It has its charm, as many musicals with decent budgets and white-toothed stars do, but I found myself so very bored by its predictable story and just plain unlikable characters. It’s not just that it’s a tired retread of that tiredest of stories, Romeo and Juliet, for which I’ve already expressed my disdain…it’s that even within that framework, I found the characters unappealing and unbelievable. It was one of those musicals whose non-singing moments seemed more like linking devices between songs than an actual plot.

I won’t bother recapping the story much: boy meets girl from rival gang, they fall in love before knowing each other’s names, their bullheaded feelings lead to catastrophes involving a lot of needless death. That’s it…it’s just Romeo and Juliet in Hell’s Kitchen.

Image result for west side story 1961“See, there’s the balcony! You all remember the balcony scene, right? But here it’s a FIRE ESCAPE! Aren’t we just the cleverest??!!”

I don’t want to get too technical here, but great films have great character development. It’s kind of a big deal, in any genre you care to mention. Great musicals are no exception, even if they generally place greater emphasis on splashy visuals and entertainment. West Side Story does not have great character development…it doesn’t even have character development, at least as far as I can see. Part of what makes a story compelling is seeing how its characters react to and change because of the events that transpire, and when they just stay the same no matter what happens, it’s boring as hell. That is my biggest problem with West Side Story, and other also-ran films.

The Romeo and Juliet stand-ins are named Tony and Maria, and they come from opposite sides of a NYC turf war between two gangs composed, inexplicably, entirely of ballet masters. They fall in love because, why not, and the film would have us believe it is pure and magical despite resulting in the deaths of three people. It tries to shoehorn in a “hate poisons everything” message that was cliché and trite during Homer’s time, but ultimately the real story is, two insufferable idiots use love as an excuse for being insufferable idiots.

Image result for west side story 1961These two have known each other for less than ten hours.

Look, I get that love, even when genuine, makes people think and act differently, and it takes a lot to fall out of love with someone. I’m not saying that people should be willing to drop their love immediately when things go wrong, or when other people tell them that their relationship is causing problems. But I am saying that if the person you (think you) love ends up murdering your sibling, maybe it’s time to reevaluate your position vis-a-vis their potential as a longterm romantic partner.

Maria disagrees. Upon hearing that her brother is dead and that Tony killed him, her first question, without a moment’s hesitation, is an emotional “Is Tony okay?!”

Image result for west side story 1961 maria“Oh, thank goodness…let me know about the funeral, I’ll just be here dancing.”

That is some cold shit, and worse, it’s terrible characterization. There is no possible way to convince me that this is a realistic reaction, even in a musical, from someone who has not been established as a complete psychopath. To use the parlance of our time, I noped right out of the story then and there (although to be fair, I already had one foot out the door). The rest was just slogging through the remaining melodrama to cross the finish line and cleanse my soul with The Hustler.

Okay, but in the end, it is a musical, so the song-and-dance elements should at least save it a little, right? Not in my opinion, no. I mean, it’s not terrible in that regard, but I also could not hum a single one of the songs if you promised me the entire Criterion collection as a reward. Alright, alright, maybe “I Feel Pretty”, but only because that one is a standard…as for the others, I just tried, but I’m pretty sure one of the songs is not “We’re the Jets” sung to the tune of Beauty and the Beast‘s “Be Our Guest”.

Image result for be our guest beauty and the beast
Though I would enjoy that.

The acting is no better, without even counting Natalie Wood’s extremely tenuous Puerto Rican accent. I will support Rita Moreno winning Best Supporting Actress (although Fay Bainter was pretty awesome in The Children’s Hour), since she is the only one of the cast that seems to put any effort into portraying her character as a real person. However, I can only imagine that George Chakiris won Supporting Actor because Jackie Gleason and George C. Scott split the vote and the Academy wanted to continue its aggressive snubbing of Montgomery Clift. And that the film swept up 10 Oscars, the most for any musical of all time, due to the heavy bias towards musicals during this era. Typical Academy, they only missed the Golden Age of Musicals by about twenty years.

I’d say this is the first time since 1952 that two nominated films have been this far superior to the actual winner. I guess it wasn’t entirely the Academy’s fault…both the Golden Globes and the New York Film Critics Circle also named West Side Story the best of the year (though the latter had the good grace to award Robert Rossen Best Director, and the former named Stanley Kramer). Maybe the country was still smarting over the Bay of Pigs fiasco and wanted to pretend everything was okay by honoring a mediocre escapist musical? I’m at a loss.

Anyway, 1962 beckons, either next week or after the holiday. Either way, I’m approaching a revolutionary time in American cinema, so I am very excited! Onward!

34th Academy Awards (1961) – Part I

Image result for west side story 1961

  • 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.

Image result for the guns of navarone 1961
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!