Tough Films, Great Performances: The Informer (1935) and The Man with the Golden Arm (1955)

I’m not sure exactly what I imagined The Informer to be, but it wasn’t what I expected. This is the film that gave John Ford his first of four Best Director Oscars (still unmatched) and gave an Oscar to lead Victor McLaughlin. The title gives away the plot to some extent, and the film doesn’t go big and broad, but stays close and tight to the minimal action and the actors.

The look of the film was surprising to me. It looks like a silent film that was lovingly photographed with an eye toward German Expressionism; it’s beautiful to behold. The sets, though, look exactly like lean and clean sets, and don’t looked live-in at all.

The Oscars and the New York Film Critics Circle did a kind of dance with the awards for 1935. In spite of the four awards given to The Informer by the Academy (the others were for Best Screenplay and Best Score), the Best Picture Oscar went to the epic and higher-profile Mutiny on the Bounty, which only won that single award. The NYFFC gave The Informer the Best Picture and Best Director Awards, but gave Best Actor to Mutiny on the Bounty’s Charles Laughton, which some feel is one of the great performances of all time.

So if that’s the case, why didn’t Laughton win? Probably for reasons having little to do with the quality of his performance. That year was the last year without a Best Supporting Actor or Actress category, and Mutiny on the Bounty got three acting nominations—for the two leads Laughton and Clark Gable (generally agreed to be miscast) and for the lesser role played by Franchot Tone. Tone would have been in the Supporting Category had that category existed.  With three nominations, it’s not surprising that the solid work of McLaughlin might win. Also, Laughton had won Best Actor in 1933 for The Private Life of Henry VIII, and Gable won in 1934 for his work in It Happened One Night—good reasons for those not voting on quality of performance to give it to someone other than these two.

McLaughlin is quite good, and for those only familiar with his supporting work over the years, surprising. McLaughlin was big lunk of a man, with a face that could be almost handsome in some light and positively pug-ugly in another light (consistent with his having been a pugilist before becoming an actor). He drank a lot and played drunks often. Here he holds the film together with a character that is both wanting in his decision-making and yet deeply sympathetic at the same time. For its day, it was quite realistic and powerful, and still is today. The performance is set against that rather spare set lit so evocatively, and with a lyricism in the direction that is so common with Ford yet so seemingly inconsistent with his gruff external manner. Note: This is one of those films that puts lipstick and perfect eye make-up on all the women, even the streetwalkers. Very movie studio, and quite distracting.

If you’re a film historian or a completist with the work of Ford, McLaughlin, or Max Steiner (Oscars for this, Now, Voyager and Since You Went Away, plus nominations for The Gay Divorcee, The Garden of Allah, Jezebel, Gone with the Wind, Dark Victory, The Letter, Sergeant York, Casablanca, Life with Father, Johnny Belinda, The Caine Mutiny, and Battle Cry, among several others), it’s worth a watch. But especially when compared to the previous year’s It Happened One Night, with all that fresh energy and lightness of touch, it seems rather old and like a silent that just learned the first few steps of how to use sound.

The Man with the Golden Arm came 20 years later, and is a model of a mid-century film with a dazzling score and a great central performance. Plot-wise, it was cutting edge and daring, dealing with drugs and addiction, though it shares with The Informer the tendency to use long unbroken shots as scenes. It initially wasn’t given a seal from the Motion Picture Association of America because of its focus on addiction, and like the director Otto Preminger’s The Moon is Blue two years earlier, helped change American films by breaking the rules in ways that got the rules changed.

As with The Informer, the sets look like sets, but are less sparse and more visually complex. But they still look like sets. The music, however, by Elmer Bernstein (no, no relation to Leonard) doesn’t just tell us how we should feel as viewers/listeners (as so many scores did, and still do), but worked percussively with the on-screen action to create a fresh fusion of image, action, and sound–a bit reminiscent of the score for Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). Anyone wanting to know more about jazz in American film, or how a score can interact with action should take a look and a listen.

Aside from the notoriety of the subject matter, however, it’s the performances that are worth paying attention to for better or for worse. On the worse side is Eleanor Parker, a lovely, regal, intelligent, and talented actress completely miscast as the lead character’s wife. (Parker is probably best known for playing the Baroness who might marry the Captain in The Sound of Music, though she was nominated three times for Best Actress (Caged, Detective Story, and Interrupted Melody.) Sometimes talent alone doesn’t make a part work.

This is also an early film of Kim Novak, just 22 in the film and holding her own in every scene, if not completely owning her part. She is lovely as always, and growing as an actress.

But the film belongs to Frank Sinatra as the former addict out of jail and wanting to stay clean. Most film students remember his Best Supporting Oscar for his comeback role two years earlier in From Here to Eternity, where (spoiler alert) he is killed by Ernest Borgnine’s character. The role, the story behind it, and the Oscar are so famous it’s easy to forget that Sinatra did a one-two punch here with this performance. Right now it’s a trope to have the drug-addled lead go through the dramatic drying out experience, but here it was fresh and far more complex than similar scenes a decade earlier in The Lost Weekend. Those scenes were as powerful as anything else on the screen in 1955, but the rest of his performance was note-perfect, too. [It’s rumored that Marlon Brando was offered the role, and Sinatra swept in and got it before Brando said yes.) If you’ve only seen his later, cool-guy work in the 1960s, and perhaps even if you’re familiar with From Here to Eternity, it’s a bit of a shock to see what an accomplished and layered actor Sinatra was here. The film and especially that performance still stand on their own today.

Note: Sinatra desperately wanted to win the Best Actor Oscar for this film. He didn’t. The winner that year? Ernest Borgnine, for Marty.

If he hadn’t been such a great singer, Sinatra could have been one of our greatest actors. Music’s gain is film’s loss. There’s no telling, of course, if his obvious hunger in both the roles in 1954 and 1955 would have stayed with him, but that hunger fed two of the best performances of the decade. I’m inclined to think it wouldn’t have, but at least we have these two to demonstrate a great talent. The Man with the Golden Arm is anything but a feel-good film, and the film’s ending is a mess. But Sinatra is something to behold in every scene. Since he dominates the film, it’s worth the watch just to see how very good he could be.

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How Green Was My Valley (1941)

How Green Was My Valley is now, and will continue to be, best remembered as the film that “stole” the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars from Citizen Kane. If I have to come down on one side or the other (and I really don’t have to), Kane should have won, not only for its formal excellence, but for its groundbreaking elements (sound, acting, cinematography, screenplay) that pushed sound film into a new era. But then, in the theater world, West Side Story, as groundbreaking in its own way as Kane, lost the Tony for 1957’s Best Musical to The Music Man, a great musical that was more of a summation of yesteryear’s strengths than anything approaching the originality and daring of West Side Story.

But with both films and musicals, we don’t have to choose. But Kane, The Music Man, and West Side Story are all still regularly enjoyed,  yet How Green Was My Valley seems almost lost to everyone but film historians. That’s a loss, as it is a trip back in cinematic time as well as a journey to a time and place that is worth revisiting, even if the memories are hazy and soft. That’s deliberate, of course, as this film walks the fine line between lyricism and sentimentality, only occasionally falling to one extreme or the other. To say they don’t make them like they used to is true, but even in 1941, they weren’t making them like that.

The film involves a family, a town, and a preacher in Wales in the late 1800s. It’s about family more than anything else, but also about towns, work, strikes, greed, unfairness, gossip’s destruction, hypocrisy, the occasional horrors of school and schoolchildren, and real and impossible love. It’s filled with genuine emotion and feeling, and full of tableau-like imagery that would be too self-conscious if it weren’t so striking and meaningful.

Director John Ford had quite a run in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s (though he created great films after that time until well into the 1960s). After winning the Best Director Oscar for 1935’s The Informer, he had an amazing three-year period from 1939 to 1941: Stagecoach, Drums Along the Mohawk, Young Mr. Lincoln, The Grapes of Wrath (Oscar for Best Director), Tobacco Road, and How Green Was My Valley (Oscar for Best Director). He’d win his last and record-setting fourth Oscar for 1952’s The Quiet Man. Ford was known as a brusque, grumpy, no-nonsense director, and yet this is a film of warmth and tender sensitivity—in some ways so very different from the documentary-like Grapes of Wrath, and miles away from the great classic western Stagecoach, which could be deeply cynical while still being rough-and-tumble. His range was astounding, and unfortunately, he was deeply impatient with questions about his thinking, his feelings, or his process. We just have to see the work and be amazed.

Aside from winning the two top awards, the film won three others, including Best Cinematography. It’s stunning work, and often breathtaking in its beauty. I can’t justify it beating Gregg Toland’s work in Kane. (At least Toland won for 1939’s Wuthering Heights.) But Toland has gone down in film history as an unquestioned legend, where few film historians could easily come up with the name of the three-time Oscar-winner who shot How Green. (He was Arthur C. Miller.) This is most definitely a film that needs to be seen in its restored version, and on the largest screen possible.

The film also won Best Art Direction—Interior Decoration, Black-and-White. That’s no surprise, as the set evokes a time and place that existed in imagination and memory only, but convinces us of its solidity and reality. The other award, perhaps more noteworthy historically, was the Best Supporting Actor award to legend Donald Crisp, whose career began in 1913 and ended with 1963’s Spencer’s Mountain. Crisp was rarely a lead, but his list of films was noteworthy: D.W. Griffith classics such as The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912, and Crisp’s 33rd film), The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, and a devastating performance in Broken Blossoms. There was also Red Dust, 1935’s Mutiny on the Bounty, The Life of Emile Zola, Jezebel, Wuthering Heights, National Velvet, and Pollyanna, among many, many others. His performance in How Green is tough, stubborn, gentle, authoritative, and kind-hearted–that once-in-a lifetime part that brings out the full range of an actor’s capabilities. The film is worth watching for him alone.

But there are others. After a few years of small parts, Roddy McDowall had his first major role here as the child around which the film revolves. The film puts him through his paces, both physically and emotionally, and over the two-month shooting schedule of the film, McDowall does a good job fooling us into thinking he’s grown physically and emotionally. Stalwart Walter Pidgeon looks tall and strong, sounds magnificent, and acts well enough. More interesting is Maureen O’Hara, a Ford favorite who became a name if not a star in 1939’s Hunchback of Notre Dame. A mere 20 or so at the time, she is a strong presence even if not a great actress, and she has a few lovely moments in the film. She and the actress playing her sister-in-law are reminders that this is studio-era Hollywood at work, with full make-up (including lipstick which would never have been worn), beautifully coiffed heads, and lovingly lit faces; after all, the stars—and especially the women—always needed to look great. It’s her work that makes the 21-year difference between her and Pidgeon believable and non-creepy.

The film is usually remembered as gauzy, deeply touching, and primarily about family in an age we’ve all forgotten. But good people are laid off and have to leave town to survive, the coal mine produces as much death as income, people who love each other can’t get together, families are pulled apart because of ideology, and young children can be physically abused. If Ford had treated the story as he did The Grapes of Wrath just a year earlier, this would have been a completely different film—sharper, harsher, and with much less hope. Instead, we have a film worthy of being seen and remembered, that demonstrates the incredible range of its director, and is worthy of film history’s attention. After all, it’s not its fault the Academy voted the way it did.

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Da 5 Bloods

 

Spike Lee’s new film (streaming on Netflix) is simultaneously the most important film of the year so far, yet not necessarily the best one. It’s important because Lee is one of our most important filmmakers, and it’s important because I’m personally (and temporarily) allowing the word “important” to include the idea of resonating with current socio-political meaning. Lee has reached for the stars here, and doesn’t always succeed. But the reach is admirable, and often meaningful and entertaining.

The film concerns four older Black Vietnam vets coming together one more time to travel back and, ostensibly, find the remains of their old friend, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman). (And yes, if you’re remembering a certain General Norman Schwarzkopf, it’s clear you’re supposed to, though it’s not always clear what Lee is trying to say there.) The film also concerns the war itself, the western film genre, the heist genre, the coming-of-age genre, fathers and sons, remembrance, greed, revenge, colonialism, drugs, the non-stop nature and long-range effects of war, racism, protests, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, 1948’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Apocalypse Now, President Trump, conservatives, the role of the French in Vietnam, and even Lee’s own Do the Right Thing, still the definitive Lee film. That’s an awfully wide area to cover—and the list is just for starters—and Lee can be a pretty blunt instrument. The film is something of an incoherent mess at times, but is always, always alive.

Lee has a signature cinematic element in making reference via older footage to historical issues of race, social problems, and politics. This can take some viewers out of the film, but will take other viewers into something newer, higher, and yet deeper. Seeing historical connections and causing us to see that some things have not changed can be addressed in any number of ways; Lee seems to prefer a direct and dialectical approach to making us aware. This is a challenging filmic game to play, but Lee has experience with it, and his very boldness is what can make his connections so easy to identify and take in. He’s not going to be accused of subtlety here, but he makes his points.

Be prepared for a wild journey with the film. It goes down side roads regularly, and the focus changes quite a bit over time, even though the basic storyline of a journey to Vietnam to collect a dead colleague’s remains almost holds things together. But this is several movies in one, and it’s best to be prepared for commentary, secondary issues, and even transcendence (you’ll see).

A couple of disappointments are in the script and in the handling of a key moment (obviously, spoiler alerts to follow). How the treasure is found is almost ridiculous and almost unbelievable, even if Lee is making a comment here on greed and treasure. Also, there are two moments involving landmines. One is handled well, and brings some warmth, tension, and emotion into the film. The other is filmed in a way that resembled the poor timing of an inexperienced filmmaker. A character backs up, and backs up, and backs up. Then he backs up some more, long after you expect something to happen. I thought it would involve a gunshot, and it didn’t, but the whole scene still stretched out far too long before the inevitable occurred.

What also holds the film together is the main four, then five, characters. This is an older man’s film, and the relationships among the four leads is tight, moving, and very engaging; we want to be with these guys who have such a long and rich history, and (spoiler alert), it’s a genuinely sad moment when we lose any of them. All these performances are good. A real discovery is Jonathan Majors (The Last Black Man in San Francisco), who plays the son of one of the group’s members who surprisingly joins his father and becomes that 5th Blood (or does he?). He quickly becomes the heart of the film. He also quickly becomes a star.

Jonathan Majors

But picture ultimately belongs to Delroy Lindo. I can’t imagine another performance this year that will rival this one for a Best Actor Oscar. Lindo is that actor you can’t name, but when you hear his name and see his picture, you say, “Oh, yeah—that guy!” right away. This film is changing all that.

Delroy Lindo

His role in Da 5 Bloods is Shakespearean, as is his performance. The word “towering” is applicable here. He digs deep and aims high, and completely succeeds. If for nothing else, the film is worth viewing for this performance. To say more would be to give away too much detail, about his character and about where the film ultimately goes. But more than the script, more than the journey we see, Lindo holds this film together, and takes it to heights unimagined in the first part of the film.

Da 5 Bloods ultimately comes across as having too many points to make—all at the same intensity—and feels undercooked. Jettisoning some of these points, or giving more time for these myriad points to settle and blend a bit, might have been a good idea. But Lee is Lee, and there is no one like him. Da 5 Bloods not his best, but the central group of actors, and especially Lindo, will cause it to be long remembered.

 

 

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The Three to See: The Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind, and 12 Years a Slave

The Three to See: Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind, and 12 Years Slave

As I wade into where angels fear to tread, I want to make it clear that I am stepping outside the current social discussion on race, and am planting my feet firmly into the history of film. There are many American films dealing with race that make for fascinating and insightful discussion. From Black Like Me to 13th to A Patch of Blue to Selma to Imitation of Life to Cabin in the Sky and Just Mercy, there are so many films coming at racial issues from all different angles that can be dissected, considered, and criticized. Some can even be enjoyed.

But as a student of American film, I’ve been asked about how to delve into the issue of race as seen through this country’s films. One of many ways to look at race and racism in American films is to go back to “a” beginning, hit “Hollywood’s Great Year,” and then move close to the present. All three films listed are, or would have been, Best Picture Winners. Of course, the Oscars weren’t handed out until well over a decade after the first film, The Birth of a Nation, was released. But that film would likely have been an Oscar winner, albeit a controversial one (Can you say Green Book?) OK, perhaps The Cheat might have snagged the prize, but who knows? And that was perhaps even more controversial at the time. In any event, The Birth of a Nation is the most significant and ground-breaking film of its time.

So for a quick trip through American film and race, I recommend viewing these three—and all in context.

The Birth of a Nation (1915)

“Father of Film” D.W. Griffith’s most financially successful and artistically trailblazing film. It’s impossible to overstate the importance of this film to cinema. After years of directing shorts, Griffith created a panoramic spectacle with epic battle scenes, touching family moments, and a variety of cinematic techniques that had never been used so much and so well: irises, pans, color tinting, and rapid editing that increased suspense and preceded Soviet montage by nearly a decade. The acting, too, was more sophisticated than earlier American films, and legendary Lillian Gish became a star whose career ultimately spanned 75 years (1912 to 1987). Griffith put American film on the map as no one else had, and the film became a model of epic filmmaking. It made more money than any film until Gone with the Wind, and it played in the American South until sound came in in 1927.

When introducing it to my students, I usually refer to it as “a breathtakingly racist  masterpiece.” Its original title was The Clansman, (a title considered too tame at the time!) and it celebrated the “need” for the Ku Klux Klan to be formed. If you want to be offended rather than positioning yourself to learn, there are multiple reasons to be offended. There are more racist tropes than can be counted. White actors in blackface play many of the black characters. Black characters are shiftless, criminal, and/or lascivious. And on and on.

Some film professors have dropped the film from their studies of American film. I think that’s a mistake and I consider the film an essential for the serious student. Certainly as a film of influence, the film needs to be seen and appreciated. If you’re familiar with American cinema from say, 1905 to 1914, this film shows an astounding technical advance. But more important is to “never forget,” in this case to never forget that just a little over a century ago, the biggest blockbuster of the times was deeply racist—and not just with an action here or there or the occasional character. It’s racist through and through. It’s very uncomfortable to watch, and should always be. (The tension between artistic appreciation and social revulsion is well documented in this article: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/richard-brody/the-worst-thing-about-birth-of-a-nation-is-how-good-it-is)

Closely connected to the study of the film itself is the reaction around it. President Woodrow Wilson is reputed to have said, “It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true,” though it is likely he said only the first half of that sentence. The NAACP protested against it, as did other groups, ministers, and reformers. Several cities banned its showing altogether.

A fascinating fact, worthy of study today as much as a century ago, is that director Griffith didn’t think of it that way. In fact, he was so appalled by the reaction to the film that he next made Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Through the Ages (usually known as simply Intolerance) in response to what he thought was an intolerant response to his work. Birth’s star, Lillian Gish, also proclaimed throughout her long life that it wasn’t racist, either. Griffith was the son of a Confederate general, and a classic Southern Victorian Gentleman. Ironically, anyone who saw his 1919 Broken Blossoms and nothing else may have thought of him as a Romantic progressive. His films are generally anti-war as well. To say he was a study in contrasts just begins to crack the surface to understanding this man and others like him. To understand that someone can carry such seemingly contradictory positions, and whose positions may show change over time, is the beginning of understanding how to engage and dialogue.

The Birth of a Nation should always be seen by serious film students, especially those that want to understand film history. It should also be seen by those interested in the history of slavery and racism in the U.S. We know 1865 as the end of the Civil War. We know the mid-1960s as the time of significant civil rights legislation. Right in the middle stands a cinematic masterpiece that, for better or worse, laid down a model for great filmmaking and an approach to the cinematic epic, and that artistically expresses sentiments that are still tearing this country apart. We can’t let current cancel culture rob us of the opportunity to learn.

Note: If you’re planning to see the film, see the longest version available. There is a 3-plus- hour version available on YouTube which I would highly recommend. Shorter versions lack the flow and rhythms of the longer versions.

Gone with the Wind (1939)

HBO Max Removes 'Gone With the Wind' | Hollywood Reporter 

This classic film has made headlines lately because of HBO Max’s decision to pull the picture from their streaming lineup, and then to reinstate it with an introduction by TCM’s Jacqueline Stewart. It’s sad that the film has to have a context placed upon it before viewing. The artist in me (and the historian) is hesitant about narrowing a viewer’s experience of a film before they have a chance to see it. Yet being a college professor for over two decades, I’ve seen an increasing lack of historical awareness since I began teaching. Students not only know fewer facts, but also increasingly lack an understanding of how to look at things in their historical context, a loss for my class but a tragedy for society.

Gone with the Wind is still the most financially successful film of all time (accounting for inflation). It was the first film to win eight competitive Oscars and two additional ones, a haul that wasn’t duplicated until  1958’s Gigi. It’s also considered the best studio film of Hollywood’s “greatest year,” a year that included The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Dark Victory, Wuthering Heights, Love Affair, Ninotchka, The Women, Gunga Din, Of Mice and Men, and Dodge City, among many others. While some critics look down on it because it was created during the studio era, it’s a surprisingly deft film, telling a huge story with many players and incidents with economy and grandeur at the same time. Yes, it’s nearly four hours long, but considering the size and breadth of the book, it does a masterful job of keeping its focus and energy. It’s a great model of how to adapt literature into film. Plus it’s gorgeous to look at (thank you, William Cameron Menzies).

Lastly, its performances are great—Oscars to Hollywood newcomer Vivien Leigh, and the first Oscar to a Black performer, Hattie McDaniel. In spite of the demeaning way McDaniel was treated, even at the ceremony itself, it is a small step forward that she won the award over Olivia De Havilland’s Melanie. Whether this was a genuine gesture of appreciation for McDaniel’s good work, or the 1939 version of virtue signaling (of which Hollywood is the uncontested master), it was a first, and a deserved one. And her response to criticism for being in a film that contained so much racism is worthy of at least some discussion:  “I’d rather make seven hundred dollars a week playing a maid than seven dollars being one.”

And yet….and yet…. Its depiction of the Antebellum South is so romantic it can make a viewer forget that this “wonderful world” is not just gone with the wind, but was built on the back of  slaves that are presented as happy, healthy, and just glad to work for the massa. There are probably more evil Whites than Blacks in the film, but it’s the happy devoted slaves that ultimately undermine the film, though Butterfly McQueen’s interpretation of Prissy is more cringe-worthy.

If The Birth of a Nation reflects much of America in 1915, Gone with the Wind reflects both America and Hollywood of the late 1930’s. (Most saw the film during its wide release in early 1940). GWTW is not as blatant in its racism as Birth (being made nearly  25 years later), but the sophistication of its filmmaking and its creation of a believable world conceal a multitude of racist sins. Being more “of a piece” than Birth, it’s a bit harder to pick apart the racist bits and isolate them (with the painful example of Prissy). Conversations between slave owner and slave are generally polite, and Reconstructionists come under the film’s greatest judgment. But this is exactly why this film needs to be seen and studied, as a well-made film that has embedded its racist elements so deeply into the fabric of the film that it’s challenging to locate and expose all of them. And the film is often so enjoyable as an entertainment (with great music by Max Steiner) that one can be hesitant to reach in and pull out those racist strands, lest the whole film come apart. All these perspectives are worthy of examining. Heaven help us if we wind up censoring our pasts, particularly the more unpleasant aspects of them. History is there to learn from, not to reject with ham-fisted dismissals of art.

12 Years a Slave (2013)

Amazon.com: Watch 12 Years a Slave | Prime Video

This is the last of the trio, and one that is also well directed and acted. It clearly shows slavery as evil, and invites the viewer into its anger and frustrations without becoming a polemic. There are several scenes that are difficult to watch. (I love showing one to my film class and watching them squirm—a healthy response.) As much as Gone with the Wind pushes issues of race and slavery down below its surface, 12 Years a Slave (spoiler alert, but hey, read the title again) is a true story about a Northern free Black man who is kidnapped and sold into slavery, and the attendant issues are right there on the surface.

Technically, the film is excellent. The cinematography is often stunning (more on that later), the Oscar-winning screenplay is solid, and the acting is exceptional. Lead Chiwetel Ejiofor found the role of a lifetime, and his talent and natural dignity add greatly to the film. Film newcomer Lupito Nyong’o won an Oscar for her intelligent and emotional performance, one you’ll never forget. Sarah Paulson is also near-perfect as a woman you love to hate.

There are also two supporting male performances that are often overlooked, though one was nominated for several awards at the time. Michael Fassbender plays a conflicted slaveowner who can’t reconcile his deeply held racial prejudice and belief in slavery (and its varying levels of power) with his lust for Nyong’o’s character. He’s a man cracking under the contradictions. Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch, also very strong, plays a man with his own contradictions. He’s trying to be a good and moral man in the context of the slave-owning South, and it’s an artistic joy to watch him struggle with the implications of these various forces. Again, both are worthy of deeper examination as characters reflecting the kind of real people that are both perpetrators and to some degree, victims of the system of slavery.

There have been several naysayers, of course, and they have their reasons for what I would still consider nitpicking. One is that the images are so often so beautiful that they tend to distract from the horrors of what is being shown. This is more of an individual response to art, and some might argue that the tension between the two elements makes a stronger statement. In any event, the film is an enjoyable experience from an artistic point of view, and those that want more realism or more emphatic denunciations from their films that address controversial social issues can reasonably be disappointed (though I would argue that the story, direction, and acting convey a strong enough message).

Lastly, there is the issue of the white savior. I understand how frustrating that can be for a viewer who is tired of seeing the big strong White man come to the defense of the non-White characters. But the film has two big reasons why this doesn’t really apply. Yes, the person who ultimately frees our main character, Solomon Northup, is White. But he is a minor character, and the issue of self-service isn’t present with him. I’m sure Northup didn’t care about the color of the person who brought him back to his family. Also, this is a true story, and the man was White. There is enough playing around with history in film lately (see Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, which I liked, and Netflix’s Hollywood, the less we comment on the better).  We don’t need to reconstruct our history to adjust it to our current preferences; doing so robs us of a great opportunity to learn, as well as setting a fearful precedent.

These three films are important, for cinematic as well as social reasons. They shouldn’t be censored in any way, but should be viewed, reacted to, thought about, and discussed. There are many other films addressing these issues, of course, but IMHO these are the three to see for an overview of where America has been and where it is now, and how art has intersected with ideology over the same period.

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Two Films from the Fifties: Niagara and Les Girls

Note: It’s been a long time since I’ve had time to write for this space. The pandemic hit hard, as I was just getting accustomed to handling four college courses (two were new). Once we went online, I had to say goodbye to my normal life and worked 60 hours a week just to stay on top of things. (My students had it worse, I’m sure!)

When that ended, a new writing project presented itself, and I have been focusing on that to the exclusion of pretty much everything else. I have not been able to see as many films as I would have liked during this time, but I did see a few oldies, including some Greta Garbo and John Gilbert films. Of course no one has been to the theater, but I’m looking forward to that, and to figuring out how to keep this site going while doing everything else. We’ll see!

Niagara (1953) 

Niagara (1953): Revisiting the film noir classic starring Marilyn ... This is a perfect film to see in the summer. I’d been aware of it for years, and you’re reminded of it when you visit the Falls (which is a little over an hour away from where I live). It’s a noir, a gorgeously shot Technicolor film, and a “Hitchcock lite” film that is still vastly entertaining on many levels. (Direction is by Henry Hathaway, director of the John Wayne True Grit, the classic The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, and several segments of How the West Was Won).

While not wanting to spoil anything, the plot involves a couple whose marriage is clearly in need of repair (Marilyn Monroe and Joseph Cotten) and one taking a delayed honeymoon (Jean Peter, who shines, and Max Showalter, who irritates). The story is intriguing and contains twist and turns that keep it constantly engaging. The cinematography by Joseph MacDonald (My Darling Clementine, Panic in the Streets, The Sand Pebbles, and The Young Lions) is rich in color and constantly reminds me of Robert Burks’ work for many Hitchcock films, especially North by Northwest. It walks a tight line between beautiful imagery and the canted angles of the best noirs.

Joseph Cotten is glowering throughout, and only an adequate substitute for the preferred James Mason, who would have lent a darker and more layered menace to the character. He’s solid but not more than that. The real standout in terms of acting is Jean Peters, better known then and now as Howard Hughes’ girlfriend and wife. She is the one who holds the film together.

The main male parts aside from Cotten are embarrassing. Showalter (known mostly for his television work and for playing Horace Vandergelder in “Hello Dolly” more than 3000 times) as Peters’ husband is always smiling. Always. Doofus is a word that comes to mind. His part is poorly written, and he never listens to his wife at the most important times(who curiously never really presses her points, which is also a problem). He’s more concerned with his career path than his lovely and intelligent wife, and is far too dismissive of her—to an infuriating extent. Don Wilson as his corporate superior is just as ridiculous in his own way, and needs constant loving input from his wife to get a clue. She is played by Lurene Tuttle, who is a delight in every scene she is in. Between Cotten, Showalter, Wilson, and Richard Allan as Monroe’s character’s boyfriend) (spoiler alert) here is a case to be made that all the men in this film are different degrees of stupid and bad. Fortunately, the boatman is normal.

The setting is well used, both visually and in terms of plot. I had thought that this was a mystery that had a few background shots of the falls. Not so. The area figures prominently in the film, and is a major character.

As overwhelming as the Falls can sometimes be in the film, there is one force of nature that competes and nearly dominates—Marilyn Monroe in 1953 (also her year of How to Marry a Millionaire and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes). She is just on the cusp of her persona overtaking her acting here, and it makes for a fascinating tension. She does a decent acting job, and she works to stay in character. But it’s clear already that Monroe was always going to be bigger than her parts, and bigger indeed than any film she would be in from then on. Her introduction is startling, especially for 1953. She’s served up sexually (and almost shockingly so for the fifties) from the first moment, and that’s who she is throughout the film. Her walk might be somewhat laughable now, but she still seems to make it work. (Apparently her long walk in the film away from the camera is the longest in film history.)  I don’t think there is a film personality today that does what she did onscreen back then. In eye-popping Technicolor (where she thrived visually), she is the 1953 version of PG-13 when she stands still and inches toward an R when she moves. The setting is used as well as any well-known setting in Hollywood history, but in a head-to-head between the Falls and Monroe, I’m not sure who dominates.

I’d always thought of Niagara as second-rate, and mainly for a Monroe moving from actress to icon. The film, if you can put aside some of the frustrating and condescending male characters, is fun to watch, the story is perfect “noir in color,” the camerawork is lush and yet darkly stylish, and the Falls do much more than provide a backdrop. Not quite a must-see, but close.

Les Girls (1957)

Les Girls. 1957. Directed by George Cukor | MoMALes Girls (yes, a terrible title) is Rashomon: The Musical, only way lighter in tone. Like its Japanese predecessor, it presents several stories that don’t add up, and the so-called “truth” is never arrived at. Other than that, it’s a late term “golden period” MGM musical that stars Gene Kelly, but is directed by George Cukor, a smaller effort squeezed between gigantic films such as 1954’s A Star is Born and 1964’s My Fair Lady.

The story is piffle, but the dialogue is often very witty, as might be expected from a Cukor film. Everyone lies, but to what degree we don’t know. The plot involves a series of testimonies from two of the three central women, none of whom are remembered today with the slight exception of Mitzi Gaynor, star of South Pacific. The stories don’t jive, and the third person testifying doesn’t exactly clear things up. The rest of the film is similar to the energy and bite of 1939’s The Women (also Cukor) but with men.

Kelly plays the manager of a dance troupe with three female stars. Relationships crisscross and hijinks ensue. The “what is truth?” element is not the central notion in the film, though it is in terms of theme, and there is a sign carrier that is a little too on the nose (you’ll see what I mean if you see the film). What is central to the film are not the musical numbers, which you might think when you think of Kelly. It’s the three women, their relationships with one another, their romantic endeavors, and the situations they create and find themselves in.

The performances by Kay Kendall and Taina Elg (center and right, above as two of the female leads were Golden Globe winners (yes, both winning Best Actress — Comedy or Musical), and Kendall is delightfully over-the-top. Kendall’s death just two years later at 32 is a loss not only for her husband Rex Harrison, but for film.

But from a film history perspective, I found Kelly and Gaynor to be of more interest. Kelly, of course, is the main performer in the numbers, and vocally he is much stronger than he was just two years earlier in It’s Always Fair Weather. But not only did he not direct the film, which lacks the particular Kelly drive and energy, he also didn’t choreograph the dance numbers. Watching Kelly do more “modern” numbers under the command of choreographer Jack Cole was intriguing, as Kelly was rarely a “hired hand.” This makes Kelly less of a presence in the film, but his acting and dancing are of a piece with the rest of the film, and what he does fits in nicely. (It was his last film under his MGM contract.) You can see age creeping up ever so slowly on him, but this time it fits with his character, and he doesn’t have the age gap often seen in some of his other films (An American in Paris, Singin’ in the Rain)

Mitzi Gaynor is something of an enigma. She is lovely, a good singer, a decent actress, and a very good dancer. But the final effect is less than the sum its parts. She’s just a little too contained, too deliberate to really let go. She’s pretty and a little cute, but not as pretty as Grace Kelly or as cute as Debbie Reynolds. She does everything she is supposed to with style, but she is not distinctive in any way, like a Leslie Caron, or a Cyd Charisse, or even Vera Ellen. Her duet with Kelly is fine, but lacks the energy and/or fire of his work with any of those three dancers. It doesn’t help that the songs are second-rate Cole Porter (his last film score before his death).

Still, under Cukor’s hand, all the elements that might have flown in separate directions manage to come together. The film is not in the league of the great MGM musicals, but is delightful and solid. Again, not a just-see, but probably a will-enjoy.

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Emma.

Not sure who thought the world needed another version of Jane Austen’s Emma. Perhaps there is always room for a great adaptation of a classic work. But in the case of the newly released Emma. (yes, the period is part of the title), not so much.

This film was released in February, commonly known among those watching film releases as the month that films get “dumped” into theaters. (One of the podcasts I most respect just referred to last month as “Dumpuary.”) It’s past Oscar season, and before the big-movie releases of late spring and early summer, and far from Halloween horror films or the Oscar-bait films of the last couple of months of the year.

Where does one begin with Emma.? The film opens with energy and zest, with music and a certain jaunty flavor. When fan favorite Bill Nighy comes downstairs with a jump, and the music comes in, it seems as if we may be in for a new version a la Tom Jones. After all, anything with Bill Nighy must be good, right? Unfortunately, and I thought I would never write this, his presence adds nothing to the picture. He plays Emma’s grumpy dad, and is wasted in the part. The same goes for the talented Josh O’Connor (The Crown, The Durrells in Corfu, Les Misérables—the miniseries). His performance as Mr. Elton is all over the place and rather ridiculous, even accounting for the character.

The leads hardly fare better. Anya Taylor-Joy (best known for Peaky Blinders and 2015’s  The Witch) hits all her marks, but never captures the heart. Both Gwyneth Paltrow in her star-making role in the 1996 version and Romola Garai in the 2009 TV miniseries leave her in the dust. Emma is a hard role to play, as she begins as self-centered and immature and is challenged to grow. Taylor-Joy doesn’t glow in the role, and lacks charm, leaving it difficult for the viewer to connect.

Johnny Flynn’s Mr. Knightley fares better, as he is the only one we as viewers can track with. But he also brings an intelligence and humor to the role, that, while underused, most certainly helps the film. Call the Midwife’s Miranda Hart (she was Chummy) manages to be obnoxious as her character needs to be while also drawing great sympathy to herself, which only makes Emma seem even more distant and difficult to connect with. It’s the same problem with Mia Goth’s Harriet, who is so naïve and naturally charming that Emma’s manipulations seem especially cruel. And unfortunately, Frank Churchill and Miss Fairfax only seem to belong together because the script says so.

The problems are many, but perhaps lie primarily in the direction. The director, Autumn de Wilde, has only directed shorts up to this point (and is well known for her photography). Perhaps the lack of flow is due to her lack of experience in features. She hasn’t created a new world here for us to embrace; there are simply too many different things going on—especially in the varying temperatures of performance. Are any two characters here in the same film for more than a few minutes?

The non-diegetic use of music is intriguing. I had hoped that the period music would lend something to the admittedly lovely visual proceedings, but the short musical interludes serve as chapter divisions or interruptions that distract more than delight. Each segment was lovely to hear, but their role in the film as a whole was confusing.

We can hope that perhaps this will propel Mr. Flynn’s and Ms. Goth’s careers; Ms. Hart seems to be doing just fine. Bottom line: Instead of going to the theater to see this for an Austen fix, take another look at the 1996 or 2009 version. Both are worth the rewatch.

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Jojo Rabbit

At the end of 1942’s Now, Voyager, Bette Davis turns to Paul Henreid, and utters the now classic line, “Oh, Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.” I was reminded of that line when I caught Jojo Rabbit just before it left the theaters. Writer/director/actor Taika Waititi reaches for the stars here, and while he doesn’t always make it that far, he at least makes it to the moon on a regular basis.

An absurdist comedy about Hitler, war, hate, and anti-Semitism in particular isn’t normally the basis of belly laughs. Of course, one thinks of 1968’s The Producers and especially its “hit” number, “Springtime for Hitler.” That was outrageous on so many levels just 23 years after the war ended. Perhaps enough time has passed for most of us to enjoy a Hitler send-up now, especially since Waititi adheres to Producers writer/director Mel Brooks’ example of comedy (especially extreme comedy) being the best revenge: ““The only way to get even with anybody is to ridicule them,” said Brooks. “So, the only real way I could get even with Hitler and company was to bring them down with laughter.”

To describe exactly where the laughs come from would be a spoiler, but suffice it to say that Waititi as Hitler, the imaginary childhood friend of the young lead, externally visualizing the young man’s coming to terms with life as a preteen and Hitler Youth, puts out lines and character readings that are as funny as anything in any recent film. Those lines and situations are a mashup of 1940’s dialogue, current dialogue, childish thoughts, and precocious thinking that is far beyond the scope of a 10-year-old. It’s a tightrope walk, and it occasionally falters, usually because joke number four isn’t quite as funny as joke number 3. But the laughs come fast enough to make you forget the occasional stumble; the absurdist scenario of a moody, rowdy, and occasionally ridiculous Fuhrer can apparently go a long way. The acting by Waititi is both over-the-top and right on the nose. In a less competitive year, Waititi’s performance might have been Oscar-nominated.

Aside from a never-should-work-but-it-somehow-does central concept, the film sails along on its casting, with some absurdities as resonant as the imaginary Hitler. Those absurdities include the ever-reliable Sam Rockwell, whose character manages to begin as a dark joke and eventually becomes a trusted figure, and then…well, you’ll have to see the film. His character’s arc might have been literally unbelievable in another director’s or actor’s hands, but here it helps hold the film together and grant it the humanity the film has been seeking all along. Rebel Wilson has a role as equally ridiculous at first, but she doesn’t change, which makes sense on one level, but is disappointing on another. Wilson is a tough comic persona to keep under control. Like Bill Murray, Wilson is often in another film of her own within a film. Waititi manages to keep those comic energies focused within this film, but barely.

More attention, however, has been focused on the two leads, newcomer Roman Griffin Davis, and Oscar-nominated (Best Supporting Actress) Scarlett Johansson. Davis is good, and seems to get better as the film goes along. He’s probably got a great career ahead of him. Truth be told, however, his best friend Yorki (Archie Yates) steals every scene he’s in.

The heart of the film is Johansson, who had somehow been forgotten as one of our finest young actresses. She is smart, warm, and funny as the mother, and provides the soft and creamy center of the film, keeping things firmly on the ground and preparing us for the turn to serious toward the end. Last year was a banner year for her, with a Best Actress nomination for her stellar work in Marriage Story in addition to her nomination for this role. I hope it isn’t too long before we realize that she is one of the best actresses working today, and that we put our awareness of her talent before our awareness of her beauty.

As moving as the film often is, it really doesn’t present anything especially new or fresh thematically. War is bad—check. Hate is bad—check. Once we meet and connect with folks, it’s less difficult to hate them—check. What is new is the deep dive Waititi takes into our experience of Hitler, using the Brooks approach of humor, but getting closer to the historical figure by having him not be represented on stage, but presented as Hitler himself on screen, even with the distancing effects of humor and the active re-imagining of the German leader by a very imaginative child. It’s a bold move, and it works.

I am old enough to have a conflicted reaction here. My father was a POW in WWII, and the long-term effects of that experience had a direct and negative impact and me and my family. (I often joke—with a serious lining—that I blame all my problems on Hitler.) Plus, as a student of history (and especially the war), I am aware of what the real Hitler released upon Europe and the world, and am appalled to my soul with his hatred of the Jews. Getting me to laugh at this particular expression of Hitler is a triumph of sorts, and perhaps an indicator that we are far enough away from the mid-twentieth century to look at this with new eyes. I can’t completely replace my old perspective with this new absurdist one. But I could put t it on hold for 108 minutes.

Waititi’s reach exceeds his grasp at times, but with Thor:Ragnarok and now this film, Waititi has established himself as a smart and accomplished comic sensibility willing to go to great lengths for his comic vision, and talented enough to make the stretching worth it.

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2020 Oscar Show

Predictable. Shocking. Way too long, with way too much music. Again, we had an Oscar show that had all the potential of actually being good, and again it grabbed defeat out of the jaws of victory.

It all started well, with a very talented Janelle Monáe singing softly and sweetly (and charmingly) with Mr. Rogers’ theme song, bouncing off of Tom Hanks in the front row and therefore buying our full engagement. Then the song went loud and overly, unnecessarily big, with Monáe regrettably making the song about herself for a moment.  Big and energetic eventually turned into too much altogether, and the whole presentation got fat and overproduced.

The Oscars were hostless again this year (not a good idea if they are going to keep having new people introduce new people who introduce other people). Recalling better times were Steve Martin and Chris Rock, former hosts that had fun reminding us that they weren’t hosting, and making us miss their presence throughout the rest of the show.

Brad Pitt started us off well with a predicted win for Best Supporting Actor. All of Hollywood wanted this, and other than an unnecessary political reference, it was a very good acceptance speech, setting a bar that went unchallenged after that. The acting prizes, in fact, were all predictable. Laura Dern gave the second-best acting acceptance speech, lovingly referencing her acting legend parents Diane Ladd and Bruce Dern at the end. Nice job.

Joaquin Phoenix’s speech for Joker was sincere but all over the place, and at times quite uncomfortable. After seeing an improvement in his speeches over the awards season, it was a disappointment to hear such meandering expressions that never came together. Note: there will be memes. A bit less confusing but just as wandering was Renée Zellweger’s speech for her Judy win. She was trying to say how looking to our heroes can unite us (ostensibly in this divided social age), which was a good idea. But it spun out of control, and like Phoenix’s speech, simply went on too long. Dear four winners: You all knew you were going to win, so why didn’t you ALL have a concise and meaningful SHORT speech at the ready? Please check out Patty Duke (The Miracle Worker) and Jane Wyman (Johnny Belinda) for the right way to do an acceptance speech.

Music was far too present in this awards show (and this from a musician). Questions: Why, why, why do all the songs have to be presented in full? The only song that really worked was Cynthia Orivo’s “Hang On,” which was a presentation that was worthy of the time spent listening to it. It must be said, however, that Chrissy Metz’ singing of the Breakthrough song “I’m Standing With You” sounded better than anything she’s done on “This is Us”. And Elton John’s version of his sure-to-win song demonstrated why it didn’t deserve to win. But quality aside, full presentations are a waste of time. Please, Oscar producers, find a much better way of handling this (Call me….I have ideas).

Seventeen years after Enimem didn’t show up at the Oscars for receive his Oscar for “Lose Yourself” from 8 Mile, he shows up and does it here. Why, why? As a performance, it was pretty good, if not bleeped countless times. But why was it here—to lengthen an already overlong show? Completely unnecessary.

The “In Memoriam” presentation was music done right, and not overdone–a lovely if occasionally hesitant version of “Yesterday” by Billie Eilish with just enough visual references to honor those we’ve lost without stretching it out too long. Nicely done.

Clothing was an improvement over the outfits at this year’s Golden Globe awards. After all the #MeToo activity in the past few years, it was disconcerting to see far too many women presenting themselves as sex objects with their outfits. Not here. Nearly all were attractive without asking us to gawk, and while they were occasionally a bit overdone, they weren’t embarrassingly underdone.

The Academy did things differently with the acting and musical score categories. The his/her nominated movie. They’ve turned that into an uncomfortable blend of scenes from the actor in question, bouncing from film to different film to different film. I’m all for seeing as many scenes as I can see at the Oscars, but the scenes were confusing and tended to dilute rather than reinforce our understanding and enjoyment of the actors’ hard work.

The music nominated for Best Score was given an exciting treatment by featuring a female conductor showcasing the scores with visuals from the films. Fast and fun. Why can’t the Best Song be treated the same way—as a quick reminder of the song rather than a full performance? Why, why, why? There was a “tribute” to film music that rammed together images and sounds of various famous scores that looked and sounded like a series of jump cuts edited by Godard to intentionally confound and confuse. And then the mid-show rap recap of the first half by Utkarsh Ambudkar was both clever and needlessly time-consuming. Clearly the Academy doesn’t quite know how to feature music in its award shows; we already had the Grammys—we don’t need a film version of them.

The awards themselves? Well, I got 21 out of 24 correct in my predictions, as I thought that 1917 would get Best Director and Best Picture. I wasn’t disappointed on two counts. One, I tied as a winner of my Oscar pool, and how could I be disappointed that the film that will likely go down as truly the best of the year won these two awards?  (For the curious, I also missed Production Design, which quite deservedly went to Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood.)

Of course, time will tell if this acceptance of the foreign-language film Parasite was a self-congratulatory one-off, or a sign of different things to come. Analysis can go any which way depending on one’s degree of cynicism, Academy history, and hopefulness. I think it is something of a game-changer, however. Brilliant non-British international films may have a chance of winning more than acting awards in the future—awards for screenplay, direction, and film for this film were stunning, and may have opened the doors for more of the same in the future. This may pose new problems for the Academy in how to handle this, as confusion may arise that challenge the generally accepted notion that these are national awards with the occasional reach outside the country. Or…this could also be the Academy’s grand gesture of self-congratulations and virtue signaling that will take care of (read: sideline) other good foreign films for a long time. We’ll see.

Bottom line: The show is too long, has way too much music, has little to no control over the acceptance speeches (which should be given a great deal of latitude of course), and is in desperate need of a host who can pass the PC test (can anyone at this point?) and pull things together. Producers: just contact me, and I’d be happy to be on the production team for next year. I also teach film at a school that’s known for its engineering school; perhaps I can snag a couple of them for their input.

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2020 Oscar Predictions

UPDATED FRIDAY, February 7, 2020

The Oscar race of 2020 is considered by experts to be among the most predictable (hence, boring) in many a year. Even the usual cry of “there’s always some big surprise” is muted as most think that the winners are all wrapped up at this point. That’s probably true. But here are my predictions anyway, with my comments following some of them.

Best Picture Nominees

“Ford v Ferrari”
“The Irishman”
“Jojo Rabbit”
“Joker”
“Little Women”
“Marriage Story”
“1917”
“Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood”
“Parasite”

The winner: 1917. It would be a shock at this point, with wins by the PGA (no, not the golf association), DGA, and even the BAFTAs. Apparently the powers that be accidentally had perfect timing for this film’s release, which any other year might have been considered too late in the awards season.

Comments: This is been the best year for films in a long time. Every film nominated will be remembered fondly, and most are going to be classics. The Irishman was thought to be a lock months ago, as was Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood earlier in the year. But they will have to be content with the nominations.

Lead Actor

Antonio Banderas, “Pain and Glory”
Leonardo DiCaprio, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”
Adam Driver, “Marriage Story”
Joaquin Phoenix, “Joker”
Jonathan Pryce, “The Two Popes”

The winner: Joaquin Phoenix. Lots of awards from the guilds, plus the BAFTA, plus this often strange presenter has been pulling it together in his acceptance speeches in a clear bid to win. It’s overdue for him. But any other actor listed is worthy as well this year. This may have been Leo’s most complete performance, Adam Driver might have won in any other year, the same for Pryce, and the Banderas nomination is a career award.

Lead Actress

Cynthia Erivo, “Harriet”
Scarlett Johansson, “Marriage Story”
Saoirse Ronan, “Little Women”
Charlize Theron, “Bombshell”
Renee Zellweger, “Judy”

The winner: Zellweger. It’s been hers to lost for ages now, and that’s not going to happen. Erivo was unfortunately just a token nomination, but a good one nevertheless. Johansson didn’t own Marriage Story like Adam Driver did, so this was never going to happen for her this year. Ronan is already a great actress, but she is moving into “nominated many times without a win” category. She’ll get hers, hopefully sooner than later. Zellweger was great, though, and owned this film like no other actress owned theirs this year. Sometimes the best “role” wins.

Supporting Actor

Tom Hanks, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”
Anthony Hopkins, “The Two Popes”
Al Pacino, “The Irishman”
Joe Pesci, “The Irishman”
Brad Pitt, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”

The winner: Pitt. Nearly everyone in the industry wants to see him win this, and he’s been playing the awards circuit like an orchestra conductor. Hopkins could have won this deservedly, and the argument that Pesci deserved it above the others could be easily made. But it’s Brad’s year.

Supporting Actress

Kathy Bates, “Richard Jewell”
Laura Dern, “Marriage Story”
Scarlett Johansson, “Jojo Rabbit”
Florence Pugh, “Little Women”
Margot Robbie, “Bombshell”

The winner: Laura Dern. She’s won every other group’s award for this, and it will be well deserved. She’s Hollywood royalty (google her parents), and it was a great performance.

Comment: The “snub” thing. Too much ink has been spilled using this overused and misapplied term. Those who nominated apparently wanted to “snub” Jennifer Lopez here for Hustlers. Or maybe, maybe, they just though the other five were more deserving. This looks like it could have been an actual snub (rare), as this performer is worth a half billion, and did the halftime performance at the biggest TV event of the year. Maybe people thought that was enough. Maybe they just didn’t like her. Or maybe they just didn’t like the film, and overlooked her performance because of that. Or maybe, maybe, they just thought the other performances were better.

Director

Martin Scorsese, “The Irishman”
Todd Phillips, “Joker”
Sam Mendes, “1917”
Quentin Tarantino, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”
Bong Joon Ho, “Parasite”

The winner: Mendes. He’s pretty much wrapped it up with the guilds, and now with the BAFTA award, it’s likely his. And the Academy loves technically complex films, and loves to award their directors.

Comment: I suppose there is an outside chance that Ho might win for Parasite. I would have predicted that as a real possibility a month ago. But the love for 1917 just keeps growing. Scorsese is getting ignored about now, which is sad because The Irishman may be remembered in the future as his magnum opus. Same with Tarantino. Any other year, either of them could have won with their film.

Animated Feature

“How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World,” Dean DeBlois
“I Lost My Body,” Jeremy Clapin
“Klaus,” Sergio Pablos
“Missing Link,” Chris Butler
“Toy Story 4,”  Josh Cooley

Winner: Toy Story  4

Comment: Klaus has been receiving a lot of love lately. And the others have as well. They may well cancel each other out.

Adapted Screenplay

“The Irishman,” Steven Zaillian
“Jojo Rabbit,” Taika Waititi
“Joker,” Todd Phillips, Scott Silver
“Little Women,” Greta Gerwig
“The Two Popes,” Anthony McCarten

The winner: Jojo Rabbit

Comment: My first guess was Little Women, as I think the entire Academy wanted to award Gerwig for her work, especially since she was “snubbed” for a directing nomination. But the momentum has moved to Jojo.

Original Screenplay

“Knives Out,” Rian Johnson
“Marriage Story,” Noah Baumbach
“1917,” Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Quentin Tarantino
“Parasite,” Bong Joon-ho, Jin Won Han

Winner: Parasite

Comment: Parasite is greatly respected, and many will feel that no wins for Picture and Director will be short shrift, and that its guaranteed win for Best International Film isn’t enough. I was hoping for Marriage Story, but the writer-director will just have to wait.

Cinematography

“The Irishman,” Rodrigo Prieto
“Joker,” Lawrence Sher
“The Lighthouse,” Jarin Blaschke
“1917,” Roger Deakins
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Robert Richardson

Winner: 1917. No doubt. This will be legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins’ second award, and it might easily have been his fifth or sixth. No question on this one.

Best Documentary Feature

“American Factory,” Julia Rieichert, Steven Bognar
“The Cave,” Feras Fayyad
“The Edge of Democracy,” Petra Costa
“For Sama,” Waad Al-Kateab, Edward Watts
“Honeyland,” Tamara Kotevska, Ljubo Stefanov

The winner: American Factory

Comment: This is produced by the Obamas. For Hollywood, that’s all they need to know.

Best International Feature Film

“Corpus Christi,” Jan Komasa
“Honeyland,” Tamara Kotevska, Ljubo Stefanov
“Les Miserables,” Ladj Ly
“Pain and Glory,” Pedro Almodovar
“Parasite,” Bong Joon Ho

The winner: Parasite (see best original screenplay above). In a year of locks, this is the lockiest.

Film Editing

“Ford v Ferrari,” Michael McCusker, Andrew Buckland
“The Irishman,” Thelma Schoonmaker
“Jojo Rabbit,” Tom Eagles
“Joker,” Jeff Groth
“Parasite,” Jinmo Yang

The winner: Ford v Ferrari

Comment: The American Cinema Editors award went to Parasite. But Ford v Ferrari is just a normal film without its editing.

Sound Editing

“Ford v Ferrari,” Don Sylvester
“Joker,” Alan Robert Murray
“1917,” Oliver Tarney, Rachel Tate
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Wylie Stateman
“Star Wars: The Rise of SkyWalker,” Matthew Wood, David Acord

The winner: Ford v Ferrari

Comment: People are still arguing about what this category means, and how it differs from the next category. I just hope Joker doesn’t win, and I have a soft spot for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Tarantino’s film “deserves” to win—whatever that means—but we’ll see.

Sound Mixing

“Ad Astra”
“Ford v Ferrari”
“Joker”
“1917”
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”

The winner: 1917

Comments: What’s fascinating about this year’s films is that they major in different applications of visual effects. Endgame is a classic and important superhero movie with high production values. The de-aging process was put to its best use in The Irishman. The Lion King is an unusual film in that it’s made to NOT look like an animated film. And Star Wars is Star Wars. Minds brighter than mine think 1917 will win, but for reasons I don’t quite understand or agree with. In a year of outstanding visual effects, no one film—pardon me—stands out.

 

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1917

What recent film reminded me of Psycho, Gravity, Million Dollar Baby, Birdman, Rope, The Revenant, True Grit, All Quiet on the Western Front, Paths of Glory, The Searchers, Deuteronomy 20:19-21, and Psalm 1:3 (the last two being Bible references)? Why, that would be 1917, of course! (Details at the addendum below).

1917 is the recently released World War I film that is snatching up the Best Picture awards from a surprising number of groups, starting with the Golden Globes, and is now, with the PGA award, the surprising frontrunner in a year of very good films. If you know anything about it at all, it’s that it is created to appear as one long take. It’s an achievement, but it’s also an experience, and more touching than some critics are giving it credit for.

The technological wonder of it all is legitimate artistically, to a point; the plot involves getting from point A to point B alive, and the one-take approach gives us an unbroken experience with our leads. It can be distracting for some, but my experience with it was a combination of connection to the plot, identification with the main players, and a joy of experiencing a dazzling technical display. Knowing that it was the work of legendary Roger Deakins (who will surely win his second Oscar for this) was part of my enjoyment.

Critics are correct in that the plot is thin. But so what? That’s a topic worthy of much discussion, and as an American, I am supposed to be guilty of putting too much emphasis on plot. A simple plot is neither a good or bad thing in itself; here the simplicity helps keep focus, and the main goal stays the main goal. Making it through alive and delivering a message is always kept in the forefront, and with that always in place, we can continually connect with both the actor/s and the self-conscious but stunning visual approach.

The screenplay is both surprisingly good and occasionally hokey. With a single-minded focus encapsulated in the simulation of an unbroken shot, emotion might seem to have no place. Not true (spoiler alert, big-time). But with the death of Lance Corporal Blake, we are forced to stop, and we are forced to see what it looks like to see a young man die. It’s also a transformative scene for Lance Corporal Schofield, who inherits the assigned task—and the film–from Blake and must shift into another gear internally (and then must show those changes to the viewer subtly but externally, which he does). There are some genuine moments that will take you out of your seat, and one or two that you don’t see coming. The ending is also traditional but well-done, in that reserved British way. The simple plot also adds a layer when (spoiler alert again), the men are told to make sure that the delivery of their message is witnessed by others.

The hokeyness may be in the eye, mind, and brain of the beholder. But the sequence of the French girl and the baby seems a bit much, and too much of a classic war trope to be fresh. Our lead does seem to escape a good deal more than might be expected. The whole cherry tree scene should have been left on the proverbial cutting room floor (proverbial because this is shot in digital). Lastly, the appearance of a whole group of could-have-been-helpful British officers is strange in timing, to say the least.

Deakins (along with director Sam Mendes) is known for his gorgeous images, and while the film seems to be about camera movement, there are impressive images throughout. Specifically, the “war is hell” cliché is visualized more than once, and while the film never goes Terrance Malick on the viewer, the shots of nature and water are never less than beautiful.

The casting is typical and unusual at the same time. The two leads are relative unknowns, a given for this kind of film where we are supposed to connect with a character, his tasks, and his environment rather than a star. Fortunately, the acting is stellar, and in a year with weaker male lead performances, George MacKay may have been in the running for acting awards (though the script doesn’t allow him the big Oscar-y moments that the Academy loves to nominate). What I found fascinating were the “important” people the soldiers meet along the way, each one a British film or television star. Of course, our first big name is Oscar winner and forever-Mr.-Darcy Colin Firth. Then we get a messed-up Andrew Scott, looking distracted, upset, and less than his handsome self. Then there is Mark Strong, who gives the “extra information” that moves the intensity of the plot up a notch. Somewhere along the line (not to give too much away) we get Oscar nominee and forever-Sherlock-Holmes Benedict Cumberbatch and, finally, Richard Madden, all taking their place as stakes in the ground of the script. It’s an approach that is worthy of further thought and study, as the familiarity of the actor gives us an instant connection, but can risk taking us out of the film entirely.

I agree with critics who wonder if this film will stand the test of time, and even a second viewing. Much will be lost in a second viewing, as we know what happens all along the way. But the enjoyment of the technical triumph may well make it even more rewarding; this is a time-will-tell scenario. But the audience for my viewing was riveted throughout, and was as hushed and engaged as any recent film audience I’ve encountered. This is a film that is as intense as a murder mystery, and that may be the reason some stay away. But the film is structured solidly enough, and has its emotional moments; it will likely become a classic. And once you step back from the main characters and the plot, this is a film with enough comments on war to fuel a myriad of master’s theses.

Last thought: 2019 has been a very good year for film. Just look at the nominees for Best Picture (which hardly constitute all that was good last year). The Irishman, while being slightly denigrated for being too similar to previous Scorsese films—a ridiculous charge in the light of its elegiac approach—will be considered a masterwork in the future. Parasite is already a classic. Marriage Story is taking longer to find its place in film history, but it will be considered a great film in time. And Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is not only Tarantino’s best, but has already carved out a place for itself among modern great films. 1917 arrived late, and its look makes it something of a standalone. No, it’s not “like” the other films in this paragraph, and shouldn’t be compared (though it will—a downside of awards season). But it will definitely earn its place among the great war films, and its depths (which are there in spite of its attractive superficial technical characteristics) will be plumbed and admired in time.

Addendum (spoiler alerts)

Psycho: The film kills its main character early, and the film is then carried by another.

Gravity: A huge technical achievement with a long (apparent) tracking shot.

Birdman: See Gravity, but the whole film is one long (apparent) tracking shot.

Rope: See Birdman.

The Searchers: A simple plot is made more complex with some added information (in the Western, the thought that Ethan might not simply rescue Debbie).

Million Dollar Baby: A film that appeared late in the season, apparently from nowhere, and gobbled up all the major awards.  

The Revenant: Our 1917 hero goes through some similar tough times in nature, and the Oscar-winning cinematography is often uninterrupted.

True Grit: Because it contains some stunning Deakins imagery.

 All Quiet on the Western Front: The great early classic WWI film, featuring an emotional death scene, and because it too was strong and beautiful.

Paths of Glory: Another classic WWI film, with all those reverse tracking shots through the trenches.

Deuteronomy 20:19-21: Leave the fruit trees alone!

Psalm 1:3 Because of the last shots of our hero. (You’ll have to look it up….)

 

 

 

 

 

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