One Night in Miami…

One Might in Miami… is an extraordinary film. For one, it’s an accomplished work from a first-time director, Regina King, already in the history books for winning Best Supporting Actress for 2018’s If Beale Street Could Talk (https://film-prof.com/2019/01/20/if-beale-street-could-talk/). It has a nearly unbelievable plot, but only in the “Wow, this really happened!” way. Imagine being in on a conversation with Cassius Clay (right before becoming Muhammad Ali), NFL star/actor Jim Brown, Malcolm X, and legendary blues singer Sam Cooke (“You Send Me,” “Twistin’ the Night Away,” etc.), all together in a hotel room after Clay’s big (and surprise) victory over Sonny Liston. Playwright Kemp Powers (writer/director of Pixar’s recent Soul) did imagine just that a few years ago, and the film is based on his play about their night together.

Reimaging a stage work always has its challenges, but eviscerating a work’s theatrical roots isn’t always the most cinematic thing one can do. Yes, the film is talky, but what glorious, revealing talk. Yes, it recalls its stage roots, especially in the first 20 minutes or so. But when it settles into its most contained space (a hotel room), the film really takes off. That’s when the other extraordinary elements come in most strongly: the dialogue and the performances.

What is so engaging and thought-provoking about the dialogue is that it presents perspectives and struggles of these four black leaders (leaders in very different ways) in ways that point to larger issues without making its four main characters into either caricatures or symbols. That in itself is astonishing. No one simply “stands in” for this philosophy or that oppressed group. It can be read that way, but I would invite anyone interpreting the film this way to look deeper at the well-etched characters here who are more than embodiments, but individuals who are wildly succeeding in their respective fields, yet are nevertheless fully aware of the racial struggles around them. They each have a sense of how they connect to the struggle, but have questions about their own identities in the middle of it all, and questions (and sometimes challenges) for their friends on what they are doing and sometimes what they think their friends ought to be doing. To say more would be to rob the viewer of one of the film’s delights.

As one might imagine with a great actress like King as a director, the performances here are excellent. Hamilton’s Leslie Odom, Jr. is getting the most attention for his work as Sam Cooke, partly because the part calls for serious acting talent combined with an ability to sing like the velvet-toned Cooke. Odom is wonderful, and may well win two Oscars, one for his performance and the other for writing the film’s end-credit song, “Speak Now.” Odom is a first-rate actor and first-rate singer, and yes, does excellent work here.

But I was just as impressed with relative newcomer Kingsley Ben-Adir, a Londoner best known for High Fidelity, Peaky Blinders, and Vera. His performance as Malcolm X is quieter than the other three, and the waters run deeper than what Odom, Jr. does with Sam Cooke. Ben-Adir is simultaneously angry and haunted, intensely stubborn and surprisingly kind and understanding. It’s a bravura performance, and worthy of all the praise that Odom, Jr. is deservedly getting. Watch him closely—you can see and almost hear him thinking, processing, considering, evaluating. His performance alone would be worth seeing the film.

It almost seems a denigration to say that the other two performances are not quite as good, because they are excellent in their own right. Finding someone who looks like Ali and can simulate fighting in the ring like Ali, and yet be a real actor in the room where it happens—that’s something of a triumph. Eli Goree, known for his TV work before this, does a great job, but just doesn’t reach the heights of Odom, Jr. or Ben-Adir. Aldis Hodge does an equally good job as Jim Brown, but other than a heart-breaking and angering scene in the beginning of the film, he isn’t given the opportunities of the other three.

Much has been and will be written about the different social, historical, religious, and political perspectives that ricochet around the room during their night together. No one will know how close this fictional rendering of a real event comes to hitting the mark, but the film will likely provide an endless wellspring of thoughts on power (which all four have in different ways) and how best to use that power—in the context of racial struggles, or even beyond that. What is selfishness or selflessness? What is simply stubbornness? What do we owe our brothers and sisters—and who exactly are those brothers and sisters? The women in the first have very little to say; does that matter here? What were the responsibilities of these accomplished men at this critical junction in their lives—and how might that speak to us today? What did they see from their high perch, and how accurate was their sight?

I’ll leave it to other writers to go down those paths. I would rather suggest that you go see the film, and enjoy the characters first as fleshed-out humans at an important moment in all their lives, loving their friends and sometimes strongly opposing their actions and thoughts. The film’s big triumph beyond the writing, the directing, and the acting, is in presenting four human beings who happen to be African Americans, and who find themselves in the middle of American’s 1960’s racial tensions, all the while dealing very personally with life choices and decisions that they can only hope their friends can understand. In an overly political and polarizing time, it would be easy to see the film as a presentation of possible conflicting viewpoints. That would be a mistake. In spite of the whirlwind of ideas presented here, set in this difficult and stressful time in our history, this is primarily a film with living, breathing, conflicted humans. I would encourage anyone watching it to receive it this way first. The film has a heart—not a political one, not a religious one, not a social one—but a human one.

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Wonder Woman 1984

Seeing Wonder Woman 1984 was both exhilarating and disappointing. It was our first movie “date” in nearly a year, and it was great to be back in a good theater with a large screen (I’d seen Tenet on my own a while ago).  Plus watching Gal Gadot is always a pleasure—yes, she is beautiful, but she has a huge presence on the screen. So it was a good “experience” going to the movies.

But overall, the film itself is a disappointment. It’s too long by at least 30 minutes, and it’s not just a matter of needing some judicious cutting. Yes, it needed that too, but many scenes—and not just the action scenes so typical of DC Comics movies—are simply stretched too long and too thin. It’s paced surprisingly slowly at times for an action film.

But probably the biggest problem is the story. The first Wonder Woman film had its supernatural superhero elements, but it was placed firmly in the tense historical moment of the First World War. This film seems placed simply for the laughable accoutrements of the mid-‘80s—e.g., parachute pants, jogging, jogging in ridiculous outfits, big hair, etc. The antagonist is a combination of a man and the dynamic he releases, all hinged on the power of making a wish. It’s hard to buy into, and it robs the film of a good deal of its power, even if you start to go along for the ride.

The only upside to this storyline is that it provides the wish that Diana (Wonder Woman/Diana Prince) makes and (spoiler alert) has to unmake, and it’s simply not enough. We knew that Chris Pine’s Steve was going to be brought back for this film, as his character’s connection with Diana was such a powerful part of the first film, bringing in an emotional (and occasionally comic) component that greatly added to the first film. But here his appearance is rather unbelievable (you went with WHAT to get him back?), and except for the last scene together, which they both handle well, there isn’t the powerful and fun connection between the two that you would expect. There is a nice gender-reversal with the trope of putting on many different outfits to find the right one; usually it’s the female that does it, and here it’s Steve’s turn to model the various outfits. It’s a nice gently comic moment, and the best demonstration of Steve’s confusion in this new world. But the romantic element just isn’t as fun, or strong, or effective.

Pedro Pascal (“The Mandalorian”) has a juicy part as the “Tony Robbins-gone-bonkers” character. At first, he’s rather satirically funny, but then the film turns him into a maniac whose destructive ways stretch credibility (even for a fantasy film) and likely accounted for a great deal of the film’s $200 million budget. Pascal certainly gives it his all, but it’s a disappointing character partly because of his character arc, and partly because his “salvation” is perhaps the most unbelievable and weak aspect of his story (the word “lame” comes to mind).

Surprisingly effective is Kristen Wiig, whom I have always had a hard time accepting in dramatic roles. I had always felt that her comic person was always there, perhaps under lockdown, but still visible. But I’m happy to report—and it’s a positive thing because she is a “local girl” from Rochester—that her performance is more than believable, but a real asset to the film. Her first scenes show a character whose intelligence is only matched by her insecurity, and Wiig handles it brilliantly, speaking quietly at times almost under her breath as she navigates the ricochet of thought and emotion that accompanies being challenged and complimented at the same time. It’s a master class of externalizing emotional and mental conflict, and a delight to watch. I realize that her character has a destiny of being turned into a superhero villain, and she manages the shift well. But I was disappointed in her turning evil, as I enjoyed her earlier character so much, from her most insecure phase to her growing more confident. Her final metamorphosis into the Cheetah? Meh. And as is customary for DC films, the final battle is just too big, too much, and too long.

If the film has any meaningful story to tell, perhaps it’s the danger of living in insecurity, and indulging that trait. The two main villains turn to the dark side because of it; the film is bold enough to suggest that there can be a proactively destructive aspect under an exterior of insecurity (something I’ve seen more often than I wish in my work with people). Refreshingly, the film doesn’t blame “society” or too-early toilet training, or a lack of parental warmth as the sole reason for the negative direction its two main antagonists take; it’s also their bad decisions that result in destruction in a way that removes all sense of feeling sorry for them. That’s bold for 2020.

Director Patty Jenkins is scheduled to direct the next Star Wars film, Star Wars: Rogue Squadron. Color me nervous.

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Mank and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Mank' Review: David Fincher's Immersive Old Hollywood Drama - Variety

Mank

Two films that are sure to be receiving multiple Oscar nominations have recently been released. They were originally supposed to be seen in theaters (remember theaters?), but have landed on Netflix instead. They couldn’t be more different, except for the caliber of the acting.

Mank is David Fincher’s eagerly awaited film (well, all his films are eagerly awaited) on the writer (or is it co-writer?) of 1941’s Citizen Kane, Herman Mankiewicz. If that last name sounds familiar, his brother was the more famous and more rewarded Joseph (All About Eve, A Letter to Three Wives, which gave him Oscars for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay—two years in a row) and grandfather to Dateline’s Josh and Turner Classic Movies’ Ben. Both Herman and Citizen Kane director/actor/producer Orson Welles created the script for Citizen Kane, and where one writer began and the other ended has been a subject of heated debate since bfore Kane was released—and this film only adds fuel to the fire. The film leans VERY heavily into the Mank-wrote-it camp. Research on the subject might lead one to film critic Pauline Kael’s wrong-headed treatise that leaned in the same direction. Even more research will lead one into issues of story, script, and direction, and probably to the conclusion that Welles was responsible for setting up Herman for the success in the first place, and then took Herman’s script and made significant changes that made it “the greatest film ever made.” This will be an ongoing argument that I choose to end right here when speaking of Mank.

The script here is by David Fincher’s father Jack, and perhaps family loyalty led to what I perceive as the film’s weaknesses. I don’t know how faithful that son was to father’s script, but perhaps he stayed a bit too close. On the positive side, the film is funny, bitingly witty at times, and very smart.  That makes it hard to catch everything on the first viewing, and the second was definitely a more enjoyable and understandable experience. The film plays homage to the 1940s everywhere, and the fast pace of some ‘40s American films (comedies especially) seems like the inspiration for the rapid-fire dialogue. But the people doing a lot of the speaking were all in the business of words—fast, smart, and sharp words—and the pace may well reflect something of the reality.

The cinematography (almost sure to be Oscar-nominated) also is firmly grounded in the ‘40s, with shadowy black-and-white images, often with today’s version of the matte backgrounds of old that somehow work here, as well as an obvious day-for-night scene. Connected as it is thematically with Kane, this couldn’t have been in color, and thank God it wasn’t. There are shots clearly evocative of Kane, but the look of the film is its own, and is a delight to view.

Where I think the film goes a little wrong is the emphasis on the California gubernatorial election of 1934 between Upton Sinclair and Frank Merriam. Yes, it echoes Charles Kane’s political efforts in Kane, and it gives some “context” to Herman’s life and mind, but at least for me, it took valuable time and attention away from the main story, and it felt like a distraction and an unnecessary tangent.

Fincher is well known for his tight control and penchant for doing takes more than 100 times if he’s not satisfied, and the film is as much a director’s film as Kane. This isn’t Social Network level, as it was hoped to be, but with time, it may end up in the top five of his work. What’s getting the most attention is not the director, but the two main actors. There has been a good deal of press over Gary Oldman’s performance, especially as defined as Oldman as his most naked performance—meaning that he has no make-up, costume, or unusual personality to hide behind. He’s very good, and will be nominated for Best Actor, but he won’t win. For one, he just won for playing Winston Churchill in 2017’s Darkest Hour. And two, his performance is so embedded into the fabric of the film that it doesn’t stick out in ways that the Academy tends to reward.

The performance that does stand out, however, and that sticks with you after Oldman has been forgotten is Amanda “who knew she could do this?” Seyfried, playing Marion Davies, a silent and early sound movie star who also happened to be the long-time mistress of William Randolph Hearst, the real-life model for Charles Foster Kane. Seyfried, perhaps best known for her work in Mamma Mia! and Les Misérables (she was Cosette), has never seemed much more than a lovely and serviceable actress until now, and even in a supporting role, she owns this film. Davies is a particularly difficult character to pin down, and this will be the definitive version of her for a long time to come. Seyfried finds her version of Marion, and gives it pathos, breath, and even occasional depth. She’ll most certainly be nominated for an Oscar, and she may well win. Playing Davies has been a high-wire act in films, and Seyfried succeeds where others have not.

One of the main challenges in the film that I cannot be objective about is how enjoyable Mank might be to a person without knowledge of Kane or the studio system, or Hearst, or Davies, or the big figures of the movie industry—the famous writers they pulled from the East, L.B. Mayer, Irving Thalberg, etc. My wife enjoyed it, and doesn’t know these folks much beyond Welles and Kane. I knew all the players, which might have helped. But conversely, perhaps my knowledge of them was a distraction, as the fast dialogue often swept past me as I stopped to think about each character as they were being introduced. For much of the film, I was a kid in a candy store, and I at least needed a couple of viewings to begin to take it all in.

I would be interested in hearing from anyone who does not have a movie background, and what they thought of the film. Since it’s Fincher, of course it’s well made, and the performances are worth watching any time. Just don’t trust its conclusion about the screenplay.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom | Netflix Official Site

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Unlike Mank, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is colorful, loud, musical, and something of a mess. Like Mank, it’s on Netflix and will be remembered for its two central performances. It’s based on August Wilson’s 1982 play of the same name, and it never moves far from its theatrical roots. There is the plot—a 1927 recording of blues legend Ma Rainey, and the tensions within her Georgia Jazz Band, especially with the late Chadwick Boseman’s character, the fictional Levee, who is a talented but individualistic musician just itching to move on and form his own band. And then there are the themes, which involve taking your own agency when you’re a black and gay female musician in a white world, when you have to battle giant egos to get something done, and when your original music is flattened out and appropriated by white musicians. Where your interest  in the film will lay will determine how you respond to the plot and/or those themes.

What all will likely agree upon, however, is the quality of the performances. Viola Davis is an American treasure, and she gives her all to the part. She’ll certainly be nominated for Best Actress, but won’t win. Partly it’s because she won before, but perhaps also because she can’t quite inhabit the character. Sometimes actors are too nice to be believable in parts that are hard or harsh or obnoxious; this film’s producer Denzel Washington has run into that occasionally as an actor. Davis has considerable acting chops, of course, and uses just about all of them here. But she isn’t 100 percent believable as Ma. She’s simply not lewd or crude or cruel enough. It’s a very good performance; it just doesn’t resonate like it could have.

Another reason she won’t win is that she doesn’t give the best performance in the film. That belongs, tragically, to the late great Chadwick Boseman. He is sure to be nominated, and my guess at the time of this writing is that he will win (deservedly). What a bittersweet experience to watch it. Boseman takes ownership of the film as soon as he appears, and he never lets it go. Yes, it’s a highly expressive and theatrical performance, and the long speeches that he makes work are uncomfortable reminders of its stage-bound origins. But what an incredible range he shows, and what unexpected energy he brings. But knowing he was undergoing treatment for cancer gives a tragic edge to his newly thin frame. And knowing he was cut down so early in his life is a painful reminder of other similar losses, e.g., River Phoenix, Heath Ledger, Philip Seymour Hoffman. What we have lost with Boseman is significant. He is touching greatness here, and we can only mourn what might have been.

But there are several things that make this a one-time view, and a film that I can’t recommend to everyone. Yes, the language is rough, but Levee’s diatribe against God goes way beyond other similar mad-at-God diatribes. Children shouldn’t be watching this film anyway, but that speech seems over the top and unnecessarily offensive. Even with the run-up provided by Levee’s childhood memories, it didn’t quite seem connected to the character.

The film’s director is George C. Wolfe, mostly known for directing television shows such as The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and Lackawanna Blues. Certainly he deserves credit for the level of performance here, and not only with the leads; there isn’t a weak performance in the bunch. But the film doesn’t hold together, and is more of a series of scenes than a coherent film. The elements that might have worked on the stage don’t really work well here. The speeches are long, the symbolism doesn’t work as well in a realistic medium like film (e.g., Levee finally “breaks through” a locked door only to find a bigger and higher one), and there are scenes that just seem to “happen” with no apparent reason or catalyst. If I didn’t know that I was watching a newly released film, I might have thought there were editing goofs provided by a network employee  before a broadcast showing.

The themes of racial prejudice, identity, ambition, and corporate greed are rather blatantly displayed throughout, all too often taking us out of the story. Is this supposed to be a story about a legendary singer and some of her struggles, or is it using Ma Rainey’s life as a hook to highlight the evils of racial prejudice, how we struggle with identity, the pros and cons of strong ambition, and the many manifestations of immoral corporate greed? I came in for the former and stayed for the latter.

It’s not just the themes that seems to break out too often from the story. Unfortunately, it’s the characters as well, as wonderfully performed as they are. Levee starts off as that excitable, talented player that you know is going to make it when he gets his big break. But he clearly never learned to play well with others in kindergarten, and his insistence on doing everything his way gets old and over time pushes us away from his character, as does his attempted seduction of Ma’s girlfriend. Then his final action (no spoiler alert necessary here) takes his character out of our identification with both him and believable storytelling. He moves from being a character to being a symbol in that one single, final move.

Then there’s Ma. We understand what prejudice she’s fought against, and still has to. That goes a long way toward understanding and accepting her behavior. But not all the way. Perhaps it’s my personal experience as a musician and musical director, but her behavior can come off as too stubborn, too entitled, too mean, and too selfish. No one is going to hate Viola Davis, and her spirit comes through even when her character is obnoxious. But after a while, it’s work to stay on her side as the film progresses. When all is said and done, there isn’t a major character in the film we can completely connect with.

So ultimately, we have two performances, one for the ages, that we can enjoy. And while the themes carry weight, and few would argue with them, they, ironically, get in the way by being so blatant. The film will fade over time, but will be that important footnote as the last performance by a talented actor we lost far too soon.

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Tombstone (1993)

I was speaking with one of my sons the other day, and he made a Tombstone reference. I confessed that I hadn’t seen the film, and he humorously dropped his phone and generally expressed his horror and disappointment. The gauntlet was thrown down. So I got a good copy through my local library and finally saw it.

To say I have mixed feelings about it isn’t just a euphemism. I half enjoyed it as a good-looking, generally well-acted film that was working to be historically accurate. It had all the action one would expect from a Western, as well as the stunning vistas, fist fights, gambling, and drinking that we all look forward to. The film has something of an epic feel, and it generally balances the lives of more characters than you would have thought. For a good half of the film (and by that I mean bits and pieces that make up one half of the film throughout), it’s energetic, engaging, and fun.

But there are lines that can make you howl with laughter, either as written or as spoken; these are not the memorable ones, but are just clichéd lines that are part of normal conversation. Yet more often than not, lines that could have been howlers are delivered with such conviction or finesse that we buy into them: (Earp) “You gonna do something…or just stand there and bleed?” Or (Earp again) “You tell ‘em I’m comin’ and hell’s comin’ with me!”

Beyond the occasionally questionable dialogue, there are almost laughable images (accompanied by music of equal laughability) of gangs walking toward the camera or bounding over the hills, and townsfolks acting like buffoons. And then there is the direction. Kevin Jarre, who wrote the script, was set to direct this, his first as director. But he was soon replaced by the more experienced George Cosmatos, who had previously directed Rambo: First Blood Part II (one of the great film names), Cobra, and Leviathan right before directing Tombstone. Kurt Russell, who plays Wyatt Earp and is essentially the film’s lead, claims, with some support by Val Kilmer (Doc Holliday), that he directed the film from that point on, pointing to Cosmatos as more of an organizer of the many production details. This may explain the film’s lack of a center, either in terms of drama or character, and its feeling of occasionally meandering rather than moving forward.

Yet…yet, it’s worth visiting. Except for the lead female role, it’s well cast and well-acted, and in one case, has a performance for the ages. That and the realism of the costumes and sets and the beauty of the backdrops make it close to a flawed classic. Kurt Russell owns the film, and provides his usual level of male authority to the character. It’s not on the level of a Russell Crowe or an Idris Elba, but there isn’t another male character in the film that has what Russell is projecting, and his mid-level strength and intensity help his Wyatt Earp blend in well with the rest of the large cast. That cast includes a roll call of up-and-coming actors as well as stars: Sam Elliott, Bill Paxton (only OK), Powers Boothe, Michael Biehn, Jason Priestly, Jon Tenney, Thomas Haden Church, Billy Zane (not bad), John Corbett, Billy Bob Thornton, Stephen Lang, Michael Rooker, and (spoiler alert) even Charlton Heston in a surprise appearance toward the end. If Russell is even partly responsible for the level of good acting here, it’s to his credit.

Female lead Dana Delaney had just finished a successful and award-winning run on TV’s “China Beach.” There she found her character and lived it. Here she does neither and is more of a distraction than attraction. It’s not really an underwritten part, but she apparently wasn’t able to do much with it.

The best part of the film by far, however, is Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday. His great lines are many, and could easily have come off as risible one-liners. But unlike Delaney, Kilmer finds his character and stays there throughout, turning every quotable line into something both revealing and entertaining. He’s smart, funny, and then, finally, touchingly serious. It’s easily the strongest part of the film, and could have imbalanced it. But Kilmer stays connected, as does his character, so he continually keeps his place in the film while still acting everyone else off the screen. Westerns don’t traditionally present Best Actor possibilities, but Kilmer, even in a great acting year, could justifiably been nominated. But in any event, that performance is here to provide innumerable quotes (“You’re a daisy if you do,” “I’m your Huckleberry,” “Does that mean we’re not friends anymore?”, “It appears we must redefine the nature of our association,” “My hypocrisy only goes so far” and too many others to list) and a completely watchable character for everyone to enjoy. For those more acquainted with his film failures and personal difficulties, it’s both a revelation and a sobering reminder that great performances don’t always translate into great careers.

Tombstone has become something of a classic, though it will never be considered a great film. Its reputation may be due to the subject matter, the stirring action, and the stunning scenery, or it may be because of the numerous quotable lines. Come for the story and the action, stay for the lines and Kilmer’s performance.

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Two ’50s Films That “Shouldn’t Have Won” Best Picture

(Note: It’s been a while since I’ve written. There was some pandemic going around that seems to have messed things up a while. Plus I’ve been busier than usual. But I hope that retiring from teaching, which I’ve just done, will leave me more time for this. I did see Tenet in the theater, btw, but am not anywhere near ready to write about it.)

The 1950s were another world, in more ways than one. There was economic growth, political turmoil on every side, and the culture wars of the ‘60s were bubbling under the surface if one was willing or able to look.

For film, it was in the middle of its own war for survival. Television was encroaching on its business, and people were moving out into the suburbs, which meant that folks couldn’t walk to their movie theaters several times a week like they used to. And oh, yes, returning WWII vets were getting married and having children (like yours truly), which limited financial resources and free time.

Two films that won Best Picture that decade would be laughed off the screen now, if audiences even had the patience to sit through them. That’s not a criticism, but an observation of how things have changed. Both of these films won for several reasons each, but the wins were not as controversial then as they are looking back and reevaluating today. Rather than throw the Academy and its voters under the proverbial bus, it’s important to note that tastes and preferences change over time, and every Best Picture win is a bit of a Rorschach Test, for its time and even for our own. Unfortunately, our cultural divisions and that wretched trend toward cancel culture make it too easy to dismiss films rather than try to understand them, which for Oscar winners, involves understanding context as well as the film itself.

1952

First up is 1952’s Best Picture winner and greatest financial success of that year, The Greatest Show on Earth. In many a cinematic discussion, this vies with our other winner as possibly the worst Best Picture winner ever. (I believe some kind of recency bias is as work, however, as my guess is that those that insist on that haven’t seen many of the early ones.) It’s a big fat extravaganza about the Big Top and the lives and loves of those associated with it. It stars a relatively restrained (and relatively has to be the word) Betty Hutton, Charlton Heston in his star-making role, Cornel Wilde, Dorothy Lamour, Gloria Grahame, and James Stewart buried under clown makeup throughout. It also features a “voice of God” performance from producer/director Cecil B. DeMille, which more than perhaps any single element dates the film and constantly takes the viewer out of it.

But if movies wanted to make you forget your little black-and-white TV, this was how they did it. The scope is huge, with hundreds often on the screen at once. The color is knock-your-eyeballs-out Technicolor by George Barnes, and that and the camerawork give a sense of the epic that never lets up. The film goes back and forth between showing us how this mammoth circus production is set up, and focusing in on the various relationships—romantic, competitive, or both—of the performers. It goes on for far too long, but it keeps pouring out the spectacular right through to the end.

The acting in a DeMille production is usually rather stolid, but the acting is surprising good for those with lower expectations. Hutton and Wilde are impressive in their trapeze work, and the stunt folks we see in the long shots look surprisingly similar to the leads. In a minor role, Gloria Grahame is a joy to watch and listen to, and she has a great edge to her cynical lines. (She won her Best Supporting Actress award that year for a much smaller part in The Bad and the Beautiful, and that award may well have been for her work throughout the year.)

So what was this film up against? Nominees High Noon, Ivanhoe, Moulin Rouge, and The Quiet Man. Not nominated were The Bad and the Beautiful; Come Back, Little Sheba; and My Cousin Rachel. Current wisdom has it that folks in the Academy were too afraid of Sen. Joseph McCarthy to support soon-blacklisted screenwriter and make his High Noon (directed by Fred Zinneman) Best Picture. The Quiet Man won John Ford his fourth and last Best Director Oscar, and a case can easily be made for that film as the Best Picture winner. (It was produced by little-leaguer Argosy Pictures, and distributed by the smaller Republic Pictures, all of which had to limit its chances.) But as will be seen in the next film, the Academy may well have reflected popular tastes rather than critical ones; the film also won Best Picture, Best Director, AND Best Cinematography (not even an Oscar nomination for that one!) from the Golden Globes.

The Oscars often give career awards, and often do so in the wrong year, which may be the case here. DeMille had been an early mover and shaker since the silent days, and was a brand unto himself. The Academy may have thought this was his last best chance. The next film DeMille made would have made a more understandable winner, and certainly was a better choice than the actual winner.

As we’ll also see in the next film, the actual best picture that year also contained the best female supporting performance, though at least she was nominated. The actress was Jean Hagen, and the film was the classic Singin’ in the Rain, the greatest Hollywood musical ever, and the best film of that year.

1956

Crowning the BIG FAT FILM continued in 1956 with Around the World in 80 Days, a first cousin to The Greatest Show on Earth. It’s also long, HUGE, colorful, and epic in scope if not in intelligence. It won five (!) Oscars, including Best Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Cinematography, and Best Music (Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture). It’s basically a trip around part of the world, with stops to push forward a thin plot and/or to enjoy the culture of this or that country. For its time, the special effects were good, and some of the dialogue is amusing. But poor Shirley MacLaine as an Indian (as in India) princess is a performance vying for worst miscasting ever, and she looks as uncomfortable in the part as she has written she was.

David Niven is well cast in a role that producer Michael Todd hoped that Cary Grant would take. That film might have been more fun, but at least Niven helped to hold the disparate parts of the film together with his characterization. What might have been thought of as fun too was the film’s use of cameos—reputedly the first film to do so on this scale. In addition to Niven and MacLaine, the film featured quick appearances by Charles Boyer, Martine Carol, John Carradine, Charles Coburn, Ronald Colman (coming out of retirement to do so), Noel Coward, Andy Devine, Marlene Dietrich, John Gielgud, Hermione Gingold, José Grego (at least this one was worthy of a moment of the viewer’s time), Cedric Hardwicke, the wonderful and criminally overlooked Trevor Howard, Glynis Johns, the legendary Buster Kearon, Beatrice Lillie, Peter Lorre, Victor McLaglan, John Mills, Robert Morley, Edward R. Murrow (yes, THE Edward R. Murrow), Jack Oakie, George Raft, Gilbert Roland, Cesar Romero, Red Skelton, and oh, yes, a ridiculous blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo by Frank Sinatra. These folks were quite famous then on both sides of the pond, but the jolt of seeing them show up is gone for everyone but the most ardent cinephile, which makes them confusing and awkward today.

So, the other nominated films, the ones that others insist should have won? Friendly Persuasion (nearly forgotten today), Giant (clearly a better film), The King and I, and finally, the DeMille film the Academy might have waited for, The Ten Commandments. Others that year were Lust for Life, Moby Dick, Richard III, Anastasia, Baby Doll, Written on the Wind, Bus Stop, and War and Peace. (Now we can give Best Picture to foreign films, but this year had films that tower over most of the American nominees: La Strada, I Vitelloni, and Seven Samurai, to name just three.) Interestingly, or perhaps embarrassingly, Around the World won the Golden Globe Best Picture, and the New York Film Critics Circle Best Film. I can understand the first, and can only hope that the second brings humility to a well-respected critical group as they look back.

The Golden Globes also gave their Best Actor Award to Cantinflas, a wildly popular Mexican actor that brought a heavy dose of international cred to the film. Perhaps his status as one of the most popular comic actors of his time is the reason for the Globe award. But let’s just say the performance doesn’t stand up today, and is embarrassing on several levels. Try not to think of the other actors that could have been awarded: Yul Brynner for The King and I, Kirk Douglas for Lust for Life, and James Dean for Giant. The Globes are usually beyond embarrassment (can you say Pia Zadora?), but this choice, this year, is one of the reasons they got to that place.

So what should have won? Well, just as a brilliant musical wouldn’t have won in 1952 just because it was a musical, a landmark Western wouldn’t have won Best Picture in 1956 just because of its genre. The best film? John Ford’s The Searchers, one of the most influential films in American film history, and one of surprisingly depth and feeling.

Let’s not be too harsh in judging previous Academy choices, but let’s also not hesitate to consider how much these films and awards are of their time. We shouldn’t be too dismissive as well, as even these wins give us a glimpse into a different time and place, and function as a kind of time capsule for those of us willing to study them without judgment.

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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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