Dancing Lady (1933)

For a film historian and even for just a film buff, there is almost too much going on in 1933’s Dancing Lady. It’s pre-Code, coming at the end of 1933, which already makes it worthy of special attention, i.e., what are they going to try to get away with? It’s MGM’s answer to the successful Warner Brothers “new musicals” with Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, and the kaleidoscopic dance patterns of Busby Berkeley (e.g., 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933, and Footlight Parade). Dancing Lady features Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, and Franchot Tone as the leads—and this sentence has enough in just those few words to support a documentary. It also features the 3 Stooges (really); Fred Astaire in his first film (yes, really);  greats like May Robson, Robert Benchley, Sterling Holloway, a too-short moment of a blonde Eve Arden; and an early blink-and-you’ll-miss-him appearance from Nelson Eddy before he teamed up with Jeanette MacDonald.

The first thing you might notice is the gloss. This is a thin story of a young woman who wants to dance, finds a rich supporter who keeps asking her to marry him every 15 minutes, and who finds herself trying not to fall in love with her director. Where to begin? Probably best to begin with Crawford. She is still lovely at this point in her career, with huge eyes and a heavily lipsticked mouth. Her acting still has a bit of humility and eagerness to it, in contrast to later years when she hardened into a near-parody of herself, and her acting became more confident and yet more stylized.

Crawford started her career in “legitimate” films in uncredited roles in 1925. She became a star and something of a “dance sensation” with 1928’s Our Dancing Daughters, followed a few years later by Dance, Fools, Dance (1931). She was perhaps the greatest “jazz baby” of her day. Film historian and author Jeanine Basinger is kind in her description of Crawford’s talents: “As a dancer, Crawford was untrained but capable. Her dancing style was unpolished and her tapping is from the Ruby Keeler school [see above], which means hitting the floor hard and giving it all you’ve got.” I would more describe it as party girl dancing, with an emphasis on the Charleston and loose elbows. Basinger would go on to say that Crawford had a “fairly good voice.” I wouldn’t go that far. She has a very limited range, and while she’s not flat pitch-wise, her tone is. What’s funny here is watching her being presented as some kind of musical star, which she most certainly isn’t.

And that brings us to Astaire, who first appears as himself (at that point, a very famous half of a song-and-dance pair on Broadway with his sister), brought on to give poor Crawford some help with her leading musical role. It’s almost embarrassing to watch someone we know will soon become a legend, and who can dance anyone else off the screen, spend even a moment hoping to improve someone with Crawford’s limited terpsichorean gifts. He’s only on for a moment at first, and then it seems he disappears until the end of the film, where, like 42nd Street, the bulk of the musical numbers are presented as the new show opens. Like Gene Kelly, Astaire could dance down to the level of his partner, but it’s rather wild watching the great man do what he could to help his hard-working but only slightly talented partner. But these numbers, as a few others in the film do, borrow some tricks from Busby Berkeley in dazzling patterned overhead shots, and in numbers that literally “took off” from the stage into a purely cinematic space. What these lack is Warner Brothers’ sense of anarchy and surrealism (something MGM knew nothing about). But the lovely, even camerawork and beautiful lighting and set design is all MGM. Some numbers even presage the overwhelming sets and numbers of The Great Ziegfeld (1936). For someone much more familiar with the Warners musicals of that time, and the MGM musicals of the ‘40s, this film is new territory.

The supporting players, too, are dropped in just before reaching their own fame. Seeing the 3 Stooges in a serious high-end musical was unanticipated and almost confusing. Then seeing Nelson Eddy come on as simply “the singer” to help move things along is nearly over the top. Robert Benchley, Stanley Holloway, and Eve Arden would all become bigger films stars in the next few years.

But perhaps the strangest part of the movie experience was the disconnect on the screen (or the actual connection off the screen) among the three leads. Franchot Tone played the rich man in love with Crawford’s character, and it was obvious she could settle for this man and be comfortable. But it wasn’t so much because of any love for Gable’s character as much as the simple fact that she didn’t love Tone’s character. The movie ends with Crawford and Gable in a clinch, as if the movie were a romance, which is primarily is not. What makes this fascinating is that Crawford and Gable apparently had a decades-long affair that, on and off, lasted through their several marriages. Most contend that while this is was the third film they co-starred in, the actual affair began during this film. But Crawford married not Gable but Tone just two years later, with the two divorcing in 1939. So watching the three of them interact, and watching the “chasing” of Crawford by Tone, and the obvious connection with Gable, made this an unusual experience.

A note on Gable: I’ve seen Gable in a lot of films, but I generally see the legend rather than the actor. I thought he was fine in his Oscar-winning It Happened One Night, and I still think—in spite of the Oscar nomination—that he was underrated in Gone with the Wind. But here he was excellent, and a joy to watch. His character certainly had the machismo we expect, and some of the toughness we’ve come to know. But this performance is much more than that, with various layers of humanity, and it’s the best surprise of a film packed with surprises.

I can’t vouch for how entertaining this film would be for someone without a sense of film history. It’s pretty, but the story is hackneyed, Crawford can’t really sing or dance, and the few numbers with Astaire are the only musical entertainment worth one’s time. But for a film historian and anyone who wants to give it a try after reading this article, the film is dizzying.

Next up: My thoughts on the Oscar nominations for this most unusual film year.

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Nomadland

Nomadland is nearly guaranteed to win Best Picture in April, and will likely bring Chinese director Chloé Zhao the second of two consecutive Best Directors given to an Asian director, the first being Bong Joon-ho for last year’s groundbreaking Parasite. It’s the story of a widow who has lost her husband and the majority of her material possessions, and is now living in her van. But as she says, she is “houseless, not homeless.” That’s because she has outfitted the van as her home on wheels, and has pursued the life of a “nomad,” specifically meaning those that have chosen to travel from nomad event to nomad event, meeting other nomads, several of whom become friends.

It would be easy to say that the film is great because its central character is played by the great actress Frances McDormand (Oscars for Fargo and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri—but let’s not forget “Olive Kitteridge,” Almost Famous, Mississippi Burning, North Country, and Wonder Years.) She was a shoo-in for a third Oscar a few months ago, and that still may happen. If she hadn’t won recently for Three Billboards, she most certainly would win for Nomadland. But her recent win and the arrival of other great performances (specifically Andra Day for The United States v. Billie Holliday and Carrie Mulligan for Promising Young Woman) have put some doubts there. But if a non-histrionic performance that still dominates the film is to your taste (which it should be), this is a film to visit.

As strong, layered, and complex as the central performance is, the film is much more than that. It’s a generally clear-eyed look at a life and community unknown to most of us, and it’s done without condescension or elevation. McDormand and supporting player David Strathairn are the only professional actors, and many of the nomads play themselves—beautifully. McDormand has the central role, but she blends in well with her surroundings and the life her character is living. She looks and genuinely acts like a hard-working, self-contained woman. Straitairn, an actor I respect, is a bit problematic, but more on that later.

The film itself is generally understated, and only occasionally self-conscious. The film doesn’t pretend to be A Grand Statement about anything, but is nonetheless beautiful to look at and moving in its presentation (as opposed to an examination) of small moments. Nomadland could be read as a socio/political commentary, and for those limited by always looking for that perspective, I suppose you can find what you’re looking for here. But you’d be missing the joy and beauty of individual humanity, of warm but clear recollection, of lives lived in a certain kind of freedom that most of us eschew. That freedom is chosen and thrust upon the folks here in an uneven manner, and that tension is part of what makes this such a rich film.

Director Zhao is also the screenwriter and editor as well as one of the producers. She has been able to tenderly and rigorously observe an American subculture in a way that perhaps only a foreigner can do. This is a uniquely American world here, with little to no Hollywood gloss or rhythm. It’s roughly beautiful to look at, accounting for its nomination for Best Cinematography. But what it draws the viewer into the film is not a performance, or its photography, or story that pulls the viewer into a typical three-act story. It asks, but doesn’t demand, that you accept the film in the same way that Fern (McDormand) accepts the realities of her life and the others accept their own chosen pathways and its ups and downs.

Perhaps the only false stitch in the fabric of the film is Dave, played by the very American actor David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck), who, like Stanley Tucci, generally adds to any film of which he is a part. There is no faulting his performance, which is real and deep. It’s just the fact that he is an ACTOR in a film of mostly non-actors, and is playing against a great American actress who disappears into her part, leaving him the sole obvious ACTOR in the mix. Then (spoiler alert) there is the problem of a possible romance with Fern, and a journey into Dave’s story, which is less interesting if more fleshed out than Fern’s own tale, which is intriguingly shrouded in mist and mystery, and only revealed, if the details are even important at all, in bits and pieces. Dave’s journey is a side trip that is somewhat satisfying in and of itself, but pulls away from the main part of film even as it provides something of a thought-provoking contrast with Fern and her decisions.

For most of us, director Zhao has appeared from virtually nowhere. Her previous films, all independent as is Nomadland, were 2015’s Songs My Brothers Taught Me and 2017’s The Rider, which both address cowboys and Native Americans in a way that John Ford or John Wayne would never have recognized. This Beijing-born multi-hyphenate is just 39 years old, and is already on her way to becoming a great American director, in that she is already a significant contributor to seeing America on film.

Note: While this is generally a must-see film, please note that for those who might be offended, there is a completely asexual short scene of full-frontal female nudity. It’s nearly gratuitous, but there is narrative sense to the scene. It could have been shot in any other numbers of ways, but hey, I’m not the sure-to-be-Oscar-winning director.

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News of the World and The Dig: Two slow films for a fast-paced culture

I’ve seen a lot of films lately, but two have stuck out for their amazingly slow pace. One is the new(ish) Tom Hanks film, News of the World. The second is a new Netflix film starring Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes, called The Dig. Neither is great, but both are good, and worth it for those who have the attention span or enjoy the respite from dizzying fight scenes and special effects.

News of the World is a Western (yes, TH in a Western). The plot is simple: Hanks is a Civil War veteran who agrees to deliver a young girl to her aunt and uncle after being captured and living with Kiowa people for years; along the way, he makes his living by reading the news to folks out in the frontier with little access to real news. It’s basically a road trip with wagons and horses. My wife and I were able to see it in the theater, and the film’s gorgeous images, which ranged between lovingly lit night close-ups and stunning daytime long shots of the terrain, went a long way to keeping the film moving along. Hanks is fine, as usual, with a performance that is understated and similar to his work in Road to Perdition. The real find, though, is the young girl, played by young German actress Helena Zengel, who already has Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations for it, and will likely receive an Oscar nomination for her work here.

The pace is surprising as it’s from director Paul Greengrass, who gave us The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum, Jason Bourne, Flight 93, and Captain Phillips, all of which had a great deal of quick editing and nervous energy.  Nothing like that here. The simple ride from A to Z is interrupted a few times, as you might imagine, and that, as they say, livens up the proceedings a bit. There are a few quiet surprises along the way as well, but it all ends up with things falling into place as we wanted all along. The story seemed a bit lean to me, and the interruptions quite predictable. But watching Hanks at work is nearly always a joy, and his co-star is headed for stardom at some point, perhaps soon. Seeing her early work here is like getting in on a secret. If you’re in the mood (spoiler alert) for a good movie with a lovely happy ending, this one’s for you.

The Dig is even more slowly paced than News of the World. It’s based on a true story of an archeological dig in a British town in 1938, and is playing solely on Netflix. The area is owned by an Edith Pretty (Mulligan), who hires Basil Brown (Fiennes) to excavate on her property in the hopes of locating something of historical interest. There are many other subplots, a few of which are completely invented (why do people do that in a true story!?). Characters are made up, and relationships that never happened are shown. But joy of the film is in the development of its plot and in the acting of two greats, Fiennes and Mulligan. Unfortunately, there is one major problem with casting Mulligan, one of the great actors of her generation in the part. She is supposed to be 56, and Brown, 51. Mulligan is 35 and Fiennes is 57, which throws off some of the film’s dynamics at times.  Edith Pretty was supposed to have been played by both Cate Blanchett and Nicole Kidman at some point, but even with the problem with the ages, I’ll take a performance by Mulligan any day.

This might be Mulligan’s year. She is already being nominated by many associations for her leading performance in Promising Young Woman, which is about as opposite in tone and characterization as possible from The Dig. In the former, she plays an American with serious issues on a path of revenge. Here, she plays a quiet Englishwoman who is struggling with health issues while trying to be a good mother, a good steward of her property, and a caring boss to her hired excavators. It’s a quiet performance, but a powerful one. It’s expressed in body language, facial expression, and what’s behind the eyes.

Fiennes is nearly as good, as well as just as quiet as Mulligan. Watching the two of them together is a treat.

The weaknesses in the film lie in the extra characters that are introduced to add romance, tension, and sex. Gratuitous is probably the best word for it, though distracting and useless might also be applicable.

So for those who would like a respite from action or superhero movies, who enjoy stories that are drawn out for your enjoyment, and who appreciate topnotch acting, these two are for you.

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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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