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The Best Picture Winners: My Fair Lady (1964)

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.


This isn’t going to make me any friends.

As musicals go, I admire My Fair Lady without necessarily falling in love with it.  Of the four musicals to win Best Picture in the decade, it is probably my least favorite – I don’t hate it, but for me, it is so problematic that I just find it hard to wrap my arms around it.

My Fair Lady is a second-tier adaptation, based on a stage musical that was based the book “Pygmalion” by George Bernard Shaw which tells the story of Professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) who makes a bet that he can couth an uncouth flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) and turn her into a pillar of social graces.  To be perfectly honest, Revisiting the film again recently, I couldn’t help thinking that a similar story was told much better with Eddie Murphy in Trading Places.

There’s a lot to be mined here and the movie finds greatness in Rex Harrison’s over-the-top performance as the stringent Higgins (which got him the year’s Best Actor award) whose task master approach to Ms. Doolittle is actually a lot of fun (“Youll get much further with the Lord if you learn not to offend His ears!).  Yet, I’m not so convinced of Hepburn’s performance.  Hepburn was a lady from head to toe.  She had one of the most luminous faces that the movies ever captured, and she possessed a singular charm that I can’t equal to anyone working today.

This is why I’m not able to buy her performance as Eliza Doolittle.  Late in the film, when she becomes the beautiful socialite that Higgins had been molding, she’s perfect.  But its an unconvincing road getting there.  When I see her sitting on the street selling flowers and affecting the accent of a cockney street urchin, it feels like a performance, a bad performance.  There’s nothing natural about it.

My other problem with the film is the love story. I don’t believe for one moment that Henry Higgins would fall for Eliza Doolittle. He has such distaste for her middling social graces at the beginning that while I can believe (given that its Audrey Hepburn) that he would become “accustomed to her face,” I can’t imagine that he would fall for her.  He’s too impatient and demanding for a romantic relationship with anyone.

Plus, the music seems strangely muted.  There are moments when the songs seem separate from the actors, and there are moments when the songs seem to suggest something that isn’t really pertinent.  For example, Eliza sings that she “could have danced all night” but all Higgins did was twirl her around a few times.  Plus, her singing is bothersome in that the dubbing often doesn’t match.  Hepburn was dubbed by Marni Nixon and whenever you see that her lips don’t match the sound it makes you rue the day that Jack Warner decided to forego Julie Andrews, who would have sung her own songs.

There’s too much that bothers me with My Fair Lady.  It’s okay, but it’s a weak production, a fact that it is aggravated because it won Best Picture in the same year as the release of far superior musicals like A Hard Day’s Night, Mary Poppins, Viva Las Vegas, The Unsinkable Molly Brown and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.  It would have been great if the voters of the Academy would have show those films some love.  Wouldn’t it be loverly?

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The Best Picture Winners: Tom Jones (1963)



Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.


Nineteen sixty-three was a troubled year for Hollywood.  The institutions of Universal, Paramount, MGM and Fox were shadows of their former selves.  Every studio had fallen on hard times whether in legal wranglings, changing tastes or public indifference.  The future of studio films were being determined by a group of aging, stuffy old studio bosses who had lost touch with an audience that once made the movies a daily and nightly ritual.

In general, the content of American films by the early 60s was a tapestry of outdated old formulas and aging movie stars who weren’t jiving with the tastes of an audience that was hungry for something new.  Nineteen Sixty-Three was a monumentally dismal year for studio films.   Even films that got good reviews haven’t stood the test of time.  This is especially true of the five films nominated for Best Picture, America America, CleopatraHow the West Was Won and Lilies of the Field and Tom Jones.  Having viewed all five again, none are films I am eager to spend another evening with.

The Best Picture winner was Tony Richardson’s adaptation of Henry Fielding’s ribald 1861 novel Tom Jones, about an orphaned youth (Albert Finney) who is raised by a wealthy land owner and grows up with the opportunity to wed an heiress.  He has a rival for the heiress’ hand but he also has a voracious sexual appetite and most of the movie focuses on his sexual misadventures. Tom Jones has it’s admirers but I find it overlong and dated, and containing scenes that don’t have the intended impact on me that I think they were intended to have back in sixty-three.  The famous fox hunt scene goes on and on and on far beyond reason, and the much-discussed scene at the dinner table between Finney and the buxom Joyce Redman, in which they chow down on food as a carnivorous symbol of their lust, is less erotic for me than just plain disgusting.

Jones’ sexual dalliances may have been tantalizing once but now seems terribly dated.  At the time, Tom Jones seemed quite original with it’s frank sexual humor, it’s satirical edge, funny asides with Tom regarding us directly into the camera and other elements that became so imitated that they were shopworn by the time the decade was out.  In the years that followed Tom Jones would come the sexual revolution and the breakdown of Hollywood’s production code that would allow filmmakers to display graphic content and nudity.  In the wake of that revolution, Tom Jones would be kind of left behind.  Its a relic, and not one ripe for nostalgia.

 

 

The Best Picture Winners: Tom Jones (1963)

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.
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Posted by on 11/18/2017 in Uncategorized

 

The Best Picture Winners: Lawrence of Arabia (1962)



Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.


By all Hollywood standards, Lawrence of Arabia shouldn’t even exist.  It bears no trademarks of the comfortable commercial pillows that studio execs love to prop their hopes against.  Here is a four hour historical epic with no stars, little action, no romantic subplot, no female characters and much of the film looks out onto a desert with no Jawas.  The movie begins at the end of its subject’s life and then rewinds the clock to tell us how he got to that point.  And yet, all through the movie, he remains at a distance from us.  By standards of marketing, this movie is a dead zone.

And yet, the movie defies all expectations.  David Lean, the director, is not interested in making a movie about guns and camels, but about a man who, for the film’s entire running time, remains aloof.  It tells the story of T.E. Lawrence but defies the conventions of a standard biography beginning at the moment of his death and then rewinding the clock back to the moment that would lead to the events that would define his legacy.  Yet we are never privvy to the innerworkings of this man’s soul.  He’s a decent man driven mad by the power of his own image when his assignment to lead the Arabs on a trek across the desert against the Turks gets into his head.

Perhaps if Lawrence were played by anyone else we might object, but Peter O’Toole seemed born for this role.  Virtually unknown to movie audiences at the time he had an odd manner, a way of moving that didn’t seem at all conventional.  When he spoke there seemed to be odd spaces between his words and he had an accent that many of us privately wish we had for ourselves.  He had face so young, so clean and so beautiful that the playwright Noel Coward remarked “If you had been any prettier it would have been ‘Florence of Arabia.'”

Lawrence is an eccentric, an odd duck who defies the usual patterns of heroism or humility.  He doesn’t wave off praise but instead becomes intoxicated by the power of his own image and feeds off of the legends that are being written about him.

To the Arabs, he becomes a god-like figure for his bravery and his apparent invincibility and Lawrence is more than happy to feed them that image.  The best scene in the movie takes place when Lawrence destroys a railroad track with dynamite, crashing a Turkish train.  He then leads the Arabs in a barrage of gunfire that destroys the train and kills all of the passengers.  Sitting on the wreckage, he is asked by an American journalist (Arthur Kennedy) to pose for a picture.  And so he does, this blonde-haired blue-eyed celebrity struts across the top of the wrecked train while the Arabs chant his name.  To them, he is a celebrity, a messiah, and in one brilliantly symbolic moment, these desert-dwellers watch as this man turns and blocks out the sun.

This image goes to his head, especially in a semi-comic scene in which Ali takes Lawrence’s uniform off the clothes line and throws it on the campfire and then adorns him in the clothing of a Bedouin prince.  Lawrence struts around in his new robes, walking out into the desert to let the wind twirl around his robes as he tries them out and looks lovingly at his own shadow.

The ending is painfully sad, at least for Lawrence. The Turks have been defeated, the job is done, the mission is at an end and Lawrence’s time in Arabia has come to an end.  He returns to his native land but there are regrets and the last scene in the film has him sitting in a jeep, back in the uniform of a British officer, a sad look on his face as he realizes what he has created and what he is leaving behind, for them but mostly for himself.

I’ve seen Lawrence of Arabia at least half a dozen times in my life, but I am nowhere near the bottom of it.  There’s a deeper level here that I always feel will be revealed to me on subsequent viewings.  It’s an experience that I’ve never been able to put into words.  I admit I’ve sat on this review for several weeks.  It is a movie like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Battleship Potemkin, Sita Sings the Blues, Under the Skin, It Follows or even the Batman films that are such a visual experience that you sound ridiculous trying to explain.  It is spare on quotable dialogue and on a tightly written plot that can be summarized.  It’s an experience, one that you see and feel but struggle to describe.

 

 

The Best Picture Winners: West Side Story (1961)

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.


Hey!  Let’s deal with racial inequality . . . through DANCE!!

* sigh *

Whenever Hollywood tries to be progressive the results can sometimes be – in a word – cute.  That’s especially true as time goes on and the issues raised become relics of the adamant of time.  The Civil Rights Movement was the prevailing domestic social event of the 1960s (and, in truth, of the latter half of the 20th century), but Hollywood was shy about dealing with it.  There was a nasty habit on the part of Hollywood executives to wrap the issue up in genre pictures as if the public couldn’t swallow the subject without serving it up as a familiar piece of entertainment.

Youth in revolt was profitable in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s especially with the burgeoning counter-culture which would give birth to The Wild One, Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause, but also a vast wasteland of biker pictures wrought by American International.  In the midst of this came West Side Story, which opened on Broadway in 1957 and became ridiculously popular.  Director-choreographer Jerome Robbins reworked Romeo and Juliet to focus on a society struggling to understand itself through a new racial identity brought on by The Civil Rights Movement.  The result, for many, was a tremendous experience and subsequent generations have found it hard to disagree.

Certainly the Academy voters agreed.  They seemed ready to tackle issues like racial equality but not in films bold enough to serve the issue head-on.  Twice, in the 1960s, The Academy rewarded films that tackled racial inequality that were never-the-less burdened with the weight of a genre, first with West Side Story and later with In the Heat of the Night.  Neither  really shed much light on the subject but one has to admire the effort.  Both are exceedingly entertaining but as a measure of dealing with the civil rights in any real way, both seem to tread very safe waters.

Perhaps it is by design.  Message films are almost inevitably preaching to the choir and West Side Story is no exception.  Was this movie meant to convert the unconverted?  The buried message is that the unions of people from warring families (or races) are nothing new, hence the fact that West Side Story is a reworking of Shakespeare’s 367 year old “Romeo and Juliet.”   Yet, it sands off the edges of The Bard’s work most notably in the final act wherein the Puerto Rican girl Maria (Natalie Wood, who was of Russian heritage) survives while her lover Tommy (Richard Breymer) dies.  That undercuts the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet in that both families are made to suffer for their violent feud.  I’m also dismayed by the dialogue which is standard and very flat.  A work based on Shakespeare should sing with beautiful and colorful dialogue.

One of my biggest problems here is that the lovers never really seem to be in love by order of nature, but by order of the screenplay.  Natalie Wood and Richard Breymer are good actors but their characters are as stiff as their dialogue.  Interestingly enough, the supporting characters are much better drawn.  Rita Moreno and George Chickiris both won Oscars for their performances and they earned it, their characters seem to transcend the staccato dialogue.

The musical numbers here are flawless, beautiful and highly energetic, each playing to the purpose of the scene and never just to have a musical number.  Perhaps that should have been the through-line of the picture.  Maybe if the entire film were singing without spoken dialogue it might have worked out better.  I’d love to see that version.

 

 

The Pod Bay Doors Podcast, Episode #17: Dreamcatcher (2004)


Week #2 of Turkey Month takes our dynamic duo to the mountains where they experience a psychically linked group of friends, shit weasels, and Morgan Freeman’s eyebrows. Lawrence Kasdan’s cinematic atrocity Dreamcatcher is this week’s turkey. Doug hates this movie with the intensity of 1,000 suns and Jerry isn’t far behind him.

 
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Posted by on 11/13/2017 in Uncategorized

 

The Best Picture Winners: The Apartment (1960)

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.


Out of the deca of films that won the Oscar for Best Picture in the 1960s, The Apartment is the only selection that I return to with any regularity.  Perhaps the fact that it comes from Billy Wilder may explain why.  I find his work irresistible.  His films were never about only one thing; they never had just one emotional structure or just one purpose.  There was a pure psychology to his films that made them fitting to show in any psych class.  The common bond was the madness of carnal lust, whether it be sex (Some Like It Hot and Double Indemnity), alcoholism (The Lost Weekend) or the damning caverns of celebrity (Ace in the Hole and Sunset Blvd.)

The Apartment may be his most subdued but the most relatable because it is the most common.  It tells of the adventures of C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon), a lonely office middle-man whose trapped in the doomed destiny of spending the rest of his career standing in line waiting for a promotion.  He wants to get there, and knows that he must nose up to the upper-level executives who use his solitary apartment as a safe house to conduct their extra-marital affairs.  They use him by dangling promises of a promotion in front of his face but, of course, never deliver.  On any given night, poor Baxter can be found standing on the sidewalk outside of his building peering up at the window in his own bedroom light.

Meanwhile, in a struggle all her own, is Fran Kubelik (played by a 26 year-old Shirley MacLaine), a pretty girl who works the elevator in Baxter’s building.  She sees her only way out of her drudgery by carrying on an affair with Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), the big boss.  He uses her by dangling promises of leaving his wife in order to marry her.  Sheldrake, of course, is fore-flushing rat.  Fran knows it, but she sees few other options.

What is beautiful about The Apartment is that both C.C. and Fran really want the same thing, to get the promotion to be able to have the lives that they want.  It’s a romance, but not in any conventional sense.  The story has brains and so do the characters.  Their actions are logical and their plight is not unrealistic.  The main through-line of this story are all the lonely people; those who go home to their empty apartments (it is a masterstroke that the story takes place at Christmas) and have no real social interactions.  Their lives are a long, slow climb to the middle.  What makes Baxter and Kublick so interesting is how similar they are and the fact that they find a solace in each other’s solitude.  There’s no remedy to their situation when the story is over but we know they won’t have to face it alone.