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The Best Picture Winners: All About Eve (1950)

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, 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.


The crushing inevitability of being an aging actress was something that Bette Davis seemed to wrestle with for most of her life.  She wasn’t classically beautiful in her youth and she wasn’t a great beauty as she got older, but her personal battle to keep her career from being washed out to sea by the youth-obsessed denizens who ran Hollywood was so famous that it not only became legendary but inspired a whole genre.  Late in her career she would play a series of psycho-biddies in a genre of hag-sploitation movies that she and Joan Crawford seemed to have inadvertently created; films about aging women driven mad by their obsession with holding on to the good old days.  Those movies were a ghoulish representation, the antithesis of which was All About Eve.

All About Eve has been lauded as one of the best pieces of writing ever to come out of the Golden Age of Hollywood, but at the same time it was also one of the most honest portraits of one of the most troubling aspects of show business: Women don’t have it easy when Father Time oversteps even the most glorious reputation.

In arguably her finest film role, Davis plays Margo Channing, one of the most celebrated actresses on Broadway who finds herself in danger of being nosed off the stage by a rising young starlet (Anne Baxter), a young and beautiful neophyte who warms herself to Margo’s ego despite the fact that underneath beats the heart of a rat.  The movie is not the war of misbehavior that we might expect (or that would have been easier to write) but becomes a reflection on what it means to be a woman in a business that insists on a sell-by date.  Margo has just turned 40 and the inevitability of time will overtake her.

That’s the crux of the character and the legendary script by Joseph Mankiewicz allows Margo to be a fighter (“Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night”) while at the same time allowing her moments of deep introspection.  Of all of Davis’ work, I can think of no moment that rings truer than when she sits in the backseat of her friend’s car and begins a long, introspective monologue that seems one of the most insightful and debatable passages ever written:

Funny business, a woman’s career – the things you drop on your way up the ladder so you can move faster. You forget you’ll need them again when you get back to being a woman. That’s one career all females have in common, whether we like it or not: being a woman. Sooner or later, we’ve got to work at it, no matter how many other careers we’ve had or wanted. And in the last analysis, nothing’s any good unless you can look up just before dinner or turn around in bed, and there he is. Without that, you’re not a woman. You’re something with a French provincial office or a book full of clippings, but you’re not a woman. Slow curtain, the end.

It is probably true that most women in the 21st century would find fault with Margo’s logic, particularly given that times have changed, but the central logic to what she has to say rings true.  It shows the fallibility of Margo’s realization that no matter how hard she fights, the inevitability of her age will push her aside.  Eventually she will have to return to the limited role that 1950s America had placed on women.  What is remarkable is that Margo’s plight seemed to spill off the screen as well.

All About Eve was released the same year that Gloria Swanson starred in Sunset Blvd as a woman driven mad by the image that has long-since passed her by.  Margo and Norma are different approaches to the same idea.  Margo has far more humanity, while Norma Desmond is a closer representation to the kinds of roles that Davis would play in later years.  At this moment Davis was 42 and Swanson was 51.  Both were nominated for Best Actress and, in a bitter irony, both lost to 29 year-old Judy Holliday for Born Yesterday.  How that for art imitating life?

 

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The Best Picture Winners: All the King’s Men (1949)

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, 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.


If you take the long and winding journey of the films that have won the Academy Award for Best Picture (this is my fourth trip) you don’t find many happy returns.  By that I mean that you won’t find a lot of laugh-filled whimsical escapism.  That’s not surprising considering that the Academy voter’s legendary preference of heavy drama over sweetness and light.

All the King’s Men may be the most unpleasant experience of them all.  Stories about the corruption of the soul make for great drama and give us an insight into the fallibility of this human condition.  Yes they were dark but – geez!All the King’s Men is a wading pool of misery.  I’ve had ingrown toenails that were more fun.

Based on the book by Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men is a pseudo-biographical retelling of the rise and fall of Louisiana Senator Huey P. Long – renamed here as Willie Stark.  The book delved into symbiotic biblical references to make its point and to help us understand the all-too-human qualities of our main character, but the movie doesn’t go that far.  It’s much more simple-minded.  We see the corruption of Willie Stark, a relatively decent man (and based on this film rather dull) who is pulled into the sewer of political corruption that destroys his very soul.

My first problem may be the performance of Broderick Crawford in the role of Willie Stark.  Crawford was a rather one-note actor who worked well in character roles that required him two speeds: Screaming terror and boiling hatred.  It worked well in a light comedy like Born Yesterday where he was the antagonist.  But here, we are supposed to feel something for Willie Stark and Crawford plays him as such a holy terror that you feel the urge to be anywhere else.

I am sure that the film has its defenders.  I know that a lot of people derive more from this movie than I did.  I guess for this kind of story, I need a place to gain a foothold.  The plot of All the King’s Men is, in some small way, similar to that of The Godfather, another story of the decimation of a man’s soul through the machinations of the system in which he lives.  But in that film we saw the goodness in Michael Corleone.  We watched turn to the dark side, so to speak.  Willie Stark seemingly begins at the dark side, so where’s the journey?

 

The Best Picture Winners: Hamlet (1948)

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, 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.


I feel rather odd moving into a review of Laurence Olivier’s beloved adaptation of “Hamlet.”  No one did more to bring the works of Shakespeare to a movie audience, so who am I to critique the work of a man considered to be one of the greatest actors who ever lived?  No one, certainly, in 1948 was complaining.  One just assumed that if Olivier was tackling the work of The Bard then it must be good.

That’s a bold assessment because it overturns any notion of misstep in his production.  Myself, I’m back and forth on this adaptation.  I think he made a brilliant choice to direct himself because another hand might have stunted the work but I think it also leaves this film version feeling like a vanity project.  I can say nothing negative about his performance, which is flawless but I do have a beef with some of his direction.

What I like is the way that Olivier uses the motion of the camera to draw us inward into Hamlet’s turmoil and the stark black and white photography by Desmond Dickinson plays with shadowy world to which the lonely Dane’s eyes are now open.

What I don’t like is that Olivier is center stage most of the time and that leaves all of the other characters in the background, off-center and seeming unimportant.  I realize that it is Hamlet’s story but what impressed me studying the work as a teenager was the population of characters.  There were new characters and new identities in almost every scene with Hamlet sometimes seeming to go through episodes with different outward perspectives as he questions the nature of life and death.  That’s something that this film doesn’t give me.

The problem may be my own.  Hamlet, for me, was never about the murder, it was a dissertation about the meaning of this thing called life and whether the journey is worth all the trouble.  What is the point of the journey?  Is it worth the The heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to?  What are we at the end of life?  Why torture ourselves?  To be?  Or Not to be?

I appreciate his filmmaking craft, his ability to reach an audience on film in ways that he never could in a stage production.  His camera moves inward to capture the tortured mind of Hamlet as he deals with the machinations that led his conniving uncle to murder his father.  The problem is that the emotional pull of the key scenes, for me, come up empty.  I don’t feel the melancholy of the “To Be or Not to Be” scene, nor do I feel the mourning that comes from the quizzical cosmic spaces that should be present in the questions that Hamlet’s offers in the famous graveyard scene.

In short, I find this version of Hamlet to be at arm’s length.  I appreciate Olivier’s performance and a few choices in his direction but I just wish I were more impressed by both. For everything I love about this Hamlet there is something that bothers me.  Overall, it is not a movie I choose to spend an evening with.  I find it stuffy and I find that I have to do a lot of lifting to meet Olivier halfway.  He is such a brilliant actor and such a brilliant filmmaker though that this is something I feel that I should never have to do.

 

The Best Picture Winners: Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, 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.


In the wake of The Second World War, the Hollywood studios no longer had Nazis to rely on as villains.  The Cold War wasn’t a thing yet so studio executives thought it pertinent to dig into social issues and domestic problems for dramatic template.

For 1947, the issues came in many forms: matricide (Kiss of Death), alcoholism (Smash Up – The Story of a Woman), self-dignity (Body and Soul), mental instability (Possessed), personal identity (A Double Life), severe domestic problems (Mourning Becomes Electra), legal problems (Odd Man Out) and, of course, that business with where Santa Claus got locked up in a mental institution.  Just a few years before the romping-stomping terror of Joe McCarthy, it was a rather noble gesture that (even in their own tepid way) Hollywood would address problems at home.

In 1947, one message picture was respected enough by Academy voters to receive the Oscar as the year’s Best Picture.  Elia Kazan’s adaptation Gentleman’s Agreement was rather daring for its time.  Based on the book by Laura Z. Hobson, and adapted by Moss Hart, it tells the story of a journalist named Phil Green (Gregory Peck) who comes to New York to write a piece on anti-Semitism.  Phil himself is a gentile so he decides to pose as a Jew in order to understand and explore the problem first hand.

It seems a noble gesture that a movie made in 1947 might address such a difficult issue, but Gentleman’s Agreement plays out as very weak sauce even for the time.  Dramatically-speaking, this is a very dry movie.  It is veeeeery talky and the dramatic juice of the film is undercut by the fact that the main character Phil is not, in fact, Jewish (Peck himself was actually Roman Catholic).  That fact overwhelms the situation and the only real dramatic tension comes from the question of whether or not Phil’s girlfriend Kathy (Dorothy McGuire) can overcome her own buried prejudice.

That’s my problem in a nutshell.  Why attack this problem second-hand?  I realize that this was the crux of the book, but why parallax the issue through the eyes of someone who doesn’t experience prejudice first hand?  There were plenty of Jews in America in the 1940s who experienced this kind of discrimination every day, why not just focus the story through their eyes?  Why not let them tell their own story?

Gentleman’s Agreement had the misfortune of arriving in the same year as another story of anti-Semitism, Edward Dmytryk’s Crossfire, which dealt with the subject not as a case study but in the face of a gruesome murder.  That alone makes it far more palatable because the course of murder in the name of anti-Semitism really trumps the scene in Gentleman’s Agreement which Phil is outraged at being denied a hotel room.

 

 

The Pod Bay Doors Podcast, Episode #13: It Follows (2015)


In week three of Shock-tober Jerry and Doug take a look at It Follows, going along slowly but never stopping…until the end of the episode.

 
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Posted by on 10/15/2017 in Uncategorized

 

The Best Picture Winners: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, 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.


The movies are, perhaps, the greatest time capsule that man has yet perfected.  They are (or can be) a window on a time period that is long gone, a representation of a bygone era, its ideas and its values.  This is especially potent if the film comes along at the right time.

William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives had its premiere in November of 1946; had it been released a year earlier (the year that the war ended) it might have seemed rushed.  Release in 1947 it might have seemed dated.  Yet, released in 1946 with The United States comfortably out of the war and the men back home with their families, this movie and the mood in the country just felt right.

What surprised me returning to The Best Years of Our Lives is how carefully crafted this film is.  It’s an examination of the readjustment of three vets returning to their hometown and each at a different place in their lives.  Al Stephenson (Fredic March) comes back to his banking position and an adjustment to the fact that he’s missed part of his kid’s formative years.  Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) finds it difficult to hold down a job or to repair the strands of a threadbare marriage that has come apart while he’s been overseas.  And Homer Parrish (Supporting Actor winner Harold Russell) tries to put together a difficult adjustment to life after losing both of his hands.

But that bare-bones description shouldn’t deter from the film’s detailed and unhurried narrative.  Directed by William Wyler and adapted by World War I veteran Robert Sherwood from the novel by MacKinlay Kantor, the movie never glosses over the material.  It observes the tiniest details in these men’s lives and deals head-on with the disorientation of having to replant one’s self after the terrible trials of war, even one from which America emerged victorious.

What impresses me is that the movie doesn’t reach for dramatic effect.  It observes bitter truth of the situation without gimmicks.  One might expect that Harold Russell’s character would be given all kinds of dramatic trip wires in the story of a man who came back from the war physically less than the man who left.  But it’s unforced, a very relaxed performance that wells up from the situation, not from the manipulations of Sherwood’s script.

For me, Russell is the key to the movie.  It’s a very relaxed performance from a man who has zero acting experience.  The character was originally written to be suffering from shell shock and played by Farley Granger.  Director William Wyler, however, thought that the wound might be better served if it was physical rather than mental.  He had seen an Army training short called “Diary of a Sergeant” (you can see it here) featuring a young Army paratrooper who lost both of his hands in an explosion and readjusting to life after physical trauma.  He cast Russell in the part and it was such an effective performance that he won two Oscars that year; one for Best Supporting Actor and a second Honorary Oscar presented “For bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance in The Best Years of Our Lives.”  He won both, making him the only Actor to win two Oscars for playing the same part.  The reason that he was given the Honorary award was as a buffer.  The Academy Board of Governors feared that the untrained actor had no chance of winning so they gave him the award just in case.

I was surprised how much I liked this film on my return visit.  Like any film that recounts a portrait of a bygone era, it’s a window for me into a time long before I was born, with an accountable set of values that seem to be far from my own.  This is an effective and very moving portrait of The Greatest Generation and looking at this film you can clearly see why.

 

The Best Picture Winners: The Lost Weekend (1945)

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, 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.


I’ll be honest; I am sort of amused by Hollywood’s treatment of a serious but touchy subjects like alcoholism or anti-Semitism in an era when husbands and wives weren’t even allowed to be seen sharing the same bed.  Some worked and some didn’t (I’m looking at YOU Gentleman’s Agreement).  Thankfully when Hollywood took a serious look at alcoholism, it fell into the capable hands of Billy Wilder.

Wilder is one of my favorite directors; a round peg in a square hole who always seemed to be defying the rather rigid imposition of a bellicose code of conduct that Hollywood had imposed on itself, and got away with it mostly due in part to the fact that his films were successful.  The Lost Weekend was no different.  It was one of the highest grossing movies of the year and picked up Oscars for the screenplay written by Wilder and his long-time collaborator Charles Brackett; Best Director for Wilder; Best Actor for Ray Milland; and, of course The Big One.  Oddly enough, it stepped over some rather pious studio pictures like Anchors Aweigh and Mildred Pierce to get there.

Based on a book by a long-forgotten writer named Charles Jackson, The Lost Weekend tells the story of Don Birnam an otherwise sound soul who tries and continually fails to resist the temptation of the bottle and ends up going on a four-day bender while looking back over the highs and lows of a life that would breed shame and regret.  Jackson only wrote a handful of novels in his life and is barely even remembered for this one book.  Yet he apparently lived what he wrote in his most famous work; he was an alcoholic and also had an addiction to barbiturates.  This addiction apparently brought about his death in 1968 at the age of 65 while working on a follow-up entitled “Farther and Wider.”

I read The Lost Weekend in the early 90s when I was in college and I was intrigued that the book explores territory that the movie isn’t allowed to touch.  In the book, Birnam struggles not only with alcohol but with his own sexual identity.  The movie is scrubbed clean of any hint that Birnam might have any measure of homosexual tendency and instead saddles his drinking problem with a case of writer’s block.

The book was rather explicit (for its time) about a past incident in college in which Don found the “passionate hero-worship of an upperclassman during his very first month at college, a worship that led, like a fatal infatuation, to scandal and public disgrace.”  The upperclassman is regaled as a hero while Birnam returns to his hometown determined never to leave the safety of his familiar surroundings again.  What exactly happened between them is left to the reader’s imagination but it brought shame and debasement from those around him.  Remember, this book was written in 1944 at a moment when any hint of homosexuality could be met by imprisonment or confinement in an institution.

This struggle, I think, gives us a more apt template for Don’s drinking, especially given the time.  The movie scrubs all those problems from the screen and for years I doted on this as a fatal flaw.  Yet, in preparing for this essay, I was bound to see it in a different light.  If the book suggests that the shame of homosexuality was the template for his drinking then it may be possible that the absence of this problem may be to the movie’s favor.  It might suggest that Don is simply a weak man who can’t resist the bottle without the backing of a further problem that is exacerbating his addiction.  Of course, the absence of his homosexuality leaves the movie open to suggest that his drinking is the product of the fact that, as a writer, he may have peaked too early and feels that he cannot rise to greatness again.

Even given Don’s past ills I admire the film greatly for not giving him a pass.  There’s a reason for his drinking but there’s never a sense that Wilder and Brackett’s screenplay are willing to make excuses for him.  This is a difficult portrait of a man who seems beyond his own personal demons, and it is a brave film given the texture of the times.