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.