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About armchaircinema

My name is Jerry. My world is movies. So let's talk about something.

Luis Rainer: Oscar’s (estranged) Little Darling

LuiseRainer

Luise Rainer spent the better part of her long life dismissing the film career that will forever be her legacy. When she passed away on December 30th, 2014 at the age of 104, one of the last remaining vestiges of old Hollywood’s Golden Age went with her. Yet it is not a legacy that she was particularly proud of, her film career blossomed in the 1930s, peaked, and then fizzled out by the mid-1940s. To any other actress, this might have seemed a detriment, but Rainer’s outlook on the glamour of Hollywood was so dismissive that she left it – according to her – with little to no regrets.

During the 1930s, Rainer was highly promoted by MGM with the kind of fanfare and mystique that the studio had gotten from Garbo. Rainer was German, a product of middle-class parents who always dreamed of becoming an actress. Yet, her time in Hollywood was brief due to her own refusal to play the studio game at a time when the major Hollywood studios put actors under a strict contract that seemed to have mafia-like overtones.

Rainer was more interested in the work than the image. “There were a lot of things I was unprepared for,” she said, “I was too honest, I talked serious instead of with my eyelashes and Hollywood thought I was cuckoo.” In that time, she found herself frustrated by the male-dominated constraints on her time, on her image, and on her freedom as an artist. Aggravated over being an artist in a business that favored glamour over substance, she made her last film in 1945.

Even as brief as her Hollywood career was, Luise Rainer remains part of its glittering tapestry. In her later years, she lived quiet retirement in London, but returned occasionally to Hollywood to be honored. In 1998, at the age of 88, she attended the academy awards on the occasion of Oscar’s 70th birthday to be part of “Oscar’s Family Album” – a collection of actors and actresses who had received acting awards. She would come back in 2003 for Oscar’s 75th.

Yet, in practical terms, you have to wonder if Rainer’s career would have been remembered so fondly if she hadn’t been such an oddity in Oscar’s scrapbook. To date, she remains the only actress in history to win two back to back Best Actress awards and she was the oldest living Oscar recipient. At a time when Oscar was still in its infancy, she won her first Best Actress Oscar for what is obviously a supporting role as Anna Held in Robert Z. Leonard’s montobulous musical biopic of Florenz Ziefeld called The Great Zielfeld. It wasn’t the bulk of her performance that won her the Oscar so much as a celebrated telephone scene in which she breaks down in tears while attempting to fake happiness at the news that her ex-husband has just gotten engaged. Today, the scene is looked at with more curiosity than admiration. Personally, I hate every inch of the film.

Much better was the performance that got Rainer a second Oscar – that of O-Lan in Sidney Franklin and Victor Fleming’s adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth. Though it is a struggle to convince yourself that a German actress playing a Chinese peasant isn’t a head-scratcher, her performance isn’t bad. In fact it’s quite good if you can get past the German accent that slips through her attempts to sound Asian.  I admire the film but I admit that I have to jump through a great deal of politically correct hoops to get there.  It is a testament to her acting talents that, despite this, she manages to make the part her own.

It’s crude to say that it was all downhill from there, but Rainer didn’t mind. She fought with MGM’s tyrannical studio head Louis B. Mayer who threatened: “We made you, we’re gonna break you,” to which Ms. Rainer proudly proclaimed “Mr. Mayer, God made me, and long after you’re dead I will still be alive.” Leaving Hollywood, and a disastrous marriage to playwright Clifford Odetts, Rainer retired from film work in 1945 and only emerged in later years for a bit part on “Love Boat” in 1984 and The Gambler in 1997. Not long after her split with Odetts, she married publisher Robert Knittell and stayed with him until his death in 1989.

One question that dogged Rainer in her whole life is where she kept her twin Oscars. Though humble about any kind of award or honor, she smiled sheepishly when asked this question by Joe Franklin in 1981. “I don’t like showing off Oscar. I like living in the present and the future.”

 
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Posted by on 02/27/2018 in Uncategorized

 

The Best Picture Winners: Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

If you’ve been watching the Oscars as long as I have, then you notice that more often then not the winner of the year’s Best Picture is telegraphed months in advance.  With that, you look forward to those rare moments when a come-behind little movie breaks through and makes an impression on the voters.

As a Best Picture winner, Slumdog Millionaire was something of an enigma. Like The Last Emperor, it contained no major stars, took place in a foreign country and was about the strange journey of one man’s life.  The difference is that while The Last Emperor featured a man who is unhappily trapped in his gilded cage, the subject of Slumdog is a kid who rises out of his poverty and finds wealth both financially and in his heart.

The journey involves Jamal (Dev Patel), an Indian teenager who inexplicably ends up on his country’s version of “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire” and is tortured by the security staff when he gets within one question of the grand prize. The staff is suspicious of how a slum kid from Mumbai could have such vast knowledge so, during his interrogation, he reveals how his life’s journey has (apparently through cosmic circumstance) prepared him for the questions he has been given.

I liked Slumdog Millionaire, but I didn’t feel its greatness. I was moved by the love story, about how Jamal falls in love with his childhood friend Latika (played by the stunningly beautiful Frieda Pinto) and keeps her in his heart even through the years apart. Yet, the logic center of my brain had problems accepting the idea that Jamal would be given questions on the game show that just happen to correspond with all of the red letter events in his life. I realize that this isn’t the point, but it was an illogical element that I couldn’t overlook. I am sort of alone in my opinion of Slumdog Millionaire, which many critics thought was one of the best films of the year. More than one critic compared Jamal’s journey to that of Forrest Gump, but Forrest’s journey was driven by the whim of chance, while Jamal’s seemed driven by bizarre coincidence.  For me, that just wasn’t enough.

 

The Best Picture Winners: Crash (2005)

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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For the rest of recorded cinematic history, it may be debated and questioned as to why Paul Haggis’ cartoonish and overblown diatribe on the current state racial hated in America might have been bestowed the Oscar for Best Picture.  There are a thousand theories, but many have pointed to a measure of discomfort among the Academy voters with the favored frontrunner, Brokeback Mountain.  Were voters much more comfortable with an overcooked melodrama about racism than with a love affair between two men?  That’s a question for history.

I’ve seen Crash twice in my life and I can say that I admire what it is trying to do.  It is trying to focus on the multi-faceted portrait of racial paranoia that is still persistent in our culture – much of which is certainly very valid.  But geez!  This movie mangles and mishandles the layers in a way that ends up being retroactive to its purpose.  It’s handling of the white characters is overblown; it’s handle of minorities is degrading (particularly African-Americans) and by the end you don’t feel enlightened, you feel unclean.  Again, while I greatly admire that film’s purpose, I question its execution.  There are better ways to handle this material, and ultimately, this just isn’t it.

 
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Posted by on 02/10/2018 in Uncategorized

 

The Best Picture Winners: Million Dollar Baby (2004)

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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Review

 

The Best Picture Winners: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

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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Review

 

The Best Picture Winners: Chicago (2002)

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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It had been 34 years since a big-budgest musical had won the Oscar for Best Picture and in that time only three musicals – Hello Dolly!, Beauty and the Beast and Moulin Rouge – had even been nominated.  In the last third of the 20th century it became clear that the era of the live-action musical was over.  What had once been a mainstay of the American cinematic landscape had now been almost exclusively relegated to animated features.

Chicago would, in a small way, help to pull the musical out of the doldrums.  Based on the 1975 Broadway production by Bob Fosse, John Kander and Fred Ebb that proved to be ahead of its time (and loosely based on fact) it told the story of Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, two murderesses in the 1920s whose crimes become the fulcrum form shameless media celebrity.

At the time, audiences didn’t respond positively to the she’s cynical tone.  Fosse tried to recoup its losses by turning Chicago into his follow-up to the film version of Cabaret, but died before he could bring it to the screen.  The media-hungry age of the 1990s however would prove to be the perfect bit of musical cynicism as the show was revived and became the longest running revival in history.

The masterstroke of Rob Marshall’s 2002 film version is that it keeps Fosse’s choreography and replaces the episodic vaudeville style pieces by turning them into fantasies inside Roxy’s head so that the doldrums of her hum-drum reality are more easily juxtaposed with the fantasy going on inside her mind.  It was also a brilliant idea to give the project to Marshall, who was a veteran of the stage.

His genius comes in the fantasies as he stages the musical numbers without having them feel stagey – he makes them remarkably cinematic.  Take, for example, the great set piece “Cell Block Tango” – in which a group of female inmates sing about their dastardly crimes – it could have felt episodic but Marshall meshes it so well into the film that it feels organic.  Same goes for the brilliant “Razzle Dazzle” in which Roxy’s lawyer Billy Flynn (played by a miscast Richard Gere) sings about manipulating the media by turning them into puppets.

Outside of any critical misgivings (and I do have them), I couldn’t deny that I found the movie a lot of fun.  The music was infectious despite a story that wallows in the cynical muck.  But, as with any musical, if the tunes are working you don’t mind so much.

What would follow the success of Chicago would be a brief revival of the movie musical.  In the years that followed would come film adaptations of Rent, Into the Woods, Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables and Mamma Mia.  It is hard to say that the movie musical has returned in full form because we still haven’t reached the age of original musicals, but there is still hope, and apparently still and audiences hungry to see them.

 

The Best Picture Winners: A Beautiful Mind (2001)

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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Review

 

The Best Picture Winners: Gladiator (2000)

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 – some good and others that are . . . well, like Gladiator.


The new millennium did not open with a great year for movies.  Oh, there were some gems like Almost Famous, Traffic, Best in Show and Memento, but the Academy voters overlooked all of them in order to reward one of the dumbest and most ill-conceived movies ever to be bestowed the Oscar for Best Picture.

What’s wrong with Gladiator?  You name it.  The story is inane.  The performances are laughable.  The production design looks like cut-scenes from a bad video game (I’ve never seen an uglier sky).  The Oscar winning visual effects look like they aren’t even finished.  The movie has an unhappy tone that makes Schindler’s List seem jolly by comparison.  Every character  seems to wallow in misery and/or vengeful hatred which wouldn’t be a problem if they weren’t as dull as a bag of hammers.  And on the level of Roman history this movie falls on its face; if a high school student turned this screenplay into an essay for history class they’d end up in detention.

The movie’s defenders claimed that it was a throwback to the forgettable sword and sandal epics of the 1950s like Ben-Hur and Spartacus, but I believe that had it been made at that time it would have been forgotten today and laughed into the dustbins of history by critics and filmgoers alike. Gladiator lacks any real passion or joy.  I realize that the film made $187 million at the box office and it has a legion of fans but I am not the film’s only detractor. I recently read the comment index for the film at the Internet Movie Database and I find that I am not alone.  I’d prefer to spend my evening watching Almost Famous, a nostalgic drama with heart, pathos and a lot of a great music.  Gladiator can go salire in lacum.

 

 

The Best Picture Winners: American Beauty (1999)

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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Reviews

 

The Best Picture Winners: Shakespeare in Love (1998)

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.
___________________________________________________________________________________________

Review