Better than the Oscars: 85-81

The following is from my series of Oscar Best Picture rankings, as well as my strongly worded suggestions for what should have won from among the nominees. For an introduction to the project, click here. For a way to vote on some Oscar-related ideas, click here. If I’ve written a review on any of the films below, I link to it in the movie’s title. Enjoy!

 

85) Cimarron (1931, 4th Academy Awards), directed by Wesley Ruggles

What should have won: The Front Page

Worth noting: …Skippy, I guess? I know, I’m not thrilled either.

In making these rankings, I’ve tried to separate the truly bad from the merely not good at all, and one of the ways I try to do that is find the movies which have something going for it. There’s nothing going for Crash, for example; The Artist has the dog; so on and so forth et cetera Amen. No movie ages with total grace, not even the greatest ones which are so often immune to criticism; a quick Google search finds that it’s iconoclasts and bloggers who have the most to say about Dooley Wilson’s Sam in Casablanca. But Cimarron just really did not age well, and one likes to think that forward-thinking people in 1931 would have known that from the start. Cimarron uses its Jewish type, its African-American type, its Native American type as reasons to laugh, and just, woof, it’s not pretty. As Sabra, Irene Dunne says some pretty nasty things about Native Americans, and while part of her character’s arc is the formation of a more responsible and wise woman, one worthy of election to the legislature, I’m not sure that comes across beautifully. What it does have going for it is a single electric scene. Upon announcing what is essentially an every man for himself land grab, the film shows us an unusual, funny, thrilling sequence in which people race in any contrivance they can find in order to get that plot of land. It’s exciting and active; in westerns there may not be a scene like it for sheer “get on your horse and go” energy again until Red River.

I’m almost certainly in the minority, but I prefer The Front Page to His Girl Friday. Adolphe Menjou and Pat O’Brien hardly have the same panache as Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, but there’s something much easier to watch in two men having it out with each other as opposed to a divorced man haranguing his ex-wife in the name of whatever it is Cary Grant wants. What shines through more is the film’s proto-screwball plot, imparting the movie with an energy which is rare in such an early talkie. In a time when actors needed to stand more or less still by microphones in order to be heard, The Front Page finds ways to make its interiors erupt with cackling wit and confidence. (This is not a virtue Cimarron has, incidentally.) My favorite of the reporters, as he is often my favorite anywhere, is Edward Everett Horton as a germaphobe scrivener whose sandwich order stands alone. Maurice Black’s Diamond Louie is also a standout; Walter Burns pecks and stresses Diamond Louie just as much in The Front Page as he does Hildy Johnson, and the results for this underground figure are just as comedic as he begins to lose his composure. Only Walter, by the end of the movie, manages to keep his lid on. Even in the face of supreme consequences, his practically sociopathic confidence holds firm, and the good guys win the day behind their impeccably dressed chief. Yet The Front Page is not entirely supportive of journalism: this is not any of odes to Journalism, Gem of the Republic that one finds in more recent films. (Remember that part where a woman throws herself out of a window in protest of how the press has shown her? And then how the reporters more or less shrug it off?) The politicians are the true dirty dealers in this movie, as well they might be. But it’s clear from the get-go that morality is never what guides the newspapermen, for even Hildy, who has some modicum of integrity, is wrapped up in journalism primarily by the adrenaline rush it provides. He and Walter have conflicting monologues about what marriage and semi-retirement will mean for him. Hildy, boasting in front of the boys across the street from the jail, prophesies a life of hot meals and good company. Later on, Walter will make his own set of predictions. “You always know where you’re going: home…A home cooked dinner every night at exactly 7:00, and by 10:00 in bed. Unless, after the tapioca, the wife has some friends in for a neighborly chat.”

 

84) Going My Way (1944, 17th Academy Awards), directed by Leo McCarey

What should have won: Double Indemnity

Worth noting: Gaslight has this tremendous cast all the way down; Boyer and Bergman get most of the glory, but this has Joseph Cotten, May Whitty, and a young Angela Lansbury all just hanging around.

I knew that Saving Mr. Banks was going to be okay as soon as Emma Thompson removes the enormous Mickey Mouse from her bed and tosses him in a corner. “You can stay over there,” she says sternly, “until you learn the art of subtlety.” I don’t know who I’m supposed to toss off my bed in this instance. Is it Leo McCarey? Is it Bing Crosby? Is it Barry Fitzgerald? Hint: It’s actually everybody, and it is excruciating. For two hours we are subjected to an aw-shucks priest eliciting “Golly, mister” and “Gee whiz!” and the like from so-called tough guys in street gangs. They are so rapidly turned to the straight and narrow—no more stealing turkeys, no sir!—and enrolled in Father O’Malley’s boys’ choir that one half-expects Will Schuester to pop out and start chanting “Step ball change” at them. Obviously one would rather have the kids singing in church than pilfering from their honest elders, but the film manages to make that choice obnoxious. O’Malley wins one over with token kindness, and presto chango, the entire gang is his to command. The villain of Going My Way is a mortgage, and the fairly typical businessman who holds it is like his mostly mute sidekick. As much as anything else, Going My Way loses out for somehow having less interesting forces to fight against than Liam Neeson does in The Phantom Menace. Father O’Malley is a giant sledgehammer of justice, but the only iniquities to point out are mere motes: why even bother to crush them if they are so insignificant? Going My Way looks at the entire world with this sort of simpleminded optimism, that Panglossian spirit which says that there’s time for us to play a little golf, see our mothers, and sing songs that really mean something to us. At the end of the movie, once O’Malley has done his work on the St. Dominic’s parish and is being sent to wave his wand over another, he disappears into the night. One wishes that a taxi cab, preferably one steered by a loudly singing driver, would smush that smug guy like a cockroach. Out of all the Best Picture winners, I don’t say this is the worst. Fitzgerald’s character is as interesting as a wet loaf of bread, but the acting there is very solid; even when McCarey’s story is off its rocker with self-righteousness, the man’s visual sensibilities are still strong. But it is undoubtedly my least favorite.

As has already become a theme of this project, the contrast between what did win and what should have won from the nominees is just staggering. Going My Way is lemonade with portions measured by a child; Double Indemnity is a heaping spoonful of lemon juice, a mouth-puckering experience which ably mixes terror, excitement, sex, and murder. It takes work to make dialogue preachy, but skill to make it memorable; even when Edward G. Robinson is leaning over Fred MacMurray at the end of the film, clearly there to help the cops get Walter into the hospital before getting him to trial, the message stands aside for just a second to give us an unforgettable exchange:

Walter: Know why you couldn’t figure this one, Keyes? I’ll tell you. Because the guy you were looking for was too close, right across the desk from you.

Keyes: Closer than that, Walter.

Walter: I love you, too.

Double Indemnity is revered for its snappy back-and-forth, its wicked humor, and its practically meritocratic view towards cleverness. The hero of the story is Barton Keyes, a lifetime insurance man whose acuity, common sense, and mental nimbleness make him a forceful detective without ever donning a deerstalker. One of the movie’s most overlooked elements, in my opinion, is the way that Walter Neff begins to regain his conscience by doing the right thing by Lola, Phyllis’ suspicious stepdaughter. (Jean Heather is, as far as I can tell, one of two links between Going My Way and Double Indemnity. Both movies were made by Paramount. You can guess which one Heather is more interesting in.) As he spends more time with the girl and less time with the woman, the man whose soul was crumpled into a paper ball at the sight of an anklet finds himself unraveling. What Walter Neff has, and what Chuck O’Malley hasn’t, is a war within himself; the latter does social work with the vague penumbra of Christ about him, but the former knows the torment of panic and fear, even if Jesus was short a dictaphone in Gethsemane.

 

83) Cavalcade (1933, 6th Academy Awards), directed by Frank Lloyd

What should have won: The Private Life of Henry VIII

Worth noting: I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang…It’s got one heck of a last scene, and a great performance from Paul Muni besides.

While we’re chatting about movies that didn’t age so hot, enter Cavalcade, a movie released in the same year that Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. Although Cavalcade stretches back all the way into the 19th Century and begins with the Boer War, it certainly makes World War I its climactic element and the instrument of the plot’s resolution. At the end of the film, a mother who has just lost her son dreams of a day when there might be peace for their time. Using World War I as a storytelling tool is hardly a flaw—see The Big ParadeAll Quiet on the Western FrontLawrence of Arabia, etc.—but Cavalcade struggles anymore because its nostalgic and hopeful tone is so goshdarned weird. With six years of its release, the film’s central premise is made a little ridiculous. The movie itself is not ridiculous; some of it is even relatively interesting, as when it uses striking images to emphasize tragedy. A particularly dolorous statue of Jesus on the Cross peers down on English soldiers throwing themselves into the line of fire. A girl whose father has been run over in the street just outside her line of sight returns to frolic in front of a rapidly growing crowd of onlookers; she wears glowing white as she twirls in front of a scrum of dark-jacketed folks. A zeppelin, bathed in swinging floodlights, cruises above London herself. Frank Lloyd seems at home with these huge moments, and he and his cast are all at sea whenever someone has to act without the benefit of a thousand extras. There’s a bigness in the general plot of the film, which covers almost thirty-five years of a single family, but it’s the kind of bigness that one cannot hold onto or sink one’s teeth into. The movie that Cavalcade is most like, really, is Forrest Gump, and the flaws of both movies are found in their belief that a historical movie should be as much slideshow presentation as film. Cavalcade points its laser pointer at major events in England for more than three decades (leaving aside the General Strike, notably), even finding time to kill off some characters on the Titanic. In the aggregate, this gets tiresome quickly; how thunderous history is, and how boring it is when it’s checked off like so many shipping crates at a dock.

The Private Life of Henry VIII is not immune to this same issue, and structurally its weakest element is its hopscotch skipping from wife to wife, which is all too orderly and predictable. What Henry VIII has and Cavalcade does not is a vastly more interesting centerpiece. Diana Wynyard gawps and fawns her way through Cavalcade; Charles Laughton has Henry VIII by the throat. It’s a performance so good, and so fixed in our collective imagination, that we have by and large substituted Laughton’s Henry for history’s. He gnaws his way through an entire chicken, literally wrestles a fellow in front of his court to show he still has the juice, purrs at women helpless and otherwise. There’s no girl dancing in front of her father’s mangled corpse, but it does have Henry getting absolutely blistered at cards by Anne of Cleves. They both cheat. Anne is much better at it than Henry, who fancies himself the best card player in England. The whole movie has humor threaded within it, but this one is laugh-out-loud funny. Elsa Lanchester is the only person in Henry VIII who is capable of taking the spotlight from Laughton, which she does with her ridiculous Germanic accent and shrewd face. Binnie Barnes, as Catherine Howard, lingers as the woman whom Henry wants for just about the whole of the film. From the beginning of the film, which takes place on the day of Anne Boleyn’s execution, Catherine proves to have a mind of her own, a fact that Henry notes and remembers when she accidentally criticizes him in his presence. The movie’s Howard-Culpeper love story is a fine aside, though Robert Donat is merely a distraction from Laughton.

 

82) Ordinary People (53rd Academy Awards), directed by Robert Redford

What should have won: Raging Bull

Worth noting: The most visually perfect film of the bunch was Tess. I wish it were a little more engaging, but it’s not far from Raging Bull at all in terms of overall quality. (My linked review begins with addressing Polanski’s sins and how they are unfortunately, predictably, and frighteningly reflected in the film.)

Like Cavalcade, I’m sure this movie made a much stronger impression when it came out than it does in the present day. Maybe there was something scandalous, or maybe a little risque, about putting a kid from a good family in therapy in 1980. Now that good families send their kids to therapy just so they won’t get bullied for not going, the edge is off the movie. Could be that people were shocked by Judd Hirsch’s tough-talking psychiatrist as opposed to the meek “How does that make you feel?” meme. Perhaps it was the novelty of watching Mary Tyler Moore play a dramatic role (even, if I’ve argued previously, that performance is so without nuance that we’re watching a fairy tale monster growl at Timothy Hutton). Ordinary People is stale now, and it’s so tough it’s hard to believe that it wasn’t stale almost forty years ago. The movie’s major moment of catharsis, in which Con screams at Dr. Berger because he’s…been transported into the moment when his older brother drowned? and doesn’t realize he’s in therapy anymore? and thinks Dr. Berger is Buck?…is laughably silly. Ordinary People is guilty of a weird contrivance from scene to scene, and the screenplay torpedoes even the good acting which pops up now and then by calling attention to the contrivance! All movies are contrived somehow, but they are like magicians; a film should no more point to the seams of its story than a magician would show people he has the key in his cheek. Donald Sutherland is quite possibly the only good part of this movie. I found myself wrapped up in the movie only when he was on screen. I liked watching him speak frankly about Con’s difficulty after the death of his brother at a party; even though I can’t imagine doing it myself, the film shows us that Cal wants to live shamelessly and openly after years of being cramped in. Sutherland strikes again when he finally lets Beth know how hurt he was on the day of Buck’s funeral and she was critiquing his outfit. Even these good scenes must have a counterbalance with bad in Ordinary People, unfortunately. It’s not unbelievable that Cal will show up to speak to Dr. Berger, and in these scenes one typically finds that people speak about themselves. But alas. Cal must say, Wow, maybe have something to talk about, and all God’s people agreed and said, We know.

Raging Bull is a movie utterly without consolation, an accomplishment so unusual and so thrilling that it might be a great movie even without so much support from the cinematography or the editing or the acting. Ordinary People ends with Cal and Con searching for a way to forge ahead together, giving us the sense that the Jarretts will get by somehow. Raging Bull ends with an obese former prizefighter rehearsing an unfunny monologue in monotone before telling himself impotently, “I’m the boss I’m the boss I’m the boss” when at no time in his life has that ever been true. There is true violence in Raging Bull, and it’s not the cartoon mayhem of Tarantino or superhero movies; we know it’s true violence because it makes us want to look away. Even though most of the damage in this movie is done to faces—Janiro, Irma, Joey, Jake himself—this is a movie of body shot after body shot. Every bit of Jake LaMotta is tender to the touch, as if he has spent his entire adult life trying to recover from horrific burns; a fly, a dandelion seed, a cool breeze lands on him and he wonders at who is betraying him right this moment. Someone is paying too much attention to his wife, but he will not pay attention to her. His brother is the wiser of the two, and so that voice of reason must be destroyed as well to make room for the jumpy paranoiac at the center of Jake’s psyche. Raging Bull puts volts through your skull; of the great films that were denied Best Picture after receiving a nomination for it, I think this one was the one most hurt by its total dearth of fun.

 

81) Driving Miss Daisy (62nd Academy Awards), directed by Bruce Beresford

What should have won: My Left Foot

Worth noting: This is one of the worst fields of the past fifty years, all of them at least a little mawkish and some of them oily slick. I’d take Born on the Fourth of July here over Dead Poets Society.

Driving Miss Daisy is an essential text in that genre of “people of color teach white people how not to be awful. It’s Crash for a different generation, but there are two reasons why Driving Miss Daisy is up here while Crash is in the subbasement of these rankings. First off: Bruce Beresford is a much better director than Paul Haggis. (There’s a real command of color in the production design, for example, which I find admirable.) Second: there’s only one relationship in this movie that makes me feel a mite queasy, where there are like, two dozen in Crash that are downright vomitrocious. The movie presents Daisy as a person who lives with some level of prejudice against her as a member of Atlanta’s Jewish community; on her way to temple during a driving storm, she and Hoke get into traffic only to find out that the synagogue has been bombed. Hoke is stopped while driving her through Alabama; the state police are more concerned with the Jewish woman in the car than they are with the black man driving the car. All the same, Daisy, being older than dirt, is not exactly progressive in her views. The movie’s most insightful moment is when Daisy decides to invite Hoke to hear Martin Luther King, Jr. speak at an event she’s going to. You’ve had these tickets for a month and you’re asking me now? Hoke asks. He listens to the speech on the radio in the car. But there are very few scoldings, either explicit or implicit, which are meant to level the old woman who is so set in her ways. Driving Miss Daisy all but has one of those “COEXIST” stickers on the bumper, and by the end of the movie, once Daisy has entered the nursing home and sees Hoke as her “best friend,” it feels rather like too little too late, a deathbed conversion that’s not the same as a life lived in the faith.

My Left Foot has a pair of acting performances far stronger than those anchoring Driving Miss Daisy. Daniel Day-Lewis entered full metal Daniel Day-Lewis territory in this movie, which has become myth and legend. More affecting than his performance (though not as like, technically remarkable) is Brenda Fricker’s, for which she earned a well-deserved Oscar. As Christy’s mother, Bridget, she projects an incredible solidity, like the earth she stands on is made of a totally different material than what everyone else has. Without those two actors, the movie doesn’t hold together. It needs Day-Lewis’ ridiculous commitment, his physical intensity which I still don’t know that he’s equaled. It needs Fricker’s stern voice and strong presence. Between those two it covers up for some of the movie’s other flaws. My Left Foot is, outside of its protagonists, a pretty spare movie. Its cinematography is workmanlike but dull; its settings are dry. It’s one of those movies which is so realistic, so good at depicting a time period, that it accidentally makes itself a little dull.

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