Better than the Oscars: 75-71

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!

 

75) Around the World in 80 Days (1956, 29th Academy Awards), directed by Michael Anderson

What should have won: Giant

Worth noting: The Ten Commandments may not actually be anyone’s cup of tea anymore, but goodness knows it’s a better DeMille effort than The Greatest Show on Earth.

There’s a running joke—I dunno if it’s still running sixty-odd years later, but whatever—that Around the World in 80 Days won Best Picture because it employed so much of Hollywood. I’m half-inclined to believe it. With a cast of thousands including scores of cameos from name-brand actors, this is certainly meant to be a crowd-pleaser. Some of the movie really works, too, which is reliant primarily on its photography and its many filming locations. There are a bunch of scenes which take place on the water, and to me these are among the most beautifully made of their kind. Michael Anderson has an eye for his landscapes as well. Some of the shots of that old-fashioned locomotive chugging along the American West are special. The problem with Around the World in 80 Days is much the same problem with Out of Africa: it’s beautiful, and I like seeing a world that we don’t usually see in movies, and I dunno that there’s enough chemistry between anyone to make this work. The flashiest elements of the movie eventually have to bow to this remarkable but (even in the original) contrived plot. Unfortunately, the dual sightseeing of famous people and exotic places is the movie’s reason to live, which means that the leads aren’t quite so important. Cantinflas and David Niven are making totally different movies, which makes sense, because even in the source material Passepartout and Fogg are taking totally different trips. But it doesn’t cohere all that well in the movie, which uses Niven because he is quintessentially English and uses Cantinflas because he’s goofy. One also quibbles with Shirley Maclaine playing an Indian woman, and she isn’t a terribly strong foil for Niven herself.

Giant is in its own way a more sweeping movie than Around the World in 80 Days, even though it doesn’t go on a world tour. What anchors that movie is Elizabeth Taylor’s performance, which is head and shoulders above any in 80 Days, and the support she gets from Rock Hudson and James Dean is plenty good, too. Leslie is fiery and individualistic when she’s confronted by Bick, in her very East Coast way certain of her opinions and sure that they’re worth putting into the conversation. With Jett she changes with age. As a young woman, she sympathizes with Jett’s ambition and sees Texas through his critical eyes much more readily than she sees it through Bick’s myopia. As she gets older—and as she has a daughter old enough for Jett to begin grooming as Mrs. Rink—she begins to realize what’s seedy in the man, recognizing the poison that years of boozing and brooding have built up in him. Around the World in 80 Days simply doesn’t have a single relationship like that, much less a triad. Nor does 80 Days have the social critique built within it that Giant uses as its driving force. Racism and classism is what shudders the Benedict marriage for decades, infecting the happiness of their children as well. It’s not until the head of the family makes a very physical stand against a very physical stand-in for racism that the marriage and the family begin to heal. Part of the appeal is cinematic—Rock Hudson gets into the longest fistfight this side of The Quiet Man—and part of it is the surprising truth of the matter. We tend to fight the physical and the present with far more vigor than we combat the abstract.

 

74) You Can’t Take It with You (1938, 11th Academy Awards), directed by Frank Capra

What should have won: Grand Illusion

Worth noting: I adore The Adventures of Robin Hood, one of the great clean fun movies ever made which is just blissfully entertaining. Ask me about Old Hollywood (and let’s say I’m feeling nostalgic instead of iconoclastic) and this is the movie that comes to mind first.

Here’s one that hindsight has made look really bad, and there’s some history-making involved in this ceremony that makes me inclined to forgive the Academy a little. No movie in a language other than English had ever been nominated for Best Picture before Grand Illusion did it, and the fact that Best Picture was the only award that Grand Illusion was up for makes that nomination feel much more like the recognition of a cause célèbre in a divided Europe than a serious statement of its filmmaking. (Imagine being the Academy ten minutes after Michael Curtiz was nominated twice for Best Director and they couldn’t even pony up a single nomination for Jean Renoir. C’est la whoopsy-daisy.) Personally I think it makes a great deal of sense to award English-language movies made by American production companies at the American movie awards ceremony, and so I’m not the type to get upset when, say, A Separation or The White Ribbon fails to be nominated for Best Picture. What gets my goat is when a movie like that is nominated for, in the respective cases of those two, Best Original Screenplay or Best Cinematography, and then Midnight in Paris and Avatar win instead.

Grand Illusion is the first movie to cross that barrier and possibly the greatest. (There are surely those among you who are not Ingmar Bergman stans, and so I’ll forgive you if you put this above Cries and Whispers.) This is one of the only real anti-war movies, and it does so with a keen eye on social class. The movie knows, and its characters know, that Boeldieu and Von Rauffenstein are much closer to each other than Boeldieu is to Maréchal, or Rauffenstein is to any of the soldiers under his command. There is nobility and courtliness between the French aristocrat and his German counterpart, and one of the greatest scenes in one of the greatest movies ever made is the one where a dying Boeldieu tries to console Rauffenstein. In a moment of high symbolism, the German has shot at the Frenchman but missed his mark, mortally wounding him rather than merely incapacitating him. (World War II, which was utterly unprecedented, has elided World War I, which in 1937 was itself utterly unprecedented. History does not do us favors.) Boeldieu says that dying a soldier’s death is a veiled blessing for a nobleman like himself; it is you who will live on and not know where you belong, he tells Rauffenstein, who will fail to understand where you fit in. The war games and feats of strength that the international nobility accidentally indulges in have legitimate consequences for Maréchal and Rosenthal, neither one of whom belongs to the true elite. It sends them to POW camps, risks their lives in escapes, and finally watches them as they slip into Switzerland under a hail of German bullets. Nor does the film give a clue as to whether they will see home again, and in so doing it makes the relatively safe and entirely pleasant home they’ve made with a German woman and her child even more tragic. It’s difficult to overstate the intelligence of this movie, which has as clear a set of eyes on European belligerence as any ever made but which can also focus in on forbidden, even traitorous love like Rauffenstein has for Boeldieu or Maréchal has for Elsa.

Compared to Grand Illusion, You Can’t Take It with You is a pie fight, and not a very funny one either. There’s a case to be made that this is Capra’s corniest movie, one with the sort of ridiculous “Can’t we all just get along?” politics that are synonymous with even his best work. Grandpa Vanderhof—played by Lionel Barrymore, whose Capra collaborations prove that you can either die the hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain—is a kindly old gent living his best life. He and his sprawling family don’t need much money, for they own a house already, and while there they can live the lives they please. One scene features Vanderhof dressing down an IRS agent. He hasn’t paid income tax in twenty-two years, but that’s because he can’t tell what the money’s for. The IRS man gives him some reasons, which are either too arcane or too foolish for the geezer to wrap his head around; meanwhile, Grandpa is something of a community hero for his decency and his good sense. There’s a dizzying surfeit of characters there, who alternately dance, play the xylophone, craft illegal fireworks, type literally endless texts, make musical figurines, and exploit the welfare system. (One of those people is black, by the way. Guess which one he is. Yeah, casual racism.) The movie puts Vanderhof up against Kirby, a banker who has a plan to create a munitions monopoly which simply requires the house that Grandpa and his daffy kin inhabit. Hijinks ensue when it turns out Vanderhof’s granddaughter and Kirby’s son are in love. No movie has ever underused Jean Arthur and Jimmy Stewart more than You Can’t Take It with You, which might even think it’s about their rocky path to marriage, but which is really about the faceoff between Vanderhof and Kirby. It’s a little more than two hours of folksy cuteness that even late-career Leo McCarey would have gagged at. It’s the kind of movie I can’t imagine being made even three years later simply because the American appetite for twee was about to evaporate. What keeps the movie from being an absolute total drag are the strong performances from the movie’s stars and Capra’s direction, which is unspectacular but has the kind of surefooted control that we’ll later find in Spielberg.

 

73) Braveheart (1995, 68th Academy Awards), directed by Mel Gibson

What should have won: Apollo 13

Worth noting: Sense and Sensibility, which is for my money the best of the many, many Austen movie adaptations. (I said movie, stop yelling about the Colin Firth miniseries.) It would also be a great choice for Best Picture this year, more than the average movie I’ve put in this category so far.

Both Braveheart and Apollo 13 have certain types of masculinity in mind, and one might even find that they are the masculinities which are favored by the time periods in which the movies are set. Mel Gibson fills the role of Renaissance Man of the Middle Ages, i.e. the guy who can fight, screw, and yell better than the rest of the Cro-Magnons. And in the early ’70s, the post-Hemingway man had taken hold; he needs the strength, stamina, and grace of the Hemingway man, but as Ed Harris or Tom Hanks show us, he doesn’t have to prove it through sex or killing large animals. It’s unfortunate that Braveheart throws itself at said masculinity as if its qualifications of manliness are as unquestionable now as they were then. I’ve expressed what really doesn’t work in Braveheart in the post I linked to above, so I won’t go overboard here explaining why it’s not a good movie. The problem can be boiled down most simply in Gibson’s messianic portrait of William Wallace, which is more than a little ridiculous and campy. What amazes me watching the movie is the sheer amount of time, mostly in the beginning of the film, where Gibson is truly magnetic. He holds the camera’s attention with a mighty grip whether he is running around and slitting throats or if he is sitting pensively with his blue eyes—almost Newmanesque in this movie—flashing with thought. Patrick McGoohan and Sophie Marceau are likewise worthy of our attention and can command the screen at about three-quarters of Gibson’s power. The problem in the end is that the movie just isn’t very smart; it throws itself at symbols and motifs like a middle schooler who has just discovered the ideas.

Here’s the mid-’90s historical drama with Tom Hanks that should have won Best Picture. And here comes a bizarre sentence: here’s the movie that Ron Howard should have won Best Director for. I think this is a marvelously directed movie, and there are some technical aspects of production which are just totally bonkers and totally essential to the movie. Apollo 13 is an unusual movie because of the contrast in its settings. Claustrophobia reigns often as not. The crew of Apollo 13 practices scenarios on their backs in the simulators; in one practice simulation, Jack Swigert accidentally punctures a papier-mache Moon with a camera. Gary Sinise holds a flashlight in his mouth like a mechanic in that same simulator once the mission has gone awry. Everyone loves that shot of mission control erupting with cheers when it’s clear that they’ve brought Apollo 13 home, but that drab room is also packed, just as it is packed throughout the movie. So many of the scenes in space are great not because it shows the lunar module blasting off towards Earth like it’s been shot out of a cannon (though that’s a great scene!) but because there’s not much room for Hanks, Bacon, and Paxton to move around on that little set; we spend a lot of time staring directly into the faces of three of the better actors of the time. Aside from a few moments to show the technical aspects of the mission, from the explosion to the Constellation Urine, space is largely a place of fantasy. It’s where Marilyn has a terrible nightmare in which Jim is sucked out into space; it’s where Jim imagines himself walking on the Moon and walking his fingers through the lunar dust. Quietly, and under the guise of scenes doing completely different things, we find ourselves reckoning with the spurred and spurned imaginations of the characters through the medium of space.

 

72) Kramer vs. Kramer (1979, 52nd Academy Awards), directed by Robert Benton

What should have won: Apocalypse Now

Worth noting: All That Jazz is uneven and active and absorbing and, for twenty minutes, arguably the best English-language movie of the year.

Here’s my lukewarm take for this entire exercise: Kramer vs. Kramer is the worst choice for Best Picture in the five-nominee era. This is not because it’s the worst movie to win Best Picture in that era (obviously), but because literally every choice the Academy had was a much better one. Apocalypse Now speaks for itself. All That Jazz is electrifying. The two lesser movies among the nominees, Norma Rae and Breaking Away, are both thoughtful social exercises in much the same vein as Kramer vs. Kramer. Alas that Kramer does not have the heart of Norma Rae, which Sally Field just owns from top to bottom and basically turns into a compelling picture all by her lonesome. Alas that Kramer does not have the charisma of Breaking Away, which is sort of a weird Best Picture nominee on its own merits but which has always gotten this cynical blog boy to cheer. No, Kramer has Dustin Hoffman and Hollywood’s sudden discovery of single fathers, competently shot and as predictable as a flight of stairs. Ted gets left; Ted struggles to parent Billy; Ted gets to know his kid; Ted fights for his kid; Ted loses job; Ted loses kid; Ted regains job; Ted regains kid because his wife realizes that Ted…is a better parent? loves Billy more? who knows, but the good guy wins. Hoffman tries; Streep tries too, in the few scenes she has. I would even venture that both are good in this movie. It’s just incredible to me that “good acting performances” somehow trumped Apocalypse Now, which is an absolutely sensational picture. I doubt very much that you, gentle reader, need it explained to you why Apocalypse Now is the right choice here, but here’s one way I look at it.

Kramer vs. Kramer chooses a moment which we are supposed to cling to, but it is so transparent and forced that there’s nothing to do but roll our eyes. Ted’s lawyer, knowing that it’s an uphill battle getting a court to choose a father instead of a mother for custody, asks Joanna if she’s failed at her marriage. Through a string of objections and rephrased questions, Joanna finally says, “It did not succeed.” But Ted has already tried to soften the blow; during his lawyer’s ruthless interrogation, he shook his head and mouthed, “No.” It’s memorable, but it’s tactless, rather as the entire histrionic custody battle is, with hammy actors playing hammy lawyers shouting lines as if they were Inherit the Wind or something.

Apocalypse Now does not have a single moment in mind for us to cling to; there is no precise blow that will land the knockout punch, because so much of this movie is made of such blows. Here are ten moments more or less chosen at random, each more authentic and indelible and puissant than Dustin Hoffman shaking his head because Ted, deep down, is such a good guy.

  1. Napalm falls on the jungle
  2. The rotors of a helicopter become the blades of a ceiling fan
  3. High-ranking officers pass around plates laden with jumbo shrimp as the disembodied voice of Brando murmurs something about a snail crawling along the edge of a straight razor
  4. The first time we see the PT boat, with the Coppolas’ musing score behind it
  5. “The Flight of the Valkyries”
  6. “Charlie don’t surf!”
  7. Willard looks for the CO and is met with the reply, “Ain’t you?”
  8. The first look at Kurtz’s compound, complete with the photojournalist’s gibbering praise
  9. Willard arises out of the steaming fog
  10. The death of the buffalo

I could go on, but this one’s not controversial.

 

71) Gentleman’s Agreement (1947, 20th Academy Awards), directed by Elia Kazan

What should have won: Great Expectations

Worth noting: Crossfire deserves some attention for having the same moral bent as Gentleman’s Agreement in a more fashionable noir package.

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Image links back here

The 1940s Best Picture winners are as a bunch a pretty “moral” group, and the winners from the Seventeenth through Twentieth ceremonies each come with a distinct message: clean living and a smile go a long way, alcoholism is bad, our returning troops need our support, and anti-Semitism is bad. The best of these are gripping and moving; the worst of these are milquetoast and smarmy. Mercifully, Gentleman’s Agreement is much better than whatever kind of dumpster fire Going My Way is. But for a topic which is arguably the most difficult and necessary of the four, it’s incredible just how safe Gentleman’s Agreement is. It’s a point-and-shoot movie with good but not remarkable starring performances from its handsome, serious leads who never really grip us. Dorothy McGuire plays Kathy opposite Gregory Peck as Phil, the journalist who pretends to be Jewish for half a year in order to write a scathing magazine article. (There’s something the idea of being able to put on Jewishness and take it off later which gives me pause, though I also see how in the 1940s the strategy of “Jewish people saying that there’s such a thing as anti-Semitism” would have been read as ineffective.) Kathy is engaged to Phil before he decides to write his article, and it turns out that her anti-Semitism is the polite kind in which one just bars them from living around wealthy Christians or thinks of them as a lesser type of people. In short, she is no Nazi but she is certainly prejudiced. There’s a scene after Phil begins his experiment, which affects his son as well, who is teased at school for “being Jewish.” Kathy consoles Tommy, essentially saying: “Calling you a dirty Jew was wrong because you aren’t Jewish.” Making Kathy the film’s villain, such as she is, limits the ceiling of the movie. Even though Phil’s goals are much greater in scope—expose anti-Semitic thoughts and actions among America’s smart set—his fight ultimately becomes one against Kathy and for Dave, an actually Jewish friend facing significant prejudice which threatens his work and his family. Gentleman’s Agreement chooses the wrong plot in the end, opting for one that teaches Kathy that anti-Semitism is wrong as opposed to one which might challenge Phil a little more, or which might have more impact on a greater number of people.

Great Expectations is a stronger film than the others nominated that year, but as it was at the 19th Oscars, the greatest mistake was passing over David Lean for Best Director. David Lean’s Great Expectations begins with a little boy running in the far distance on a barren landscape with a sheath of clouds above him, which is to say that it begins rather as you’d expect it to. he power of Charles Dickens is so reliant on his instantly recognizable prose, and it is really not in his stories. Lean manages to make this an interesting story nonetheless, even without the words of Dickens barging in, and he does it with the kind of visuals that only he could make. The scene where a young Pip follows a candle-bearing Estella through Satis House is unforgettable, lit masterfully so that only a foot or two is visible on any side of Jean Simmons. A supernatural cast is laid on the film for a few moments, and then we come upon the rejected woman in her high-backed chair, hair piled nearly as high, with cobwebs covering any and every surface. The seeds of a Gothic horror are laid in that scene, even if the film does not find much opportunity to return to that fascinating subtext. When it does, it does so with heft. The sight of a Bible covered in cobwebs is strange and memorable when we first see it with Miss Havisham; when we hear a grown-up Estella reciting the lines that Miss Havisham would have said were she still alive, we see her own Bible on the table. It may be uncovered, but the effect on us (and Pip) is galvanic. I gasped. He started tearing down the curtains. The acting in Great Expectations is fine, though Finlay Currie’s turn as Abel Magwitch is exceptionally strong, gruff and mysterious and earthy. In one scene, he eats dinner with Pip and Herbert Pocket and it looks like John Mills and Alec Guinness are dining with a space alien. Currie is one of those supporting actors who has the power to glue together leading performances, and he does just that in Great Expectations.

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