17 movies seen in July, somewhat incredibly given that I spent a chunk of almost every day in one hospital or another. Counts:
– 13 new to the database (previously unseen). New total: 2,200.
– 4 revisits, including 2 previously reviewed here (The Lodger in its splendid new Criterion edition, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, one of the few unfailing respites in a difficult time; how deeply I love that film), and two of my all-time favorite films I felt privileged to attempt to wax rhapsodic about: Broadcast News and The 39 Steps.
– After last month’s drought, 3 new full reviews, for (as expected) Broadcast News and The 39 Steps, and (unexpectedly) for a movie I’d never seen before, Kenji Mizoguchi’s Sisters of the Gion, the second discovery for the 1930s canon project that has entered my list of 100 all-time favorites.
– 12 new or revised capsules, all below.
– Doubled back and finished up Best Supporting Actress, and mostly stayed on quota, though I did not manage to make any bites into new or recent cinema, something I do want to start to double down on a bit as we head into the end of the decade, on top of the unwatched Treasures from American Film Archives DVDs and other material I want to get around to exploring — my proverbial kevyip on both counts is a mile high. Normally I’d scold myself for mediocre time management, for taking on too many projects I genuinely want to do, and for having too much of a life these days (imagine it! and alas, other people — believe it or not — do win out over movies for me), but in this case I actually had multiple family emergencies during most of July and now early August, and this was constantly pushed to the back of my mind or out of it altogether. I’m kind of proud actually for sticking to it as much as I did. Send best wishes to my stepdad, who’s really more of an actual dad than my dad was, as he works really hard to recover from his medical issues, and whose passion for Japanese film makes me hope I get to show him Sisters of the Gion when he’s feeling better.
– I’m more energized and excited about this blog than I’ve been almost since its beginnings, when I was so ambitious about basically reporting at length on every damn thing in the canon. The Best Picture nominees are a long-haul project, and will be dominated in the beginning by films I’m quite interested in before we start to settle back into the prestige morass. And the canon projects are proving astonishingly fruitful, with the treasures easily outweighing the disappointments. I’ve written at length about Broadcast News and The 39 Steps before, but I was terribly young and the work was mawkish and unworthy of being widely shared, even though I did so anyway; maybe it still is, but my favorite thing I do here is studying and promoting the films I love, and I’m psyched up for more.
– Best Supporting Actress Oscar winners: 2 films (2 new). Ending the Oscar winners project, which ran from 2012 to 2017 here, with a whimper and two films that had not yet been released when I started this thing, Les Miserables and The Danish Girl, easily accessible but put off to the end because I dreaded watching them, and that’s before I realized they shared a director. Anyway, this ugliness is now behind us.
– 1930s canon: 6 films (5 new). Slightly under quota, not so much because I ran out of time as because two films I needed for the other project were suddenly set to expire from Netflix. One known masterpiece (The 39 Steps.. which, on this watch, somehow managed to move up in my estimation, which shocked even me), one previously unknown masterpiece (Sisters of the Gion; as with the handful of other films I’ve declared great since I moved over to this venue, my enthusiasm doesn’t seem to be widely shared, but I’m correct as usual), three new discoveries I loved — in ascending order of brilliance: Ozu’s I Was Born, But…, Lang’s remarkably uncompromising thriller Fury (my first encounter, somehow, with Fritz Lang’s Hollywood work), and Lubitsch’s The Smiling Lieutenant (overlap with BP nominees), very nearly an A+ film and possibly set to become one when I rewatch (Lubitsch is easily the filmmaker I most regret mischaracterizing prior to this project; I’d just managed coincidentally to see three films of his that didn’t fully connect with me), and one disappointment, Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning, but that’s okay. Note that I also wasn’t completely keen on Renoir’s A Day in the Country and that I “got” both Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game when I rewatched them in the last few years. Remaining: 38 films (31 new).
– Best Picture Oscar nominees: 8 films (7 new). First of all, in my initial count for this I missed two entire years of nominees somehow. D’oh. The correct initial count is 194 films, including 154 unseen. I kicked off with The Smiling Lieutenant, an overlap with the 1930s canon, then started properly with a celebratory round of Broadcast News, and then began to knock off the titles from Filmstruck and Netflix: Olivier’s Henry V, Zinnemann’s The Nun’s Story (one of the biggest surprises for me in the entire run of this blog), the Olivia de Havilland vehicle the snake pit, last year’s vastly overrated Lion (overlap with 2010s catchup), and the basically OK Babe and The Verdict. Remaining: 186 films (147 new).
– 2010s catchup/new movies: Nothing except Lion, mentioned above.
Now for capsules!!
The Danish Girl (2015, Tom Hooper) [NO]
Another homophobic, transphobic, deplorably ahistorical and homogenized piece of empty Oscar bait that harnesses and violates a real person’s life for award-mongering Hollywood prestige, hitting all the pre-cise-ly sanc-ti-oned biopic grace notes. This time the victim (and that’s very much the way the film processes and understands this person, and LGBT people as a group) is Lili Elbe, Danish transgender artist, portrayed by Eddie Redmayne with astonishing incompetence that must be seen to be believed. One of the worst films of the decade.
Les Misérables (2012, Tom Hooper) [c]
Hooper’s screen adaptation of the celebrated French stage musical is not really any more or less than exactly what you’d expect, your opinion of it undoubtedly tied to how you feel about having the characters in Victor Hugo’s passionate, philosophical novel of poverty and exile in post-Revolution France belt out big production numbers and sing nearly every line between them. Like Oliver! it’s an inherently poor idea, but the public demanded it so here it is. The actors are decent, the production values (rife with CGI grime) clearly high-level, the direction by Hooper abysmal. Not even a shadow of a surprise visible.
Fury (1936, Fritz Lang) [hr]
Lang’s first American film is a taut, pointed thriller about a man who gets falsely accused of a crime while on the way to see his fiancée. Even if you know where this chilling look at mob mentality and misguided vengeance is headed, you’ll still marvel at the righteousness of its messages and the clarity of its targets. Spencer Tracy and Sylvia Sidney are both phenomenal, and they define their characters so well that the chronicle of their long-distance relationship in the first scenes is sufficiently compelling to have been a film of its own. Lang proves adept at using a big studio’s resources to craft a personal, impassioned work of art.
The Smiling Lieutenant (1931, Ernst Lubitsch) [hr]
Monumentally funny, delightfully risque pre-code musical about a promiscuous French army man finding love after breakfast then getting caught up in a royal scandal. Lubitsch’s musical numbers are a bit static at times, and many modern audiences will find themselves immune to the charms of Maurice Chevalier, but there’s no escaping the pull of the adorable Claudette Colbert as a liberated violinist and the alluring Miriam Hopkins, whose performance is breathtaking as a feat of comic precision and timing, to say nothing of an airtight script full of huge, ecstatic laughs, harnessed to complete potential by this stellar cast.
Henry V (1944, Laurence Olivier) [r]
Olivier’s central conceit, of staging this like a Globe Theatre performance that slowly moves outward with the audience’s imaginations into the full visual manifestation of the Hundred Years War at its height, is truly ingenious, giving the entire affair a dreamlike, absorbing quality that leads beautifully to the expansive, climactic, immaculately designed battle — one of the best action scenes in cinema. These virtues cannot mask Olivier’s shortcomings as an actor in the title role, too slight for his own valor; also, not to question Shakespeare, but the text can’t really sustain the excitement achieved during the Agincourt scenes.
The Nun’s Story (1959, Fred Zinnemann) [hr]
Unexpectedly dark, honest, unsentimental chronicle — from Kathryn Hulme’s novel — of a wealthy Belgian woman sacrificing identity and forsaking temptation to join a convent. The film is long, slow, careful and detailed and completely immerses the viewer in the emotional plight of Sister Luke, brought to us in body and spirit by Audrey Hepburn in what might be her greatest performance. Zinnemann and cinematographer Franz Planer successfully contradict the aesthetic beauty of Sister Luke’s surroundings with the increasingly dire, lonely circumstances of her day to day life, leading to an effective, subtly stirring finale.
I Was Born, But… (1932, Yasujiro Ozu) [hr]
Spirited, elegant silent comedy about a pair of boys who find themselves outcasts after their dad moves them to a new town because of work opportunities. At first this is a familiar exploration of kids coping with various childhood rites of passage, with all the integrity of Frank Borzage’s impressionistic glimpses of then-modern life, but when the subject becomes the kids’ relationship with their dad it develops seamlessly into something deeper: about family, money, and the regular humiliation of living for the status quo. Of course, it’s absolutely gorgeous: so still and natural, but so expansive as if the whole world lives within it.
the snake pit (1948, Anatole Litvak) [r]
Alternately harrowing and mildly silly chronicle of the disorienting, often diabolical treatment endured by a woman (Olivia de Havilland) after she’s committed for reasons she finds obscure. Using Mary Jane Ward’s semi-memoir as an inspiration, Litvak’s stroke of genius here is to drop us in the deep end with de Havilland without explanation; we piece the past together slowly along with her, so our identification is powerful. His surreal, almost horror-like interpretations of medical treatment and attendant fantasies and nightmares makes The Exorcist look dumber yet, and the institutional scenes, while dated, feel honestly unflinching in their chaos.
Lion (2016, Garth Davis)
A story this inherently interesting — about Saroo Brierley’s separation from his family in India at age five, leading to a long quest to reconnect with them as an adult long after being adopted and transported to Australia — requires considerable chutzpah to really screw up, but leave it to the Weinstein machine to process it conveniently into the most arid, tasteless brand of prestige picture cheese that amounts to Google Maps: The Movie, endless buildup to a rushed climax. This is what “deep” moviemaking for grownups is nowadays? This formulaic shit, with all the dramatic revelations and confessionals in ex-act-ly the cor-rect pos-i-ti-ons?
Babe (1995, Chris Noonan) [r]
Potentially adorable, beautifully shot fable about a farm pig discovering his hidden talents; though mostly a comedy, it comes equipped with some surprisingly dark messaging about social orders and ethical consumption… which is actually not the reason its maudlin, uneven tone nearly does it in. The delightful scenes involving Babe’s assimilation into his home, surrounded by strange new creatures brought to astounding life by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop and a busload of animal wranglers, are vastly more entertaining than those that either try to advance the rather trite, formulaic plot or fall back on easy sentimentality. The humans drag it down.
The Verdict (1982, Sidney Lumet) [r]
Riveting and hugely implausible courtroom drama about a malpractice suit that brings a dishonored attorney (Paul Newman, embarrassing, more so because he’s surrounded by brilliant actors) from the brink of permanent despair and alcohol posioning is a triumph in its blocking and claustrophobic visual sensibility, capturing the coldest of Boston winters while placing a matching sensation of eerie detachment squarely in the heads of his characters. The rhythm of David Mamet’s script is impeccable, though his contempt for his lone female character (Charlotte Rampling) is creepily palpable. The finale is striking but seems cheap.
Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932, Jean Renoir)
Another of Renoir’s mischievous attacks on class structure, with Michel Simon forecasting his free-spirit role in L’Atalante as a bum who gets taken in by a well-to-do bourgeois family who discover the limits of their own charity; the title character is often cited as the first cinematic treatment of a hippie, although my understanding is that committing rapes and spitting in books aren’t necessarily defining characteristics of peace-loving types. Despite its visual loveliness this is everything The Rules of the Game isn’t — didactic, unfunny and dull, belaboring its amusing but thin premise well past the point of tolerance.
!!! A+ FILM !!!
By no means is The 39 Steps, an everyman-caught-up-in-intrigue narrative of the first order, the first great Alfred Hitchcock film; both Blackmail and The Man Who Knew Too Much circumvent such a claim. What can be said about its superlative nature, though, is that it’s the first film he made that is as overwhelming, as much an intoxicating sensory experience as the best of his later American works. Apart from being his best creation up to this moment and the finest of his 22 extant British features, as the second of the celebrated Gaumont Six (the series of breathlessly exciting thrillers he began one year earlier), it finishes defining the niche market of the Hitchcock thriller for international audiences and thereby leads directly to his shuttling off to Hollywood by David O. Selznick. It’s reductive, however, to see the film as simply the beginning of some tradition; its fusion of flawless narrative leanness — no frame wasted — with evocative visual poetry, as well as its wit and air of unexaggerated physical danger, allow it to remain a singular experience and possibly the director’s most purely exciting film. To see it with one’s full attention is to surrender to being absorbed and to being played like an instrument, now as always; even on repeat viewings, one’s involvement is as unshakeable as though the film were a dream that cannot be interrupted.
Steps ties itself to Hitchcock’s correct idea that cinema should be separate from all other mediums. The source material — John Buchan’s novel — is thrown out the window, its skeleton exposed and used to the best advantage for the screenwriters, Ian Hay and the great Charles Bennett (with considerable input from Hitchcock himself). The plot is streamlined and made clearer, with a number of crucial new characters and details added. We begin in a working class music hall in London, following the marvellous, warm Robert Donat as temporary Canadian expat Richard Hannay — instantly visible in a large crowd — as he is approached by a mysterious woman (Annabella Schmidt, lit aflame with lust and mystery by Lucie Mannheim) after a chaotic brawl, punctuated by gunfire, erupts. She goes home with him and confesses to being a spy, out to prevent the transport of unspecified British government secrets; when she is stabbed in the night, her dying admonishment to Hannay “clear out — they’ll get you next!” a vivid reminder of “don’t breathe a word to anyone” in Hitchcock’s previous film, he must escape the inevitable accusation of her murder and expose the actual culprits even as police chase him across the United Kingdom. The chain reaction that follows and the web of intrigue Hannay is stuck in would be difficult to summarize, but eventually his quest is made doubly arduous when he’s handcuffed to one Pamela (Madeleine Carroll, who plays the character’s understandable skepticism perfectly), who has no interest in his spy stories and suspects him to be the murderer cast by every newspaper in the country.
A significant factor in the success of The 39 Steps as a narrative, episodic by nature, is that it requires and possesses very little setup or expository detail; it opens with a bit of comedy in the music hall as a “memory expert” performs, answering questions for an audience, then adds intrigue with Schmidt and Hannay’s brief, suggestive liaison, but from the moment the knife in her back is revealed the race is on and rarely a minute passes uneventfully thereafter. Hitchcock refuses to stop the narrative for any sort of explanation of precisely the nature of these government secrets people are running and dying for, what he would always call the MacGuffin, the motivation for all of the events that nevertheless is irrelevant to their emotional significance; the film’s moments of rhythmic breathing are rather dedicated to his scenic, lyrical (and largely fake!) travelogue of England and Scotland and the people Hannay finds therein. It’s possible to avoid the intricate busyness of the usual spy story because Hannay is an outsider unfamiliar with these matters, a stand-in for us as the audience; while he’s clever and thinks quickly, he is never a James Bond-like figure with all the answers at a given moment, and his chief skill set is to know when to run — he tends to stumble more when deciding his next step. There’s never a moment when those of us watching are out of step with or unsympathetic to him, since he’s positioned as one of the most strongly defined of Hitchcock’s “Wrong Men,” and our identification is secured each time the director renders us paranoid and terrified by showing other characters gazing with accusatory eyes directly at him, therefore directly at us.
In fact, the best way to track the narrative of The 39 Steps is not a conventional measurement of the cat-and-cat-and-mouse among Hannay, the police and the ruthless spy network of the title but as a catalog of the people Hannay encounters during his travails: Mr. Memory, Annabella, the milkman, a pair of lingerie salesmen in possession of a newspaper, Pamela, a deeply religious rural farmer and his wife, a kindly professor who turns out to be a key villain, a duplicitous police inspector and his minions, a crowd at a political rally, spies posing as cops, Pamela again, a sweet old couple running a bed & breakfast, and at last Mr. Memory again. No matter how frivolous their presence may seem, each meeting and episode plays an important role in allowing the remainder of the story to continue locking into place. All of the corresponding scenes are expertly conceived and mounted. But this is no simplistic puzzle-movie, because Hitchcock’s wish is for us to be wrapped up in the emotional urgency that lights up every scene, shot, frame — he means to immerse you and make you succumb to every cut, every tic of an actor’s face, every note of the score, and he succeeds.
Most of those tics are those of Robert Donat, later to win an Oscar for Goodbye Mr. Chips and charm the daylights out of everyone in Vacation from Marriage but never to be so believable and enviably handsome as here, when he becomes one of the most magnetic pawns in Hitchcock’s favorite story and theme. That the director routinely has a field day with the idea of a man accused falsely of a crime with police and mounting evidence on his back, such that he must solve the case himself, makes it no less horrifying in abstract, not least because every one of us can easily imagine such a scenario happening to us. Unlike the haunting, documentary-like 1957 film The Wrong Man, The 39 Steps treats the subject comedically, laced with crowd-pleasing action, but the excitement is healthily stunted by an air of genuine menace. “These men will stop at nothing,” Schmidt tells Hannay, and after all, when we meet Mr. Memory — an unwilling conduit, as it turns out, for the dark scheme at the story’s center — for the first time, he’s drenched with sweat. And after Hannay is warned early on to watch for a man with a partially severed pinkie, it’s truly terrifying when a cheerfully raised hand by Professor Jordan (delightfully wicked Godfrey Tearle), assumed to be his savior and for whom he trudged across seemingly all of Scotland on foot, makes him realize he’s fallen directly into the hands of his new enemies. (Yet crucially, when Jordan’s wife walks directly in on her husband threatening Hannay with a revolver, her deadpan response of wondering why he’s taking so long to come down for tea is a perfect return to the morbid, blackened British humor that litters the film and calls ahead to “what seems to be the trouble, captain?” in The Trouble with Harry.)
Modern reviews of The 39 Steps tend to make much of celebrating its glimmers of “genius” that still lay ahead in Hitchcock’s career; one can be sympathetic to this view when revisiting Blackmail, The Man Who Knew Too Much or particularly The Lodger, but Steps is itself a work of genius, leaps and bounds over even those previous masterpieces in Hitchcock’s catalog, and in fact can be justifiably celebrated as one of the greatest feature films ever made. Whatever suddenly lights a fire under the director, whether the validation seemingly provided by his new studio and his newfound control over his own material or the sympathetic oversight of producer Michael Balcon, the hard work and dedication he emits in response is evident throughout the picture, and pays off handsomely in a film that functions as a thrill ride, a work of extremely intricate pacing. Hitchcock told Francois Truffaut years later, “What I like in The 39 Steps are the swift transitions. Robert Donat decides to go to the police to tell them that the man with the missing finger tried to kill him and how the Bible saved his life, but they don’t believe him and suddenly he finds himself in handcuffs. How will he get out of them? The camera moves across the street, and we see Donat, still handcuffed, through the window that is suddenly shattered to bits. A moment later he runs into a Salvation Army parade and he falls in step. Next, he ducks into an alley that leads him straight into a conference hall. Someone says, ‘Thank heaven, our speaker has arrived,’ and he is hustled onto a platform where he has to improvise an election speech.” In order to make this technique, far ahead of its time, work properly, a strict attention, almost an obsession, was required, and this eye for detail has survived into the film. Every moment feels like the most important in the film to the director, from start to finish, even while exercising his favorite trait: understatement.
On multiple viewings it’s riveting to watch how all of these components have been carefully engineered for maximum effect. Hitchcock: “I saw it as a film of episodes, and this time I was on my toes. As soon as we were through with one episode, I remember saying ‘Here we need a good short story.’ I made sure the content of every scene was very solid, so that each one would be a little film in itself.” Each of the settings established in Steps is treated as a complete world all of its own: the London music hall, Hannay’s flat, the train station, the train itself and its bridges to the North, the mountainous Scottish countryside and the croft, Professor Jordan’s home, the police precinct, the street parade and conference hall, the bed and breakfast, the Palladium. So many of these moments could indeed be their own films, none more resonant than the chilling Scottish farmhouse sequence with John Laurie and Peggy Ashcroft, which has enough depth and detail to go on for the full length of the movie, and deserves its own appreciation.
The series of scenes in which Hitchcock and Bennett establish these two (unnamed) characters and their relationship is a model of narrative subtlety and brevity. Laurie, as much an enemy as Tearle, has less than three minutes of screen time but you’ll never forget him; Ashcroft’s part is only slightly larger but her moments on camera are scarring and flawless, all but stealing the film with Donat happy to hand her the privilege. Having followed Schmidt’s map, Hannay first encounters Laurie’s crofter at the outer fence of his property, where he pretends to seek work while really trying to get some hint from Laurie of where the Professor’s house is located; when the farmer is derisive about the possibilities of making the fourteen-mile trek that night, Hannay gives him money for a bed for the evening — Laurie’s disinterested until payment comes into play — accompanied by the promise that Laurie’s wife, Ashcroft, will provide a meal.
Initially believing — to Laurie’s obvious chagrin — that she’s his daughter and not his wife, Hannay spends a bit of time alone with Ashcroft and we learn much about the couple’s lifestyle during this interlude. She longs to hear stories of Hannay’s life in London, waxing rhapsodically about her former home of Glasgow and its nightly flashing lights and activities on bustling Saturday nights, but warns him he won’t be able to talk of this at dinner because her husband considers such ideas “wicked.” When Hannay is nearly caught innocently flirting with Ashcroft upon Laurie’s re-entrance, he covers by returning to this topic of preferring urban life to rural and Laurie’s response is “God made the country.” Hannay spies a newspaper — his face is currently prominent in seemingly all of them — and borrows it for a spell before Laurie insists it’s time to say the blessing, during which he opens his eyes long enough to see his wife and the stranger communicating silently regarding the front-page article about Annabella Schmidt’s murder. The mastery of the blocking and performing here is down to minute changes in movement and expression, like watching a John Ford scene unfold but with one of the characters fully attuned to the subtext. Suspecting a lustful connection and clearly well-schooled on his idea of wickedness, Laurie fakes going out to the barn to lock up and instead stands by the window, watching Hannay frantically explain his situation to Ashcroft, suspecting much more.
During the night, a flashing light is seen from beyond the hills; Ashcroft approaches the bed to warn Hannay that the police may be arriving. The crofter awakens and believes he has caught his wife committing adultery, but they quickly correct him and explain everything; Hannay tries to bribe Laurie to deny his presence to the police now knocking at the door, but Ashcroft suspects correctly that her husband will betray him, and helps Hannay escape out the back when Laurie begins querying the police about reward money instead. She lends Hannay a coat of Laurie’s that will conceal him more fully in the night, and he responds with a grateful kiss that leaves her intoxicated, her face filled with sensual yearning as she watches him leave. That seems to be all of their lives we are to glimpse — and it would be enough; so much happening here, so beautifully and quietly expressed — until we return to the farm house long enough to discover later that a hymnal in the pocket of Laurie’s coat is what has prevented Hannay from being shot to death in a future scene. Hitchcock’s camera stays away as Laurie reacts violently to the revelation that his wife gave away his coat, one last note of the hypocrisy within this man and his empty piety, preaching of wickedness while beating his wife and selling his moral judgments to the highest bidder. Hitchcock’s cynicism about religion here is secondary to his holistic comprehension of the complete isolation and misery of this marriage, which feels hauntingly true. It’s as though Ashcroft and Laurie are real people we stop to meet, and thus when our spatial distance from them is emphasized later with the hymnal reveal, it’s genuinely jarring to realize how long ago and far away that episode already seems. Moreover, Hitchcock gathers this portrait of human isolation — the only sign of larger civilization is the daily newspaper — as a contrast to the city life he explored in Blackmail, wherein alienation was just as possible for a character coping with the cruelty of men, but there was so much more possibility of temporary respite than the chance that a kind stranger might briefly enter one’s life.
Just as importantly, the Ashcroft-Laurie relationship carries through from Rich and Strange a classic Hitchcock caution about the misery that can result from loveless marriage and its potential stunting of one’s freedom, accompanied by many earlier incidental jabs in the film’s dialogue (almost universally by unnamed characters) comprised of men bellyaching about their wives, their unattractiveness or their needling or just their existence. It’s such a universal language that Hannay is forced to use it to get out of a tight spot early on, borrowing a milkman’s uniform to escape the scene of the Schmidt murder by claiming he’s trying to escape his lover’s husband. Laurie represents the logical conclusion of this idea of marriage as a prison in which one is subservient by default to a sort of casual, everyday cruelty and control, but in the second half of the film Hitchcock explores romance as something more complex and liberating. The most obvious measurement is the cheerful couple running the bed & breakfast into which Hanny and Pamela stumble when they are linked by handcuff after escaping two agents out to kill them. Taking note of the pair’s obvious nerves and assuming they’re not newlyweds, as they claim, the co-owner whispers giddily to her husband “They must be terrible in love!” and admonishes him about even considering letting a pair of alleged investigators know that there’s a “runaway couple” on the premises.
In the meantime, Hannay and Pamela’s relationship enjoys a logical progression after its awkward beginnings that serve as a perverse, underworld mirror of the cross-country travelers in Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night, not the last time Hitchcock would provoke memories of that source. She doesn’t believe Hannay is innocent, especially after he begins their drawn-out alliance with an unexpected kiss (the only way he can think of to escape pursuit by the police aboard the train) but he disarms her with his outrageous stories about his spontaneously invented criminal past, and the obvious compassion he demonstrates when he helps her hang her stockings and borrows a nailfile to try and separate them. It goes back to the force of identification common to all of Hitchcock’s best movies — you are running from the law and making these big sweeping movements and dodging treachery with Hannay and Pamela, and when she learns he’s telling the truth and journeys out to Scotland Yard to warn them of the pending leakage of state secrets, she becomes the hero of the film in its final act. The closing reveal that resolves the MacGuffin — carried out of the country not on paper but via Mr. Memory — is mostly incidental by then, because thanks to our own degree of involvement, what matters is how all of this falls on the two leads, who are finally safe, and their sole gesture of redemption for their chaotic non-romance is when she reaches for his hand in the final shot. Like so many of Hitchcock’s greatest works, the film ends without catching its breath, but having said all that it needed to about the dim possibility of warmth and companionship in a fickle, mad world.
The 39 Steps has been remade at least three times, twice as a feature film (Ralph Thomas’ 1959 version was derivative of Hitchcock’s but with more explanatory material and far more location filming; the 1978 film by Don Sharp was more faithful to Buchan’s novel) and once as a BBC telefilm, as well as being adapted for the stage in 2005 and as a video game (!) in 2013. Many argue that Hitchcock himself virtually remade the film in 1959 as North by Northwest, another film in which an ordinary man (this time Cary Grant) stumbles into a series of bizarre scenarios after he’s mistaken for a spy. Northwest was not the first Hitchcock film to revive such a scenario, which also appears in his later British film Young and Innocent and WWII thriller Saboteur, but structurally North by Northwest is all but a direct revision of the rhythms and breezy style established in The 39 Steps, with a noticeably larger budget, color, big stars, much gloss and a lighter, more carefree and comic air. (That said, The 39 Steps is hardly lacking in humor, much of it from Hannay, whose comment “It’s a whole flock of detectives” when he sees a group of sheep crossing the road could easy be misremembered as a Cary Grant line, while Hannay’s showstopping political speech, in which he knows neither who he’s supposed to be or who he’s introducing, is echoed by Grant’s clueless entrance into an auction house.) These are both masterpieces, but in terms of its flair for pure, incisive technique The 39 Steps still carries an obvious edge, with North by Northwest magnifying this film’s personal scope to an almost cartoonish extreme, making its sexuality more explicit, its action more thunderingly obvious, and presenting it all at far more luxurious length.
Moreover, The 39 Steps is one of the few films in cinematic history that captures an actual feeling of movement — it has such a breathless rush about it as to seem alive. That’s especially true in the chase sequences. It shares again with North by Northwest a feeling of being a passenger as its story and characters travel a considerable distance, which is also the case for all but one of the other Gaumont thrillers, but none of these films have quite the same urgency and intensity as The 39 Steps, the sort of movie that makes the strongest case against technological progress: its depth of focus is impossible to imagine it without the grand dual assets of black & white photography and Academy ratio. Hitchcock tells hundreds of stories in his movie, and he and his cinematographer Bernard Knowles capture thousands more in the lit skies of London, the smog and beauty of Scotland (mostly recreated on sets but gorgeously so), the tense pregnancy of Donat’s face in his impossibly maddening situation, and simply the painterly grace of every shot in the movie. You just can’t make something that looks like this now; the palpable energy in its photography and editing leave the viewer feeling physically affected. There is much time for beauty, as well — the open window and breeze in Hannay’s sitting room just before Annabella’s murder is revealed, Hannay alone in the professor’s office uncertain of his fate, Hannay rendered as a shadow on a mountainside, and the many Scottish night scenes recreated impressively, atmospherically on soundstages, their artificiality never taking us out of the moment.
Because of the editing, the adroit camerawork and that effortless, almost stumbled-upon beauty, the best spiritual “remakes” of The 39 Steps may be the other black & white films that carry on its tradition of rapid movement, the films that make us feel as if we are physically running. The Battle of Algiers is one, The 400 Blows another, and A Hard Day’s Night even feels in some small way like it’s about the same England as the one in Hitchcock’s film. Richard Lester and Francois Truffaut may never have tried to match a woman’s scream to a train whistle, but they clearly learned something from the emotional investment wrought by such imagination and trickery, and the education pays off in the gut-level impact of their films.
On a personal note, The 39 Steps is the film that awakened me to how much movies could really mean to me. It wasn’t the first Hitchcock I loved and it didn’t even hit me the first time I saw it. But when I picked up the Criterion DVD in 2003 and saw the restored print in all its glorious clarity, I was utterly captivated for the duration. It didn’t seem like an “old” movie to me, which started to melt away my perception of what that even meant, and began a process and a passion that has led directly to my writing this at this very moment all these years later. The sensation I felt that night of being seduced by it is very much by design; it’s a step further in Hitchcock’s idealized notion of “pure cinema.” Whatever the topical themes that once drove it, The 39 Steps feels as if it is happening now, like the challenges facing Hannay are direct threats against us. Further outstanding achievements and great experiments were still in Hitchcock’s future, beginning immediately with his darker follow-up Secret Agent and the multiple lean, probing thrillers he would make during his last four years in Great Britain, but The 39 Steps lingers as a monument all its own regardless of what came later. I get a strange chill when I think of that dissolve into Annabella Schmidt’s map of Scotland and the circle around her destination of Alt-na-Shellach in the Highlands (evidently the correct modern spelling is “Achnashellach”; fans of this film should get a thrill out of playing with Street View around that region), and of moving toward that village with Hannay as if I’ve no will over my own legs, yet I never want the foggy, propulsive dream to end. When Mr. Memory says, just before dying, “I’m glad it’s off my mind at last,” my only thought is of how wrong he is because of how soon I will force him to endure the same scenario all over again, loving every moment every time. For me, this movie feels like running off into a cloudy oblivion; its energy still stirs me.
[Extensively rewritten variation on a review posted in 2004.]
!!! A+ FILM !!!
The original intention of this blog was to share my progress as I moved through the canon of classic world cinema; as it turns out, for much of the time I find myself uncomfortable speaking at length about films I have newly discovered, even if I truly love them. The reason is not that they give me little to respond to — on the contrary, there’s almost always so much in them — but that as I feel my way through the past, I don’t have the context yet to speak with confidence about most of the celebrated movies I’m now seeing for the first time. Any essay I write will necessarily be a work in progress for a first-time viewing of a work by a filmmaker or from a country or a movement I’m just getting to know. Sisters of the Gion, for example, is only the second film by Kenji Mizoguchi — Japanese master director who came to be internationally renowned in the last decade of his life, and forever after — I have seen, following The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums earlier this year. My knowledge of his life and films is presently limited, and I cannot provide the kind of historical or holistic perspective that you would see in, say, my Hitchcock reviews. But the problem is that when confronted with a film like Sisters of the Gion, when faced with its compassion, its aesthetic beauty, its cunning and total mastery of the craft of filmmaking, the experience is such that a shortened or roughly encapsulated response seems wholly insufficient. Not when a film so moves and shakes me that it temporarily makes all other cinema seem entirely irrelevant. So the thoughts to follow are informal and incomplete, but absolutely sincere.
With Osaka Elegy, Sisters of the Gion is one of the earliest Mizoguchi films to pass into some degree of immortality, though it’s widely considered one of his lesser works (which means he will most likely be the subject of many haphazard essays like this one). His films are known for their status as serious, naturalistic sociopolitical examinations of Japanese life; but while Last Chrysanthemums, from a few years later, is fascinating because of its specificity to the time and place of its choosing (Osaka and Tokyo in the 1880s), Sisters achieves a certain universality despite its focus upon the lives of two geisha. In its broadly moral interpretation of how their lives unravel, one finds a strong if slightly nuanced layer of feminism.
The Gion of the title is a “pleasure district” of Kyoto and, in the film, the home of Umekichi (Yōko Umemura) and her younger sister Omocha (Isuzu Yamada). Umekichi has the patronage of a shop owner named Furusawa (Benkei Shiganoya) who’s gone bankrupt; when Furusawa’s wife gets fed up with him, he walks out on her and begins mooching off the gentle, naively accommodating Umekichi, to the chagrin of the more skeptical, manipulative Omocha. In their conversations it’s made very clear that Omocha has no personal use for the men she’s forced to rely upon for her well-being, and she never wavers from this well-earned cynicism. Through various machinations she’s able to rid the house of Furusawa without her sister knowing, while she simultaneously falls into the center of a mostly unrelated blowup between a young man and his father slash employer; the former ends up being fired and seeking revenge, validating Omocha’s feelings about her and her sister’s oppressed state. Umekichi finds out the truth about Furusawa’s departure but is then let down just as unceremoniously by him, even as he makes a show of devotion and dedication to her, and once again Omocha is shown to be correct. Hauntingly, Mizoguchi closes the film with a long monologue, a cry in the night, by her — begging to know why women are subjected to such treatment, why such a thing as a geisha even exists. It’s impossibly powerful — and giddy, even mobilizing in its directness and emotion.
Initially it’s difficult to know just what to make of the fact that Omocha, with her nontraditional clothes and modern attitudes, is giving voice to radical, righteous thoughts about the subservient roles expected of women (in Japan, but also everywhere), given that she also is shown clearly as a much colder, more bitter person than her sister — at least, we’re trained by other films to believe that’s the way we’re meant to see her. What we learn, however, is that her attitude is completely earned, and a necessary guard. In an abstract sense we find ourselves liking and sympathizing with Umekichi, with her patience and the genuine love she demonstrates toward Furusawa, but “likable” and “correct” are different matters entirely; while both women seek out men for financial security, even taking Furusawa’s cavalier laziness into account, it feels like his relationship with Umekichi is the one shred of warmth in a film full of so much drab brutality. However, what makes the denouement of Sisters of the Gion so breathtaking, so devastating, is that it’s as unerring in its honesty and cynicism as a film like Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole: Omocha is physically attacked and Umekichi, leaving a visibly concerned Furusawa behind at the small room they’re now sharing, chides her about how this is what she gets for being unkind to men. Omacha rightfully responds that she did nothing to provoke the treatment she received, and Umekichi then learns that she has once again been deserted by her lover. This is not a moment of bets being hedged or of ambiguity about sexual equality, or of pure shame being cast upon these women for the lives they lead; it is not the end of Pabst’s Pandora’s Box, as easy to interpret as a screed against the independence of woman as for the opposite. It’s an unmistakable indictment of the men swirling around the sisters, of their hypocrisy and apathy, and an expression of loathing for establishment mores. Umekichi is punished for her faith in men. Omocha is punished because she has faith only in herself. A woman simply cannot win. It’s shattering to see a film from 1936 express this kind of tortured frustration in words and visuals that are almost unimaginable now, that most assuredly would be toned down and prettied up for a modern-day viewer.
Which isn’t to say that this film is not eye-gougingly gorgeous, and a handy primer for anyone who doesn’t understand the inherent superiority of black & white film stock. Mizoguchi’s signature is to shoot these delicate scenes, with marvelous depth and clarity, in long shot with extended takes; the effect is cinematic rather than stagy because the camera movements are so versatile and immersive. It feels like one is on the outside, eavesdropping on robustly detailed but desperate lives being led. He also indicates a masterful skill with actors, with both leading women truly superb but especially Yamada, a regular of Mizoguchi’s films and later of Akira Kurosawa’s. Hers is a magnetic presence — as soon as she first walks into a scene playing out between her sister and her patron, Omocha draws us to her with her effortless, casual rhythm and sense of obvious incredulity at the situations developing around her. Each time she slips briefly into her deferential geisha persona, it’s as unnatural and jarring to us as it seems to her. The only false note in any of the performances is a bit of overwrought “drunk” acting from Fumio Okura, playing an antique dealer who figures in one of Omocha’s elaborate schemes. The film’s incredible gravity and completeness comes about in large part because of the combination of these subtle, emotive performances and Mizoguchi’s absorbingly unorthodox use of the camera, the distance it keeps from events and the care we must take in bearing witness to them.
The greatest thing about exploring cinema in depth is when a film can genuinely surprise you, shake you to your core, and Sisters of the Gion did that for me to an extent few of the wonderful, provocative films of the 1930s that I’ve seen recently have. I found myself flashing back to the feeling I got when I first saw All About Eve or Robert Wise’s I Want to Live!, the sense of shock and validation that a film would so emphatically up-end my own expectations about it. A movie’s actual radicalism of message can be enhanced immeasurably by the knowledge of how much it was pushing against, and this is easily as true of Japan in the 1930s as of America in the 1950s. In his calm, methodical way, Mizoguchi proves himself a courageous storyteller here. I’m thrilled to continue discovering his work.
!!! A+ FILM !!!
“I just wanna be alone right now.”
“It’s okay. I’ll go with you.”
James L. Brooks is a maverick humanist, if a deeply skeptical one, which means that his carefully detailed work seems autobiographical even when it almost certainly isn’t. A master of both restraint and bruising humanity, he consistently creates comedy that stings; his career began in the 1960s with the seriocomic, socially progressive high school series Room 222 and stretched all the way through a co-domination (with Norman Lear’s work) of the 1970s sitcom via The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi, both of which have aged more gracefully than almost any other television of their time, and of course The Simpsons, probably the ultimate game-changing tentpole of TV history. In between all of that, Brooks initiated a film career with the Burt Reynolds vehicle Starting Over (directed by Alan J. Pakula) and his own directorial debut, the deservedly celebrated Larry McMurtry adaptation Terms of Endearment. Even with that pedigree, however, Broadcast News is his masterpiece and his most durable, complete work as both a screenwriter and a champion of actors. Looking over his script, which has the creative wind at its back in the same way Joseph Mankiewicz’s for All About Eve does, one gets the sense that this was the story that was nagging at him to be passionately brought to fruition, and the logically perfect use of the influx of credibility and financial security brought forth by Terms. There has been no point since 1987 when it would have been ideal for Brooks to make a film like this, and he made that opportunity count.
Brooks’ original background, before he began writing scripted shows, was in TV news, and the show that really made his name — MTM — was a farcical account of daily life in the newsroom of a local station. But in making a film on the subject of network news he spent several years after the release of Terms researching the business, interviewing others who’d worked in it in more recent years, questioning them on their work and its interference with their personal lives; and while Brooks spends years laying similar groundwork for all of his films, it was never handier than in this case, with the result that seemingly every exhibited nuance, behavior or event feels truthful, with some basis in life that has been legitimately lived. Nothing in the script comes across as arbitrary or weakly justified; in this regard Broadcast News is among the most completely believable of all Hollywood films. That said, Brooks can hardly be accused of merely aggregating others’ experiences for his own benefit. The three characters who populate the bulk of the film are his own perceptive creations, and so fully realized are the portrayals of these principals — thanks both to Brooks and his staggering cast — that the audience identifies deeply with all of them even as they clash violently. It goes beyond even his skill with harnessing these performances, however; accused as often as his antecedent Billy Wilder of being a visually lazy director, Brooks takes inspiration from television itself and his knowledge of that world to place the viewer as a fly on the wall, intimately exploring the process and the people involved.
One of the few senses in which Broadcast News could be accused of being mired in the 1980s, apart from the usual caveats about fashion and technology that don’t and shouldn’t count, is one that time has eventually shown to be a repeatedly reoccurring concept in our capitalist society: the notion of living to work. These people’s personal lives are almost irrevocably intertwined with what they do for a living, which requires so much of them during even their leisure hours that it seems as if they are incapable of any sustained variety of relaxation. Much of this comes from reality: scheduled crying sessions, drinking oneself to sleep over problems at the office, fighting tooth and nail for a level of status that means prolonged security, and the shrinking of one’s scope of social contacts until it almost exclusively includes the people one sees at work and work-related functions. This was a visible, even glamorized trend in the ’80s — even the satiric, surreal detective series Moonlighting built its entire premise on the idea of the cloistered, incestuous office — but news stories cheerfully reporting about teenagers forced to work fast food jobs with neck braces on, or ads glorying the so-called “gig economy” strongly suggest that the film’s unstated central issue of people running themselves ragged even in white-collar, professional environments to the detriment of their own emotional stability and inner life (or even just “avoiding time alone,” as Roger Ebert put it in his review) remains depressingly relevant.
It’s important to add that this lifestyle critique doesn’t direct any derision toward one of the three central characters, Jane, for being — in the parlance of the time — a “career woman.” Although the film spends the bulk of its time on interpersonal relationships, it also takes feminism as a given and makes nothing of Jane’s status or competence. The only sense in which her gender is a factor at all, apart from a note in the dialogue late in the narrative that she’s the first woman to become one of the network’s bureau chiefs, is that the other two central characters are interested in her romantically. (And they think with their hearts and loins no less than she does.) Jane’s brought to life as a brilliant producer with fire and dedication behind her eyes, who works carefully to make her imbalance of personal need with outrageous career commitment seem outwardly healthy, to the extent that (as we witness near the end of the film when much of the newsroom is laid off) others view her as a model to follow as they trudge home to try to explain everything to their spouses, the irony of this only evident to her and to us.
As for the specific type of work in which these people are embroiled, the film to which Broadcast News is inevitably compared most often is of course Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky’s classic satire Network, made a decade earlier and routinely described as one of the most prophetic works of American satire from the twentieth century. Lumet’s film relies on stagy overstatement, wild and over the top; Brooks’ identifiably takes place, apart from a few scattered moments of slapstick or farce, in our own world. Two of the characters in particular are concerned, in fact, with the very state of the business predicted by Network: that TV news is gradually becoming schlocky, frivolous entertainment rather than an important source of information. Within a decade, this transition would be complete; within two, network news would scarcely be relevant at all in the even more punishing 24-hour cycle; within three, American journalism would have finally become a gigantic gag that everyone was in on, a communication service for the forces of oppression. Broadcast News captures, as one character describes it in a formal speech, another in a confessional moment, the early incremental steps inescapably requiring this conclusion, from airtime given to domino tricks to a pretty-faced anchor with no experience writing or editing.
However, these questions and attacks wouldn’t carry much weight if the actual body of Broadcast News were not made to seem so real and to have all the weight of actual adults coping with daily problems; in fact, in this too one can see the deficiencies of the culture we wake up and look at every day, at a time when it’s unfathomable that the studio the size of 20th Century Fox would bankroll and campaign for a movie that’s simply about grown people talking to one another. That, of course, is a reductive description, at least until you make the operative distinction between characters and people, which is what these are. William Hurt is wonderfully vivid as Tom, a handsome, well-meaning but slightly oafish newsman who took a fast track from local sports to major network reporting on the basis largely of his appearance and is fatally unsure of himself — he bellyaches about this to an unimpressed Holly Hunter in their first few scenes together — but is a celebrity around the newsroom when he starts appearing on the air and can suddenly do no wrong. He also is a calculating, occasionally nasty and condescending agent of destruction mostly unconscious of how far his own empty privilege has taken him, too easily hurt by accurate assessments of his shortcomings, and all too ready to harness his own advantages in unfair ways or to indulge himself in denying empathy to others, as seen when he shrugs at the layoffs and talks about having seen it all over and over again, immune. Seen variously as a vapid prep and as a quietly cunning charlatan, he exhibits insecurity and understanding of others’ case against him — that he has no serious knowledge of what he does, that he’s all surface-level style — that almost anyone who’s struggled, justified or not, with impostor syndrome will understand, particularly during the early scene in which he scrambles for the right words to compensate for all this while attempting to court Hunter.
She is Jane, the hotheaded producer who would slice Mary Richter to bits and probably Lou Grant as well. She decries the dumbing down of her field; Tom represents this in almost perfect human form. So it’s inconvenient when she finds herself, gradually and after many out-of-hand dismissals, falling in love with him. Embodied magnificently by Hunter, with a wisdom and liveliness that are irreducibly impressive, Jane comes to feel like a person you might know, someone you would admire from a careful distance and privately wish to become. She deserves such accolades even as the script and Hunter don’t shy away from exploring her faults and darkness, her struggles with isolation and single-minded, meddlesome perfectionism. Is it, after all, correct or commendable that she lashes out at Tom for a lack of education and training (“at least I’m upset about it, fooolks,” she mocks him, unforgettably) when he is clearly reaching out for her guidance? Does any well-adjusted person turn on such a dime from serenity to overheated, tempestuous anger, as we witness more than once? In one horrifying moment she accidentally lays into Tom when his father is present — and from her later responses we know that she as much as Tom is conscious of her own mistakes, and wants in some ways to break away from what she at one point calls her conservatism. Tom symbolizes not only an attractive man who repeatedly indicates a strong interest in her but also a covert opportunity for her to demonstrate a purging or softening of principles she’s beginning to worry are too staid to be malleable within her chosen industry’s environment (although ultimately, these warring impulses are put to the test at the film’s climax and her integrity carries the day).
Such a softening is never demonstrated by the third, funniest and least self-aware major character, Aaron, portrayed by Albert Brooks in what could be the most galvanizing of the three performances, though it’s difficult to really put any of them above the rest. He is Jane’s best friend, and he loves her. (It seems crucial to note, by the way, that this isn’t a “love triangle” because Jane never shows any interest in being with Aaron, so she’s not “choosing between” them as PR copy so often alleges.) Their obvious rapport gives the sense of a long, complicated history; by the time we join them their friendship is at the stage when they are so much an outlet to one another that Jane, just before hanging up the phone after a conversation with Aaron, advises “Call if you get weird,” really the ultimate expression of the kind of best friend everyone needs, within or outside of a career. Holly and Albert Brooks (referred throughout this essay by his full name to avoid confusion with the director, no relation) play this perfectly, especially when the peaceful, cathartic relationship hits the interference of Aaron’s unrequited love for Jane, and the intrusion of Tom into their world. Jane hates Tom before Aaron does, meeting him at an unsuccessful speech she gives to local anchors decrying exactly the kind of superficial news Tom’s existence is destined to indicate, but when Aaron finds liberation in openly mocking him and his lack of knowledge about the news he is (or isn’t) reporting, it’s eventually hard to tell how much of his hatred is born of principles, how much of jealousy.
In some ways it’s a very simple, familiar dynamic — we initially see Tom and Aaron as children, Tom a cute-as-a-button tyke who gets bad grades, Aaron a hard-working, socially pathetic early valedictorian. The out-of-place dork in us can’t help but enjoy Aaron’s attempts to cut Tom down, his open demonstrations of how vastly superior he is as a journalist, and we may even chuckle when he’s clearly taking this too far, as when he makes derisive, dismissive comments toward a piece Tom turns in on date rape. (By the way: despite what at least one New York writer recently argued, Broadcast News does not side with Aaron on this issue; Brooks is careful to show the others in the newsroom express disgust with his comment that Tom “blew the lid off nookie.”) Brooks takes pleasure in smashing the two of them together in uncomfortable scenarios, especially when Tom trains Aaron on playing to the camera. But the great achievement of the script is that both of these men are underdogs, as is Jane, and as Brooks would later explain, the “guy who’s right” (meaning Aaron) is less sympathetic than the one who’s “defiling the profession.”
I must break in at this point, however, and bring up an aspect of Broadcast News that requires me to be more personal than usual in this space. When I first saw Broadcast News — purchased on VHS at a pawn shop wholly because of my love of The Simpsons and As Good as It Gets — I thought I was Aaron. In retrospect the issue was more that I wanted to be Aaron. First of all, Albert Brooks is such a charismatic and sensitive comic actor and this was only my second real encounter with him, and at 14 or 15 how could I not be taken with him? Aaron is the perfect adult equivalent to the enraged adolescent who sees the entire world as unfair. Seeing the film now, I realize that this is intentional, that quite apart from his virtues as a man who’s brave in his career and admirably sharp-tongued, he is a pouting man-child and a classic Nice Guy, and that this is his great flaw immediately circumventing any possibility that he will become selfless enough for Jane to ever respond in kind to his affections. And when he sits in a diner, lets himself boil over and exposes Jane, like others before her, to the full scope of his petty, selfish anger, we can see through Albert Brooks’ eyes the emptiness in Aaron’s heart. The older I get, the more disturbed I am that I once thought of Aaron as the character in all of film that I identified with the most — even if much of this was just born of being envious of his wit, of his harnessing of his pain as a laugh-a-minute cross to bear, and of the actual joy he seemed to derive from being put-upon, and even though I saw directly through the manipulative actions of similar but less acerbic characters like Duckie in Pretty in Pink. That Aaron is something of a snide prick is not a weakness of the film — it’s a perfect articulation of its brilliance and complexity, as is my (and I suspect many other viewers’, especially young men’s) evolving awareness of who he really is. (The same principle applies to Alvy Singer in Annie Hall, a funny, neurotic, delightful loser who seems more the intended sociopathic jerkass the more times one sees that film — which has made me love it more, not less.)
An operative difference between Aaron and the everyday Nice Guy archetype is that neither Brooks smooths over Aaron’s edges; indeed, they allow us to look into the face of a neurotic person and watch him periodically unleash his contempt, letting the mask slip. And we become aware that Aaron’s “wanting more” from a friend whose obvious care for him should be a thrilling and fulfilling presence in his life is less about love and more about a misguided sense of justice: Aaron’s hard work and long-suffering nature entitles him to, in the words I’m sure he would use, “get the girl.” I suspect this too is one reason I once found him so compelling; I was quite familiar at that age with wishing a long-running friendship with an extremely intelligent and vibrant person was “more.” I suspect there are very few people in the world who’ve never experienced this with a close friend, and it’s not an automatically destructive gesture; in fact it’s to Aaron’s credit that he’s very direct about his feelings, but less so that he spends almost the entirety of the film in complete denial of her response. There’s also the uncomfortable truth that Aaron has a monopoly on the most beautifully composed, stirring, fiery speeches in Brooks’ script. One example fully deserves to be printed in full, here or anywhere: “I know you care about him. I’ve never seen you like this with anybody, so don’t get me wrong when I tell you that Tom, while being a very nice guy, is the devil. What do you think the Devil’s going to look like? Come on. No one’s going to be taken in by a guy with a long, red, pointy tail… No, he’ll be attractive, he’ll be nice and helpful. He’ll get a job where we’ll influence a great and God-fearing nation. He’ll never do an evil thing. He’ll never deliberately hurt a living thing. He’ll just, bit by little bit, lower our standards where they’re important. Just a tiny little bit. Just coax along flash over substance. Just a tiny little bit. He’ll talk about all of us really being salesmen. And he’ll get all the great women.”
The truth is that I still relate to Aaron. I don’t especially want to feel underappreciated in my career and like I sometimes want to cut down the preconceptions, opinions and fixations of people around me, but I do. An extrapolation from that is that what has made Broadcast News so repeatedly rewarding to me — when I had cable, it was one of two films (with Jaws, another masterpiece driven by a robust three-character dynamic) that I could never turn off if I happened upon it at the halfway point, even if there were commercials — is that all three of these characters are among those I find most realistic and sympathetic in the entirety of modern cinema. Moreover, Hunter, Hurt and Brooks — all of whom have been terrific in other films — are forever marked with these characters for me. They occupy these personalities to such an extent that I always see their Broadcast News counterparts when I find them in other works, and I believe I always will. And I see myself in them. That’s not to say they’re at all like me; they’re more ambitious, more assertive, more professional, and more dedicated — it’s just a mark of the sophistication and intricacy of Brooks’ writing and of the three performances. You understand why they hate one another when they do, which is often, but you also feel a kinship with each of them. It would be easy enough for Brooks to just write a headstrong careerist woman, a wisecracking fall guy, and a vapid pretty-boy, but the doubts and insecurities of even the “vapid pretty boy” have astonishing resonance; this dynamic and its destiny of being only a temporary diversion in these lives is visualized impeccably by Brooks’ tendency to place the three of them on different vertical levels in his various locations and sets. We learn, at the finale of the movie, just how much this means.
It seems unjust not to mention the supporting cast, who are in the shadows of the major players but still add such flavor and life as to be inextricable from the main body of the film — Joan Cusack’s editorial assistant is a vivid creation blessed with the movie’s biggest comedic setpiece, when she races through the hallways clutching a tape that needs to be transmitted in the next few seconds; she practically engulfs the much shorter Holly Hunter when they hug, and it’s a memorable and humane image in a film that sometimes seems so dominated by cold professional relationships and the attendant doublespeak, though even their goodbye has a sting: “Except for socially,” she tells Jane, “you’re my role model.” Jack Nicholson has an appropriate cameo as the nightly news anchor, a part that requires an intimidating gravity that only an actor of his stature can really offer. Lois Chiles (ex-Bond girl, otherwise largely stuck in garbage) figures in one of the film’s best, cruelest gags when her reporter begins an affair with Tom only to be reassigned by Jane to a serial killer trial in Alaska. Salty character actor Robert Prosky gives warmth and grace to the part of the Washington bureau chief, and former NBC reporter Peter Hackes makes his acting debut as the head of the network’s news department, but some of the strongest and most human moments come from the smallest of these roles, the video editor Bobby portrayed by Christian Clemenson, who wrings so much from his very brief screen time; my heart swells every time he thanks Tom for being the first person ever to ask his opinion of a certain cut.
The scenes in the newsroom are far more riveting (and humorous) than anything you’ll ever see in the eponymous urgent facility of ER: Jane barking orders to everyone, including Tom through an earpiece as he goes on the air for the first time; Aaron bowing as weekend anchor for the first time and suffering a huge bout of nervous sweat just as the cameras roll, with complete disaster ensuing, the ramshackle nature of the stage abruptly visible; the drama of a reporter manipulating footage to change outward impression of a scene he captures, forcing himself to cry for the camera; the layoffs, the anger, the sense of loss — “Is there anything I can do for you?” “Well, I certainly hope you’ll die soon.” Parties persist with work and the insecurities that run rampant in the office never far away. During a live broadcast to which expert Aaron is pointedly not invited, he tries to move past the slight but can’t keep the TV off and ends up providing unpaid help to Jane remotely. “I say it here, it comes out there,” he says to himself ruefully. Indeed, Broadcast News was marketed and even reviewed as a workplace film, but its reach extends so much further; there are so many conversations in this movie that I feel like I have had, and relationships (and their endings) that I feel like I have gone through. And I don’t think it’s anything to do with me — I think that’s just the way the movie’s built. Moreover, Brooks never cheats to punctuate the moment; he lets the dialogue and the actors do all the work.
Brooks also does not sacrifice the film’s integrity for the pat conclusion that mainstream audiences undoubtedly enter it expecting. The finale of Broadcast News is possibly my favorite ending of any film. After the crying incident, wherein Aaron discovers that Tom had faked tears for the camera on one of his earliest stories, drives a wedge between Tom and Jane, she snubs a trip she’d planned to take with him. She taxis right back into the Washington octopus. Tom’s being transferred to London, and Aaron has quit; the last meeting between Aaron and Jane is heartbreaking, the former deliberately underplaying the moment and filling it with unnecessary insults. We rejoin them seven years later, when a newly engaged Tom’s giving a speech about his new job as nightly anchor but not head writer. Aaron, now married, comes to shake his hand and cast further shade in his former adversary’s direction; he has a kid now, who’s been trained to call Tom “the Big Joke.” The three of them go to a park to join Jane, who’s decided to work for Tom’s newscast but has clearly moved on from this tumultuous period and, as the script puts it, she and Aaron and Tom can find themselves at ease again but won’t be recapturing their former intimacy, in any combination. The film collapses into the shape of a TV screen at that moment, tentative and unresolved, old questions and wants permanently unanswered and unfulfilled; it more effectively and realistically captures the fleeting, temporary nature of most relationships than almost any other film. It spurns the very idea of satisfying its audience in any sense, refusing to compromise in any direction besides what would be the most probable outcome of the situation depicted, but that doesn’t mean those final scenes don’t positively ache with longing and missed opportunity… on the part of the viewer if not the characters, whose ability to move forward seems unquestioned even as the slightest tinges of resentment bubble upward from all three. People move on, some scars stay and others go. But in the very final moment, when Aaron’s son races enthusiastically toward Tom as he leaves, it’s one final kissoff, a refusal by the writer-director to come even close to making things simple.
The cheapening of TV news is still a hot topic, and some will probably now view the central flash versus substance conflict of Broadcast News as adorably quaint, the ultimate offense of faking a reporter’s tears on tape now so mild as to be laughable. But at least the film correctly foresees the apathy with which such an incident would be received. When Jane tells Tom “You could get fired for things like that,” his response is “I got promoted for things like that.” It’s in this way that Brooks’ dialogue — pages and pages of wonderful quotes too numerous to try and get a handle on in this space; just watch the damn movie again — overcomes any dated aspects of the story he’s telling. As years pass, the grander truths of the story itself overcome the specific circumstances of network news in 1987; like Network, the film has now become allegorical, and only the stronger for it. At the 60th Academy Awards, Broadcast News had seven nominations and won not a single award, a distinction that now seems astonishing. The films it lost to include The Last Emperor, Moonstruck (for its writing and for Cher rather than Hunter as lead actress, both deplorable choices), Wall Street (Michael Douglas’ buffoonery over Hurt’s most sensitive, fully realized performance) and most infamously The Untouchables (Albert Brooks was widely regarded as the favorite against this largely silly turn by the mediocre Sean Connery). None of these films seem nearly so relevant or so fondly remembered now, and none if newly encountered are likely to imbue the same duty of championship in their audiences. Broadcast News is truly a special, singular experience whose depth and layering allow it to hold up to numerous viewings, and you come away wishing far more movies, modern and otherwise, felt nearly so complete and so honest in their explorations of people who become, however briefly, a part of our own lives.
[Includes scattered excerpts of my writings about the film from 2004 and 2005.]
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS OSCAR WINNERS
Gale Sondergaard, Anthony Adverse (1936, Mervyn LeRoy) [cap]
Alice Brady, In Old Chicago (1937, Henry King) [cap]
Fay Bainter, Jezebel (1938, William Wyler) [cap]
Hattie McDaniel, Gone with the Wind (1939, Victor Fleming)
Jane Darwell, The Grapes of Wrath (1940, John Ford)
Mary Astor, The Great Lie (1941, Edmund Goulding) [cap]
Teresa Wright, Mrs. Miniver (1942, William Wyler)
Katina Paxinou, For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943, Sam Wood) [cap]
Ethel Barrymore, None But the Lonely Heart (1944, Clifford Odets) [cap]
Anne Revere, National Velvet (1944, Clarence Brown) [cap]
Anne Baxter, The Razor’s Edge (1946, Edmund Goulding) [cap]
Celeste Holm, Gentleman’s Agreement (1947, Elia Kazan)
Claire Trevor, Key Largo (1948, John Huston) [cap]
Mercedes McCambridge, All the King’s Men (1949, Robert Rossen)
Josephine Hull, Harvey (1950, Henry Koster) [cap]
Kim Hunter, A Streetcar Named Desire (1951, Elia Kazan)
Gloria Grahame, The Bad and the Beautiful (1952, Vincente Minnelli)
Donna Reed, From Here to Eternity (1953, Fred Zinnemann)
Eva Marie Saint, On the Waterfront (1954, Elia Kazan)
Jo Van Fleet, East of Eden (1955, Elia Kazan) [cap]
Dorothy Malone, Written on the Wind (1956, Douglas Sirk) [cap]
Miyoshi Umeki, Sayonara (1957, Joshua Logan) [cap]
Wendy Hiller, Separate Tables (1958, Delbert Mann) [cap]
Shelley Winters, The Diary of Anne Frank (1959, George Stevens) [cap]
Shirley Jones, Elmer Gantry (1960, Richard Brooks)
Rita Moreno, West Side Story (1961, Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins)
Patty Duke, The Miracle Worker (1962, Arthur Penn) [cap]
Margaret Rutherford, The V.I.P.s (1963, Anthony Asquith) [cap]
Lila Kedrova, Zorba the Greek (1964, Michael Cacoyannis) [cap]
Shelley Winters, A Patch of Blue (1965, Guy Green) [cap]
Sandy Dennis, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966, Mike Nichols)
Estelle Parsons, Bonnie and Clyde (1967, Arthur Penn)
Ruth Gordon, Rosemary’s Baby (1968, Roman Polanski) [cap]
Goldie Hawn, Cactus Flower (1969, Gene Saks) [cap]
Helen Hayes, Airport (1970, George Seaton) [cap]
Cloris Leachman, The Last Picture Show (1971, Peter Bogdanovich)
Eileen Heckart, Butterflies Are Free (1972, Milton Katselas) [cap]
Tatum O’Neal, Paper Moon (1973, Peter Bogdanovich)
Ingrid Bergman, Murder on the Orient Express (1974, Sidney Lumet) [cap]
Lee Grant, Shampoo (1975, Hal Ashby) [cap]
Beatrice Straight, Network (1976, Sidney Lumet)
Vanessa Redgrave, Julia (1977, Fred Zinnemann)
Maggie Smith, California Suite (1978, Herbert Ross) [cap]
Meryl Streep, Kramer vs. Kramer (1979, Robert Benton)
Mary Steenburgen, Melvin and Howard (1980, Jonathan Demme)
Maureen Stapleton, Reds (1981, Warren Beatty)
Jessica Lange, Tootsie (1982, Sydney Pollack)
Linda Hunt, The Year of Living Dangerously (1982, Peter Weir) [cap]
Peggy Ashcroft, A Passage to India (1984, David Lean) [cap]
Anjelica Huston, Prizzi’s Honor (1985, John Huston) [cap]
Dianne Wiest, Hannah and Her Sisters (1986, Woody Allen)
Olympia Dukakis, Moonstruck (1987, Norman Jewison) [cap]
Geena Davis, The Accidental Tourist (1988, Lawrence Kasdan) [cap]
Brenda Fricker, My Left Foot (1989, Jim Sheridan) [cap]
Whoopi Goldberg, Ghost (1990, Jerry Zucker) [cap]
Mercedes Ruehl, The Fisher King (1991, Terry Gilliam) [cap]
Marisa Tomei, My Cousin Vinny (1992, Jonathan Lynn) [cap]
Anna Paquin, The Piano (1993, Jane Campion)
Dianne Wiest, Bullets Over Broadway (1994, Woody Allen)
Mira Sorvino, Mighty Aphrodite (1995, Woody Allen) [cap]
Juliette Binoche, The English Patient (1996, Anthony Minghella)
Kim Basinger, L.A. Confidential (1997, Curtis Hanson)
Judi Dench, Shakespeare in Love (1998, John Madden)
Angelina Jolie, Girl, Interrupted (1999, James Mangold) [cap]
Marcia Gay Harden, Pollock (2000, Ed Harris) [cap]
Jennifer Connelly, A Beautiful Mind (2001, Ron Howard)
Catherine Zeta-Jones, Chicago (2002, Rob Marshall)
Renée Zellweger, Cold Mountain (2003, Anthony Minghella) [cap]
Cate Blanchett, The Aviator (2004, Martin Scorsese) [cap]
Rachel Weisz, The Constant Gardener (2005, Fernando Meirelles)
Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls (2006, Bill Condon) [cap]
Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton (2007, Tony Gilroy) [cap]
Penélope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008, Woody Allen)
Mo’Nique, Precious (2009, Lee Daniels) [cap]
Melissa Leo, The Fighter (2010, David O. Russell) [cap]
Octavia Spencer, The Help (2011, Tate Taylor) [cap]
Anne Hathaway, Les Misérables (2012, Tom Hooper) [cap]
Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave (2013, Steve McQueen)
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood (2014, Richard Linklater)
Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl (2015, Tom Hooper) [cap]
Viola Davis, Fences (2016, Denzel Washington) [cap]
Best Supporting Actress is, for now, the last Academy Awards category whose winners I plan to exhaustively evaluate. Because it’s the last, any film that came under the microscope received no awards in any of the previous five categories I worked through — and not that I’m advocating any sort of unquestioning faith in the Academy’s taste, but I assume that’s one reason this proved the biggest slog to date despite the relatively small number of movies I needed to see. The only movie I saw for the first time by doing this that’s going to enter my personal collection is Key Largo, and because of its cast and director, it’s one I would inevitably have seen anyway. The rest, well, wow. What went wrong here! By the end, I was openly dragging my feet, especially when the last two films I needed to check off were both recent prestige pictures directed by Tom Hooper. They sat in my bag for two weeks before I motivated myself to screen them, and then mostly with the knowledge that I will mostly be concentrating on movies that excite me a lot more for the forseeable future.
Still, I’m glad to have taken this on and filled the gaps in the Movie Guide, which is really the idea anyway, and I’ve experienced so many surprise hits from going through Oscar winners that I can’t complain too much when one of the categories finally drums up exactly the response I feared from all of them. For the record, I began this project by revisiting Rosemary’s Baby on February 11, 2017 and finished with a protracted, tortuous viewing of Hooper’s Les Misérables on July 6, 2017. Out of 81 films rewarded in this category, 41 had not been previously reviewed here. (That number includes Fences, which won while I was working on this, but not any future winners that will be added below.)
Notes on Availability: All 81 of the films containing performances that have received the Best Supporting Actress Oscar are (at this writing) either in print on DVD or available to rent online except for: Sayonara (out of print DVD is affordable), Prizzi’s Honor (expected to be re-pressed on disc later in 2017), Bullets Over Broadway (out of print and increasingly difficult to find) and Mighty Aphrodite (out of print but relatively easy to find). Public and university libraries are very likely to have all four available; I have owned a copy of Bullets for years but was easily able to get hold of the others for this project. Additionally, both Anthony Adverse and None But the Lonely Heart are strictly available through the Warner Archive burn-on-demand service.
FIRST-TIME VIEWINGS RANKED
And here you find why I was less enthused with the results of this venture than with probably any other thus far.
01 Key Largo
02 None But the Lonely Heart
03 My Cousin Vinny
04 East of Eden
05 A Patch of Blue
06 Michael Clayton
07 Written on the Wind
08 For Whom the Bell Tolls
09 The Aviator
10 Murder on the Orient Express
12 National Velvet
13 Cactus Flower
14 In Old Chicago
15 Anthony Adverse
16 The Great Lie
18 A Passage to India
19 The Year of Living Dangerously
22 Butterflies Are Free
23 The Diary of Anne Frank
24 Cold Mountain
25 Zorba the Greek
26 The Razor’s Edge
27 Les Miserables
28 The Accidental Tourist
30 The V.I.P.s
31 Prizzi’s Honor
32 California Suite
33 The Danish Girl
THE PERFORMANCES, RANKED
I have to admit — I know how much you’ve put your faith in me over the last five years, but at the moment I quite simply don’t have the energy to type out much commentary. So I hope you will forgive the indulgence here, as I’ve frequently invoked my own previously written words in tracking my subjective views of each of these performances. Many thanks.
1. Cloris Leachman as Ruth Popper in The Last Picture Show (1971, Peter Bogdanovich)
A common denominator with my favorite performances to win in this category (besides that I was already familiar with them before this project) is that they tend to be the highlights of their respective films; my older writings about them serve as an illustration. “The central and most consuming story in a very multilayered and intricate movie is that of Cloris Leachman’s terminally sad Ruth Popper, her mildly terrifying marraige, her unapologetic happiness with an illicit teenage lover, and the lifetime of contours on her face. More than the quest to lose virginity, the restlessness of rural life and adolescence, the shouldering of responsibility, the insane inevitability of both losing and repeating the past, all handled delicately, The Last Picture Show is about that face. Leachman is saintly.” – from my review
2. Mary Steenburgen as Lynda Dummar in Melvin and Howard (1980, Jonathan Demme)
“Mary Steenburgen plays Melvin’s long-suffering wife, who escapes more than once but returns out of love for Melvin and, more importantly, their young daughter; she finally gives up when her last-ditch effort to get the family into the black is squandered by her husband. Steenburgen’s performance is the highlight of the picture; she is seemingly the recepient of constant aggression, but she emerges as a strong-willed person and the source of some of the most knowing comedy in the film.” – from my review
3. Anna Paquin as Flora in The Piano (1993, Jane Campion)
“Anna Paquin as Flora does just as much with an equally complicated role. You find yourself disappointed with her at several points before reminding yourself that she is a little girl; most films of this nature wouldn’t explore her misplaced morals and duplicity so well, and few actors could sell it like Paquin. Nearly everything she does fits right in with the film’s woozy romanticism and black humor alike; given what we hear of Ada’s personality, the fanciful and coy Flora is very much her mother’s daughter. The camera loves her: dancing, singing, proclaiming that her mom’s destiny is Hell, undermining and scheming and enterprising, constantly intense with the selfishness but budding humanity and compassion of a real child her age.” – from my review
4. Kim Hunter as Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951, Elia Kazan)
“If not for Kim Hunter, brilliant as the carnal sister Stella, the movie would fall apart within ten minutes of its opening. Hunter is naturalistic, believable, emotionally resonant, everything Brando isn’t and everything Leigh gets only halfway to managing. The movie’s one and only genuinely brilliant sequence involves Stella and Stanley’s erotic rekindling after a massive argument. It is the famous scene in which he calls for her at the bottom of the stairwell. Resistant at first, she is drawn back down to meet him. Everything in the scene is perfect: The shadowy visuals, the passionately intense cutting, Hunter’s raw and knowing sexuality, and Brando’s brutish yelling. That alone may justify the film’s reputation.” – from my review
5. Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey in 12 Years a Slave (2013, Steve McQueen)
“There’s no doubt it’s as difficult and terrible as it should be […] and occasionally as adventurous as you might hope, [with] one [long take] agonizingly documenting the for-no-reason whipping by drunken plantation owner Epps (Michael Fassbender), in a jealous rage, of his slave and mistress Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o, haunting and brilliant). These are raw moments of cinematic near-miracle — as admirable as they are technically, their emotional utility of communicating fear and violence raw and unbroken is what resonates and renders them unforgettable.” – from my review
6. Tatum O’Neal as Addie in Paper Moon (1973, Peter Bogdanovich)
Two child actors in the top ten seems weird, unless you’ve seen these two films. “We say ‘two heroes’ but really there’s just one: Tatum O’Neal as Addie Loggins, a chain-smoking ten year-old girl tagging along with a con man selling faux-classy Bibles to the widows of the recently deceased. […] [A]s terrific as both O’Neals’ performances in the film are, Tatum’s is extraordinary — indeed, transcendent in its understatement. She was destined to become the youngest winner of a competitive Academy Award (winning against Kahn, as well as another exceptional juvenile performance, Linda Blair in The Exorcist), and the accolade was well deserved.” – from my review
7. Patricia Arquette as Olivia in Boyhood (2014, Richard Linklater)
“All of the performances are sublime. […] And best of all is Patricia Arquette, whose warmth, intelligence and sadness as long-suffering, intelligent, repeatedly broken mom Olivia are the most haunting element of the film.” – from my review
8. Dianne Wiest as Holly in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986, Woody Allen)
“Wiest provides outsize personality in her brilliantly witty, mildly tragic turn as a lonely baker, partier and aspiring writer. […] [M]aterial like Allen’s disastrous date with [her] makes for simultaneous high comedy and heartbreak that pays off wonderfully an hour or so later.” – from my review
9. Ruth Gordon as Minnie Castevet in Rosemary’s Baby (1968, Roman Polanski)
I’ve not yet written at length about this film, but one of the reasons it’s a cut above most horror is that it’s so well-cast, and while Mia Farrow completely dominates it, Gordon’s brilliantly modulated comic performance as the combination annoying neighbor and local Satanist is what makes the entire production tick, a human dividing line between the rational and irrational worlds Polanski explores here.
10. Hattie McDaniel as Mammy in Gone with the Wind (1939, Victor Fleming)
“Scarlett’s wet nurse Mammy might be a racial caricature, but she’s also a three-dimensional character, and McDaniel deserved her Oscar completely, especially because of the deftly intelligent way she introduces and defines Mammy and Scarlett’s deeply-rooted but volatile relationship and for the way she handles all of the marble-mouthed exposition the script saddles her with. In one scene, she trails de Havilland up the stairs for what seems like an eternity describing the events of the last few weeks in relentless detail, things that we should by all rights have seen happening, but she relates them so well it doesn’t matter.” – from my review
11. Teresa Wright as Carol in Mrs. Miniver (1942, William Wyler)
This is the first placement here that may result from some degree of bias, because I think Wright is so magical in other films that I may be elevating this slightly lesser performance, but it’s still truly wonderful. It’s difficult to speak further about her work without spoiling the film, but let’s simply state that she’s the essence of its narrative.
12. Estelle Parsons as Blanche in Bonnie and Clyde (1967, Arthur Penn)
At this point in the ranking we start to find performances that make their mark because they are distinctive in a sense separate from the qualities of a given film itself. I referred to Parsons as “brilliantly irritating” in my review; she’s one of the most distinctive elements of a film that sometimes suffers from how iconic it’s become.
13. Mary Astor as Sandra Kovak in The Great Lie (1941, Edmund Goulding)
Speaking of brilliantly irritating: Astor’s of the greatest, most versatile actresses in classic Hollywood, and she makes her bizarre role in this soap opera unforgettable. I wrote on Letterboxd: “Astor, looking fab, rises above the fray by having fun with her callous and aloof character who hates the smell of food (!?), but even she can’t maneuver past a script that wants her to deliver a tearful monologue about how much she misses eating pickles.” Then again, if you can live in the memory so strongly despite the pickles, you must have done something right.
14. Patty Duke as Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker (1962, Arthur Penn)
Preferred winner: Angela Lansbury, The Manchurian Candidate, but only by a hair — Duke is incalculably energetic, “full of detail and nuance even if the film never gets to the point at which the brilliant Keller gains the agency she so richly deserves” (from my Letterboxd writeup), as is Anne Bancroft, in this ultimate two-hander.
15. Katina Paxinou as Pilar in For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943, Sam Wood)
Older, sophisticated women in more interesting, less showy parts tend to get thrown into this category, where you’ll find far more actresses who look like real people winning Oscars, though as we’ll see this sometimes extends to a fault when it comes to rewarding caricatured “matronly” or “batty” parts. Not in Paxinou’s case: as I wrote on Letterboxd, “[A]s unforgettable guerilla lifer Pilar, [h]er performance serves as a direct rebuke of studio-system reduction and ignorance of atypical female roles and it’s a pretty terrific thing to see in a 1943 film.”
16. Mira Sorvino as Linda Ash in Mighty Aphrodite (1995, Woody Allen)
Possibly the funniest performance ever to receive an Academy Award, its only competitors being Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda and Diane Keaton in another Allen film. From my Letterboxd writeup: “Sorvino is the star and practically the author of this film. In her very first scene she is so relentlessly funny that it almost doesn’t matter what Allen has written for her to say, and she juggles kindness and awkwardness with impeccable skill, wonderfully reading the character’s cycle of being intrigued and then repelled by her new client.”
17. Penélope Cruz as Maria Elena in Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008, Woody Allen)
“Penélope Cruz’s performance as Maria Elena quickly comes to dominate […] and the film is far better for her presence; she lifts it up immeasurably, lends it resonance and honesty. […] Cruz’s performance is theatrical, galvanizing, scene-stealing, maybe even over the top, but when she’s paired with Bardem it works tremendously well, their chemistry much more obvious and effective than that Bardem shares with Johansson or Hall.” – from my review
18. Shirley Jones as Lulu in Elmer Gantry (1960, Richard Brooks)
Preferred winner: Janet Leigh, Psycho, because it’s a staggering, humane, iconic performance, but Jones in her limited capacity of influence here is terrific as well. “All the same, when the film is powerful, it’s really powerful, and for all of its exhausting and huge crowd scenes and bold moments of polished evangelism, the peak moment is a speech the inimitable Shirley Jones gives when she talks semi-privately about the first time Gantry seduced her. It is a moment of raw, powerful sensuality and humor and even, somehow, terror, almost all because of Jones’ performance, which seems to bubble above everything and operate as a direct communication with the viewer — mocking laughter at all the trumped-up Tower of Power surrounding her scene. She, not Arthur Kennedy’s tiresome reporter, is the true audience vessel here.” – from my review
19. Marisa Tomei as Mona Lisa Vito in My Cousin Vinny (1992, Jonathan Lynn)
Preferred winner: Judy Davis, Husbands and Wives; my mea culpa is that I loved Tomei so much in this film that ever since I saw it I’ve gone around proclaiming how richly she deserved the Academy Award that she’s rumored ever since to have received by mistake, a ridiculous accusation that still makes no sense if you’ve seen the film, but I neglected to remember that the great Davis was nominated the same year for one of Woody Allen’s greatest films, and the continual snubbing of Davis is as shameful as that of Jennifer Jason Leigh. Still, as I argued on Letterboxd: “After winning an Oscar for portraying Vinny’s warm but outspoken wife-to-be, Marisa Tomei became the poster child of the inexplicable Academy Award, to the point that theories widely circulated that she’d been given the statue by mistake; this is completely incomprehensible to me, as I’ve now seen all but about a dozen of the performances that have received Oscars and can tell you that Tomei’s hilarious, charismatic turn is not just one of the stronger performances to win for Supporting Actress but easily in the top half of winners in any of the categories.”
20. Dianne Wiest as Helen Sinclair in Bullets Over Broadway (1994, Woody Allen)
Preferred winner: Jennifer Tilly, for the same film, but Wiest is wonderful too. She’s over the top (intentionally) and her scenes can feel like they repeatedly belabor the same basic joke, but her interactions with John Cusack are hilarious, and she knows exactly how to fully embody her character.
21. Jo Ann Fleet as Cathy Ames in East of Eden (1955, Elia Kazan)
Fleet figures in one of the most realistic dialogue scenes in classic Hollywood cinema. From my Letterboxd writeup: “Kazan’s CinemaScope presentation of all this turmoil is a stirringly beautiful sight, and while Dean sometimes falls down melodramatic Method actorly rabbit holes, there are a few magnificently riveting two-person scenes, the best of all single-handedly and deservedly winning Jo Ann Fleet as the boy’s estranged mother.”
22. Anne Revere as Mrs. Brown in National Velvet (1944, Clarence Brown)
Another archetypal role for this category, of the tough-minded but caring mom, but Revere’s one of the best actors at this type of part, and she’s remarkably expressive and believable here.
23. Jennifer Hudson as Effie White in Dreamgirls (2006, Bill Condon)
Hudson’s dazzling in this extremely disappointing film that requires her to upstage Beyoncé, of all people; when the credits roll and Hudson gets an entire fireworks display when her name pops up, you get the impression Condon knew what the strongest card in his deck was.
24. Juliette Binoche as Hana in The English Patient (1996, Anthony Minghella)
Binoche is in the “present day” scenes of this odd romantic drama, their connection to the main narrative thread tenuous at best, but as I said in my review, “I don’t ever mind spending lots and lots of time with Binoche.” She’s wonderful as always, and it’s great that this mainstream hit brought her to the attentions of so many.
25. Beatrice Straight as Louise in Network (1976, Sidney Lumet)
Another scene that has little to do with the body of its film, but it scarcely matters. “[M]ost wrenching of all is the strong but challenged marriage of Max and his wife, brilliantly served in another meaty cameo by Beatrice Straight. Their scene together is among the most compassionate, poetic, beautiful scenes of a souring (perhaps temporarily) love affair in cinema — because it’s so unusual for Hollywood to confront the existence of lengthy and well-founded adult relationships, Chayefsky’s approach here to actually dealing with the ambiguities, the pain, and even the understanding of a wronged wife and a good man who knows he’s wronging her comes from such a place of deep empathy it nearly overshadows the rest of the film… and has nearly nothing to do with its thesis, but is utterly necessary.” – from my review
26. Mercedes McCambridge as Sadie Burke in All the King’s Men (1949, Robert Rossen)
Rossen’s film’s legacy is that it netted Oscars for what we’d tend to think of as two character actors in the peak years of Hollywood glamour. “Mercedes McCambridge is the standout as an enthused political adviser who achieves as much chemistry as she can wth those around her in her limited screen time; regardless, she makes a major impression and seems legitimately to live inside the world of this character, for whom everything is professional yet everything is personal.” – from my review
27. Anne Baxter as Sophie in The Razor’s Edge (1946, Edmund Goulding)
Baxter is a favorite — All About Eve, I Confess, hell, Batman — but she won her Oscar for this interminable film as a result of one scene and one scene only, her drunken confrontation with her former circle in Paris, in which her portrayal of a promiscuous, grieving alcoholic is as compelling as her icily manipulative Eve Harrington a few years later. As you can tell by the ranking, it’s a hell of a moment.
28. Ethel Barrymore as Ma in None But the Lonely Heart (1944, Clifford Odets)
Seeing Barrymore and Cary Grant tackle a script with such realistic dialogue makes you wonder (much like All Quiet on the Western Front does): if the studio system had been different, less restrictive, could its finest fruits have been more amazing yet?
29. Dorothy Malone as Marylee in Written on the Wind (1956, Douglas Sirk)
Preferred winner: Mercedes McCambridge, Giant. This soaper predicted the rush of shlocky 1980s prime time soap operas, and Malone’s sought-after sexpot is compassionately presented by her if not by the film itself.
30. Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator (2004, Martin Scorsese)
Preferred winners: Laura Linney, Kinsey; Sophie Okonedo, Hotel Rwanda; Natalie Portman, Closer… but still, Blanchett is a great choice (it was just an unusually strong year for this category), and her Hepburn is quite believable and the film could have used more of her in lieu of the DiCaprio one-man show as Howard Hughes.
31. Viola Davis as Rose in Fences (2016, Denzel Washington)
Preferred winner: Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea; she’s probably my favorite actor these days, so that doesn’t mean I don’t think Davis deserved an Oscar; she upstages Denzel Washington here as a far more sympathetic character and gets many moments to demonstrate her prowess in this often sensitive adaptation of the August Wilson play.
32. Donna Reed as Lorene Burke in From Here to Eternity (1953, Fred Zinnemann)
The two greatest performances in this film that exists primarily as a showcase for actors are those by its leading women: Deborah Kerr as a sexually frustrated military wife, and best of all Reed, defying the sitcom-derived stereotypical memories of her with an earthy performance as (essentially) a sex worker.
33. Jane Darwell as Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath (1940, John Ford)
Preferred winner: Judith Anderson, Rebecca, and it’s enough of an injustice that I’m slightly reluctant to admit that Darwell is quite strong in one of this category’s highly traditional roles, as the aging mother of the “hero.” From my review: “The only performance remotely worthy of [Henry Fonda’s] is that of Jane Darwell as his mother, a lovely-to-the-core woman unfortunately saddled with far too many mouthfuls of silly dialogue and a dull emptiness in emotional range.”
34. Brenda Fricker as Mrs. Brown in My Left Foot (1989, Jim Sheridan)
Almost a win by default given how physically arduous the role looks, perhaps more so than Daniel Day-Lewis’. I’ve seen Fricker in exactly two other films, both from the Hollywood trash heap (Home Alone 2 and A Time to Kill, the latter enjoyable in a hollow basic-cable sense) and can’t help thinking she’s deserved more respectful treatment than that since her win. She’s now retired from acting.
35. Linda Hunt as Billy Kwan in The Year of Living Dangerously (1982, Peter Weir)
The only instance to date of a woman winning in this category for playing a male role; in the film it isn’t gimmicky or novel, it’s just a physical leap of faith that makes perfect sense, and such things in my view should happen more often. Hunt is the best part of the film, as I argued in my Letterboxd writeup: “The story feels shapeless and lacks clarity, attaining momentum only when Linda Hunt’s unconventional characterization of the photographer Billy Kwan takes the reins of the narrative.”
36. Celeste Holm as Anne Dettrey in Gentleman’s Agreement (1947, Elia Kazan)
“[H]er work here is miles beyond her straight-man presence in a far superior film, All About Eve; she mocks the haters, cackles with good humor and bawdy jokes, holds her own and runs through life with levity, and is in general a strong and feminist portrait of a modern woman. She seems a good match for [Gregory Peck’s character], too — everything each of them starts to say turns into a batshit screenwriterly speech, except Holm makes hers count for a good deal more.” – my review
37. Maureen Stapleton as Emma Goldman in Reds (1981, Warren Beatty)
As I put it in my review, Stapleton is the only actor in this film who “does anything interesting” with her part, while Beatty and Diane Keaton gawk around insufferably. A pity her part is so limited.
38. Sandy Dennis as Honey in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966, Mike Nichols)
“Three of the four players therefore rise to the occasion, with George Segal’s staid stuffed-shirt Nick the weak link compensated for beautifully by Sandy Dennis, stealing the film (yes, really) as his wife, whose flights of fancy and drunken jolts are the funniest and most directly heartbreaking element cast into this brew — an exuberant, naive sideshow of a life just at the beginning of being potentially stunted.” – my review
39. Rita Moreno as Anita in West Side Story (1961, Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins)
From my review: “At first I was uncomfortable with the way that even the attack of Anita (Rita Moreno, giving the film’s best performance) is enacted and emphashized through dance, as though assault or rape are something with such levity; the same goes for fight scenes, scenes of murder and death and other things close in varying degrees, but that places West Side Story in a firm tradition of dance as narrative, not just as a celebratory force but as an evocation and flight of liberating expression of bleak and terrible realities.” Much of that feeling is down to Moreno specifically.
40. Claire Trevor as Gaye Dawn in Key Largo (1948, John Huston)
Trevor has the benefit of playing the only fully developed character in this enjoyable noir, the only one who seems an occupant of the real world; her drunken song sequence — she plays a former nightclub singer — clearly won her the Academy Award all by itself, which is all good and well though I do quietly wish Irene Dunne had long ago been afforded the same recognition for her much lighter version of a similar moment in The Awful Truth.
41. Lee Grant as Felicia in Shampoo (1975, Hal Ashby)
Preferred winners: Ronee Blakley or Lily Tomlin, both from Nashville. All three of the women with major roles in this film do tremendous work, Goldie Hawn being the strongest, Grant the most soulful. I just wish it was a better, less intellectually lazy film. I have many issues with Nashville as well, but in that film fellow nominee Tomlin gives the most moving performance, and Blakley has one of the best musical scenes ever shot, sadly diluted by Robert Altman’s childish refusal to let a single song play without interruption.
42. Marcia Gay Harden as Lee Krasner in Pollock (2000, Ed Harris)
Preferred winners: Frances McDormand or Kate Hudson, both from Almost Famous, with McDormand clearly the better choice. Both Harden and Harris are good in this film, but it’s just the same biopic shit as ever — another standby trait seen frequently in the rest of this list.
43. Octavia Spencer as Minnie in The Help (2011, Tate Taylor)
Preferred winner: Melissa McCarthy for Bridesmaids; although Spencer is a better (and funnier) actress generally, The Help is such an easy, lazy film that despite the many problems with Bridesmaids I just hate to see it encouraged in any way. Still, Spencer’s worth rooting for in any context.
44. Goldie Hawn as Toni in Cactus Flower (1969, Gene Saks)
Preferred winners: Sylvia Miles, Midnight Cowboy; Susannah York, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?… Disregarding a one-season sitcom and a regular spot on Laugh-In, this was Hawn’s introduction to the public, and her persona is immediately in place as she enlivens the part of an impatient mistress to Walter Matthau’s dentist character; Hawn’s incredibly charismatic and her performance style is distinctive and undeniably charming, immediately put to similar use in There’s a Girl in My Soup and Butterflies Are Free, and she would periodically get to explore deeper parts, as in Shampoo and The Sugarland Express… but essentially, like Audrey Hepburn before her, the part she played in her first major film would be the part she played in virtually every film thereafter. And Hepburn won an Oscar the first time out, too.
45. Wendy Hiller as Pat Cooper in Separate Tables (1958, Delbert Mann)
Hiller does phenomenal work here but she’s on the sidelines of one of several subplots in this film, and the one in question is easily the least compelling; as I stated on Letterboxd, it’s “window dressing, aside from the opportunity it gives a staggering Wendy Hiller to break everyone’s heart.”
46. Rachel Weisz as Tessa in The Constant Gardener (2005, Fernando Meirelles)
Preferred winner: Michelle Williams for Brokeback Mountain. Always Michelle Williams. This somewhat strained Le Carre adaptation does feature strong performances, and Weisz’s is the best of these. As I put it in my review, she captures “a hell of a lot in the mere wisps of character she’s given.”
47. Kim Basinger as Lynn Bracken in L.A. Confidential (1997, Curtis Hanson)
Preferred winner: if we define this category as being perfect for performances that save the movies they’re in, Minnie Driver in Good Will Hunting is a better choice than Basinger, who’s probably the weak link in this film, tasked with a necessarily over-familiar femme fatale role. She performs it capably, but doesn’t feel especially distinctive in the part.
48. Anne Hathaway as Fantine in Les Miserables (2012, Tom Hooper)
Preferred winners: Amy Adams, The Master (which I was rooting for very loudly on the night); Sally Field, Lincoln. Still, despite a cornucopia of rather off-putting facial expresses that Hooper’s intrusive camera shoots practically close enough to reach up the actress’ nose, Hathaway does well with her one literal show-stopper here, intentionally evoking Falconetti.
49. Angelina Jolie as Lisa in Girl, Interrupted (1999, James Mangold)
Perferred winners: Toni Collette, The Sixth Sense; Catherine Keener, Being John Malkovich; Chloë Sevigny, Boys Don’t Cry — all would have ranked toward the top of this list. Jolie is fine here, but it’s a showy performance that hasn’t aged particularly well, and outpaced in my view by the less deliberately manic members of the cast.
50. Shelley Winters as Mrs. Van Daan in The Diary of Anne Frank (1959, George Stevens)
Winters is an all-time favorite of mine — though she certainly suffered from typecasting born of her very earliest roles — but I don’t feel strongly about either of her Oscars. The first time out, she won for an average performance in a strange, alienating movie whose existence is difficult to justify. My conclusion on Letterboxd was that “this is hardly the best place to see her talent on display, and her intensity threatens at times to overtake the film.”
51. Eva Marie Saint as Edie Doyle in On the Waterfront (1954, Elia Kazan)
This film’s status remains a sore point around here for many reasons, this being one of them, and again, I love Saint. From my review: “Equally problematic is the renowned performance of Eva Marie Saint, or rather the character she portrays. She is wonderful, beautiful, articulate, understated, and all the rest. But her character has no serious function in the film, except perhaps to provide Brando with a few extra hangups — that scene amid the tires is nice, and you could probably write a good non-threadbare romantic subplot — and her standing-and-crying presence here is a jarring distraction from the rest of the story.”
52. Lila Kedrova as Madame Hortense in Zorba the Greek (1964, Michael Cacoyannis)
Kedrova at a sort of halfway point between two of the Academy’s favorite female archetypes, the nutty old lady and the fallen mother-figure, whom you’ll remember from Anna Magnani’s work in The Rose Tattoo, with the film providing the same touch of condescending exotica to boot. She’s fine, but she deserves better surroundings.
53. Whoopi Goldberg as Oda Mae Brown in Ghost (1990, Jerry Zucker)
Goldberg really is wonderful in this part, but not only is this a dreadful film, it explicitly denies her the chance to move her work beyond the stereotypical.
54. Renée Zellweger as Ruby in Cold Mountain (2003, Anthony Minghella)
Preferred winner: Shohreh Aghdashloo, House of Sand and Fog, but Zellweger does at least give the only really memorable performance in Minghella’s film.
55. Gale Sondergaard as Faith Paleologus in Anthony Adverse (1936, Mervyn LeRoy)
Preferred winner: Maria Ouspenskaya, Dodsworth, mostly because I want Dodsworth to win everything. The first winner of the Supporting Actress Oscar really does fit the award’s name: Sondergaard only appears in the first half-hour of the film, as the mother of the title character, but she’s the first thing you remember when you think of it forever afterward.
56. Jessica Lange as Julie in Tootsie (1982, Sydney Pollack)
Preferred winners: Teri Garr, Tootsie; Lesley Ann Warren, Victor/Victoria. I hate the obnoxious,
unfunny Tootsie so much but both Lange and particularly Garr are fantastic in it, really the film’s only saving graces. Victor/Victoria is the real movie about gender-bending from 1982.
57. Geena Davis as Muriel in The Accidental Tourist (1988, Lawrence Kasdan)
Davis is this low entirely because of bad writing. She begins as a ridiculous proto-MPDG who runs a pet kennel, persuades the divorcee William Hurt to come live with her and her kid, then goes on some sort of impossible rampage apropos of nothing and becomes exceedingly annoying, thus less annoying than the zombielike Hurt, another great actor forced to struggle through this claptrap. But the actress herself does her best throughout the ordeal.
58. Miyoshi Yumeki as Katsumi in Sayonara (1957, Joshua Logan)
Preferred winner: Elsa Lanchester in Witness for the Prosecution. Yumeki isn’t bad, but it’s a weak part and she brings nothing to it to make it any less so.
59. Fay Bainter as Belle in Jezebel (1938, William Wyler)
Bainter’s eyes really burn into you, but Bette Davis so dominates this production that I’m surprised the Academy remembered her name.
60. Vanessa Redgrave as Julia in Julia (1977, Fred Zinnemann)
Preferred winners: Quinn Cummings, The Goodbye Girl; Melinda Dillon, Close Encounters of the Third Kind… although frankly it’s Teri Garr who should’ve been nominated for that film. A loss for Redgrave would deny us one of the most berserk and uncomfortable moments in Oscar history, but the part she plays isn’t much of a challenge — it only requires her to be enigmatically urgent, really. She’s far better than Jane Fonda, at least.
61. Catherine Zeta-Jones as Velma in Chicago (2002, Rob Marshall)
Preferred winners: Kathy Bates, About Schmidt; Meryl Streep, Adaptation. The controversy over Zeta-Jones was that she won for this film and star Renée Zellweger did not, but come on, who doesn’t think this should’ve been Bates’? (Streep has enough and was really more of a lead in Adaptation, though this is my favorite performance of hers.)
62. Jennifer Connelly as Alicia Nash in A Beautiful Mind (2001, Ron Howard)
Nothing objectionable about this except the movie it’s in. She’d retroactively deserve the Oscar for House of Sand and Fog anyway.
63. Mo’Nique as Mary in Precious (2009, Lee Daniels)
Preferred winner: Vera Farmiga for Up in the Air. Mo’Nique’s part — dominated by one monologue late in the film — is quite compelling, and she performs it like a star, but it seems to come from a different and more theatrical universe than the rest of this rather dismal suffering narrative and essentially renders the rest of it flat and colorless by comparison.
64. Ingrid Bergman as Greta in Murder on the Orient Express (1974, Sidney Lumet)
Preferred winners: Madeline Kahn, Blazing Saddles; Valentina Cortese, Day for Night. Bergman’s probably my favorite actress of all time but she’s snoring all the way through this one — which is what she’s supposed to, because it’s a cameo! Not Oscar material.
65. Peggy Ashcroft as Mrs. Moore in A Passage to India (1984, David Lean)
It should’ve been Judy Davis, but anyway, you may not be aware that a much younger Ashcroft was the overly sheltered farmer’s wife in one of the most beautiful scenes of Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, so let’s pretend she was getting a lifetime achievement award for that.
66. Olympia Dukakis as Rose in Moonstruck (1987, Norman Jewison)
I just saw this in 2014 and have already forgotten pretty much everything about it, but I did say this performance was “enjoyable” when I reviewed the film (which I hated) on Letterboxd. I do vaguely remember it after looking at the trailer, but not enough to investigate more or to rank this higher.
67. Alice Brady as Mrs. O’Leary in In Old Chicago (1938, Henry King)
Mother figure, check. Doddering old person, check. “Historical figure,” check. Perfect Oscar formula. Brady’s OK but this is all pretty silly.
68. Meryl Streep as Joanna in Kramer vs. Kramer (1979, Robert Benton)
Preferred winner: Mariel Hemingway for Manhattan — one of the most perfectly modulated and emotionally disarmingly performances in film. Streep can’t figure out how to play a character who makes no sense and speaks in ’70s psychobabble in this MRA child custody fantasy disguised as something more progressive. (I actually like this movie, but you can’t deny that’s what it is!)
69. Gloria Grahame as Rosemary in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952, Vincente Minnelli)
Preferred winner: Jean Hagen, Singin’ in the Rain. Ever since I reviewed The Bad and the Beautiful it’s the film I’ve probably been told the most often (in recent years, that is) that I got totally wrong, and I was especially hard on Grahame, calling her “sensual but ridiculous” and her Oscar “inexplicable” in my review. But come on, that’s Lina Lamont we’re talking about!!
70. Alicia Vikander as Gerda Wegener in The Danish Girl (2015, Tom Hooper)
Preferred winners: Rooney Mara, Carol, or even Rachel McAdams in Spotlight, even though that wouldn’t make much sense when every member of that ensemble pulls equal weight. Carol is an extraordinary film about LGBT issues. The Danish Girl is one of the most hateful, empty-minded explorations of LGBT issues ever produced in mainstream American film. Vikander isn’t terrible in a traditional long-suffering wife role, but it’s difficult not to be thrown by its complete lack of a relationship with history or with the real-life Wegener. And when everything else about a film is so indefensible, it’s hard to view its performances with real objectivity. By the way, I cannot fathom how this was not considered a leading performance.
71. Eileen Heckart as Mrs. Baker in Butterflies Are Free (1972, Milton Katselas)
Out of all the performances on this list, for me this was the most oddly uncomfortable to watch. On Letterboxd I tried to explain why: “Heckart is freakishly believable as a meddling parent, but her hard work is let down by the crude, facile screenplay, which puts its three central characters through changes over the course of 24 hours that make no sense whatsoever.” Maybe it’s that I felt like she was upset with me, which is really more of a compliment I guess, but it’s hard for me to look past such an oppressive feeling.
72. Melissa Leo as Alice Ward in The Fighter (2010, David O. Russell)
Preferred winners: Helena Bonham Carter, The King’s Speech; Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit. Abrasive matriarch role, hardly offensive but just the Academy doing its thing. It should’ve been Steinfeld. It so should’ve been Steinfeld. Does anyone deny it!?
73. Maggie Smith as Diana Barrie in California Suite (1978, Herbert Ross)
Preferred winner: Penelope Milford, who nearly steals Coming Home in one scene; or Maureen Stapleton in Interiors. I didn’t even really mention Smith in my capsule of California Suite, which is actually probably a good sign for her work’s veracity, as there’s so much there far more worthy of hatred. But the extremely calculated Neil Simon notion of having her play an actress who loses an Oscar and all the half-baked “business” about her personal life — make no mistake, if there wasn’t so much else wrong with this, this would be a whopper.
74. Mercedes Ruehl as Anne in The Fisher King (1991, Terry Gilliam)
I still think they thought Ruehl was Amanda Plummer when they handed this one out.
75. Anjelica Huston as Maerose Prizzi in Prizzi’s Honor (1985, John Huston)
Huston, so brilliant in so many films, won an Oscar for talking on a telephone and smirking, repeatedly, in her father’s weirdest, most stilted effort.
76. Shelley Winters as Rose-Ann in A Patch of Blue (1965, Guy Green)
Winters’ second win is in a better film than The Diary of Anne Frank — actually, a film that might have been a genuine treasure if the scenes she’s in were modulated differently. Winters goes for broke with the wild abusive mom shtick and it’s painful, especially when you think of how powerful she could so often be.
77. Helen Hayes as Ada Quonsett in Airport (1970, George Seaton)
Preferred winner: Karen Black, Five Easy Pieces. Wait, no, not preferred winner — more like, what in the actual fuck is wrong with you if you think Hayes deserved this more than Black? Hayes’ comic relief kooky senior citizen part in Airport, wherein she has a habit of squatting on planes and using her age as a shield from rebuke, merits a mild chuckle at best, certainly not an Academy Award that is so very richly deserved by another performer.
78. Tilda Swinton as Karen Crowder in Michael Clayton (2007, Tony Gilroy)
Preferred winner: Ruby Dee, American Gangster, though I’m being a bit hypocritical. I want Dee to be rewarded for her career while I’m simultaneously objecting to Swinton winning for her career, which is exactly what happened because she sure as hell didn’t win for Michael Clayton.
79. Judi Dench as Queen Elizabeth in Shakespeare in Love (1998, John Madden)
Preferred winner: Lynn Redgrave, Gods and Monsters. I complained frequently about the leading actor and actress Oscars going to roles that weren’t really leading parts. Now I’m going to complain about Dench being rewarded for what amounts to a walk-on, though don’t tell my mom; I still remember her cheering when this was announced.
80. Margaret Rutherford as the Duchess in The V.I.P.s (1963, Anthony Asquith)
Preferred winner: well, every one of the other nominees was probably a better choice. Rutherford’s even worse than Hayes above, playing the exact same role in what amounts to the same film, because she doesn’t even have an opportunity to do anything besides pop pills and complain about her finances. I’m not slamming Rutherford as an actress or her skill set, I’m questioning why this was even nominated as a significant performance in the first place.
81. Josephine Hull as Mrs. Simmons in Harvey (1950, Henry Koster)
Preferred winners: Thelma Ritter or Celeste Holm in All About Eve; Nancy Olson in Sunset Blvd., but obviously it should’ve been Ritter. Because The Way of All Flesh is a lost film I cannot say with absolute certainty that Hull’s is the worst performance to receive an Academy Award. But that’s the only reason. Every moment she’s on screen is like a screwdriver delving into your skull. Why!? Why???
So that’s that. In 2012 I set out to watch all of the winners in seven Academy Award categories — I can’t decide what to call them collectively. It’s not the “Big Five” anymore because I added the supporting performance categories. It’s not “above the line” or “the creative awards” because of course cinematography, editing, foreign films are all “creative” too. So for my purposes I’ll just call them the Big Seven. And now, five years later, I’ve gone through every one of them and seen all the corresponding films apart from the two that are missing and impossible to see. Someday I may or may not explore further categories, but I expect diminish returns if I decide to tackle something like that. For now, my next task will be to run through all of the Best Picture nominees. Those who check my Twitter know that I’ve kept track for some time now of which slates I happen to have seen thus far in their entirety, and now my intention is to follow through with all of the rest, beginning immediately after I post this! This, however, is a huge list of films and it will take some time… so this is the last Oscars Project roundup for some time. Until then!
17 movies watched in June. Counts:
– 13 new to the database (previously unseen). New total: 2,187.
– 4 revisits, 2 of which (Bringing Up Baby and Stagecoach, rewatches for the ’30s canon) were reviewed here before, plus two ’90s Woody Allen selections, Mighty Aphrodite and Bullets Over Broadway.
– Just 1 new full review, a rewrite of one I put down long before I had this blog: Bullets Over Broadway.
– 14 new or revised capsules below.
– My intention had of course been to finish the Oscar winners project this month, and I will indeed be moving on in a few days to the Picture nominees, a project that’s going to take around three years by my current estimate. We’re starting out with 181 films to review, 143 of which I’ve never seen — and a good number of movies I can’t wait to finally review in full, particularly Deliverance and Broadcast News. I’ll also finally get to have an opinion on what damn well should have won at each of these fucking ceremonies, which is what you’ve all been waiting for.
– All that said, the reason the monthly post is going up before the page culminating the completion of the Supporting Actress project is that I ended up dragging my feet for the entirety of June on seeing two recent winners, which I just realized share a director, one Tom Hooper. Life interfered to some extent; I’ve spent much of the last week visiting my mom and stepdad in the hospital and seeing friends and the like, but the truth is that I am so reluctant to sit down and watch Les Miserables and The Danish Girl that it knocked our entire procedural structure for the month out of whack. Anyway those two films are priority one as soon as I get this post online, so while you’re all enjoying fireworks and hot dogs I’ll be drowning in the far end of prestige cinema. I’m grateful that the scope and number of the Best Picture Nominees project will give me a good while before I start coping with the films I really wouldn’t be caught dead seeing under any other circumstances… uh, unless they’re on Netflix.
– Criterion’s new release of The Lodger is excellent; the major improvement on the MGM DVD — besides the fact that this one is actually in print, and likely to remain so — is that this disc uses the new BFI restoration from 2012 with better, more accurate tinting and a slightly longer running time (with speed corrected). Best of all, it includes Hitchcock’s very next film Downhill, another collaboration with Ivor Novello, as a bonus feature; that movie’s never been officially released on disc in America before and it also appears newly restored by the BFI. Let’s hope for more releases of Hitchcock’s silent and early work from Criterion to come.
– My feelings are still mixed on how to approach short films in this space — I’m torn between leaving such commentary (when it doesn’t pertain to our regular projects) in my personal blog (where I put the stuff about DVD extras and TV shows) and eventually doing, for instance, a page here with short reviews of Disney’s cartoon shorts and the like; I’m starting to lean toward the latter, and maybe eventually even an Oscar shorts project, since this after all remains cinema — but since I’m probably a year away from another DVD review post at my other outlet, I want to quickly plug the TCM/Warner Bros. burn-on-demand boxed set of UPA cartoons, The Jolly Frolics Collection. I was familiar with some of UPA’s best material, like Rooty Toot Toot, Gerald McBoing Boing and The Telltale Heart, but I was blown away by the consistent inventiveness and good humor of the first two discs in the set, the first dedicated to the years when the great John Hubley was the supervising director at UPA (before he was blacklisted; as much as I love Walt Disney, fuck him for his part in that). The quality drops off very dramatically on the final disc, to such an extent that one wonders why they didn’t just put together a three-disc set of material just from the golden era, maybe with more Magoo cartoons to round it out. At any rate, this is an illustrious corner in the history of American animation that has never before received this sort of comprehensive treatment. It could obviously be better and more complete, but I’m thrilled to have it.
– 1930s canon: I didn’t touch this in June but it will resume almost immediately; November is still the target date for the big finish.
– Best Supporting Actress Oscar winners: 12 films (10 new). As noted above, I fucked up here, with two hanging chads lingering past the point when I wanted this in my rear view. I did buckle down, though, with some truly off the wall stuff, the runts of the Oscar litter so far: Zorba the Greek, My Cousin Vinny, California Suite, The Aviator, A Patch of Blue, The Year of Living Dangerously, Cactus Flower, The Razor’s Edge, The Accidental Tourist, Michael Clayton, and the two beloved (and aforementioned) Woody Allen titles. Remaining: 2 films (2 new), with the appraising post up (in all probability) by this Wednesday evening.
– 2010s catchup: Expecting the end of the above project to be a breeze, I finally sat down with The Edge of Seventeen and The Lobster and loved both, the latter more than the former.
– New movies: In addition to The Edge of Seventeen, caught the even more luminous I Am Not Your Negro, the James Baldwin celebration which in addition to its righteous and fearless tackling of race in America and Hollywood is one of the best films ever made about a writer at work.
Here are the capsules almost but not quite rounding out our five-year journey through the winners of all seven above-the-line Oscars.
I Am Not Your Negro (2016, Raoul Peck) [hr]
This is essentially a visualization of an unfinished text of James Baldwin’s dating from the late 1970s and early 1980s, but it doubles as a survey of his sociopolitical outlook overall, and no descriptor can prepare you for how vital it feels. So many modern documentaries of this nature are glorified PowerPoints — and there are some unwelcome traces of that here and there — but this exuberant, bleak, celebratory, cautionary, unfailingly honest investigation of race in America as manifested in protest, politics, Hollywood and everyday life is for the majority of its runtime like a tornado sweeping you up and tearing you apart.
The Edge of Seventeen (2016, Kelly Fremon Craig) [hr]
Delightful awkward-adolescence story from Gracie Films is funnier than par for the genre, with Hailee Steinfeld a magnetic, immensely likable lead who weaves her way through the occasional spell of stilted dialogue in Craig’s script like a true natural, meeting her match only with Woody Harrelson as an acerbic English teacher. Nadine’s alienation from her family is exacerbated after her jock brother begins a relationship with her longtime best friend, and there are typically awkward sexual encounters, moments of well-observed friendship, and the unfortunate entrance of a Nice Guy stereotype, but despite its issues the film cogently gets across how inadequate family can sometimes be as a source of warmth and comfort, especially at this age.
Zorba the Greek (1964, Michael Cacoyannis)
There’s lots of competition — the fact that Anthony Quinn was slightly less irritating than usual, and uh, the lighting? — but my absolute favorite part of this confoundingly uneventful, dull film about a tightwad English writer randomly associating with a gregarious Quinn on a business-related seclusion in Crete was when right in the middle of it a woman was violently attacked and knifed by a group of men for no substantial reason that had any significant effect on the plot. That ruled.
My Cousin Vinny (1992, Jonathan Lynn) [r]
This courtroom-based comedy is a novel reversal of the usual “backwoods lawyer tries to make good in the big city” formula, with leather-suited, inexperienced Joe Pesci coming down from Brooklyn and making an ass of himself in rural Alabama to defend his cousin, one of two men charged with attempted murder after a bogus series of unfortunate coincidences. Well-acted, engaging and surprisingly believable, with the most cogent rebuke of eyewitness testimony since The Wrong Man, this is half an hour too long and not as funny as it ought to be, but because its humor comes fairly naturally and the farce is kept to a minimum, it’s easily a cut above most mainstream Hollywood comedies of its vintage. Marisa Tomei is brilliant and deserved the Oscar.
The Lobster (2015, Yorgos Lanthimos) [hr]
Engagingly probing black comedy about a hellscape in which anyone not in a relationship is shuttled off to a hotel where they must find a mate in 45 days or be turned into an animal; meanwhile rogue singles wander the forests, hunted for sport. Lanthimos’ deadpan humor — much of which will ring true for anyone who’s ever dealt with the dating world or with bad relationships they stayed in for too long — is by no means for all tastes but it’s an absolute riot in the same way Todd Solondz’s work is, and as with Solondz, it’s only aloof or heartless if you’re unwilling to cope with its uncomfortable honesty. Colin Farrell’s brief affair with the Heartless Woman would make a monumental short all by itself.
California Suite (1978, Herbert Ross) [NO]
A string of things Neil Simon has wished he’d said after being (deservedly) insulted in his day-to-day life in the form of four vignettes that have nothing to do with each other except that they all take place in L.A. and feature sour “wit” and dismal social commentary; the closest thing we get to actual comedy is a segment that involves Walter Matthau trying to hide a prostitute from his wife, which demonstrates that physical comedy is the only thing Simon even kind of knows how to put across credibly. The cast stuck with “serious” parts (including Maggie Smith, Alan Alda, Jane Fonda, etc.) embarrass themselves more than the likes of Matthau, Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor in the lighter scenes, but the whole enterprise is a dreadful waste of time.
The Aviator (2004, Martin Scorsese) [r]
This lavish Hollywood biopic of lavish Hollywood legend Howard Hughes concentrates on the years from the shooting of Hell’s Angels through his late 1940s battle with the Senate and with Pan Am. One of director Martin Scorsese’s more conventional — but also more enjoyable — efforts, it benefits from the fact that Hughes is such a fascinating and eccentric figure, which makes the obscene overlength (170 minutes) a little easier to take. We get to fawn over stars impersonating other stars (Cate Blanchett is divine as Katharine Hepburn, Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner) and admire a few bravura effects sequences, most impressively the dramatization of Hughes’ fiery XF-11 crash in Beverly Hills. Glittery and superficial, but appropriately so.
A Patch of Blue (1965, Guy Green) [r]
The story of a young blind woman (Elizabeth Hartman, outstanding) venturing tentatively outside of her abusive home into a nearby park, where she’s taken under the wing of Sidney Poitier’s good Samaritan, who befriends and tries to deprogram her. This doesn’t wholly escape the trappings of so many socially conscious Hollywood films of the ’60s dealing with race, seemingly all of them starring Sidney Poitier, but it’s far more nuanced and mature than it initially seems. Writer-director Guy Green never permits the stock male fantasy of serving as naive woman’s teacher-savior to transition into the inappropriately sexual power dynamic that you’re conditioned to anticipate; Poitier’s Gordon chooses his actions carefully and compassionately, as does Green.
The Year of Living Dangerously (1982, Peter Weir)
Right from the dazzling opening titles, Weir makes this action-packed journalism story about the 1965 Indonesian coup look remarkably good, even effortless in its realism. The screenplay, however (adapted from a novel by Christopher Koch), is torn between the political and the personal in a distracting, very evidently compromised fashion that foregrounds a haphazard love affair between attractive but clueless-looking actors Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver at the expense of any sense of insight into the failed Communist rebellion and its bloody aftermath. The story feels shapeless and lacks clarity, attaining momentum only when Linda Hunt’s unconventional characterization of the photographer Billy Kwan takes the reins of the narrative.
Cactus Flower (1969, Gene Saks) [r]
Mildly amusing, extremely implausible farce about a Walter Matthau who must pretend to be married to impress his mistress, a very age-inappropriate Goldie Hawn in her film debut. Several screwball scenarios play out enjoyably without ever becoming worth more than a chuckle. It should be noted that all three key players give the film a boundless level of energy, none more than Ingrid Bergman, an improbable presence both because she rarely played comedy and because she’s cast as an outwardly stuffy nurse who ends up cutting loose with the youths on the dance floor, an unexpectedly delightful moment.
The Razor’s Edge (1946, Edmund Goulding) [c]
When it comes down to it, I just don’t care about these out-of-touch, vapid rich people. I don’t care about Gene Tierney’s love for her husband-to-be being contingent upon a certain rate of income. I don’t care about returning WWI veteran Tyrone Power’s quest to “find himself,” which amounts to an expensive vacation to a prototype version of MIU, after which he gains the ability to hypnotize people into being better salesmen, or something. I don’t care about Herbert Marshall’s interpretation of W. Somerset Maugham, who inserted himself as a character in this novel but never begins to serve any kind of purpose in the film version except to glare sternly at various story developments. I care about Anne Baxter, but only during her big drunk widow scene.
The Accidental Tourist (1988, Lawrence Kasdan) [c]
What makes William Hurt’s constantly bored, detached travel writer in this film an adult whereas, say, Adam Sandler in Punch Drunk Love is a “man-child”? Is it that he has a readymade tragic backstory? Because from what I can tell he’s no less entitled than any other obnoxious, up-his-own-ass emotional corpse whose purpose is in life is to be “rescued” by the various chattering, nurturing women whose entire purpose in turn is to fix him. A set of decent-to-great actors can barely keep their heads above all the mumbling in this dire, drab “comedy”; Kasdan fails to indicate any greater feel for human relationships than you’d expect for someone whose big claim to fame is cowriting a Star Wars movie.
Michael Clayton (2007, Tony Gilroy) [r]
Gritty, talky George Clooney vehicle resembles nothing so much as a stylish, self-regarding TV crime drama with showy acting bookended by two artistically risky strokes: a disorienting introduction and a quiet, nonchalant finale. The chronological jump that it depends on for its explosive opening feels gimmicky and done-to-death, but the story of a law office’s financially shaky “fixer” discovering that he’s tasked with defending the actions of a murderously corrupt chemical company is intriguing and absorbing all the same… it’s immediately evident, however, that it’s written by its director, as anyone else would have cut down at least some of the interminable monologues that populate it, especially those foisted on poor Tom Wilkinson.
Mighty Aphrodite (1995, Woody Allen) [hr]
(Revisit; no change.) The remarkable Mira Sorvino amps up this light Allen comedy about a man’s search for the biological mother of his adopted child. Helena Bonham-Carter is also excellent. The material — despite its debt to Greek tragedy — is less sophisticated than the director’s films from this period usually are, but there’s a certain delight in watching him handle a different kind of movie.
!!! A+ FILM !!!
In the context of Woody Allen’s career, Bullets Over Broadway is roughly equivalent to Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry — not in the sense of genre but in the sense that both films are meditations on the nature of art, and in the end they come to opposite conclusions. The artist in Hitchcock’s film is the true hero of the picture, John Forsythe as the painter who finds a way to liberate those around them, to see themselves anew, to live fully at last. The artists in Bullets Over Broadway are the enemy: hopeless egomaniacs, fornicators, desperate prisoners of themselves, mobsters, bastards, the pretentious blowhards always mocked in Allen’s films. John Cusack is the man who wants to make the charisma part of his desperately normal world, longing to break out, swept into a hardened, laugh-a-minute nightmare in Prohibition-era New York.
Cusack’s character (he is, admittedly, playing Woody, but he does a better job of it than anyone except Allen and, well, Owen Wilson) is surrounded, as he at last gets the opportunity to direct his play, by people and Artists and must finally make a choice. Chazz Palminteri is a gangster and ghostwriter who kills in the name of his art and ultimately dies for it. Meanwhile, the play itself, once a form of personal expression for the hero, has grown into something altogether different, something on a Higher Plane, and the painful reality may be that it no longer serves its necessary purpose for him. Bullets is really about not compromising, about letting the world come to you instead of the other way around, but it does this not by putting the role of the villain on the usual Hollywood nincompoops but on genuinely brilliant people who have simply allowed their humanity to vanish. As usual, Allen finds the comings and goings of the pretentious perfectos simultaneously transparent and delightful, enriched by his Kubrickian awareness that they will all be equal in the end, and their immortality will be worthless to them. Like Linus used to say, “five hundred years from now, who’ll know the difference?”
The cast Allen and Juliet Taylor assemble here is the best of the director’s career, embodying and enlivening the varied personalities of his invention, and perhaps the best of any modern comedy. The play is populated by a cast of truly delightful nuts: Jennifer Tilly is an entitled gangster’s moll whose presence is the sole reason the production is able to get funding; her flat acting, grating voice and tendency to stir up disaster are the catalyst of much of the tension in every connected life that ensues. Dianne Wiest won an Oscar for her over-the-top portrayal of the larger than life stage legend Helen Sinclair, whose pretension and charisma easily seduce Cusack’s David Shayne. Jim Broadbent is the dignified, overindulgent leading man Warner Purcell who can’t keep away from the catering table or out of Tilly’s pants. And Tracey Ullman appears as an awkward, excessively polite but unexpectedly vindictive actress who wanders around holding a chihuahua, one of Ullman’s many almost supernaturally complete comic creations. On the sidelines is the even more vital presence of Chazz Palminteri, as a bodyguard keeping an eye on Tilly’s Olive on behalf of her dangerous Mob boyfriend who becomes fixated on the problems with the play and — amidst much tough posturing — insists on helping David rework and rewrite it, with the upshot of a gorgeous, surreal, almost Hopper-like shot of the two of them in a bar together with pages of work in front of them. This is to say nothing of so many others lending the film their hearts in full: Mary-Louise Parker, Jack Warden, Rob Reiner, even Harvey Fierstein.
This was only the second Woody Allen comedy in which Allen did not appear, and his absence allows it to rise above the limitations of his own comic persona. (For one thing, because Cusack is so much more handsome than Allen and more composed than the characters he plays, it’s far easier to buy that two women in the film would be interested in him — and despite the intentionally stilted nature of some of his dialogue, that a Broadway producer would take him seriously enough to work one of his plays in the first place.) On top of all that, it’s the most quotable and effortlessly funny film he’s made in the last thirty years (Radio Days may generate a harder laugh or two, but not in such quantity), from Helen’s remark to David about the world opening up to him “like a magnificent vagina” to Olive’s response to the definition of the word “masochistic,” which I won’t invoke in text without the crucial factor of Tilly’s voice to sell it.
In Harry, Forsythe tells Shirley MacLaine just after proposing to her that they, the painter and his wife, will be “the only free couple in the world,” making them — as Dave Kehr has said — the redemption of romance in a filmography of doomed, manipulative relationships. John Cusack and Mary-Louise Parker, the couple that walks away together at the fade of Bullets Over Broadway, are equally free, equally adrift in the petty misunderstandings of the rest of Woody’s movie couples, but for the opposite reason: he’s not an artist, thank god. It’s fascinating that domesticity would be the prevailing theme in a film of Allen’s, especially at a point in his career almost exactly concurrent with that of Hitchcock’s for Harry. The point that love overcomes art (that, indeed, to save a life is more important than to save the last copy of Shakespeare’s plays) is both conservative and powerfully subversive, and it manifests beautifully for the entirety of the film — in simple conversations, in the decisions made by the film’s two budding playwrights, in the change ultimately made by Cusack’s protagonist, and in Palminteri’s willingness to die for work he believes in but for which he won’t even receive credit.
The production values in Bullets, aided by Carlo di Palma’s tremendous sense of depth, are a significant step up from Allen’s status quo — though his wonderful skill at blocking in long takes (playing lengthy, complicated scenes without a cut) and far shots that somehow never come to feel excessively theatrical is still the defining aesthetic of the picture — and as with Zelig, the reason seems to simply be that this is what the screenplay (cowritten with Douglas McGrath, later the director of the Gwyneth Paltrow Emma) requires: a stage for unexpected gunfire and almost impeccable production design capturing a distant time in three dimensions. Most of Allen’s period pieces are black & white, aiding their illusion, but this one steeps us in another world in full color, and the results are as wholly enveloping and believable as Midnight in Paris later would be — perhaps more so, since this film is so much less driven by such trickery as its thesis. The camera’s agility is remarkable, tracking for instance from a dance revue to a table full of people conversing, then following one of its occupants across a room full of extras to another table at the opposite end of the room, then lingering on their discussion for several minutes thereafter all in a single shot. The smart economy in Allen’s direction and Susan Morse’s editing keep the film moving so swiftly that it seems to leave none of its potential ideas unexplored despite its modest running time; the expansiveness and good judgment in the plot and writing are perfectly proportioned in terms of tone, and in terms of what characters we get to know when. Nothing is overly belabored — maybe some would argue that Wiest’s scenes grow repetitive, but that’s about it — and the fusion of side-splitting jokes and ingratiatingly weird characterizations with morbid gangland bloodshed keeps the film grounded in its own absurdity.
Shooting down the idea that Allen was always putting up his bourgeois characters as a standard to strive for in his movies, the beautiful final scene in this movie gives the lie as well to any idea that one is defined by one’s work, as tempting as it may sometimes be to believe that. Bullets Over Broadway is a great, warm, wise film, and like most of Allen’s, it improves on second viewing — the first time it’s simply hilarious, and one marvels at the conviction behind the scope of the production and even the sheer violence, but the second time, like Husbands and Wives, it can sneak up and move you to tears. It’s close to a precise expansion of Allen’s famous quote “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve it by not dying.” The result is funny, intense, personal, and sure to prove far more immortal than its author.
[Expanded from two old writeups of mine on this film, from 2005 and 2007.]
19 movies watched in May. Counts:
– 16 new to the database (previously unseen). New total: 2,174.
– 3 revisits, including 1 (A Night at the Opera) already reviewed here, plus Dracula and Paper Moon.
– 2 completely new full reviews for the above mentioned Dracula and Paper Moon. I wrote good-sized reviews of both way back in the prehistoric (2006-07) days at a different blog but neither was usable.
– 16 new capsules below. (No revisits here, which I think is a first?)
– Next month I will be finishing up the first phase of the Oscars project, begun when this blog was in its infancy in 2012; what this means is that we will have reviewed every winner of the seven “above the line” categories. The second phase will kick off in July and will encompass an equally long process of seeing all of the Best Picture nominees; the good news is that this will cover most of the nominees in other categories as well, though I expect Screenplay will be a bit of a task. Thanks for staying on the journey with me.
– I’m writing this on June 1, 2017, one year after my last capture of the IMDB Top 250. Perhaps this will be seen as a betrayal to my own cause but on perusing today’s list, I see no new additions I have any interest in watching or reviewing — to be frank, everything new to the list looks like actual garbage to me, which sadly also describes a lot of what was already on it — and so I won’t waste time that could be better spent on watching films I care about. As I mentioned in my post-mortem of the original project, I quite regret taking it on in the first place and consider it to have been my biggest mistake since starting SOC. And if the list is offering me nothing that I consider exciting pursue or to have any potential at all, there seems to me no compelling reason to put in the work of relisting the films and pursing the missing titles. But I’ll duly check again next year just to say I did so.
– My Man Godfrey, reviewed below, is a new nominee for Best Classic Hollywood (pre-Saul Bass) Title Sequence.
– 1930s canon: 7 films (6 new). In addition to the aforementioned Dracula (the only revisit) we had on the docket the following: The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, Design for Living, Gold Diggers of 1933, My Man Godfrey, A Day in the Country and The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum. I’m still enjoying this part of the gig an incredible amount, so I’m slightly disappointed to say that we’ll be temporarily leaving the ’30s behind until picking back up in July, in order to finish up my other current project. Remaining: 44 features (36 new).
– Best Supporting Actress Oscar winners: 7 films (6 new). Failed to make up for last month’s quota deficiency, but since I’ll be working exclusively on this next month it’ll be a breeze to overcome that. Main issue is going to be getting the last few discs I need from Netflix, supplemented with a few trips to the college and one to Warner Archive, amazingly the only way I’m able to see a certain film from the 1980s, which is a pretty dire sign of things to come. This month we revisited the wonderful Paper Moon but otherwise experienced mostly mediocrity, in the form of Dreamgirls, Butterflies Are Free, Murder on the Orient Express, Shampoo (boy, this was a disappointment), In Old Chicago and None But the Lonely Heart. I actually liked a couple of these, the last one especially, but the contrast between this and the canon projects is still pretty strong, yet somehow I’ve never lost my motivation to continue with the Oscar stuff like I did with the IMDB list, maybe just for the feeling of mild achievement I get from it. At any rate, this leaves 14 films (12 new), two of which I am absolutely fucking dreading, so you have that to look forward to.
– 2010s catchup: The movies that I wanted to see that expired from Netflix this month were all 3+ hours and I just couldn’t schedule them. So this was my most slack month on this front in a long time, with only the very average and amply annoying Arrival making its way to my screen. Again, it’s not even that bad a film, but it’s braindead popcorn goofiness and the fact that it’s considered the height of modern cinematic craft is so very troubling to me. Nothing new, I guess.
– New movies: The aforementioned, plus Moana (also not bad, and also an absolute shitshow compared with its inexplicably glowing reputation), and my obligatory fannish encounter with Ron Howard’s Beatles documentary Eight Days a Week (obviously not made for the hardcores who are the only people who’ll remember it existed in a few years).
– Other: Finished the BBS box finally! The King of Marvin Gardens, which I was really looking forward to, was not very good at all! I swear I’m not especially cranky this month, these movies just let me down!
Now, read some short capulse reviews from this miserable asshole!
Dreamgirls (2006, Bill Condon)
A waste of an enthusiastic cast (with Eddie Murphy and Jennifer Hudson both genuinely dazzling), this offensively superficial musical follows the career of a girl group clearly based on the Supremes and their run-ins with a corrupt, manipulative manager clearly based on Berry Gordy, but its Broadway slickness renders it gutless; the last two thirds are just a collection of showbiz clichés built as an excuse for the increasingly desperate tunes that couldn’t be a less accurate representation of either the period or of the Motown sound.
The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933, Fritz Lang) [hr]
A series of stunning thriller setpieces rife with mystery and menace, pretty much exactly the same movie as Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler not to mention Spies, but a little more cunning and oppressive in its fetishizing of grisly doom and actual terror. One phenomenally nail-biting chase, trap or eye-popping special effect follows another, and Lang establishes an anything-goes environment of cutthroat organized crime so well it’s kind of disappointing when he lets so many of his innocents and semi-innocents escape unharmed. Less than the sum of its parts but still one of the most fun, flamboyant movies of the ’30s.
Arrival (2016, Denis Villeneuve)
More pretend insight from Villeneuve, a schlock merchant who won’t admit that’s what he is, in a genre built for just his sort of posturing. Space aliens land in America and want to communicate, so linguist Amy Adams sets aside some issues in her personal life to help the government. It’s hard to hate a film that clearly intends to strike a chord — better to copy Interstellar than The Martain even if both kind of suck — but the exposition is painful, the dialogue consistently embarrassing, the story a less compelling variant on various better films, Jeremy Renner’s in it, and oh yes, there’s A Twist.
Moana (2016, John Musker & Ron Clements)
A mishmash of market-tested impulses from the over-employed architects of Aladdin, The Little Mermaid and other toy and ride-centered properties that incidentally involved motion pictures at some point. At first there’s dignity in the story of a girl with the fate of the world resting on her shoulders as she’s swept up in a Polynesian mythology story, but with the invasion of the demigod Maui, voiced with a charmless thud by the Rock, there’s the usual refusal for humor or pathos to come organically. Impressive effects animation can’t redeem dull character designs or the dreadful songs. Your kids deserve better movies than this.
Design for Living (1933, Ernst Lubitsch) [hr]
Naughty and naive, this splendidly bubbly comedy substitutes Noel Coward’s sophistication with Ben Hecht’s incisive, direct earthiness. He and Lubitsch manage to sell a tangential story whose silly twists and turns depend on the believable likability of its three delightful characters — dirt-poor but somehow freewheeling artist layabouts in Paris pretending they’re not engaging in a prolonged menage a trois; you barely notice the last thirty minutes have little to do with anything else because you’ve become so involved in the surprisingly organic way that maturity has let this perverse romance blossom, two men agreeing to one another’s presence.
Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years (2016, Ron Howard) [r]
We already had ten hours of The Beatles Anthology, one and a half hours of the vastly superior The Compleat Beatles, and of course Mark Lewisohn’s prodigious in-progress biography, so what can a Ron Howard movie possibly tell us about the years when the Beatles were live performers? Not a whole hell of a lot, but if you love them you’ll still have a great time watching this, even if it’s annoying that Howard constantly cuts away from songs in progress and hardly lets a single one of them play out. He does capture the universal appeal of rock’s most deserved titans without a trace of pretension or overstatement, which is welcome.
The King of Marvin Gardens (1972, Bob Rafelson)
Disappointing rehash of Five Easy Pieces with the same director and lead actor, unfortunately cluttered here by the presence of Bruce Dern as radio personality Jack Nicholson’s screwed up scam-artist brother. What should be an absorbing dynamic leads to a series of disconnected scenes that are stilted and curiously muted. It’s beautifully photographed by Laszlo Kovacs and Nicholson’s performance is admirably restrained but the film takes low-key to such a Robert Altman-like extreme that it quickly grows dull and ineffective. Not even Ellen Burstyn, going for Karen Black but hitting her broad Requiem for a Dream note, can rescue it.
Butterflies Are Free (1972, Milton Katselas)
A thin, dated dramedy about a young blind man (doe-eyed Edward Albert) hooking up with his free-spirited neighbor to his overprotective mom’s chagrin, this adaptation of a single-set play is redeemed slightly by Goldie Hawn’s easy naturalism as an actress, stuck playing one of the most blatant wish-fulfillment proto-MPDG characters in film history and spending much of the runtime in her underwear, but still perfectly credible in the part. Academy Award winner Eileen Heckart is freakishly believable as a meddling parent, but her hard work is let down by the crude, facile screenplay.
Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933, Mervyn LeRoy & Busby Berkeley) [r]
This rather ordinary, sporadically funny story of bed-hopping, mistaken identity and philandering between rich and poor would be much more tolerable if broken up more frequently by the Busby Berkeley numbers that prompt the film’s high reputation, but there are only four of them. “We’re in the Money” and “The Shadow Waltz” are both treats that feel too short; “Pettin’ in the Park” and “Forgotten Man” are somewhat inexplicable thematically despite some strong choreography and camerawork. None are among Berkeley’s best, though perhaps that would be excusable with a more compelling plot, better jokes, something.
Murder on the Orient Express (1974, Sidney Lumet) [r]
Lumet’s glee at Agatha Christie’s dim view of humanity — underlined in a painstakingly detailed, violent flashback at the climax — offsets the hamminess of several members of his once-in-a-lifetime cast, Albert Finney’s Hercule Poirot the silliest of all. Numerous others appear in what are really just walk-ons; the standouts are Rachel Roberts and Anthony Perkins, not Oscar winner Ingrid Bergman. If the thought of a murder mystery set aboard a train with a bunch of your favorite stars excites you there’s no reason you won’t find this engaging, and as a bonus its amoral perspective ensures that it doesn’t result in your brain falling out.
Shampoo (1975, Hal Ashby)
Warren Beatty and Robert Towne’s ostensibly satirical comedy, of class-conscious promiscuity set hamhandedly against election night 1968, is an empty-headed scold of “celebrity hairdresser” Jay Sebring and, uh, society; Beatty stars as a workaholic philanderer trying to start his own hair salon while crassly juggling four to seven women. His performance lacks depth despite strong work from his costars, and director Ashby’s usual sense of affinity toward outsiders is out of place here regardless of whether there’s any sincerity to what the screenwriters are trying to say (if anything).
My Man Godfrey (1936, Gregory La Cava) [hr]
Supposedly a screwball comedy, this intriguing study of an odd family dynamic is never uproariously funny, with William Powell a cool-headed homeless man trying to build his life back up while resisting the pull of the band of blood-tied and fractured kooks who hire him as a butler. All the while that he’s pushed and pulled by warring factions in said family, Carole Lombard is the film’s sole stroke of real wildness, lusting after him relentlessly, and she deserves credit for how surreal a performance it is. Her presence enlivens the innocuous family scenes and the explorations of Godfrey’s character; she and Powell are mesmerizing.
A Day in the Country (1936, Jean Renoir) [r]
Sumptuous, intoxicating Renoir paean — from a Guy de Maupassant story about a spontaneous affair on a single afternoon — to the idyllic glories of the French countryside will make anyone with a pulse want to join the picnic it documents, but was left incomplete with forty minutes shot. Even apart from that it’s a bit toxic, hinging on an unlikable philanderer (Jacques Brunius) and his tagalong (Georges D’Arnoux) discussing the seduction of their female visitors as if it’s some kind of game being played with plastic toys. Worse yet, its cavalier treatment of subtle brutality at the climactic encounter traps it in its time.
The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (1939, Kenji Mizoguchi) [hr]
Sensitively presented, tragic tale of a Kabuki actor spurned by his family after he falls for his brother’s wet nurse, and a painfully accurate if partly accidental treatise on the way society punishes women. Mizoguchi’s use of long takes, master shots as opposed to close-ups, and complex dollys give the feel of life happening before our eyes despite the melodramatic intensity of the story being told; every scene is absorbing and richly detailed, made all the more touching by the fine, understated performances of Shôtarô Hanayagi and Kôkichi Takada in the two leading roles.
In Old Chicago (1937, Henry King) [r]
Brassy, slick Fox variation on the MGM classic San Francisco spins a whopper of a yarn about the Great Chicago Fire that has a mythologized Mrs. O’Leary (Alice Brady) mothering three sons, one of whom is a nefarious gangster (true) and another the Mayor of Chicago (lolz), plus of course a mischievous cow. You know how this works: an hour and a half of petty infighting and buildup, here revolving around both the law vs. order conflict between the brothers and on Tyrone Power’s rather creepy romantic attachment to dancer and businesswoman Alice Faye, followed by a climax filled with eye-popping, remarkable and fully convincing special effects.
None But the Lonely Heart (1944, Clifford Odets) [r]
Cary Grant and Ethel Barrymore are remarkable in this solemn, righteously angry exploration (based on a Richard Llewellyn novel) of a Cockney drifter’s entrance into a life of crime after his mother becomes too ill with cancer to run the family store. It’s long-winded and sags in the midsection after a terrific first act and after the relationship between mother and son loses some of its initial complexity, but the dialogue — well adapted by writer-director Clifford Odets — is consistently sharp and realistic, the whole experience subtle, unsentimental and impressively complete in its capturing of a decrepit slum life without romance or condescension.
!!! A+ FILM !!!
Peter Bogdanovich made a movie between The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon (it was What’s Up, Doc? starring Barbra Streisand), but you’d never know it. The two films are virtually twins, each elaborating helpfully and expanding upon the themes of the other, despite being set twenty years and several states apart. Both films are tough-minded, complex rejections of the concept of innocence. More superficially, both are magnificently shot (by Laszlo Kovacs, in this case) black & white period pieces with gorgeous deep-focus landscapes and cynicism breaking through their nostalgic Americana. But while The Last Picture Show was a sensitive yet often bitter translation of the complicated relationships between adults and teenagers, Paper Moon finds room for a kind of magical optimism in the most desperate corners. Unlike The Last Picture Show, it’s a story about childhood, channeled to us with not the first trace of condescension. It fails to posit that the inevitable schism between its two heroes will ever be fully healed, but in its celebration of scattered moments of reluctant warmth against an unforgiving backdrop — the Depression in (mostly) rural Kansas and Missouri — it attains an almost indescribable loveliness. Without copping at all to sentimentality or rose-tinted nods to a distant past, it temporarily redeems the cruel, lonely world imagined by the director in The Last Picture Show and Targets.
We say “two heroes” but really there’s just one: Tatum O’Neal as Addie Loggins, a chain-smoking ten year-old girl tagging along with a con man selling faux-classy Bibles to the widows of the recently deceased. At her mother’s funeral, Addie meets up for the first time with Moze (for Moses) Pray, suspected by everyone including Addie of being her illegitimate father; reluctantly Moze gets roped into setting Addie up with a train ticket to St. Joseph, Missouri, the home of her estranged aunt, but along the way he makes use of the child’s situation to con a local grain distributor (involved in the accidental death of Addie’s mom) out of $200. Overhearing this, Addie then refuses to part with Moze until she’s reimbursed, making a stubborn and attention-drawing scene in a restaurant, where the pair reach a sort of impasse — Moze has already spent most of the money — that results in them heading out on the road together, Moze using his illegal wares to pay back his debt to Addie.
It’s never explicitly stated that Moze and Addie are actually related, though the context of their behavior in the film and the casting of Tatum’s father Ryan as Moze seems to clinch it as an unstated near-certainty that he’s her long-lost dad; this reluctance to make their relationship explicit, and the willingness to leave so much else unsaid, is one of many grace notes offered by Bogdanovich and the Alvin Sargent screenplay. Addie quickly becomes not Moze’s burden so much as his accomplice. Theirs is a subtle relationship in terms of both affinity and conflict, with its sweetness never expressed by actual affection but by mutual enthusiasm for bilking their fellow man out of cash; it’s our privilege to share in the duo’s nefarious triumphs. On first encounter the moment I fell in love with this film was when Addie talks up the price of a Bible to aid in the scamming of one of her new captor’s victims. After that, there was no looking back. Moze shows no signs of losing his frustration with Addie — her radio, her smoking, her tendency to butt in and contribute to his deals — even as we grow ever more charmed by her pluck and pathos. Our feeling of connection with her when she takes out a photograph of her deceased mother and tries to replicate her pose, or of joy when she sings to herself in the mirror, is meticulously earned by the film, and there’s a remarkable purity in the result, perhaps most apparent when we realize how disappointed we are along with her when it appears that this road movie of hotel rooms and truck-stop cons must inevitably come to an end.
Addie and Moze’s relationship develops through a procession of amusing but increasingly dangerous episodes; it starts with the phony Bible selling, dips into “dropping twenties” and scamming cashiers, with Addie forced to scornfully play up her cuteness, the only time she ever calls her probable father “Daddy,” and escalates ultimately into ripping off a bootlegger, wrestling with a good old boy and running frantically from the law. Along the way, the longest diversion comes from an exotic dancer named Trixie Delight (Madeline Kahn), who gets her hooks in Moze while an exasperated Addie waits for him to have his photo taken with her; joined thereafter on the road by Trixie and her long-suffering maid Imogene (the apparently forgotten but brilliant P.J. Johnson, who has a monopoly on the best line readings in the film) we find ourselves identifying hilariously with Addie’s resentment as her importance in Moze’s life is essentially overrun by a de facto stepparent. Kahn’s genius is well-established in numerous other roles, but her almost operatic embodiment of an inherently one-joke character — “just like a gum machine,” Imogene says, “you drop some in and she’ll put some out” — is something of a miracle. One of the most telling moments in a film full of so much unexpected beauty comes when Trixie is tasked with persuading Addie, sick of being a passenger in what she perceives to be properly her ride, back into the car. After trying to treat her as a little girl (“you like the Mickey Mouse?”) and then attempting stern hostility, she finally levels with the kid and lets her know that she’s just along for the sugar-daddy roller-coaster until it runs out of steam, and begs Addie to let her sit up front “with her big tits,” at which point she gives a look of genuine embarrassment that completely enlivens the moment, and humanizes her for Addie; she’s the only adult in the film to share the frail humanity of the same stripe as Cloris Leachman’s final speech in The Last Picture Show, and even if the peace between the two of them does not last, Addie’s responsive smile lingers as one of Paper Moon‘s most iconic images.
Indeed, as terrific as both O’Neals’ performances in the film are, Tatum’s is extraordinary — indeed, transcendent in its understatement. She was destined to become the youngest winner of a competitive Academy Award (winning against Kahn, as well as another exceptional juvenile performance, Linda Blair in The Exorcist), and the accolade was well deserved. But beyond his principals, Bogdanovich fills his screen with the same kind of distinctively eccentric faces that populated The Last Picture Show, calling back indeed to the human cornucopia of Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night. Cashiers, family members, local weirdos, carnies, lecherous hotel clerks, all are treated with affection by the film if not Addie and Moze save perhaps for the cops, approached with wholly warranted apprehension; and it must be mentioned again that while P.J. Johnson would disappear from the screen forever apart from a bit part in a later Bogdanovich film, hers is easily as distinctive and skilled a performance as the other three people with whom she rides across Kansas in the car, her periodic smiles equally hard-earned. The point is that the unmistakable but unforced love Bogdanovich extends to these characters translates to some of the persuasive humanism visible in a film from the “director-driven” period of Hollywood, and it’s something he provides to us without whistling past the miseries and strife challenging each and every one of them in the 1930s.
Bogdanovich doesn’t just avoid the obvious sugary story progressions in Paper Moon (the film ends with another argument and doesn’t let Moze concede even a begrudging acknowledgement of Addie’s final gift to him, the photograph he never had the time to take with her); he also skirts his own failings and obsessions as a director so that, as with David Lynch via The Straight Story decades later, he proves himself capable of operating independently and distantly of his own natural persuasions (and lecherous tendencies, for that matter) to better serve the film. As ideal as his eagerness and bravura enthusiasm was for The Last Picture Show, he shows greater restraint and maturity here by presenting such a universally appealing story without falling back on the use of outdated film stock or of period-appropriate locations as a stylistic crutch. Certainly there are shades aplenty of John Ford and Orson Welles in Paper Moon, but only as natural influences and never as emulation or window dressing; the story is rich and real enough not to need such distractions, and with the considerable help of Kovacs and editor Verna Fields, the director’s hand never really falters here in his mannered, graceful, grown-up storytelling, wholly resistant to catharsis. We’re left with a feeling of ebullience, of having just seen a miraculously complete story from a child’s eyes, and at that the all too rare story that has everything: it’s funny, sad, sweet, poignant, even threatening, and teeming with a lust for life undimmed in the very worst of times.
The Hollywood films of the 1930s were the invention of modern American culture. The iconography of gangster films, musicals, fantasies, war — the stories we tell and the way we tell them — is written on these celluloid frames. King Kong, The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Scarface, Bringing Up Baby, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs… this is the folklore we’ve adopted for ourselves. Even against that backdrop, the impact on popular culture of James Whale and Tod Browning when they were making genre-defining horror pictures at Universal in the early parts of the decade might eclipse all else. Where would we be without Browning’s Dracula, created and defined for eternity by Bela Lugosi? Moreover, how would we even think of the baseline of a predatory vampire tale or the related literature without its contributions to what would soon become hoary clichés to forever dominate the popular imagination? It’s sometimes tricky to look at a movie that made us who we are without feeling detached from it, and because of both its flaws and strengths Dracula is a more demanding film than any of the aforementioned. Whereas Whale entertained us with flamboyant visions of cathartic terror that are wont to induce wide-eyed enthusiasm just by their willful extremity, Browning and Lugosi’s Dracula suggests death and misery emanating from a world very much like our own — its murderous fervor strikes forth from the mundane and ordinary. But Browning’s version of the immortal tale also boasts palpable atmospherics that are at once creepy and inherently witty in their unbroken oppressiveness — “It reminds me of the broken battlements of my own castle…in Transylvania!” The narrative is unbalanced and stilted, the screenplay containing only random shreds of Bram Stoker, but the film is so completely delightful and the acting so shockingly and marvelously subdued (a true rarity in horror films), that the Browning-Lugosi collaboration manages to provide us with one of the most deliriously fun early talkies made in America.
Lugosi had already portrayed Count Dracula on the Broadway stage, and was touring with a production of Hamilton Deane’s play adaptation when he lobbied for a role in the Universal film. The dashing, handsome Hungarian actor — a far more multifaceted performer than is often remembered — is typically credited as the first filmed Dracula who is not grotesque. The most institutionally beloved interpretation up to this point (and perhaps even today) was Max Schreck’s in F.W. Murnau’s unbilled Stoker lift Nosferatu, and Schreck had been deliberately repulsive and subhuman, indeed as the character was described in the novel. In the Browning picture, however, the Count is a suave and well-mannered society figure who mingles easily with ordinary people, despite coming off as a bit of an oddball in extended conversation, and maintains a level of decorum that earns the trust of potential victims. Another major departure from Nosferatu and other earlier variants that would have a permanent impact on generations’ worth of vampire movies through the century to follow is the sensuality in the film, especially Lugosi’s erotic movements in his moments of violence. Though Murnau went quite far in treating his vampire’s attacks as a kind of coded rape (as Carl Theodor Dreyer would in 1932’s Vampyr), it’s Browning whose love of perversity, so obvious in his work both before (The Unknown) and after (Freaks) this, makes the inherently ridiculous image of a bat functioning as a peeping tom outside a woman’s window stick in the mind as unnervingly surreal rather than just kooky. Lugosi gives us a Dracula who treats even the enemies he considers his intellectual equals, like Dr. Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan), with calm respect, but whose presentation of humanity is offset just enough by the sense that he is an embodiment of the dead, as exemplified by his frequently stilted dialogue and his machine-like, instantaneous responses to dangerous obstacles (mirrors, crosses, wolfsbane).
One of the great flaws of F.W. Murnau’s visualization of Stoker is its heavy concentration on both exposition, almost entirely avoided in Browning’s film (there is much speculation and explanation, but it is situational and reasonably believable, well-integrated into the action), and in the blandness of the hybrid Jonathan Harker-R.M. Renfield equivalent portrayed there by Gustav von Wangenheim. Browning’s casual moral ambivalence nixes this problem; he’s unimpressed by both Renfield’s arrogance when laughing off the Transylvanians’ apprehension about his midnight visit to Dracula’s castle and by his subsequent fear of the unfamiliar behaviors he witnesses in Dracula’s home, drinking the wine as his host all too gleefully watches. Browning then dispenses quickly with the strange real estate-related setup for the body of the story, and seems to take pleasure in watching actor Dwight Frye become the film’s first casualty; his derangement after he becomes one of the Count’s many wards is chillingly absolute, and a fearsome contrast to the cool dignity of Dracula himself, broken only by his uncontrolled lust at the sight of blood. While Browning’s film is inevitably less mysterious than Nosferatu, its atmosphere of unforgiving dread is remarkable for a Hollywood studio picture, and in this respect in trumps not only Murnau and Dreyer’s films but, quite incredibly, James Whale’s more classicist and soulful Frankenstein. So many of the Universal horror pictures remain delightful and strange, but seldom do any of them except Browning’s Dracula are really able to disturb us today.
And perhaps the average audience member will not have such a response to the film; Dracula demands undivided attention to be truly effective, but that’s really a mark of its advantages over so many films of its ilk and vintage — as mentioned before, the low-key acting is an asset all through the picture, propping up the lone over-the-top role filled by Frye. Helen Chandler’s Mina is icily distant, reading her lines almost in a monotone after she’s initially overtaken by Dracula, but it works tremendously well, allowing the performance to be built by others’ responses to it. Van Sloan’s Van Helsing could very easily be the usual embarrassing parade of expository claptrap, but his rationality and what Dracula calls his “will” make him an ideal, positive portrait of scientific knowledge and curiosity, deliberately avoiding the potential sidelining of him as a superstitious quack. (It’s a bit of a call ahead to Francois Truffaut’s part in Close Encounters of the Third Kind in that regard.) Of course, Lugosi is the glue of the picture; absent of the filth and plague of Nosferatu, his cleaned-up and sexual feeding patterns and destructive behavior position death and murder as a gentleman’s game, and he’s able also to softly imply his own character to be a victim of his own impulses. “There are far worse things awaiting man,” he announces, “than death.”
Dracula exists on a tantalizing threshold, just between the moment when the primitive nature of early talkies was a handicap and when directors like Browning learned to harness their limitations; additionally, of course, there is the absence of Hays Code regulations, which allow the film to wallow a bit in its hideousness. For both reasons, the movie’s impact would almost certainly be dulled had it been made just three or four years later. Though DVD versions exist with conventional scoring tacked on, the absence of music (apart from a somewhat incongruous Swan Lake extract underneath the credits) and the few scattered, sparse sound effects contribute to a overpowering stillness, making the experience all the more grim. Visual effects are also limited, in direct contrast to Whale’s films from the same period (especially The Invisible Man); we never actually see Dracula transforming, so the sudden entrance of the bat at various points remains inexplicable, a weakness that becomes an advantage in the narrative. Indeed, apart from the fog and the beautifully shadowy, horrifying scenery and set designs by Russell A. Gausman (lit as impeccably as ever by Ufa veteran Karl Freund), the most striking effect in Dracula is the simple light set upon Lugosi’s eyes when he casts his hypnotic spell on his victims; when a similar treatment is given to Helen Chandler’s thousand-yard stare, the feeling of doom, that feeling that we are ourselves unsafe, is inescapable.
Purportedly, Tod Browning was stressed and unhappy during the making of Dracula; he never fully warmed to sound cinema, arguably never having the positive experiences Whale did after the transition, and the casting of Lugosi as well as Universal’s budgetary requirements led the film far afield of its director’s original wishes and intentions. (It’s often said that the Spanish version of the film, shot simultaneously on the same sets, is far superior; but because it has an entirely different director, cast and even screenplay than the English language picture, it should be considered a wholly separate affair that merits its own consideration as an unrelated title.) Actors complained of the “chaotic” environment of the set, and despite the film’s major commercial success, it would sadly prove Browning’s last uncompromised triumph as a director. It’s common to complain that the difficulties in Dracula‘s creation and the marked inefficiencies of the available technology are obvious in the finished product, but in comparing it to nearly any other cinematic tackling of the legend it seems clear that the subtlety thereby forced upon the filmmakers is to its benefit (not even permitting us a happy ending that doesn’t feel hollow and eerie), and the permanent vitality of Lugosi’s performance — both as a direct experience and as a cultural phenomenon — speaks for itself. It’s still the stuff nightmares are made of, daring you to contend that you’re well past being susceptible to it. These shadows show no sign of lifting.