Broadcast News (1987, James L. Brooks)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

“I just wanna be alone right now.”
“It’s okay. I’ll go with you.”
“Thanks.”

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.]

Project: Best Supporting Actress Oscar winners

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.

(A-)
01 Key Largo
(B+/B)
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
11 Fences
12 National Velvet
13 Cactus Flower
14 In Old Chicago
15 Anthony Adverse
(B-/C+)
16 The Great Lie
17 Shampoo
18 A Passage to India
19 The Year of Living Dangerously
20 Dreamgirls
21 Pollock
22 Butterflies Are Free
23 The Diary of Anne Frank
24 Cold Mountain
25 Zorba the Greek
(C/C-)
26 The Razor’s Edge
27 Les Miserables
28 The Accidental Tourist
29 Airport
30 The V.I.P.s
(D+/D/D-/F)
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!

June 2017 movie capsules

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.

Project breakdowns:
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.

***

Brief, insubstantial additional Letterboxd notes on: Bringing Up Baby / Stagecoach / Bullets Over Broadway

Bullets Over Broadway (1994, Woody Allen)

!!! 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.]

May 2017 movie capsules

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.

Project breakdowns:
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.

***

Brief, insubstantial additional Letterboxd notes on: A Night at the Opera / Dracula / Paper Moon.

Paper Moon (1973, Peter Bogdanovich)

!!! 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.

Dracula (1931, Tod Browning)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

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.

April 2017 movie capsules

24 movies watched in April. Counts:
– 17 new to the database (previously unseen). New total: 2,158.
– 7 revisits, including 4 (The Last Picture Show, Boyhood, The Heiress, Murder!) already reviewed here, as well as The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vicky Cristina Barcelona and The Thin Man.
– 2 entirely new full reviews, for the original The Man Who Knew Too Much and for Vicky Cristina Barcelona.
– 18 new or revised capsules below.
– Still didn’t quite make up lost ground on Supporting Actress but I’m only one film behind, and I’ll compensate for that this month easily since I seem to be managing my time better lately. (Watched two dozen films despite driving to Washington and back for a show!)

Project breakdowns:
Best Director Oscar winners/Best Actress Oscar winners catchup: Finally got my hands on La La Land and updated both completed project pages accordingly.
1930s canon: 8 films (6 new), catching up on the slight deficit in March. Titles screened were Zero for Conduct and Alexander Nevsky via Filmstruck (so much love), The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vampyr, Love Me Tonight, The Thin Man, Top Hat and The Blue Angel on DVD. Remaining: 51 (41 new).
Best Supporting Actress Oscar winners: 8 films (7 new), which still puts me behind by one, which I will fix in May. Saw The V.I.P.s, A Passage to India, Airport, Cold Mountain, National Velvet, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, For Whom the Bell Tolls and Anthony Adverse all on DVD, the last via Warner Archive. Remaining: 21 (18 new).
2010s catchup: Pretty much giving up on keeping on top of all of the Netflix expirations that affect things I want to see. I’ll just rent the motherfuckers, though I’ll still try to watch them when I can. It’s just annoying to have to plan my life around their schedule. Yeah, I know I plan my entire film-watching habit around self-imposed projects, but that’s me, and it’s fun. Anyway, I saw Calvary, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and La La Land (see above). All three were good, the first two making the third look a bit dumb, but still.
Other: Still slogging through the BBS box, finally watched and was disappointed by Picture This, George Hickenlooper’s documentary about The Last Picture Show.

Capsules forthwith:

The V.I.P.s (1963, Anthony Asquith) [c]
Insipid ensemble soaper with MGM going thirty years too late for Grand Hotel in an airport, with various wealthy and noble people stuck in London because of fog, complicating their tiresome intermingling. Features an all-star cast slumming it, none more or less than the inexplicably Oscar-winning Margaret Rutherford as a ditzy old woman who pops a lot of pills. It’s all a backdrop to the lush, frustratingly vapid love triangle of Liz Taylor, Richard Burton and Louis Jourdan; you’d never guess Terence Rattigan wrote any of this. Even for someone who’s a sucker for vapid ’60s jet-set stuff this is tough going.

Picture This (1991, George Hickenlooper)
Disappointing twenty years after-the-fact documentary about the production of The Last Picture Show, during which Peter Bogdanovich allowed his personal life to be subsumed and destroyed by the movie he was making in the hometown of author Larry McMurtry, who clearly based the major characters in his novel on real people he knew then, several of whom Hickenlooper interviews and most of whom are forthcoming with their resentments. The result is shoddy, rushed and disorganized, with mere quick excerpts from what appear to be fascinating interviews, especially those with Ellen Burstyn and Cloris Leachman.

Zero for Conduct (1933, Jean Vigo) [hr]
Enchanting, surreal tale of prep school boys organizing a classroom coup has only a ghostly hint of an actual story, serving instead as a dream of just the sort we have when we fall asleep fantasizing about the past. The impossibility of its universally appealing prank only makes it seem more immediate and real. Painfully short, with delightful hints of masterpieces to come from The 400 Blows to A Hard Day’s Night.

A Passage to India (1984, David Lean)
This Forster adaptation (all about colonialism, racism and class) is one of Lean’s better films, in part because of the subtleties of the novel guiding him along, and perhaps more so because it’s the only film he made after 1960 in which he really gives actors any room to perform, limiting the attractive landscapes that usually suffocate his films mostly to establishing shots, time lapses and mildly surreal interludes. Basically, we’re left with a highly competent if wonkily edited (by Lean himself) BBC film with a few very elaborate shots and Alec Guinness’ most humiliating performance (yes, including Star Wars).

Airport (1970, George Seaton) [c]
Absolute swill following Burt Lancaster in crisis-control mode became a mass cultural phenomenon and franchise throughout the ’70s. Largely because it features so many good actors humiliating themselves but perhaps even more because Seaton has one powerhouse of a tense thriller sequence up his sleeve, it gave rise, of course, to the brain-atrophying likes of The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure and the TV shows Hotel and The Love Boat, but taken on its own its broad, soapy, sub-telefilm melodrama almost begs to be mocked (which it would be, the creation of another phenomenon).

Calvary (2014, John Michael McDonagh) [hr]
A fascinating mystery whose layers of meaning will require multiple viewings to fully unravel, though it’s in essence a remake of High Noon with I Confess baked into it. Brendan Gleeson (magnificent) is an Irish priest given a seven-day warning during a confession that he is to be murdered, not for being a bad man but for being a good one. During the week to follow we meet the scattered denizens of his small town, whose opinion of him runs a broad gamut, and it serves as both a rollout of the man’s loved ones and of the suspects. The story ruminates without being dour, slow or humorless.

Cold Mountain (2003, Anthony Minghella)
Nicole Kidman is a glamorous supermodel inexplicably thrown into the middle of a Civil War variant on The Odyssey — from Charles Frazier’s novel — that uses Romania as an all too obvious stand-in for Appalachia. Its fable-like premise is intriguing during the first act but takes a sharp turn toward the overly literal with the inevitable Sirens sequence then falls completely apart at the halfway point, redeemed strictly by some attractive cinematography, but all it really amounts to is a parade of good-looking people play-acting; very much the dispiriting stereotype of early ’00s Miramax Oscar bait.

Vampyr (1932, Carl Theodor Dreyer) [r]
One of Dreyer’s weakest films, a terminally ordinary horror tale lifted up only slightly by the director and Rudolph Maté’s impressively agile camerawork. Apart from a haunting scene of dancing shadows and some of the stunning point-of-view shots, it doesn’t really contain any imagery that wasn’t already explored more enthusiastically by Murnau, Browning, Wiene, even Griffith (see A Corner in Wheat) — and let’s be honest, this precise story was already overly familiar in Nosferatu, from which we unfortunately inherit the endless scenes of characters reading a book about vampires.

Alexander Nevsky (1938, Sergei Eisenstein & Dmitriy Vasilev) [hr]
At first it’s strange to witness Eisenstein taking on such a conventional, linear story (the 13th century defeat of the Holy Roman Empire’s attempted Russian invasion) — and he was certainly reined in a bit by forces beyond his control — but he’s great at it, rendering an obvious piece of wartime propaganda compelling despite its skeletal simplicity; as usual, nearly every shot and edit is striking and almost nightmarish in its angular cleanliness. Then comes the battle scene, which occupies the majority of the film’s second half, and oh yeah, there he is; like his best silent work, it transcends ideology through sheer cinematic excitement.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014, Ana Lily Amirpour) [r]
The novelty of an Iranian vampire movie with a streak of feminist justice doesn’t quite see this all the way through to being as compelling as something like George A. Romero’s unforgettable Martin, but the scenes that capture the urban grime of a desolate city in its loneliness and emotionally strung-out beauty are like the best parts of It Follows finally finding a home, and the controversial molasses-slow love scene, set to a White Lies song, is brilliant.

Love Me Tonight (1932, Rouben Mamoulian) [hr]
What a splendid time. The persona embodied here by Maurice Chevalier isn’t particularly appealing, and the romantic story in which he participates is so threadbare it almost comes off as a bunch of empty gesturing, but the airy, blissful spirit and Mamoulian’s head-spinning number of inventive moments with offbeat gags and monumentally witty sound design and ambitious staging make its plot as irrelevant as you always hope it will be in a musical… only here it’s not even the music that rescues us, just the exuberance, sensuality and jaunty, winning humor of it all. Hidden MVP here is Charles Butterworth, who gets all the sharpest lines.

National Velvet (1944, Clarence Brown) [r]
California stars as England in this pleasant, sentimental MGM sports drama about a young butcher’s daughter improbably named Velvet (Elizabeth Taylor) and her horse The Pie (!?) who triumph with the help of wandering Mickey Rooney, who seems resentful and noncommittal except when the scene calls for him not to be. It’s exactly like a dozen other movies but you can’t really fault it, especially with strong performances from Taylor and the wonderful, Oscar-winning Anne Revere and the splendidly lean script by Helen Deutsch that reminds us why people go on and on about “screenplay structure” and such: sometimes it really is mighty rousing.

The Thin Man (1934, W.S. Van Dyke) [hr]
(Revisit; upgrade.) Myrna Loy and William Powell are delightful as newlyweds who get mixed up in a Dashiell Hammett murder case; though the whodunit elements of the film build almost incidentally to a total anticlimax, the laughter and sensuality along the way carry a gripping premise through to complete satisfaction and remind you, with the help of its Pre-Code vintage that allows for a good number of naughty jokes, how irrelevant the practical stuff is when the company’s this good. Hollywood probably never depicted a good marriage more sympathetically or accurately.

Top Hat (1935, Mark Sandrich) [hr]
Fred Astaire’s character is a cad, but unusually for such an impeccably stylish Hollywood musical, this has a terrific screwball-inspired premise and an astonishing number of jokes that really land, thanks to Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ mind-boggling eclecticism (their musical and physical prowess combined with flawless timing and undeniable chemistry) as well as a clever, unstoppably witty script and the note-perfect supporting cast, especially Edward Everett Horton and Helen Broderick. The numbers get more bombastic as the film goes on, but they never improve on the magical “Isn’t This a Lovely Day,” imitated by probably every film musical made since.

The Blue Angel (1930, Josef von Sternberg) [r]
The oppressively bleak odyssey of a deeply insecure, lonely college professor (Emil Jannings, all but directly revising his role from The Last Laugh) who falls in love with a stripper and sees humiliation as his entire life is subsumed in the hell that results. As ever, Sternberg has an intoxicating feel for locations, and he makes the Blue Angel club feel like the seediest spot on earth just by lighting it correctly. Lurid and slow-moving, the film is superb as an introduction to Marlene Dietrich’s magnetism (she sings her signature, “Falling in Love Again”) but also dismaying in its weird moral conservatism.

La La Land (2016, Damien Chazelle) [r]
Melancholy, unabashedly nostalgic and slightly overlong musical about a couple of career-oriented artists (a passable Emma Stone and an entirely charisma-free Ryan Gosling) crossing romantic paths in L.A. over the course of one year. A stylistic pastiche of Jacques Demy and MGM and a possibly ever so slightly sardonic valentine to Hollywood itself, this is fun and boasts a few solid numbers with good choreography by Mandy Moore, suffused with a feeling of just-missed true love that might have been intoxicating in that self-conscious Cinemascope frame if the story and characterizations weren’t so frustratingly thin.

For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943, Sam Wood) [r]
An awful lot of movie. Hemingway’s story of teamwork, discord and derring-do during the Spanish Civil War is given an exhausting 170-minute treatment through Paramount’s Technicolor resources, William Cameron Menzies’ designs and a pair of disheveled stars, Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman, both good but handily upstaged by Oscar winner Katina Paxinou as unforgettable guerilla lifer Pilar. Despite the sprawl, this can’t escape the feeling — familiar from so many other literary adaptations — that it’s a summary of a much more emotionally sophisticated work, so airy and detached it seems to go away as soon as you’re finished watching it.

Anthony Adverse (1936, Mervyn LeRoy) [r]
Hervy Allen’s novel doesn’t linger much in the cultural memory, and for good reason judging by the silliness of this Warner Bros. adaptation. “Adverse” is the name given to Fredric March’s wandering orphan by his guardian because of, well, all the adversity he’s had in his life, which includes losing his mother at birth as well as her being married to Claude Rains, who abandons him and spends the rest of the film trying to kill him. This is incalculably episodic and disjointed and manages to be both schlocky and incredibly morose, like Forrest Gump crossed with Interview with the Vampire, but it’s also kind of a riot.

***

Quick extra notes on:
The Man Who Knew Too Much
Boyhood
The Heiress
Murder!
Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008, Woody Allen)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED WITH AN EXHAUSTING NUMBER OF RESERVATIONS

On top of the other problems that come with it, being a fan of Woody Allen and keeping up with his later films involves a lot of armchair editing — from a distance, one ends up thinking a lot about how easily a given title could be tweaked to make it vastly, incomparably better than it is. Magic in the Moonlight was close to being a very good movie and could have become one with just a few extra rewrites, preferably with someone besides Allen involved in them. Irrational Man needed a lot more work than that, but it’s still not inconceivable that something interesting could have potentially emerged from the mess with a bit of adjustment rather than a complete overhaul. Allen isn’t the first artist whose work has historically relied heavily on the creative input of others, from record producers to cinematographers to co-writers to editors to choreographers, and in fact he’s always been one of the major filmmakers most willing to share his credit with others. In particular, apart from Quentin Tarantino, probably no significant director has relied so much on film editors to mold his films into shape, from Ralph Rosenblum’s role in transforming Annie Hall from its incomprehensible sprawl into a lean, tight, innovative romantic comedy to the director’s extremely fortuitous 22-year collaboration with Susan Morse, who evidently was forced out of his regular stable for financial reasons. Though it’s impossible to entirely know how much the downturn in Allen’s consistency since 1999 is a result of Morse’s absence, it’s safe to assume that some degree of the bloat seen in the overwhelming majority of his 21st century movies is a sign of the depth and importance of her role in rendering Allen’s frequently extraordinary directorial efforts of the prior two decades as tight and well-paced as they were.

The seemingly petty story of a love quadrangle that develops over a single summer in Spain involving a stormy former married couple and a pair of American tourists, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is one of Allen’s better late-period films by nearly universal consensus; after a messy first half, it reins in several of the clichés and repetitions he tends to fall back on as a writer to tell a surprisingly nuanced and intensely emotional story that delves into a much more complicated palette than the viewer initially expects. It’s also fluidly directed, as usual, and visually beautiful, shot expertly by Spanish cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe. One could even make an issue of this by pointing out that this is the director’s fourth unabashed “location porn” movie, functioning as a travel promo for the title city as much as earlier and subsequent films could be accused of being for London, Paris and Rome. (What a master he is at creating these, though; I am more drawn to this film’s Barcelona than I am to the Vienna of Before Sunrise or the Tuscany of Certified Copy, for example.) But for much of the film, scenes ramble longer than they should or belabor points that were already made clear; the dialogue is as awkward and stilted as had by now become the norm in Allen’s screenplays, which in turn makes some of the performances rigid (especially Rebecca Hall’s). The entire film is slathered with an unnecessary voiceover meant as an homage to François Truffaut’s Jules and Jim (as is the film as a whole), but as read by the late Christopher Evan Welch, it seems drained of any sense of irony despite its dispassionate tone, which is down less to Welch’s lack of charisma than to the poor job Allen did at composing his words. Never once in the film does Welch’s narration actually contribute anything that would not be clear if we simply watched the film develop naturally, and one can easily envision a variation that wholly lacks his contribution and know that this would improve the movie almost beyond measure. And if the extraneous overexplaining isn’t enough to make you shift uncomfortably in your seat, the characters’ own words are overrun with unrealistic phrasing and odd pauses that Allen and editor Alisa Lepselter can’t justify or cover up.

Though Allen referred to himself as a “compulsive rewriter” in 1980, there are repeated accusations, now that he’s known for being almost ridiculously prolific, that he shoots first drafts — maybe, maybe not, but even his best post-2000 films, like Match Point and the genuinely delightful Midnight in Paris, bear this out by the sense that their opening acts are awkward, tentative and tend to be populated with conversations that resemble multiple Woody Allens yammering back and forth. Then, almost invariably, it feels as if Allen finds some sort of a groove — like you do when you’re working through the first draft of something — and the films are redeemed almost entirely by their middle and ending sections, or thereabouts; in the case of Vicky Cristina, the first half’s existence is justified strictly by the second. But the problems of the first are only magnified on revisit, when you know how easily the early scenes could be streamlined, fleshed out or otherwise improved.

That’s not to say there are not crafty and effective moments in the first part of the film. We meet the usual amusingly privileged brood of pseudo-intellectual Allen characters, the kind he made fun of in his ’80s and ’90s work but now seems to perversely admire: these people always have boats and/or friends with boats, are fascinated by opera or sculpture in a manner reminiscent of indie rock kids’ passion for the Faint, are unduly impressed by restaurants that put candles at the center of the table and have a wine list, cannot appreciate a work of art unless they’re staring at it with a glass of red wine in hand, and have what appears to be an infinite amount of money to travel and “figure things out.” In this case, our two heroines are architecture student Vicky (Hall) and her best friend, the brooding and impulsive Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), both staying with family members of Vicky’s in Barcelona. Vicky’s already engaged to one of the caddish boyfriends Allen seems almost magically capable of defining with hilarious expertise, Doug (Chris Messina), a reliable bore who says “babe” a lot, scoffs at Cristina’s tempestuous love life and regales his equally bland friends with questions about DVRs and tennis lessons.

For Vicky, Doug represents the ideal of stability and sustained, predictable partnership; Cristina, who revels in her youth but has little idea what she wants out of life and is beginning to grow desperate to find an answer or at least an outlet for her frustration, understandably finds him dull. He’s a Nice Guy, which the stormy and mysterious painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) is not; after a preview engagement of leaning on a post in a red sweater, Juan Antonio enters the film somewhat amusingly by confronting Vicky and Cristina in a restaurant and proposing that they both join him on his private plane and go to bed with him, in part because life is short and bad, the usual Allen speech. (Again, how do these fucking people have planes? Especially an “artist.”) In another Truffaut callback, now to the end of Stolen Kisses, Vicky finds the suggestion bizarre and idiotic while Cristina, freewheeling in a believable enough way that it doesn’t feel strictly like Allen is casting her yet again as a fantastic object of lust, is intrigued by it and finds Juan Antonio attractive; looking out for her friend, Vicky grudgingly goes along on what turns out to be an eye-opening weekend for both women — Cristina falls ill just when she and Juan Antonio are all set to fuck, and Vicky finds herself drawn to him in the days that follow, when they eventually have sex outdoors, under the stars, which is another thing people apparently do a lot in Europe according to filmmakers like Allen and Richard Linklater. The encounter is quickly swept under the rug after the women return to Barcelona, but it lingers seemingly permanently in Vicky’s mind.

A quick word about Juan Antonio and Bardem’s portrayal — rather, his embodiment — of him. Throughout Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Hall and Johansson both stumble over Allen’s lazily written dialogue; as we’ll see, the general premise and arc of Allen’s story is solid and engaging despite its obvious debt to Jules and Jim, but he can no longer write people who don’t sound like fatalism-generating robots. It’s almost devastating to think back to Husbands and Wives and recall how believable its characters were, when compared to the obvious flatness and mouthpiece status of these much more glamorous-looking figures. Bardem, however, is completely undaunted by what he’s handed and makes his character — the least developed of the lot, on paper; think “tortured artist still in love with ex-wife” and you pretty much get the whole picture — not only believable but absolutely haunting. As an aside, when I first saw the film I had a dream about it several nights later in which I could swear that Juan Antonio was a real person I knew, surely because Bardem’s performance is so remarkable in its detail. Because critics are critics, everyone always looks for the “Woody Allen surrogate” in his films, even though Allen played a much broader pool of “types” of characters back when he acted than people seem to remember, and it was repeatedly charged that Bardem was filling in here for a fantasy role Allen would’ve played himself if he were young enough, perhaps because the part involves male wish-fulfillment love scenes with three different women and essentially being a desirable and exotic and interesting specimen of some sort of pure machismo, but I have trouble reconciling Bardem’s characterization with anything I could imagine seeing Allen convey; strong an actor as he could be, he never communicated pain especially well, whereas it’s written all over every movement, every word, every action that comes out of Bardem’s performance. Even his initial crazy proposition is effective because he is able to play the part as a fundamentally honest and open philanderer rather than just a creep, and his reading of the speech allows us to realize that its message of a random encounter being justified just because it would be fun is not wholly without merit. He is masterful in this film, and his performance would make it worthwhile if there were nothing else to recommend, but fortunately there is.

Vicky flirts with what she perceives as boundary-testing danger several times during the course of the film. After her fling with Juan Antonio is written off as a spur-of-the-moment gaffe, she nevertheless shows palpable jealousy when he calls Cristina and the two begin seeing each other regularly; but after Doug joins her in Barcelona she sets about with the routine of planning their wedding and their resolved future together in New York. Doug is already planning what sort of pets they’ll accumulate. But something in Vicky seems off; she blames it on the strange weekend with Cristina and Juan Antonio, but it seems just to have brought a nagging feeling of discomfort to the surface. She enjoys a short-lived friendship with a male classmate, Ben, with whom she goes and sees a screening of Shadow of a Doubt, and their connection seems more relaxed and healthy by far than either of her romantic entanglements in the film, but when he tries to hold her hand even this, a far less threatening gesture than Juan Antonio’s seduction, sets her off into guilt and self-doubt. Every bit of evidence we’re given in the film points to her connection to Doug being tied strictly to a feeling of security and a carefully planned life map, the tennis court and swimming pool all ready for use, and it seems as if she too is becoming troubled by this programmatic eventuality.

Unfortunately, neither Hall nor Allen is able to make Vicky a realistic character; she’s sympathetic, sure, but she feels like a pawn in an anecdote someone else is vaguely recalling, and like so many male screenwriters Allen’s idea of fleshing her out into a human being is to give her an arbitrary cultural interest (architecture) and have her state every single thing she’s supposedly thinking, while the narrator helpfully explains it once again on top of that. Allen is hardly the only writer guilty of this sort of facile characterization, and Hall simply doesn’t help with her overly earnest reading of the character. The only scene in which she seems absolutely like a fully alive person rather than a carefully manipulated piece of cardboard is one in which she doesn’t say a word: she is sitting at a dinner table with Doug and two of Doug’s friends, all engaged in idle (but in the case of Doug, hysterically overenthusiastic) lifestyle chatter about electronics and their future home. The camera slowly zeroes in on the absolute emptiness on Vicky’s face while she gradually stops listening and gets wrapped up in her own thoughts, a process signified by the fading out of the conversation on the soundtrack in favor of a Spanish guitar being played across the room. It’s a beautifully expressed, telling moment, and easily the most memorable involving Vicky, who seems consistently to be in a different film than the other characters.

Johansson is much more capable of turning the clunkiness of Cristina as written into an advantage; she’s still not a strong enough actress to sound completely at peace with Allen’s tiresome rhetoric (as we’ve seen, it takes something of a master nowadays), but she never suffers from the physical stiffness that plagues Hall, and has an air of spontaneity and effervescence that Allen can’t bury under dialogue. Cristina’s cycle is also more engrossing than Vicky’s for obvious reasons — she remains in the orbit of Juan Antonio for the duration of the film, temporarily moving in with him and assimilating in his bohemian circle. One night, his former wife Maria Elena — subject of a stormy scandal in the art world when she tried to kill him some time earlier, and for whom he openly still carries a torch — appears out of nowhere after a suicide attempt and Juan Antonio announces that she will move in until she’s back on her feet. The situation is tense and awful initially; one memorable shot tracks Johansson as she walks up a hill to get medicine out of her purse for Juan Antonio’s aching back, then pulls back down the path to reveal Maria Elena already attending to him. Maria Elena digs through Cristina’s luggage to try to find blackmail and mocks Cristina’s lack of ambition and creativity. The complexity and violence in the former couple’s history is palpable in all of their interactions, and their shouted arguments in Spanish — despite Juan Antonio’s continual needling at her to speak English in Cristina’s presence — are a constant distraction in the household until somehow an equilibrium takes hold, starting when Maria Elena discovers that Cristina, who’s long felt too inadequate to pursue any of her creative interests, is an amateur photographer and offers to help her hone her craft; a friendship and, eventually, a surprisingly natural triad is the outgrowth.

An accomplished Spanish actress usually relegated to repetitive and boring roles in American films, Penélope Cruz’s performance as Maria Elena quickly comes to dominate Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and the film is far better for her presence; she lifts it up immeasurably, lends it resonance and honesty. Her role in part is to bring Juan Antonio’s air of enigmatic sensuality (Ben Trout’s description is note-perfect: “Women want to be with him, men want to be him, he doesn’t wear shoes and lives in a hermetic maze of art studios”) down to earth by explaining that he adopted her style and attitudes in whole, and while in the film’s parlance Cristina’s presence allows Maria Elena and Juan Antonio to live together and fall back in love peacefully, it’s really the opposite — the strange presence of Juan Antonio’s ex-wife is what adds a layer of threat and intensity to the restless Cristina’s world, which in turn gives her an obvious and justified feeling of liberation and provides the sort of thrill she’s always seeking. 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.

In the press leading up to the release of Vicky Cristina much was made of the brief love scene between Cruz and Johansson, with various inevitable jokes about the elderly horny male filmmaker hiring young actresses to go at it, but in actually watching the film the liaison in question is handled with admirable taste, and moreover it’s necessary to the film’s most praiseworthy element: its lack of judgment and sensationalism in its portrayal of a non-monogamous relationship, and a potentially long-term one at that. The two women do not have an extended, exploitative sex scene; they kiss once and briefly and we don’t see the rest, and thereafter they both begin to continue sleeping with Juan Antonio in tandem and together. To return to the “wish-fulfillment” phrase, it’s relatively easy to balk at this as another instance of adolescent male fantasy, but it’s perhaps the only sexual arrangement of characters in the film that makes complete sense and achieves a balance of sorts between lust and security. That it has an unorthodox structure is incidental, and treated as such (by the film and by everyone except Doug, who’s disgusted). The subtlety and restraint in the way the film examines an alternative lifestyle prevents us from gawking at it condescendingly; instead, it comes across as a touchingly natural moment of happiness for all three characters, and indirectly rebukes the idea of long-term monogamous relationships being the source of the only meaningful romantic love that exists, a welcome respite from the usual movie logic. In addition, rather than simply treating the arrangement as exotic and pornographic, it finds time for a scene of surprisingly moving dialogue in which Maria Elena expresses the warm feeling she gets when she hears Juan Antonio and Cristina having sex, an unexpectedly mature insight into the mechanics of a polyamorous household. And it seems agreeable enough that we actually feel disappointed when Cristina’s natural state of restlessness rears its head again and she feels she has to leave. This leads to a fascinating contradiction: the romantic viewer feels she should stay in this atypical, fruitful arrangement despite its unpredictability; the realistic viewer knows she is far too young and curious to tether herself even to something this sexy and offbeat. The only issue with this entire sequence is that it’s far too short, when in fact one wishes the entire story had been reframed to focus on the triad scenes and with Cruz as one of its primary fixtures.

To Allen’s credit, we’re not expected to believe that formerly cautious, pragmatic Vicky and adventurous Cristina have simply switched roles as the film has progressed; a single summer has just thrown a challenge to each of them. Cristina is leaving a situation that’s made her and two others happy and can’t rationally explain why. Meanwhile, Vicky is still troubled by her temptations and even sees Juan Antonio once after the breakup with Cristina (after which Maria Elena has also left again), perhaps a bit of an overcorrection against the dire situation she’s about to wander into with Doug, but when Maria Elena shows up in the midst of another violent tantrum this ends with Vicky being accidentally shot in the hand, and thus as the film fades out we’re rather bravely left with no sense that anyone is closer to contentment — and Vicky, for all the blandness she’s added to the narrative, is the most tragic figure of all, recognized by even other characters in the film (her relative Judy, played by the wonderful Patricia Clarkson, warns her as such, knowing the signs from her own loveless marriage) as being on the cusp of a fatal, life-altering error by marrying a sheltered egomaniac with whom she shares seemingly no real connection or happiness. In contrast to the subverted lives and cynical conclusions of Allen’s earlier Husbands and Wives, these characters don’t lend themselves to any sort of “you just never know” polemic whereby they all end up on the opposite course they expected. In fact, both Vicky and Cristina end up doing exactly what they expected they would — which is terrifying in its own way.

So much of the existential despair in Allen’s films seems phony and cartoonish, in part because the author is a millionaire who’s lived a probably excessively charmed life; but the finale of Vicky Cristina Barcelona is, like those of Blue Jasmine and the otherwise innocuous Melinda and Melinda, genuinely unsettling, and cuts to the heart of what the film is really about. Everyone is left in limbo; our last glimpse at every face in the cast is terribly sad. A cheaply cynical film wouldn’t permit the possibility that sustained happiness is even a real thing, would only emphasize the pain that opening one’s heart can bring. But a more realistically mournful one like this cuts deeper because it demonstrates that the greatest suffering and lack of fulfillment comes from fear of taking a leap outward from what one knows — one might argue that Cristina’s character doesn’t fit with this because she already hops into situations head-first and figures them out later, something for which Allen does not judge her, but it’s equally evident that a constant need for stimulation and for “the new” is her own version of the familiarity and status quo that Vicky seems to have chosen, for now. Like Juan Antonio’s initial offer to the ladies in the restaurant, the film is a challenge to everyone watching, to wonder whether we’re capable of moving past our own fundamental natures to explore a more satisfying and emotionally rich life just beyond our reach. The only caveat is that, no matter how bleakly endearing that ending is, Vicky Cristina Barcelona would be so much more probing if it were trimmed down and reconfigured just a little, instead of forcing the audience to chisel away until we find its essence.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934, Alfred Hitchcock)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

After achieving considerable acclaim and popular success with his first two sound films, Blackmail and Juno and the Paycock, Alfred Hitchcock spent the majority of the early 1930s in the wilderness, with a run of frustrating experiences at British International Pictures. He was continually saddled with projects toward which either he or the studio lacked enthusiasm, with five consecutive films based on novels or stage plays, the most interesting of which (Murder! and Rich and Strange) never found the audiences their director felt they deserved, while his more conventional filmed plays got great reviews and were successes with the public. (Such was the early novelty of talking films, fused with the air of artistic superiority favoring theater over cinema felt in Britain as well as America.) Rich and Strange and Number Seventeen precipitated a falling out between Hitchcock and the studio that ended with his contract lapsing, after which he made one film independently then was taken under the aegis again of producer Michael Balcon, the man who’d originally given him a career (and had nearly ended it during post-production of The Lodger). Hitchcock offered Balcon a property he’d been toying with, a story about espionage and kidnapping featuring the well-loved British detective character Bulldog Drummond. By the time the resulting film was exhibited, Drummond was long gone; The Man Who Knew Too Much would not be a continuation of any established trend but the beginning of what can only be termed a revolution in British filmmaking, and a fruitful new chapter for all cinema that would swallow up the next four decades.

Balcon was the director of production at both Gaumont-British and Gainsborough Pictures, which shared a corporate parent; he placed Hitchcock under a two-year contract with Gaumont that would then be extended through the end of the ’30s. While Hitchcock was not yet producing his own films, he was apparently now given far more freedom to choose his material and shoot it as he pleased, and his new collaboration with Gaumont would set the tone for the rest of his career. Until 1934, Hitchcock was a diversified director of many genres, from romance to comedy to musical to detective story to sobering slice of life. It was with the beginning of the Gaumont deal — after throwing a tantrum on the set of Waltzes from Vienna out of frustration with the subject matter — that he began to be strictly identified as a thriller director; not coincidentally, the films he made at Gaumont find him suddenly operating with a new level of dedication and intensity. His work there, comprised of six stunning suspense films in an unbroken stretch from 1934 to 1938, has become informally known as the “Gaumont Six.” These films deserve to be considered as their own entity in addition to their placement within Hitchcock’s history taken as a whole. They share several characteristics that seem almost to follow a model of success, though they’re also quite disparate in their story content. Blackmail and (to a lesser extent) The Lodger and Murder! predict some aspects of the methodology that would take the director to his greatest heights, but really there is no precedent to The Man Who Knew Too Much in his filmography, and not many in anyone else’s.

The Gaumont Six are all rapidly paced, breathlessly exciting thrillers that tend to seduce an audience in their expository first scenes and then pick up with a frantic sense of journey that carries them through their typically sudden, tantalizing finales. The films’ concentration is on a forceful, purposeful race through its situations, characters, settings, and their energy is emotional rather than logical — they introduce the common Hitchcock device of the MacGuffin, a bland catalyst for whatever action Hitchcock is more interested in exploring. With the exception of The Lady Vanishes, the last in the series, each of the films runs less than ninety minutes; all but two are shot by cinematographer Bernard Knowles and share an urgent, spontaneous “look” rare in this era, miles away from the staid formal studio settings of so many American films, and if anything closer to the intoxication visualized by the likes of Jean Vigo in France in the early ’30s. Hitchcock’s films had already been rife with surprising and inventive visual moments, but it’s with the Gaumont contract that his work attains a fluid quality, with each of the films consistent in their intimate, electrifying style. (Truth be told, on leaving for Hollywood he would adopt a different approach, and with few exceptions his later films didn’t share this frenetic or impulsive sensibility.)

Another collaborator shared by all of the Six (again excluding The Lady Vanishes) is screenwriter Charles Bennett. He had been the playwright of Blackmail, source of what was then still Hitchcock’s most famous film, and the two were partnered on the conception and adaptation of scenarios at Gaumont. Apart from that he shared with his wife Alma Reville, this was perhaps the most important creative collaboration of Hitchcock’s career. The pair worked eyeball to eyeball at times, and Bennett displayed a remarkable understanding of construction and tone that allowed these films to stand starkly apart from other mysteries and thrillers of the day; in fact, it’s not unfair to credit the two of them with establishing the thriller as we know it. More than anyone else, Bennett established the Hitchcock modus operandi of a simultaneous commitment to character and story, of fierce identification with a protagonist and tense buildup filled with strange side attractions and bravura setpieces, always suffused with a healthy degree of humor and levity but never surrendering to it or making the scripts lightweight. Indeed, all of the Bennett scripts are rather dark, in part because of the frighteningly fragile Europe they incidentally document; as the pregnancy of the pending war becomes more evident through the latter part of the decade, Bennett’s scripts attain an obvious menace even when their subject matter seems outwardly innocuous, and Hitchcock’s direction of them becomes ever more foreboding. The England of Hitchcock is devious, unpredictable, sometimes bleak, a dreary and deathly backdrop to the exhilaration in the foreground.

For The Man Who Knew Too Much, produced in the year of Adolf Hitler’s election as German chancellor, Bennett and Hitchcock establish the morbid, nefarious forces lurking behind every precious taste of idyllic everyday life in their world. (The events that snowballed into the First World War are directly mentioned at one point by way of comparison to the plot being uncovered.) Ever since it was Bulldog Drummond’s Baby, the story had concerned a child being kidnapped to silence someone who knew of a pending assassination. Hitchcock and Bennett would always favor concentrating on characters to whom an audience could strongly relate, and the deletion after their move to Gaumont of Drummond in favor of a regular couple trying to recover their older daughter gives the resulting movie an incredible injection of vitality. It grabs and doesn’t let go.

The man of the title is Bob Lawrence (Leslie Banks), but the title (taken from an otherwise unrelated G.K. Chesterson story collection) is also reductive. The marriage at the center of this film is one of true equals. We meet the Lawrences — Bob, Jill (Edna Best) and their daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam) — during a vacation in Switzerland, where in one of those magical Hitchcock coincidences they are already acquainted with both the victim and perpetrator of a murder they are about to witness. Jill’s in a sharpshooting competition which Betty distracts her from winning (“Never have children,” she cautions jokingly); the winner, a smooth-talking faker called Ramon (Frank Vosper), displays no indication that he is a contract killer presently on assignment, and cheerfully offers his opponent a rematch someday. Jill and Bob’s confidence and comfort in their marriage is shown by how freely they joke with one another; Jill flirts and dances with another man, a skiing Frenchman named Louis (Pierre Fresnay), and Bob’s nonchalant good humor in response shows their strength and unity, which is necessary for — and in fact the essence of — the story that follows. When Louis is shot while dancing and whispers a secret to Jill indicating that his death is part of a much larger scheme, Jill and Bob spend the rest of the film engaged in a sort of relay race to deliver the relevant information (found in a hairbrush in Louis’s room) to the British consul, and then to rescue Betty, who’s been kidnapped in the interim by the syndicate that shot Louis, while trying to avoid police involvement and thus get her killed. Bob is the one who proceeds to the hotel room and uncovers the disputed papers and Bob is the one who, along with the couple’s friend Clive (Hugh Wakefield), travels to Wapping in East London to scope out the conspirators’ front. But he is then taken hostage just like his daughter, and it falls on Jill to do her part in foiling the larger assassination scheme and finally to use her skills as a sharpshooter to save Betty, by killing Ramon — a rematch indeed. The equal, unspoken exchange and distribution of duty in this pensive, terrifying matter comprises one of the most persuasive cinematic portraits of a good marriage. All three Lawrences’ devotion to one another is never in question, nor even directly examined; it’s taken as a given, even in the light moments when Jill is testing Bob for the fun of it, and that might be a more touching (and personal, for Hitchcock) gesture than the career-marriage conflicts in the films John Michael Hayes wrote with him in Hollywood, including their remake of this.

Banks and Best would never perform in a more visible film — Banks made another feature with Hitchcock, the haphazard Jamaica Inn, and Best later went to Hollywood but played dull matronly roles in the likes of Swiss Family Robinson and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, a bizarre turn given her elegance and magnetic but earthy, believable charm here — and this is a pity, because as individual performers they are both impeccable here, both embodying their characters as real people and fully selling the audience on their rapport as well as their grief. And together, their chemistry is something to behold: they don’t melt the screen with sensuality but they feel sincerely like a relatively young couple who have a considerable amount of history and still enjoy one another, the most universally appealing kind of romantic relationship and by far the hardest type to capture on film. The precocious Pilbeam adds to this illusion brilliantly; we don’t get to see her shine as much here as we later would in Hitchcock’s Young and Innocent, in which she would play the lead and become a favorite of Hitchcock’s (he tried to persuade her to sign with David O. Selznick when he went to Hollywood), but in her scenes with Banks and Best it’s remarkable how much she genuinely seems like their real daughter, a sign of maturity on her part as an actress as well as simply how phenomenally well cast the film is.

Some aspects of the structure in The Man Who Knew Too Much would be repeated in the rest of the Gaumont Six, and in the remainder of Hitchcock’s output: the introduction of an everyday set of characters thrown unexpectedly into bizarre circumstances would be quickly reprised in The 39 Steps and then Young and Innocent, while the use of exotic or famous locations (here, the Royal Albert Hall, largely reproduced with paintings, and St. Moritz in the Swiss Alps, entirely reproduced in Lime Grove Studios) and the bustling streets of London would both show up continually through the end of the decade. With just a 75-minute running time, however, the picture takes little time to sweep the audience up in its scenario, and Hitchcock’s method of getting us there is beautifully chilling — the hastily whispered last words of the dying British spy Louis “Don’t breathe a word… don’t breathe a word to anyone” seem to lift the curtain on not just the destiny of the characters in this film but on Hitchcock’s mission and commitment to his audience for the remainder of his life. There is so much promise in that moment, for a story that will pile us down with thrills and entertainment, and for the first of many times Hitchcock is capable of fulfilling every expectation he thus places on himself. He proceeds to amp up further intrigue with the image of Betty, her mouth clamped shut by Ramon’s gloved hand, her eyes wide, as the newly frightening sound of sleigh bells provides the only soundtrack to her nighttime journey into parts unknown. Hitchcock would always subsume disturbing and sophisticated themes within the aesthetically pleasing framework of the crackerjack thriller, and anyone doubting his way with an audience could do worse than to screen the first act of this film as a demonstration of how easily he took the world under his wing.

The lowest-key but most beautifully performed scene in the film comes just after the Lawrences have discovered that Betty has been abducted and they’ve returned to their home in London, joined there by cops and government officials sniffing for trouble and asking invasive questions, and by their friend Clive, who comforts Jill — fragile but stoic, Best again a sight to behold here — while tinkering endlessly with the child’s electric train set. When a bit of evidence falls into their laps, Jill agrees to let Bob proceed to one of the city’s seedier districts alone, at which point he falls into an elaborate series of false front operations maintained by the conspirators; these individually translate to the first delightful entry in Hitchcock’s long series of truly weird momentary setpieces that introduce a larger world and life to his films, extrapolating into sometimes surreal directions, without distracting from the main story. It’s reasonable to believe that, in addition to the Lawrences’ marriage, these inventive and strikingly odd scenes are the true impetus behind the making of the film, and Hitchcock had never done anything quite like them before. First is the dentist’s office, where a snarling Dr. Barbor (the uncredited Henry Oscar) yanks bicuspids out for a few quid, his services advertised outside by a humongous and eerie model of a full set of teeth — evidently a tradition nixed a decade earlier, but one Hitchcock wisely appropriated — a perversely ugly mirror of the solid gold tooth in Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, and just as much a harbinger of doom. Bob hilariously reverses the gas on the dentist after he lets Clive go under the blade, so to speak, as a decoy, then overhears a conversation that lets him track the activity to an even creepier establishment, the Tabernacle of the Sun.

This is a cultish sun-worship gathering situated in a hole in the wall down a dark alley, the congregation and its lengthy chorus headed by one Nurse Agnes, one of the anarchists’ associates, who directs a whole procession of double-speaking accusation at Bob and Clive from the pulpit, then occasions a touch of the avant garde (specifically the Watson and Webber version of The Fall of the House of Usher) when she hypnotizes Clive and he watches as her visage grows ever blurrier to him. One ingenious touch has Bob sharing information with his friend to the tune of the religious song being sung, one of the film’s most resourceful uses of sound. The situation quickly devolves, when Bob finds himself threatened with a gun by the incongruously elderly Mrs. Brockett (Clare Greet), into probably the director’s best-ever and certainly funniest fight sequence, wherein all involved destroy the Tabernacle and one another with wooden chairs, all while Mrs. Brockett plays the organ and Clive continues sleeping.

The ringleader of the diverse gang that has kidnapped Betty and is attempting to conceal the nature of their planned assassination of a diplomat is Peter Lorre in his English language debut as one Abbott, the quintessential well-controlled Hitchcock villain who’s more charming than menacing. When he first meet him, still in Switzerland, he’s joking around with the Lawrences about their disruption of a ski competition, later seen laughing at Bob’s antics with a piece of knitting in the dining hall. Lorre was best known then as one of the screen’s most terrifying (but also most sympathetic) villains, the child molester and killer Hans Beckert in Fritz Lang’s M. His fame as a catch-all character actor in Hollywood films, as Mr. Moto, and eventually as a frequent caricature in various animated cartoons still lay far ahead, and here Hitchcock casts him against type as a suave, resourceful man showing little outward signs of his temper, bloodlust and cunning. He has a way with people, retaining such calm in his interactions with Bob late in the film that we only are sure he plans to kill both him and his daughter because he keeps directly mentioning his intention to do so. To a person, his assistants and henchmen are scarier than he is, especially Cicely Oates as the terrifyingly unfeeling Nurse Agnes. Only once does his anger let him slip out of the comfortable exterior he’s set for himself, and at that moment — a close-up of his face, the basis for the film’s poster — all hint of life and empathy drains from his face as he prepares to strike Bob, and he suddenly becomes the most threatening sort of villain because he is capable of transforming so quickly and deliberately. It’s to the film’s credit that his actual motives in this plot are not made clear, nor are any of the deeper motivations behind the assassination; the mystery in both his inner life and his relationships with the other villains is vague enough to be both richly evocative and truly disturbing.

It’s while Betty and Bob are in custody of Abbott’s gang that we learn when and how the assassination is to take place (Bob discovered the location — the Royal Albert Hall — earlier during the fight, and was able to notify Jill). Abbott plays a record of a supposed classical piece, to be performed at the Hall that night, which reaches a cymbal-crashing crescendo; at this apex the gunshot won’t be heard or immediately noticed. This piece, the “Storm Clouds Cantana,” was actually commissioned and written for the film by its composer Arthur Benjamin; it’s so impressive that Bernard Herrmann — that’s Bernard Herrmann — used and expanded it in the film’s remake instead of writing his own piece. The Cantana has attained some level of notoriety outside of the movies, meaning that both versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much managed a surprising shared legacy outside of cinema, the remake having been surely outlived in the cultural consciousness by the song Jay Livingston and Ray Evans wrote for it, “Que Sera, Sera.”

The Albert Hall sequence that follows, in which Jill is directly threatened but manages to foil the plot by screaming just before the shot is fired, only features a few token moments of actual location filming; otherwise it uses process shots, like the British Museum portions of Blackmail, and painted extras, probably less because Hitchcock didn’t wish to spend time on location than because of budgetary concerns. That isn’t really the film’s climax despite its perceived size; it’s followed with a replica of sorts of the Sidney Street Siege of 1911, a gunfight between British authorities and a severely outnumbered pair of anarchists (with young Home Secretary Winston Churchill observing on the sidelines), as the street on which nearly the entire latter two thirds of the film have taken place descends into mayhem that’s broken only by the gradual deaths of Abbott and his associates, and by Jill’s climactic shot that brings down Ramon, who’s chased Betty to the roof of the house in which the gang has been holed up. This finale also has precedent in Josef von Sternberg’s Underworld and — even more directly — Howard Hawks’ Scarface, both of which Hitchcock undoubtedly knew well, but it’s very much a British variant of those moments of smoky extremity, with the casual conversation and behavior of the cops contrasted with the blood-drenched chaos inside the hideout above the Tabernacle. Afterward, the Lawrences are at last reunited in the final seconds before the film fades out, and it should be noted that it’s wife Jill who saves husband Bob and daughter Betty from capture and distress, a continuation of the film’s deliberate clouding of popular gender roles and of “traditional” marital relationships.

Waltzes from Vienna wasn’t destined to stand as Hitchcock’s last failure, nor did the move to Gaumont and its attendant freedom mark the end of his struggles with producers. Indeed, even this film suffered a distribution setback thanks to Hitchcock’s old nemesis C.M. Woolf, the British distributor who’d kept The Pleasure Garden and The Mountain Eagle out of circulation in the mid-’20s. Sharing and influenced by the director Graham Cutts’ low opinion of Hitchcock’s abilities and still unconverted by 1934 (unlike Michael Balcon, who’d considered The Lodger an awful mess but was now fully supportive of the director), he was blindsided when the film received stellar reviews and proved massively popular, Hitchcock’s strategy of placing melodramatic concerns against a gritty real-world setting having struck a genuine chord with audiences (and with critics; a trade ad records a telling comment from the Morning Post, calling it “a true to life picture”), the full fruition of his strategy in The Lodger and Blackmail at last. All the same, Woolf stubbornly threw the film on a low-price double bill which circumvented its profitability, though it couldn’t be denied that it was an incredibly popular film, breaking attendance records throughout the country. The long-term effect was that whatever issues Hitchcock may have encountered in the future, his struggle to be noticed was over; he was now the leading British director — a household-name status he’d flirted with tentatively in the past would be his permanently from this point — and would within ten years be one of the most famous filmmakers in the world. His commercial abilities assured, he’d never again spend time on the fringes of the business, either at home or — eventually — abroad, and with his own confidence in using popular entertainment to explore his own thematic and artistic interests also validated, he’d never again suffer from a lack of enthusiasm or, as he would put it to François Truffaut, from carelessness.

In that same conversation with Truffaut, from 1962, Hitchcock reflects on this watershed moment and claims a preference for his 1956 Hollywood remake of this title starring James Stewart and Doris Day. Truffaut agrees with him, and Hitchcock goes so far as to dismiss the 1934 film as “the work of a talented amateur.” Like many of Hitchcock’s unsparing opinions in the Truffaut interview, this assertion is disappointing. Though it’s probably natural for any director to remain more strongly attached to and sentimental toward his or her more recent work, Hitchcock also tended to go along with the drift of the conversation instigated by his interviewers, with numerous anecdotes, asides and opinions always at the ready, and Truffaut’s preference for the later film is frankly inexplicable. There is merit to the remake, but there’s comparatively little life in it, and John Michael Hayes’ screenplay isn’t nearly as probing or unconventional as its inspiration; despite strong performances by the leads, the casting is mostly lackluster and the only point on which the remake genuinely improves on its predecessor is in its impressive production values, with Hitchcock’s status as Hollywood A-list director, as his own producer, and as a huge moneymaker for Paramount Pictures clearly blowing wind at his back. The original film is exponentially more fun, more exciting, more interesting, and more absorbing thanks to the ramshackle real-world quality that so enamored critics at the time.

Hitchcock had not lost the ability to tell a compelling story by the ’40s and ’50s, when his films became more seduced than perhaps anyone else’s by the glamour and beauty of Hollywood as an artificial world unto itself, and by its stars as the constellation of weirdos populating all modern mythological dreams, and the 1956 Man Who Knew Too Much can serve as a strong if rote demonstration of his infallible storytelling impulses if taken on its own. But having known Jill and Bob and Betty, and having been so upset by Abbott and his fellow killers, and having felt so immediately drawn to and involved in the Swiss and London settings despite so much more artificiality and trickery than in the more financially comfortable remake, everything about the 1956 film save Stewart’s admirably cold, enigmatic performance can seem flat and ordinary. Even the reunion of the couple with their child hasn’t the intensity of the brief moment Pilbeam shares here with Best and Banks, largely because we are so conscious of the fact in the newer version that these are actors, stars at that in the cases of Day and Stewart.

Perhaps most damaging is Hayes’ more conservative view of marriage, which forces a stoic, emotionally barren woodenness from Stewart, which he again sinks into quite impressively, that was probably then perceived as macho strength. The couple’s subplot in the film works from Hayes’ favorite subject, of a career-marriage conflict, which served him so well in Rear Window but now feels contrived: Day is a former professional singer who wants to go back to work and she saves her son’s (it’s now a son, natch) life by singing, not by shooting. The Lawrences in 1934 felt like a couple you might know, or one you might even be; you wanted to spend more time with them than you were allowed. The McKennas in 1956 feel like Frankenstein approximations of prosperous “normal” suburbanites as guessed at by the Hollywood archetype machine. Interestingly, it’s one of only two Hitchcock films made after WWII that revolves around a traditional family dynamic, of a couple with a child or children. (The other is The Wrong Man, which is much more successful but has the leg-up of being based directly on real people.) Whereas Jill laughs and jokes effervescently around her husband, Day’s Jo seems almost afraid of hers — and while this may speak to where the status of women stood in the respective eras and countries, one also wonders whether the operative influence is of Bennett’s worldview versus Hayes’. It’s the difference between a wonderful and a terrible way to model a relationship for your kids, or even your friends, and more importantly a wonderful and a terrible relationship to be in. (On the other hand, Jo remains in the front seat of the action for the entire film, whereas the Lawrences split up during the body of this one, a correction Hitchcock may have specifically sought to make.)

For my part, I think it’s much more likely that Hitchcock and Truffaut’s relatively low opinion of the 1934 film may well have been driven by print quality, with Hitchcock’s own memories probably otherwise vague thirty years later. The movie was difficult to see for decades, with Paramount apparently having bought the copyright to make the 1956 film and rendering the original a rarity, and the negative was lost eons ago, so for many years even new viewers in the video era could well walk away bewildered by the original Man Who Knew Too Much; having first seen it on a public domain VHS tape I can verify that with its muffled dialogue, scratchy film stock and inadvertent jump cuts it looked like a highly intriguing but incomprehensible series of random images revolving around people skiing, other people speaking and pacing frantically, and Peter Lorre laughing. Seeing a film like this presented correctly makes all the difference, and thanks to the Janus Films restoration mounted in 2011, everyone can now hopefully bear witness to what an extraordinary film this is; a monument to a career that was hitting its stride, yes, but also a magnificent moment all its own in which love with equanimity and compassion can conquer everything even set against the unforgivingly dim larger world. I don’t think it’s strange to say that I find great comfort and identification in the portrait it paints of long-term romantic love, chair fight or no chair fight.