!!! A+ FILM !!!
The story goes that Irving Thalberg, MGM’s young mastermind producer, commissioned Tod Browning and a couple of writers to create the “ultimate horror film” in the early 1930s, following the massive success of Frankenstein and Browning’s own Dracula for Universal. Reportedly he was shaken and distressed by the script that Willis Goldbeck and Leon Gordon then turned in, a vicious, confrontational screed against prejudice centered around a travelling circus sideshow, but to his eternal credit he stood by Freaks throughout its production, despite demanding a somewhat lighter tone and relegating it to B-status (as evidenced by the lack of any major stars, though several were at one time associated with the project). While horrific test screenings forever compromised it, the reward is one of the most distinctive, beloved, beautiful and terrifying of all Hollywood films, a masterpiece that flies completely in the face of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s reputation as the studio built for staid, opulent narratives like Grand Hotel (made in the same year!). It doesn’t seem an accident that the film has now outlasted so many, perhaps most, of the entertainments once commonly associated with the grandest, glitziest studio of all.
We will never get to see Freaks as its creators intended. The original ninety-minute film has been lost for decades, its secrets permanently left to the imagination (though complete screenplays do survive); as disappointing as this is, it may add to the sense that the film is profoundly effective as a horror picture because it shows us just enough, and at just the right moments. A more fortuitous element to its continued relevance and ability to shock comes from its entrance into the world during the brief window between the introduction of sound and that of the Hays Code; it’s impossible to fathom its directness, violence and suggestiveness appearing a couple of years later, and the uncompromised nature of the remaining footage — as well as the air of mystery that comes from the knowledge of nearly a third of it being gone, and the urgent pacing it inherits by becoming a 64-minute film — results in a haunting, tormenting, challenging work like nothing else from the studio era.
Freaks‘ agelessness results not just from the atypical intrigue of its subject matter but from its status as almost a purely classical drama of jealousy and revenge, overrun with raw and unusually intimate emotion. Though the top-billed actors are Wallace Ford and Leila Hyams, playing a couple of nice but ordinary circus performers, they’re as incidental to the story as the young lovers are to any given Marx Brothers film. What’s really going on here is the one-sided love affair between a smitten little person, the secretly wealthy Hans (Harry Earles of the Doll Family, later a member of the Lollipop Guild in The Wizard of Oz) and the mocking beauty Cleopatra, well-wrought by the smirking Olga Baclanova in one of her last film roles, who laughs behind the poor gentleman’s back while reaching for his inheritance along with her actual lover, the strong-man Hercules (Henry Victor). Not surprisingly, the two villains overshadow the two “regular” heroes of the cast, and Baclanova and Victor have a surprisingly robust, easy chemistry that would — in a lesser movie — make them the provocatively engaging primary attraction. But this is not an example of a movie in which we reserve some fascination or affection for the villains; the screenplay is so effective that the pair is made to seem both realistically drawn and convincingly evil, their cheerful bullying all too familiar, carefully justifying bit by bit the ultimate actions taken against them. Hans fails to heed the warnings of his friends and his former fiancée (portrayed by Harry’s sister Daisy, which lends an appropriately detached and somber quality to their scenes together, making it feel as though we’re seeing something we shouldn’t) about Cleopatra but quickly learns of her plans to poison him, and participates as the formerly open-armed band of sideshow “freaks” rally and ruin his new bride in the most horrific, completely appropriate fashion. (They mutilated Hercules in the original print as well, and the act itself survives, but we never see the results; perhaps this is a boon, since it allows us to imagine his current state is too terrible to be shown to us.) The shot of the stunted, destroyed Cleopatra — shown for a crowd of circus attendees to gawk at, a delicious final irony — only lasts a few seconds before the camera and/or editor seems to assume we can’t take anymore. It’s partially true; it truly is a sickening, magnificently disturbing image… but our pleasure in seeing Cleopatra in that state is so rich that we are left somehow wanting more, which in the end may be Freaks‘ greatest gift to us: the discovery of how much of a dark thirst for cathartic revenge lurks inside its viewers.
Despite the concessions he ultimately made to Thalberg and MGM, even before the many infamous cuts were made, there can be no mistaking that Browning is the operative voice behind this film, that he was the correct choice to make it, and that it’s the production he was born to bring to the world — even if his career never truly recovered from the commercial disaster and the blow to his reputation. Browning had come of age in circus environments, working for a time as a clown and a vaudeville performer prior to his coming to work for D.W. Griffith at Biograph. His sublime Lon Chaney vehicle The Unknown illustrated his sympathy for the sideshow outsider and his love of sheer unhinged grotesquerie, both prefiguring Freaks. But whereas The Unknown used the freakshow as a jumping-off point for a blunt foray into nightmare psychosis, hinging on the lust and deception of a phony amputee, Freaks is much more purposeful and focused in its message, however harrowing it remains. Divorced from the studio-bound excess of the usual Thalberg production, Browning demonstrates his knowledge and love of the world he’s depicting in virtually every frame of the movie, apart from a few of the less inspired dialogue sequences — the lonely image of boxcars pulling out of town on a rainy night will call forward chilling memories of Disney’s Pinocchio for many viewers, but that film was still nearly a decade in the future at this point. It’s often mentioned that Browning’s technical expertise was no match for James Whale’s, an inevitable comparison because both made massively popular horror films for Universal in the early 1930s, but none of the tentative messiness of Dracula (with which Browning himself was unsatisfied despite its commercial impact) is in evidence at all in Freaks, and if we were able to see the complete film, presumably even its scattered technical flaws of jump cuts and uneven structure would smooth out. What’s even more clearly in evidence, though, is Browning’s deep affection for the people in his film; he’s not just telling a story, he’s documenting lives and a lifestyle that he probably sensed would never be so brutally and lovingly captured by anyone else.
The argument of whether Freaks was an act of exploitation or humanism has raged for the better part of a century, volleyed back and forth by critics, the public, the studio, and the film’s own performers. (MGM’s publicity department didn’t help by releasing a poster with the dreadfully schlocky, Ed Wood-like tagline “Can a full grown women truly love a midget?”) All of the above initially seemed to come out strongly against the very idea of the picture, let alone the execution. As popular as the sideshows of Barnum & Bailey and their ilk then were, it seems that the cinematic audience and the circus audience failed to overlap significantly, so that it was seen as too distressing and frightening to actually see the disabled and deformed performers on camera. Some critics inevitably charged that the film treated its actors as product to be gazed upon in dehumanizing horror; and the experience of the film’s release, if not its shooting, was so traumatic that some members of Browning’s cast later denounced the film (though others did the opposite and most never spoke of it at all, at least partially because it did not become a particularly celebrated film until many of them had died). A cynical case could probably be made that by climaxing with the deliberate disfiguring of a woman by a horde of “freaks,” Browning and the movie are arguing both that these people are a dangerous, tightly-knit band capable of terrible violence and that any break from the physical norm is itself inherently bad and terrifying. This requires an adamant refusal, however, to take the film’s script on good faith and to trust in Browning’s own compassion.
Some may find it easy to look past the film’s lack of condescension for its characters and their obvious, deeply moving bond, captured so elegantly in an early scene of a group of them playing and celebrating with unguarded enthusiasm by a French lake — when they are confronted by a pair of abusive strangers, their caregiver Madame Tetrallini memorably chides her “children” for letting their fear show — and in the iconic, remarkably unforced wedding banquet scene during which they chant that they are poised to accept Hans’ new wife as one of them, only to have their show of goodwill literally thrown in their faces. This very determination to display the members of the sideshow as real and complicated people is likely what has riled up many viewers and made them uncomfortable, because there is little attempt to sugarcoat their natural behaviors or interactions or to focus strictly on their professional lives. (Perhaps the one sour note is the incomplete depiction of how often the likes of the conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, and performers like the “stork woman” Elizabeth Green, were opportunistically used for entertainment and denied their own agency; and, of course, the fact that we only see people like this in movies when they are about “freakshows.”) If Browning had not used actual “freaks,” or if he tried to constrain them into more traditional character roles, the film undoubtedly would be more “comfortable” for many, and not nearly as vital, memorable or moving. If he attempted to spell out his moralistic argument against surface judgment and prejudice in self-righteous dialogue, he might have created a wrongheaded artifact of liberal cinema in the Stanley Kramer vein. Instead, by simply presenting reality — or at least a supernatural drama rooted in traces of reality — he relies on the audience’s compassion to tell the rest of the story. Some were unwilling to stretch themselves that far.
The state of unguided discomfort — of being uncertain how one is “supposed” to react to what is onscreen — is rare in classic Hollywood, for all its virtues, and Browning is bold to leave us so often in that holding pattern, for it forces us to locate our own moral responses to the story and to the “freaks” themselves (with the gradual revelation that the supposedly normal and able-bodied Hercules and Cleopatra are the “freaks” of the title, not the variously decent, sophisticated, innocent and open-minded sideshow performers), and feeds our thirst to see their warm, unstated mutual trust vindicated against the cruel insiders attempting to infiltrate and corrupt them. It permits the film to be as unforgiving and angry as necessary — with the added attraction of its uncharted, “forbidden” quality — while encouraging us to rejoice in its gruesome resolution. The new viewer expects Freaks to be troubling and disturbing because of its subject matter, its age and the now-obscure lives of its inhabitants, but in fact it’s the story itself that makes it linger in the imagination thereafter.
An effect of Browning’s unsentimental, unforced approach to his cast is that Freaks turns out to serve as something of a semi-incidental documentary, capturing the voices, physical presences and performance styles of numerous unusual talents who would (by and large) otherwise never be captured on film to be seen and remembered by generations forever to come. Whether one attempts to argue or not that the inherent act of filming the sideshow’s participants is in a sense an exploitation of them, they were still artists and performers with actual careers, and it’s a tribute to them and a benefit to us that we are now able to see, with relatively little contrivance. (For the most part, Browning appears to just plant his camera and doesn’t require excessive flair from the cast as actors; those with a lot of dialogue to deliver tend to be stilted, and it’s not to the film’s detriment because it’s strong evidence that he didn’t wish to meddle excessively.) A perusal through the available biographical data for all of the performers in the film is quite the roller-coaster ride, full of tragically sad chronicles of abuse and loveless neglect (and in fairness, this is largely true of film actors in general, to a lesser extent), but also the occasional note of surprising triumph: Prince Randian, the Guyanese limbless man who can roll and light a cigarette with his mouth, fathered four children in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and lived to age 63. The long-lived microcephalic Schlitzie appears to have truly loved performing and his visage became a beloved icon. The Doll Family enjoyed nearly a century of success and financial security. Perhaps most fascinating of all is the story of the conjoined Hilton twins, who at the time Freaks was made had just divorced themselves from crooked management and a lifetime of what amounted to indentured servitude. The pair kept performing and wrote a book about their lives, later the source of a musical, and eventually made an exploitation B-picture in the early 1950s, after which they started independently touring. On one such tour they were left stranded in Charlotte, North Carolina, where they picked up jobs as produce clerks at a grocery store and ironically at last found there some measure of dignity and community, at least by the accounts of their friends in the area, and worked there until their death in 1969. But the list goes on, from the classically trained “skeleton man” Peter Robinson to the “half-boy” Johnny Eck to armless Frances O’Connor, all remarkable, their images permanently and deservedly burned into cinematic history.
The assumption that Tod Browning would intend Freaks as a malicious use of these eccentric and differently-abled actors to be shown as figures of grotesque, visceral terror is completely incompatible with the actual content of the film, which is — for better or worse — a celebration of both these performers and the secretive, shielding bond they share. Browning made other superb films, and there were other intoxicating horror films in the 1930s, but nowhere else can you smell the sawdust and feel your shoes sinking in the mud so palpably, in such a world apart from the traditional artifice of MGM’s typical output. The horror is not in the so-called “freaks,” at least not the “freaks” we assume are being referred to; and the horror is not in the atmosphere, which evokes realistic sleaze rather than fear. The horror is not even in the revenge taken, which while clearly the stuff of nightmares is ultimately a turn to celebrate. The absolute horror, so beautifully executed and subtly ingrained in both the narrative and in the lives of its cast, is in the all too believable capacity of human beings to torment and abuse those who they assume cannot fight back, and in the sumptuous irony that this very assumption — at least in this throttling moment — is spectacularly incorrect. The butchering, the years of infamy, don’t matter; if any cruel person in the world sleeps uneasily after seeing Freaks, Browning has won the day.
Filmmaking as art boils down to shadows. The opening moments of this tale as told by barking conceptualist David Lean are populated with lyricism and a virtuosity with the natural and unnatural. There is light and there is fog, there are trees and graves, there is manipualtion and filtering and a brooding isolation, and there is a boy. He is not alone. All of the above elements and the many others that will later be introduced offer their own oppressive hostility. There is a certain easy subjectivity to the script’s interpretation; the cows talk, in a moment so surreal and out of place it can be declared either the best or worst moment of the picture, and the world, everything in it, looms like withered old hands reaching out to threat. Through it all, as perhaps the greatest hundred pages of prose ever written — the first few chapters of Great Expectations — are acted out with moody classiness, one person amid the party of dozens fully understands and is sympathetic to Dickens, and that person is cinematographer Guy Green, who deservedly won an Academy Award.
That isn’t to suggest that herein lies no respect to the text courtesy Lean, the team of a whopping five screenwriters plus plenty of wholesale excerpts, or the generally able team of actors. There is, in fact, too much respect, much of it misguided. No British film company (Rank in this case) would want to give anything but the most lavish, even slavish treatment to Boz. Hollywood had their take on Expectations twelve years earlier; the first audience review I found upon a rudimentary Google search snarls “This 1934 travesty is about as accurate a realization of Dickens’ original vision as Free Willy is a realization of Melville’s vision for Moby-Dick.” To the end, though, there is more to making a movie than filming a book. For Lean as for David O. Selznick, who took the notion to an appealing drug-charged level of insanity, the concept of cinema as separate world is continually violated. Selznick didn’t want to change anything that came from Margaret Mitchell’s pen because he feared it would hurt his bottom line; what Lean’s motivation was I’m not fit to suggest, but this violation leads to a compromise of both film and text that is unacceptable. Every time a truncated two-sentence extract from Dickens’ expertly developed, extraordinarily sophisticated first-person narrative is spliced in as needless voiceover, Lean is not just distilling the essence of the world he wishes to light up on celluloid but is defying the notion that his paycheck comes to him for the creation of art. His static flourishes of opulence are as programmed and impersonal here as on all of his major films; they are afforded more respect than a standard MGM musical time-waster only for technical reasons.
When you have the skeleton of Dickens to work with, though, it is difficult to really lose, and for this reason no aggression toward the project as it stands is worth energy. If third-graders acted out this story it would be compelling. The sheer magic of Dickens’ almost maddeningly perfect plot structure is impossible to dilute, regardless of a director’s naked absence of passion. Not for lack of trying — the hypnotic sequence that begins the film, flawless aside from the off-rhythm introduction of Magwitch, takes a hold that is broken and betrayed by a messy, crowded second act which attempts to justify too many things without allowing the given plot turns room to breathe. Whereas the early portions of the movie acceptably capture the darkness of the world in which Pip lives, in and away from the marshes, with tantalizing hints of the subtext Dickens had time to investigate that no movie ever could, the middle third rushes through emotions and change with abandon. Pip is in love with Estella, we are told, but that’s the only way we know it. If you turned the sound off, or even if you simply took away the voiceover, you wouldn’t know he was interested in her or anything else. Pip has grown snobbish in his attitude toward Joe, he informs us, even though his actual tone and attitude toward Joe seem no different, and the only evidence the film can offer is a bit of awkward comic business about Joe dropping his hat into the tea. Estella is heartless and cruel as an adult, but we only know this because that’s what everyone says. Estella is getting married, and Pip doesn’t want her to, but you could freeze from the total lack of tension, passion, and interest in the air when all this comes to light. They may as well speak in monosyllables.
I love this book, I care about it like I do few others, so I can thrill in the aesthetic facets, especially casting. There are errors: Although Tony Wager is an effectively moody and scared young Pip, he grows up to be John Mills, too bland, meek, and pasty to really exist, certainly to be the sympathetic but resentful, confused, and withdrawn Pip of the novel. Most of his distinguishing characteristics have been whitewashed; we have no feeling whatever for a dark side to his character, or indeed to much of the world as he sees it. He is not a complicated man, and he carries none of the past along with him until Magwitch appears at his door. Without a good actor at the center of this production, it cannot fully succeed; in this respect, Lean’s Expectations is a disaster, but it does transcend this to a degree. Valerie Hobson doesn’t help, though, as an Estella so dull one wonders how she could inspire such irrational affection. Bizarrely, Jean Simmons brilliantly and menacingly portrays the child Estella and gives her a teasing eroticism, mischief, and believability that is nowhere in the adult version of her character. As in Black Narcissus, with nothing more than a raised eyebrow she can inspire awe, and she is Estella, as no one else ever has been or ever will be.
The performance of the picture, and in a sense the film, belongs to Martita Hunt as Miss Havisham; she is staggeringly great, and offers so much to the characterization of Havisham — beautifully defined here as an alluring and loathsome hybrid of Cleopatra and Mrs. Danvers, and a darkly complex woman not typically done justice even by the best film and TV adaptations — that one wants nothing so much as for the entire film to be about her. During the slowest parts of the movie, only she picks things up; the miserably rigid scene of Estella announcing her proposal is embarrasing precisely because neither of the leads are acting and Hunt, who has essentially nothing to do for the duration of the exchange, walks away with the moment. The eyes drift toward her involuntarily; she is the only interesting thing in the room, and she is much more than merely interesting. If everything else in the movie were horrible, she would make it worth seeing.
Alec Guinness shows up as Herbert Pocket, a character who outside of his admittedly lively introduction has no function in the story without all of the details in Dickens’ midsection intact; he should have been cut from the movie, and Guinness doesn’t supply anything that ought to have changed anyone’s mind. Of the supporting characters, Mr. Jaggers is perhaps the most well-cast; Francis Sullivan had played the role before and seems to have been born for the part. He offers considerable comic relief that is politely enough rendered, although only the encounter with Mr. Wemmick’s “Aged P” carries a convincing level of sharp Dickensian absurdity. Lean is too nervous to submit anything more raucous.
He isn’t too nervous, however, to suddenly — forty minutes before we close up shop — begin directing a different movie. Up to now, all the concerns about who plays what character are purely intellectual, especially for someone who knows the novel back to front. Unfortunately, the same goes for the elements of the movie that really are remarkable, from the elegant photography to the magnificent production design; Satis House, it must be said, is a landmark in art direction and may be one of the most impressive, haunting sets ever put together. But this, too, is incidental; no amount of good casting or technical virtue can make a story work that doesn’t, and the bare fact is that Dickens’ storytelling is not suited to this form. Literature as film is tricky business, and for all the rewriting that must have gone on, no one bothered to make Great Expectations work narratively as a movie. The best example of the problem lies in the way that in, for instance, the scenes that deal briefly with Pip’s relationship with his sister and the other adults around him, the conflict of a blacksmith’s son within the decadent Satis House, or the silent rebuking of Joe, all of the deeper themes of the novel — class, misery, manipulation, family, unrequited love, maturity, the simple act of doing what must be done — are hinted at like the proverbial glasses on the floor, but never, ever pay off.
All of this is true until the last act of the film. From the chilling moment that Magwitch reappears, Lean finds his voice and suddenly becomes daring and experimental, plunging into the narrative with icy, empowered force, telling the story in ways unique to his art and his craftsmanship. He suddenly becomes director and storyteller both, no longer a detached messenger of events already vaguely — if not very — familiar. And now, he finds the meaning of all that’s come before, standing “out in those lone shivering marshes.” The dual father figures appear (Finlay Currie splendid as Magwitch, Bernard Miles benignly sweet as Joe) with a sudden warmth and delicacy; Currie’s final moment is the most moving of the film. The dreamlike intensity of all that comes after in Pip’s universe, signified at one point by an alarmingly modern first-person shot of his falling ill and retreating, moreover by the heightened insanity of his farewell to Havisham, falls into place to reveal his terrible, sickening, universal, undeniable oneness with convict and old jilted bride alike. It is literary in the way films can and frequently should be. The scathing criticism of class consciousness that is probably the most vital theme of the novel finally finds its way in visually as well, if nothing else than in the harrowing shot of a line of convicts being told they are to be executed. It’s the film’s most artless shot, and its most unforgettable.
I can’t abide by the remarkably repulsive happy ending tacked on here; the film ludicrously closes on Pip taking down all the curtains so that sunlight shines on Estella as she sits in Havisham’s old chair. Neither the realism of Dickens’ preferred ending nor the begrudging optimism of the published one are present here, replaced by sweetness and light that’s entirely inappropriate, suggesting the protagonist has learned nothing from his ordeal, even after the wrenching final moment with his convict, even after all accepted as truth has been shattered piece by piece. I wanted more than anything for Pip to run away in that last moment, to let Estella rot in her chosen hell, however much that choice may not have been truly of her making; instead he just races even farther into the abyss. If the filmmakers knew this, they were cruel beasts indeed; the opportunity to say something about childhood dreams, society, love, and, indeed, “expectations” is not just thwarted but spat upon.
Taken as a whole, Lean’s Great Expectations is profoundly gripping and expertly made; how much of the pleasure one derives from it is the result of the movie itself is hard to figure. Not much here doesn’t come from Dickens, though it bears mentioning that Ken Mogg and other critics have successfully pointed out the debt all filmmakers owe to him; from his invention of cross cutting to his rapid-paced character development to his attention to detail (which obviously led to the high level of design in play here; the cobwebbed chandelier is impressive, but it’s still Dickens’ more than the movie’s), he was a film director born in the wrong century. He is not the only figure in play here. The compositions are straight Citizen Kane, often even with Toland’s lighting tricks and plenty of Welles’ beloved ceilings. But finally, resistance is usless. Shamefully, the final surrender comes from the very words that should have prevented this movie from even being necessary, and how could you not want a languid, poetic black & white film that took Dickens’ masterpiece and lit it up, redefined it, projected its spirit into a dark lonely moviehouse? That poor dream has all gone by. The joy persists in any medium; it would be cheaper to make an audiobook if we must transpose these things, but I’ll see this again and revel in it again all the same.
[Originally posted at a different venue in 2008.]
13 movies watched in August. Counts:
– 10 new to the database / previously unseen. New total: 2,210.
– 3 revisits, including one (Downhill) previously reviewed in another venue, one (The Conversation) newly reviewed in full here, and one (The Insider) newly re-capsuled here.
– 2 new full reviews, for The Conversation, as noted above, and The Scarlet Empress.
– 10 new or revised capsules, all below.
– Bad month.
– 1930s canon: 4 films (4 new) — The Crime of Monsieur Lange, A Story of Floating Weeds, Osaka Elegy and The Scarlet Empress — leaving 34 films (27 unseen).
– Best Picture Oscar nominees: 5 films (4 new) — Heaven Can Wait (’78), The Love Parade, The Long Voyage Home, and the aforementioned The Insider and The Conversation — leaving 181 films (144 unseen).
– 2010s catchup: The Dardennes’ Two Days, One Night and Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan contributed to my ever-mounting disillusionment with modern arthouse fare, though the former had a lot of good points.
– Other: From the NFPS’s Treasures from American Film Archives box, Hell’s Hinges reminded me that my heart belongs in the silent era.
Two Days, One Night (2014, Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne) [r]
This is a feature film version of that horrific Fiverr ad about a woman who foregoes eating in favor of “follow-throughs” because she is a “doer,” only the Dardennes aren’t celebrating such a lifestyle… though in their usual straightforward, unwavering fashion they don’t exactly seem to be strongly condemning it either. Marion Cotillard is outstanding as a clinically depressed factory worker cruelly forced to campaign to her coworkers over a weekend in order to keep her job, at the expense of their annual bonus; the responses she receives serve up a cross-section of humanity with almost mathematical precision. It’s like Norma Rae rendered as an Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode.
The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936, Jean Renoir) [hr]
One of Renoir’s most successful and accessible hybrids of social commentary and black comedy, about a hapless, amiable clerk at a publishing house trying to get his tyrannical, abusive boss to take his western stories starring one “Arizona Jim” seriously. An unexpected turn of events causes everyone in the tight-knit community around the publisher — a lovingly captured crowd of fully realized characters you almost feel yourself assimilating into — to discover how glorious their lives would be without the tightwad moneyed interests of the big honcho driving their lives. Not only does this work as a rant against the rich, it’s even more intriguing as a serious, deep examination of how our morals work.
Heaven Can Wait (1978, Warren Beatty & Buck Henry) [c]
Pedestrian remake of the slightly uncomfortable 1943 comedy Here Comes Mr. Jordan serves as a vanity project for star, producer, cowriter and codirector Beatty, who takes the Robert Montgomery role of a sax-playing jock who dies in an accident then is permitted by angelic forces to insert himself in other bodies and lives. The story has comic possibilities that it never fully investigates, not least because it doesn’t permit any other actor the challenge of “becoming” Beatty, who isn’t much of a comic actor in the first place. Much of the latter half relies on the absurdity of a tycoon trying to secure a position on a pro football team, which means there are a lot of football scenes, which means it’s intolerably boring.
Leviathan (2014, Andrey Zvyagintsev)
Kind of a Russian House of Sand and Fog but grim, bloated and dull.
A Story of Floating Weeds (1934, Yasujiro Ozu) [r]
An elegant and beautiful silent tale of domestic mores from Ozu, shot gorgeously with aching minimalism on the part of its actors, especially Takeshi Sakamoto as Kihachi, a well-loved actor who largely abandoned his son to continue working. Admirable but more emotionally distant than Ozu’s best work, though still absorbing and visually arresting.
The Insider (1999, Michael Mann) [hr]
(Revisit; slight downgrade.) Weaving the high and low culture of television (and the turn-of-the-century downfall of 60 Minutes, long ago a symbol of American enlightenment) into a narrative that conveniently indicts Big Tobacco, Mann produces a new touchstone of the liberal cinema that for once holds up outside of its immediate timeliness. Artful, detailed and understated, this taut drama bites off everything it can think of — it’s an Issues film, it’s a crime film, it’s a journalism picture, it’s an anti-tobacco story, it’s a personal whistleblower odyssey, it’s a modest character study — and chews it all with elegance and ease, presenting entertainment that is absorbing and fascinating for nearly three hours.
Hell’s Hinges (1916, Charles Swickard) [hr]
This classic William S. Hart feature is more an anti-western (and a filmed nightmare) than an ordinary, earnest entry in the genre, transmitting from a period when the American film market was oversaturated with convention. It starts out off-kilter and stays that way, with savagely ironic jabs at a Man of God whose eyes are roving toward promiscuity and a futile attempt to send him out west for impulse control. The crime-ridden town he finds is a rebuttal to any vision of an idyllic west, further corrupting him and sending his sweet sister into the arms of town outlaw Hart. It culminates in a fire that seems to nip at the edges of the celluloid and threaten us; the Old Testament melodrama refuses to lend space for forgiveness to its audience or characters.
The Love Parade (1929, Ernst Lubitsch) [r]
Lubitsch’s first surviving sound film and one of the earliest Hollywood musicals displays little of the expected creakiness; its clarity and opulence are staggeringly modern. Maurice Chevalier lays down the persona he’d revise repeatedly as a womanizing miltary attaché who marries into royalty via Jeanette MacDonald, who wants only for him to sit out his days as a placid figurehead and toy. Unfortunately this bends into a somewhat dull-spirited and aimless story, its actual unforced laughs rare. Despite Chevalier and MacDonald’s chemistry, their musical numbers pale in comparison to the moments shared by supporting players Lupito Lane and Lillian Roth, who bring the house down with “Let’s Be Common” and “The Queen Is Always Right.”
Osaka Elegy (1936, Kenji Mizoguchi) [r]
Bleak, humorless drama follows a young switchboard operator (Isuzu Yamada) suffering so much at the hands of her family and a chauvinistic boss — who seeks her sexual companionship in exchange for financial help, running afoul of his vengeful wife — that she comes to be seen by everyone in her life as a duplicitous monster and ends up driven to despair in the course of a stark 70-minute narrative. The fluid direction and calm realism of individual scenes are so vivid that the film lingers in memory as though it were something the audience witnessed firsthand or maybe even lived, but without the cathartic righteousness of Sisters of the Gion or the bitter ironies of The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums.
The Long Voyage Home (1940, John Ford) [r]
This chronicle of male camaraderie and enmity aboard a British merchant vessel feels more like Hawks than Ford, apart from the lovely opening act that mostly consists of the cast waiting to set sail, as though suspended in midair; though the narrative finds them suddenly tasked with hauling munitions for the war effort, it remains episodic. Ford humiliates John Wayne by trying to pass him off as a Swede of few words, but the rest of the cast is fine — particularly Mildred Natwick in the only major female part — and Gregg Toland’s photography is of course magnificent. There’s believable grit in the reproduction of drunken European sailors and the haphazard, unpredictable lives they were then leading.
!!! A+ FILM !!!
Walter Murch might be as much the author of The Conversation, one of the finest and most terrifying of all American thrillers, as its writer-director Francis Ford Coppola or lead actor Gene Hackman. By the time the film entered its post-production stage, even more vital than usual for its unique construction, Coppola was shooting another, bigger film and Murch was given nearly free reign to edit the picture and carefully construct its sound design. Murch’s importance to the project comes not only from his dominance, and Coppola’s partial absence and willingness to collaborate and compromise, but from the fact that, in the nine decades since the introduction of sound to feature filmmaking, this may be the film that makes a more resourceful use of that innovation than any other. Sound (noise and dialogue), the repetition of it, the mysteries and secrets it holds and the false conclusions it can encourage, are what the world of The Conversation and the world of its central character are built on, and it’s the rare example of a work of cinema in which what we hear is just as important — and just as artful, and open to interpretation — as what we see.
Written in the mid-1960s and shot between the two Godfather movies, The Conversation seems to come from a different world than its director’s other works, inspired by an interest in surveillance techniques and the psychology of those in the field, and informed clearly and admittedly by Antoinioni’s Blowup (it even features a mime in its opening shot), which is about a photographer who discovers an assassination occurring in the background of a group of unrelated pictures he took. Hackman’s Harry Caul, meanwhile, is a private surveillance expert who finds his carefully cultivated world apart from the human implications of his own work unraveling, and starts to lose his identity and grip on reality in the process.
The conversation of the title, and that which Caul has been hired to monitor and record for an initially unseen client, is laid out for us almost completely in the opening scenes. Starting with a slow zoom over a town square in San Francisco, we watch as a young couple, both employees of a corporation located nearby, saunter through a crowd, talking idly when they’re surrounded by little noise and with more intensity in louder moments, as though they are trying their hardest not to have the substance of their discussion heard. We learn quickly that Caul has multiple microphones stationed in various places, some a great distance away, but for the moment we can hear only a fraction of the exchange (shared between actors Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest, both haunting in their way but especially the former); the nervousness is palpable from their faces alone. Later we join Harry and his coworker Stan (John Cazale, a treat as always) as they dissect, distort and manipulate the tapes they made to parse out the words being spoken, to great success because Harry is the best in the business and we are privileged to watch him work and witness his expertise in action. As a result we hear the words of the conversation again and again, and relive this scene in sound and vision multiple times for the duration of the film, its meaning and deeper importance repeatedly questioned and revised in our estimation, always coming back to specific moments that are called forward by the narrative and seem, even as greater technical clarity is achieved, to obscure rather than demystify their own essence.
Coppola and Hackman assign Caul’s emotional cycle to those of us in the audience. The characterization is robust, easily the best and most human of Coppola’s conflicted and failed heroes from George S. Patton to Michael Corleone, and Hackman’s performance is truly masterful, undoubtedly the equal of his Oscar-winning work in The French Connection while revealing an almost incompatible style of acting. Coppola’s camera loves the technical precision of Caul’s work, and gets a thrill from unraveling the subtle smugness of his dexterity — he boasts of not caring what the recording actually concerns, only that it’s strong and usable, though we eventually learn this is a defense mechanism in response to a prior tragedy he unwittingly helped to cause — into the confusion that eventually overtakes his life. Caul is a lonely, paranoid introvert who’s constructed a life in which he reveals little to anyone except in dreams, even to his mistress (Teri Garr, who appears in only one scene but is hard to forget), and fudges the truth in most of his rare honest interactions. (This is signalled quickly when he tells several people he doesn’t have a telephone, after we watch him castigating a neighbor for opening his mail on his home phone in one of the earliest scenes.) Somehow, this distance from the character is bridged through the Hitchcock method of allowing us to share his experiences. We can understand that his line of work makes him distrustful of others, and we feel his embarrassment and dejection when he’s rebuffed on the few occasions when he opens up to others, as when a one-night stand turns out to be a setup to have the tapes of the conversation stolen. On the whole The Conversation is a masterpiece of the thriller as subjective experience: its dark world is a reflection of Harry’s psyche, but it becomes our own world in the same way that the shadowy, expressionistic urban environments of Alan Pakula’s 1970s films came to seem so gritty and dark that they were more “real” and thus more threatening than reality, a classic film noir trope. (Talking of Pakula’s All the President’s Men, Coppola later remarked on how a coincidence of timing caused The Conversation to be seen as a referendum on the wire-tipping and high-level conspiratorial behavior of the Nixon era, which wasn’t the original intention.)
Caul’s eventual confrontations with his client, whom he suspects is planning to murder the couple he was spying on (egged on by a line of dialogue: “He’d kill us if he had the chance”), further his fear and disorientation, enough that — placing ourselves firmly in his head — we can be forgiven for wondering how much of all this is even real, especially when Harry begins to be seemingly followed and tormented by his clearly dangerous oppressors. Between his chastizing of his assistant for blasphemy, his guilt-ridden confessions and obvious if easily shaken devotion to his Catholicism, and the solitude and isolation that he constructs for himself in acknowledgement of the danger of his profession — he uses phone booths, takes the bus, uses multiple locks on his home and office doors, and exists in perpetual solitude and isolation, joined only by one vice: his saxophone — we may come to suspect an unreliable narration of sorts even before Harry starts breaking rooms apart and falling into obsession over the mechanics of his latest case. None of his many private agonies are comparable to the moment when he hears the tape he made being used in an adjoining room, fully knowing that it will be an instrument of death, leaving him culpable yet again even if no outsider fully realizes it.
Coppola’s story is elegantly bare and sometimes vague but never suffers from the superficial, hackneyed qualities of similar movies from the period like Pakula’s Klute; he reveals precisely the right amount, incrementally, to Caul and therefore to us, and leaves just enough questions lingering in the open air. Given that this was a studio film, if a modestly budgeted one, it’s refreshing how much credit is given to the audience to use scant information to construct the narrative; despite being a Hollywood thriller, The Conversation feels like a European art film and is unmistakably a product of a period when director-driven works were a hot commodity at even the highest levels of the industry, which dates it more than any of its content. That lack of schmaltz and over-direction extends not just to the plot itself, which is open-ended and enigmatic without being confusing, but to the traces of humor that make their way in: the audience isn’t inclined to know much about the surveillance business going in, but they’ll spot a commercialized charlatan like Allen Garfield’s Bernie with no trouble at all, through his cheap, schmoozing “presentation,” and the way he needles Harry afterward for information.
The intrigue of the conversation itself could take over an enthusiast’s life for some time if he or she let it; there is much to decipher and much ripe for speculation. Little to nothing is directly revealed within the dialogue — the gist is easy enough to catch through well-integrated clues of context — but the final reveal of a change in emphasis in the operative sentence (some classify this as a cheat because Murch used two different recordings, but it’s not difficult to look at this as an internal change of interpretation on Harry’s part), and the meaningful glance exchanged with the Smithers-like hanger-on (to Robert Duvall’s corporate-boss victim) played by Harrison Ford leaves us with the potential that not only did Harry’s notion of a grand white-knight moral victory for himself get turned completely on its head but that the entire use of his services in the first place was a setup. No wonder, then, that the film ends with him destroying his own habitat, frantically searching for bugs and leaks, mournfully playing his saxophone as the camera gazes upon him in a robotic security-camera pattern, cowering in a corner like a trapped rat.
Maybe The Conversation is really a horror film more than a detective story. On the one hand, Harry’s creeping paranoia is familiar and scary enough, but the film’s actual chilling implication seems to be that they really are all out to get you. In the process of this discovery, with possibly hallucinated visions of violence that call directly back to various touchstones of American horror (especially Rosemary’s Baby), we have one scene of overflowing blood that one-ups The Shining six years in advance, and a whole series of almost corporate-Gothic San Francisco scenes: Harry’s shadowy apartment, the bleak and deceptively bustling town square itself, the bizarre fenced-in office space Caul uses, and the castle-like CEO’s office replete with Doberman. However you choose to take its obvious despair and unsettling absence of resolution, The Conversation is an incomparably fascinating, upsetting experience; decades later, Coppola would publicly wish he’d made more movies like it instead of taking on so many projects originated by others. As someone who would take this over a thousand Godfathers, I wholeheartedly agree… but this one remarkable film is enough to justify the director’s reputation, and Murch’s (and Hackman’s) along with it.
!!! A+ FILM !!!
Josef von Sternberg made three of the loveliest films of the late silent period in Hollywood; Underworld, The Docks of New York and The Last Command are all emotive, stylish landmarks of American filmmaking, but nothing in those movies (or even in The Blue Angel, the director’s first collaboration with the incomparable Marlene Dietrich) gives any hint of the pure style and almost overwhelming cinematic chutzpah of his magnificently bizarre, surreal reenactment of eighteenth century Russian history. The life of Catherine the Great is hardly predictable as the source of one of the most forward-looking, energetic and untethered features of the 1930s, but The Scarlet Empress brims with a kind of explosive, violent life whose closest comparison in classic studio-era film might be nothing less than Citizen Kane — it really is that imaginative, that risky, that manic and fun.
As the credits would officially have it, Empress takes its inspiration from the actual diaries of Catherine II, whose reign began with the coup d’etat of Peter III, which is where the film ends. As such, it’s a loosely reality-based document of Catherine’s emergence from lowly Prussian princess to legendarily promiscuous independent force of nature, all prior to her actual reign; truthfully — and by Sternberg’s own admission — it’s an excuse for a great director to indulge himself and to galvanize us with fantasies of excess and primal excitement, of the visual and physical varieties. He seems to thrill at the absence of any force to stop him from creating something this absolutely crazy; the opening credits are literally the only part of the film that are not stuffed with information and action. Roger Ebert once wrote that it was “as if Mel Brooks had collaborated with the Marquis de Sade,” and there can be no more apt description for the film’s bold mixture of impulsive, sadomasochistic flaunting of wealth and power, and bickering, sniping, cutting humor and irony.
The rapidity and wit of the dialogue, which sounds like nothing else broadcasting from the Hollywood of the time — as much a world apart as the eerily modern exchanges in Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s The Scoundrel, but from the opposite end of the realism spectrum — is only one element of this incredible richness, but it has the same sensory impact of constant stimulation and filling of the senses as the sheer ferocity of the directing and performances. Screenwriter Eleanor McGeary gives the peerless slate of character actors much to sink their teeth into, led brilliantly by John Davis Lodge as the virile proto-rock & roller Count Alexey, Sam Jaffe as the weak and oafish Peter III, the unforgettable Louise Dresser threatening to steal the film from Dietrich as Empress Elizaveta Petrovna, and Olive Tell as Catherine’s sycophantic mother, and they clearly love the opportunities offered by the script’s frankness, coming in just under the Hays Code deadline. The insults and tension fly with abandon, and Sternberg’s interest in extremes, which extends to the heavy use of contrast in Bert Glennon’s photography (he later shot Stagecoach), assigns them with no obligation to temper their performances. Therefore, Jaffe is able to really become a sort of pathetic monster, grinning vacantly as he announces “I hate my wife”; and Lodge steps boldly into frame and places his tongue firmly in Dietrich’s mouth without apology; Dresser takes the wind out of everyone and everything in her path of destruction; while Dietrich herself gets every sort of emotional and sexual mileage imaginable out of her deliciously wicked transformation from deferential waif to unabashed sensual goddess.
It’s often noted that Sternberg’s films with Dietrich followed a narrative of women chewing men up and expelling them, but assuming that this is generally just a marker of his own misogyny rather than some buried sense of righteous justice misses how carefully and completely he and McGeary set us up to identify completely with Catherine, easily as much as we do with, say, the geisha in Mizoguchi’s Sisters of the Gion or Sylvia Sidney in Sabotage, two other films from this decade that now come across as strongly anti-patriarchal. Because Catherine is uprooted at an early age possessed of an eagerness to please, and because we watch her being grossly misled about the man who’s to become her husband and then plowed and manipulated by others repeatedly, we strongly feel her dejection and loss of faith in the systems that prop her lifestyle, and we get a nefarious thrill out of the moment when she turns completely away from the constraints of her life and beds a security guard, more yet when she calls Alexey in for private counsel just to rebuff his constant advances. Little wonder that when Catherine is shown as an eager participant in her husband’s assassination, we root for her strongly along with — so it would seem from the film’s interpretation — the Russian population.
The actual experience of watching The Scarlet Empress is almost impossible to describe, insofar as it’s difficult to suss out Sternberg’s own feelings about nobility, wealth and power — the crux might be that, like so many of us, he’s simultaneously repelled and fascinated by the extremity of waste and decadence he allows us to witness. Like so many American films about monarchs and the rich, this one subsumes us in opulence — its immaculate, Ufa-derived set design approaches D.W. Griffith levels of over-the-top, gargantuan proportions, and with a level of detail rarely seen in cinema outside of fantasy, sci-fi and Wes Anderson movies — but never before or since has such a rendering resonated so strongly as the setting of what amounts to a horror film, from its early montages of fiery torture reconfigured as bedtime story for the young Catherine to the gargoyle-filled, cavernous Kremlin that seems a physical manifestation of a nation’s utter, screaming insanity. It’s hard to name another Hollywood film, even Kane, that so brazenly associates wealth with dread, bloodiness and fear. The actors, meanwhile, behave as though they are in a Caligari-like Expressionist classic, none more than Jaffe whose cackling madness is initially a feature of Charles Laughton-like comic relief before he comes increasingly to resemble a Lovecraftian monster.
In the 2010s it’s very difficult not to have a visceral reaction to The Scarlet Empress, a film that means to force its audience’s submission and wholly succeeds all across its busy 104 minutes. To begin with, it’s alarming to know that it was ever possible to make a film like this in Hollywood at all, much less for a major studio like Paramount in the 1930s, a film that serves less as a love letter to its lead actress than as an openly amoral evocation of an almost demonic sexual obsession with her — one man’s psychosexual nightmare captured messily on film, without the careful distance or coded genre tropes of even a Vertigo. It’s truly elevated, singular, relentless entertainment, unhinged and honest and vital, and its miraculous abuse of the by now well-established studio system could keep your head spinning for days, as you slowly fall back into the comparatively barren real world, like you’re waking up from the wildest dream you ever had.
17 movies seen in July, somewhat incredibly given that I spent a chunk of almost every day in one hospital or another. Counts:
– 13 new to the database (previously unseen). New total: 2,200.
– 4 revisits, including 2 previously reviewed here (The Lodger in its splendid new Criterion edition, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, one of the few unfailing respites in a difficult time; how deeply I love that film), and two of my all-time favorite films I felt privileged to attempt to wax rhapsodic about: Broadcast News and The 39 Steps.
– After last month’s drought, 3 new full reviews, for (as expected) Broadcast News and The 39 Steps, and (unexpectedly) for a movie I’d never seen before, Kenji Mizoguchi’s Sisters of the Gion, the second discovery for the 1930s canon project that has entered my list of 100 all-time favorites.
– 12 new or revised capsules, all below.
– Doubled back and finished up Best Supporting Actress, and mostly stayed on quota, though I did not manage to make any bites into new or recent cinema, something I do want to start to double down on a bit as we head into the end of the decade, on top of the unwatched Treasures from American Film Archives DVDs and other material I want to get around to exploring — my proverbial kevyip on both counts is a mile high. Normally I’d scold myself for mediocre time management, for taking on too many projects I genuinely want to do, and for having too much of a life these days (imagine it! and alas, other people — believe it or not — do win out over movies for me), but in this case I actually had multiple family emergencies during most of July and now early August, and this was constantly pushed to the back of my mind or out of it altogether. I’m kind of proud actually for sticking to it as much as I did. Send best wishes to my stepdad, who’s really more of an actual dad than my dad was, as he works really hard to recover from his medical issues, and whose passion for Japanese film makes me hope I get to show him Sisters of the Gion when he’s feeling better.
– I’m more energized and excited about this blog than I’ve been almost since its beginnings, when I was so ambitious about basically reporting at length on every damn thing in the canon. The Best Picture nominees are a long-haul project, and will be dominated in the beginning by films I’m quite interested in before we start to settle back into the prestige morass. And the canon projects are proving astonishingly fruitful, with the treasures easily outweighing the disappointments. I’ve written at length about Broadcast News and The 39 Steps before, but I was terribly young and the work was mawkish and unworthy of being widely shared, even though I did so anyway; maybe it still is, but my favorite thing I do here is studying and promoting the films I love, and I’m psyched up for more.
– Best Supporting Actress Oscar winners: 2 films (2 new). Ending the Oscar winners project, which ran from 2012 to 2017 here, with a whimper and two films that had not yet been released when I started this thing, Les Miserables and The Danish Girl, easily accessible but put off to the end because I dreaded watching them, and that’s before I realized they shared a director. Anyway, this ugliness is now behind us.
– 1930s canon: 6 films (5 new). Slightly under quota, not so much because I ran out of time as because two films I needed for the other project were suddenly set to expire from Netflix. One known masterpiece (The 39 Steps.. which, on this watch, somehow managed to move up in my estimation, which shocked even me), one previously unknown masterpiece (Sisters of the Gion; as with the handful of other films I’ve declared great since I moved over to this venue, my enthusiasm doesn’t seem to be widely shared, but I’m correct as usual), three new discoveries I loved — in ascending order of brilliance: Ozu’s I Was Born, But…, Lang’s remarkably uncompromising thriller Fury (my first encounter, somehow, with Fritz Lang’s Hollywood work), and Lubitsch’s The Smiling Lieutenant (overlap with BP nominees), very nearly an A+ film and possibly set to become one when I rewatch (Lubitsch is easily the filmmaker I most regret mischaracterizing prior to this project; I’d just managed coincidentally to see three films of his that didn’t fully connect with me), and one disappointment, Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning, but that’s okay. Note that I also wasn’t completely keen on Renoir’s A Day in the Country and that I “got” both Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game when I rewatched them in the last few years. Remaining: 38 films (31 new).
– Best Picture Oscar nominees: 8 films (7 new). First of all, in my initial count for this I missed two entire years of nominees somehow. D’oh. The correct initial count is 194 films, including 154 unseen. I kicked off with The Smiling Lieutenant, an overlap with the 1930s canon, then started properly with a celebratory round of Broadcast News, and then began to knock off the titles from Filmstruck and Netflix: Olivier’s Henry V, Zinnemann’s The Nun’s Story (one of the biggest surprises for me in the entire run of this blog), the Olivia de Havilland vehicle the snake pit, last year’s vastly overrated Lion (overlap with 2010s catchup), and the basically OK Babe and The Verdict. Remaining: 186 films (147 new).
– 2010s catchup/new movies: Nothing except Lion, mentioned above.
Now for capsules!!
The Danish Girl (2015, Tom Hooper) [NO]
Another homophobic, transphobic, deplorably ahistorical and homogenized piece of empty Oscar bait that harnesses and violates a real person’s life for award-mongering Hollywood prestige, hitting all the pre-cise-ly sanc-ti-oned biopic grace notes. This time the victim (and that’s very much the way the film processes and understands this person, and LGBT people as a group) is Lili Elbe, Danish transgender artist, portrayed by Eddie Redmayne with astonishing incompetence that must be seen to be believed. One of the worst films of the decade.
Les Misérables (2012, Tom Hooper) [c]
Hooper’s screen adaptation of the celebrated French stage musical is not really any more or less than exactly what you’d expect, your opinion of it undoubtedly tied to how you feel about having the characters in Victor Hugo’s passionate, philosophical novel of poverty and exile in post-Revolution France belt out big production numbers and sing nearly every line between them. Like Oliver! it’s an inherently poor idea, but the public demanded it so here it is. The actors are decent, the production values (rife with CGI grime) clearly high-level, the direction by Hooper abysmal. Not even a shadow of a surprise visible.
Fury (1936, Fritz Lang) [hr]
Lang’s first American film is a taut, pointed thriller about a man who gets falsely accused of a crime while on the way to see his fiancée. Even if you know where this chilling look at mob mentality and misguided vengeance is headed, you’ll still marvel at the righteousness of its messages and the clarity of its targets. Spencer Tracy and Sylvia Sidney are both phenomenal, and they define their characters so well that the chronicle of their long-distance relationship in the first scenes is sufficiently compelling to have been a film of its own. Lang proves adept at using a big studio’s resources to craft a personal, impassioned work of art.
The Smiling Lieutenant (1931, Ernst Lubitsch) [hr]
Monumentally funny, delightfully risque pre-code musical about a promiscuous French army man finding love after breakfast then getting caught up in a royal scandal. Lubitsch’s musical numbers are a bit static at times, and many modern audiences will find themselves immune to the charms of Maurice Chevalier, but there’s no escaping the pull of the adorable Claudette Colbert as a liberated violinist and the alluring Miriam Hopkins, whose performance is breathtaking as a feat of comic precision and timing, to say nothing of an airtight script full of huge, ecstatic laughs, harnessed to complete potential by this stellar cast.
Henry V (1944, Laurence Olivier) [r]
Olivier’s central conceit, of staging this like a Globe Theatre performance that slowly moves outward with the audience’s imaginations into the full visual manifestation of the Hundred Years War at its height, is truly ingenious, giving the entire affair a dreamlike, absorbing quality that leads beautifully to the expansive, climactic, immaculately designed battle — one of the best action scenes in cinema. These virtues cannot mask Olivier’s shortcomings as an actor in the title role, too slight for his own valor; also, not to question Shakespeare, but the text can’t really sustain the excitement achieved during the Agincourt scenes.
The Nun’s Story (1959, Fred Zinnemann) [hr]
Unexpectedly dark, honest, unsentimental chronicle — from Kathryn Hulme’s novel — of a wealthy Belgian woman sacrificing identity and forsaking temptation to join a convent. The film is long, slow, careful and detailed and completely immerses the viewer in the emotional plight of Sister Luke, brought to us in body and spirit by Audrey Hepburn in what might be her greatest performance. Zinnemann and cinematographer Franz Planer successfully contradict the aesthetic beauty of Sister Luke’s surroundings with the increasingly dire, lonely circumstances of her day to day life, leading to an effective, subtly stirring finale.
I Was Born, But… (1932, Yasujiro Ozu) [hr]
Spirited, elegant silent comedy about a pair of boys who find themselves outcasts after their dad moves them to a new town because of work opportunities. At first this is a familiar exploration of kids coping with various childhood rites of passage, with all the integrity of Frank Borzage’s impressionistic glimpses of then-modern life, but when the subject becomes the kids’ relationship with their dad it develops seamlessly into something deeper: about family, money, and the regular humiliation of living for the status quo. Of course, it’s absolutely gorgeous: so still and natural, but so expansive as if the whole world lives within it.
the snake pit (1948, Anatole Litvak) [r]
Alternately harrowing and mildly silly chronicle of the disorienting, often diabolical treatment endured by a woman (Olivia de Havilland) after she’s committed for reasons she finds obscure. Using Mary Jane Ward’s semi-memoir as an inspiration, Litvak’s stroke of genius here is to drop us in the deep end with de Havilland without explanation; we piece the past together slowly along with her, so our identification is powerful. His surreal, almost horror-like interpretations of medical treatment and attendant fantasies and nightmares makes The Exorcist look dumber yet, and the institutional scenes, while dated, feel honestly unflinching in their chaos.
Lion (2016, Garth Davis)
A story this inherently interesting — about Saroo Brierley’s separation from his family in India at age five, leading to a long quest to reconnect with them as an adult long after being adopted and transported to Australia — requires considerable chutzpah to really screw up, but leave it to the Weinstein machine to process it conveniently into the most arid, tasteless brand of prestige picture cheese that amounts to Google Maps: The Movie, endless buildup to a rushed climax. This is what “deep” moviemaking for grownups is nowadays? This formulaic shit, with all the dramatic revelations and confessionals in ex-act-ly the cor-rect pos-i-ti-ons?
Babe (1995, Chris Noonan) [r]
Potentially adorable, beautifully shot fable about a farm pig discovering his hidden talents; though mostly a comedy, it comes equipped with some surprisingly dark messaging about social orders and ethical consumption… which is actually not the reason its maudlin, uneven tone nearly does it in. The delightful scenes involving Babe’s assimilation into his home, surrounded by strange new creatures brought to astounding life by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop and a busload of animal wranglers, are vastly more entertaining than those that either try to advance the rather trite, formulaic plot or fall back on easy sentimentality. The humans drag it down.
The Verdict (1982, Sidney Lumet) [r]
Riveting and hugely implausible courtroom drama about a malpractice suit that brings a dishonored attorney (Paul Newman, embarrassing, more so because he’s surrounded by brilliant actors) from the brink of permanent despair and alcohol posioning is a triumph in its blocking and claustrophobic visual sensibility, capturing the coldest of Boston winters while placing a matching sensation of eerie detachment squarely in the heads of his characters. The rhythm of David Mamet’s script is impeccable, though his contempt for his lone female character (Charlotte Rampling) is creepily palpable. The finale is striking but seems cheap.
Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932, Jean Renoir)
Another of Renoir’s mischievous attacks on class structure, with Michel Simon forecasting his free-spirit role in L’Atalante as a bum who gets taken in by a well-to-do bourgeois family who discover the limits of their own charity; the title character is often cited as the first cinematic treatment of a hippie, although my understanding is that committing rapes and spitting in books aren’t necessarily defining characteristics of peace-loving types. Despite its visual loveliness this is everything The Rules of the Game isn’t — didactic, unfunny and dull, belaboring its amusing but thin premise well past the point of tolerance.
!!! A+ FILM !!!
By no means is The 39 Steps, an everyman-caught-up-in-intrigue narrative of the first order, the first great Alfred Hitchcock film; both Blackmail and The Man Who Knew Too Much circumvent such a claim. What can be said about its superlative nature, though, is that it’s the first film he made that is as overwhelming, as much an intoxicating sensory experience as the best of his later American works. Apart from being his best creation up to this moment and the finest of his 22 extant British features, as the second of the celebrated Gaumont Six (the series of breathlessly exciting thrillers he began one year earlier), it finishes defining the niche market of the Hitchcock thriller for international audiences and thereby leads directly to his shuttling off to Hollywood by David O. Selznick. It’s reductive, however, to see the film as simply the beginning of some tradition; its fusion of flawless narrative leanness — no frame wasted — with evocative visual poetry, as well as its wit and air of unexaggerated physical danger, allow it to remain a singular experience and possibly the director’s most purely exciting film. To see it with one’s full attention is to surrender to being absorbed and to being played like an instrument, now as always; even on repeat viewings, one’s involvement is as unshakeable as though the film were a dream that cannot be interrupted.
Steps ties itself to Hitchcock’s correct idea that cinema should be separate from all other mediums. The source material — John Buchan’s novel — is thrown out the window, its skeleton exposed and used to the best advantage for the screenwriters, Ian Hay and the great Charles Bennett (with considerable input from Hitchcock himself). The plot is streamlined and made clearer, with a number of crucial new characters and details added. We begin in a working class music hall in London, following the marvellous, warm Robert Donat as temporary Canadian expat Richard Hannay — instantly visible in a large crowd — as he is approached by a mysterious woman (Annabella Schmidt, lit aflame with lust and mystery by Lucie Mannheim) after a chaotic brawl, punctuated by gunfire, erupts. She goes home with him and confesses to being a spy, out to prevent the transport of unspecified British government secrets; when she is stabbed in the night, her dying admonishment to Hannay “clear out — they’ll get you next!” a vivid reminder of “don’t breathe a word to anyone” in Hitchcock’s previous film, he must escape the inevitable accusation of her murder and expose the actual culprits even as police chase him across the United Kingdom. The chain reaction that follows and the web of intrigue Hannay is stuck in would be difficult to summarize, but eventually his quest is made doubly arduous when he’s handcuffed to one Pamela (Madeleine Carroll, who plays the character’s understandable skepticism perfectly), who has no interest in his spy stories and suspects him to be the murderer cast by every newspaper in the country.
A significant factor in the success of The 39 Steps as a narrative, episodic by nature, is that it requires and possesses very little setup or expository detail; it opens with a bit of comedy in the music hall as a “memory expert” performs, answering questions for an audience, then adds intrigue with Schmidt and Hannay’s brief, suggestive liaison, but from the moment the knife in her back is revealed the race is on and rarely a minute passes uneventfully thereafter. Hitchcock refuses to stop the narrative for any sort of explanation of precisely the nature of these government secrets people are running and dying for, what he would always call the MacGuffin, the motivation for all of the events that nevertheless is irrelevant to their emotional significance; the film’s moments of rhythmic breathing are rather dedicated to his scenic, lyrical (and largely fake!) travelogue of England and Scotland and the people Hannay finds therein. It’s possible to avoid the intricate busyness of the usual spy story because Hannay is an outsider unfamiliar with these matters, a stand-in for us as the audience; while he’s clever and thinks quickly, he is never a James Bond-like figure with all the answers at a given moment, and his chief skill set is to know when to run — he tends to stumble more when deciding his next step. There’s never a moment when those of us watching are out of step with or unsympathetic to him, since he’s positioned as one of the most strongly defined of Hitchcock’s “Wrong Men,” and our identification is secured each time the director renders us paranoid and terrified by showing other characters gazing with accusatory eyes directly at him, therefore directly at us.
In fact, the best way to track the narrative of The 39 Steps is not a conventional measurement of the cat-and-cat-and-mouse among Hannay, the police and the ruthless spy network of the title but as a catalog of the people Hannay encounters during his travails: Mr. Memory, Annabella, the milkman, a pair of lingerie salesmen in possession of a newspaper, Pamela, a deeply religious rural farmer and his wife, a kindly professor who turns out to be a key villain, a duplicitous police inspector and his minions, a crowd at a political rally, spies posing as cops, Pamela again, a sweet old couple running a bed & breakfast, and at last Mr. Memory again. No matter how frivolous their presence may seem, each meeting and episode plays an important role in allowing the remainder of the story to continue locking into place. All of the corresponding scenes are expertly conceived and mounted. But this is no simplistic puzzle-movie, because Hitchcock’s wish is for us to be wrapped up in the emotional urgency that lights up every scene, shot, frame — he means to immerse you and make you succumb to every cut, every tic of an actor’s face, every note of the score, and he succeeds.
Most of those tics are those of Robert Donat, later to win an Oscar for Goodbye Mr. Chips and charm the daylights out of everyone in Vacation from Marriage but never to be so believable and enviably handsome as here, when he becomes one of the most magnetic pawns in Hitchcock’s favorite story and theme. That the director routinely has a field day with the idea of a man accused falsely of a crime with police and mounting evidence on his back, such that he must solve the case himself, makes it no less horrifying in abstract, not least because every one of us can easily imagine such a scenario happening to us. Unlike the haunting, documentary-like 1957 film The Wrong Man, The 39 Steps treats the subject comedically, laced with crowd-pleasing action, but the excitement is healthily stunted by an air of genuine menace. “These men will stop at nothing,” Schmidt tells Hannay, and after all, when we meet Mr. Memory — an unwilling conduit, as it turns out, for the dark scheme at the story’s center — for the first time, he’s drenched with sweat. And after Hannay is warned early on to watch for a man with a partially severed pinkie, it’s truly terrifying when a cheerfully raised hand by Professor Jordan (delightfully wicked Godfrey Tearle), assumed to be his savior and for whom he trudged across seemingly all of Scotland on foot, makes him realize he’s fallen directly into the hands of his new enemies. (Yet crucially, when Jordan’s wife walks directly in on her husband threatening Hannay with a revolver, her deadpan response of wondering why he’s taking so long to come down for tea is a perfect return to the morbid, blackened British humor that litters the film and calls ahead to “what seems to be the trouble, captain?” in The Trouble with Harry.)
Modern reviews of The 39 Steps tend to make much of celebrating its glimmers of “genius” that still lay ahead in Hitchcock’s career; one can be sympathetic to this view when revisiting Blackmail, The Man Who Knew Too Much or particularly The Lodger, but Steps is itself a work of genius, leaps and bounds over even those previous masterpieces in Hitchcock’s catalog, and in fact can be justifiably celebrated as one of the greatest feature films ever made. Whatever suddenly lights a fire under the director, whether the validation seemingly provided by his new studio and his newfound control over his own material or the sympathetic oversight of producer Michael Balcon, the hard work and dedication he emits in response is evident throughout the picture, and pays off handsomely in a film that functions as a thrill ride, a work of extremely intricate pacing. Hitchcock told Francois Truffaut years later, “What I like in The 39 Steps are the swift transitions. Robert Donat decides to go to the police to tell them that the man with the missing finger tried to kill him and how the Bible saved his life, but they don’t believe him and suddenly he finds himself in handcuffs. How will he get out of them? The camera moves across the street, and we see Donat, still handcuffed, through the window that is suddenly shattered to bits. A moment later he runs into a Salvation Army parade and he falls in step. Next, he ducks into an alley that leads him straight into a conference hall. Someone says, ‘Thank heaven, our speaker has arrived,’ and he is hustled onto a platform where he has to improvise an election speech.” In order to make this technique, far ahead of its time, work properly, a strict attention, almost an obsession, was required, and this eye for detail has survived into the film. Every moment feels like the most important in the film to the director, from start to finish, even while exercising his favorite trait: understatement.
On multiple viewings it’s riveting to watch how all of these components have been carefully engineered for maximum effect. Hitchcock: “I saw it as a film of episodes, and this time I was on my toes. As soon as we were through with one episode, I remember saying ‘Here we need a good short story.’ I made sure the content of every scene was very solid, so that each one would be a little film in itself.” Each of the settings established in Steps is treated as a complete world all of its own: the London music hall, Hannay’s flat, the train station, the train itself and its bridges to the North, the mountainous Scottish countryside and the croft, Professor Jordan’s home, the police precinct, the street parade and conference hall, the bed and breakfast, the Palladium. So many of these moments could indeed be their own films, none more resonant than the chilling Scottish farmhouse sequence with John Laurie and Peggy Ashcroft, which has enough depth and detail to go on for the full length of the movie, and deserves its own appreciation.
The series of scenes in which Hitchcock and Bennett establish these two (unnamed) characters and their relationship is a model of narrative subtlety and brevity. Laurie, as much an enemy as Tearle, has less than three minutes of screen time but you’ll never forget him; Ashcroft’s part is only slightly larger but her moments on camera are scarring and flawless, all but stealing the film with Donat happy to hand her the privilege. Having followed Schmidt’s map, Hannay first encounters Laurie’s crofter at the outer fence of his property, where he pretends to seek work while really trying to get some hint from Laurie of where the Professor’s house is located; when the farmer is derisive about the possibilities of making the fourteen-mile trek that night, Hannay gives him money for a bed for the evening — Laurie’s disinterested until payment comes into play — accompanied by the promise that Laurie’s wife, Ashcroft, will provide a meal.
Initially believing — to Laurie’s obvious chagrin — that she’s his daughter and not his wife, Hannay spends a bit of time alone with Ashcroft and we learn much about the couple’s lifestyle during this interlude. She longs to hear stories of Hannay’s life in London, waxing rhapsodically about her former home of Glasgow and its nightly flashing lights and activities on bustling Saturday nights, but warns him he won’t be able to talk of this at dinner because her husband considers such ideas “wicked.” When Hannay is nearly caught innocently flirting with Ashcroft upon Laurie’s re-entrance, he covers by returning to this topic of preferring urban life to rural and Laurie’s response is “God made the country.” Hannay spies a newspaper — his face is currently prominent in seemingly all of them — and borrows it for a spell before Laurie insists it’s time to say the blessing, during which he opens his eyes long enough to see his wife and the stranger communicating silently regarding the front-page article about Annabella Schmidt’s murder. The mastery of the blocking and performing here is down to minute changes in movement and expression, like watching a John Ford scene unfold but with one of the characters fully attuned to the subtext. Suspecting a lustful connection and clearly well-schooled on his idea of wickedness, Laurie fakes going out to the barn to lock up and instead stands by the window, watching Hannay frantically explain his situation to Ashcroft, suspecting much more.
During the night, a flashing light is seen from beyond the hills; Ashcroft approaches the bed to warn Hannay that the police may be arriving. The crofter awakens and believes he has caught his wife committing adultery, but they quickly correct him and explain everything; Hannay tries to bribe Laurie to deny his presence to the police now knocking at the door, but Ashcroft suspects correctly that her husband will betray him, and helps Hannay escape out the back when Laurie begins querying the police about reward money instead. She lends Hannay a coat of Laurie’s that will conceal him more fully in the night, and he responds with a grateful kiss that leaves her intoxicated, her face filled with sensual yearning as she watches him leave. That seems to be all of their lives we are to glimpse — and it would be enough; so much happening here, so beautifully and quietly expressed — until we return to the farm house long enough to discover later that a hymnal in the pocket of Laurie’s coat is what has prevented Hannay from being shot to death in a future scene. Hitchcock’s camera stays away as Laurie reacts violently to the revelation that his wife gave away his coat, one last note of the hypocrisy within this man and his empty piety, preaching of wickedness while beating his wife and selling his moral judgments to the highest bidder. Hitchcock’s cynicism about religion here is secondary to his holistic comprehension of the complete isolation and misery of this marriage, which feels hauntingly true. It’s as though Ashcroft and Laurie are real people we stop to meet, and thus when our spatial distance from them is emphasized later with the hymnal reveal, it’s genuinely jarring to realize how long ago and far away that episode already seems. Moreover, Hitchcock gathers this portrait of human isolation — the only sign of larger civilization is the daily newspaper — as a contrast to the city life he explored in Blackmail, wherein alienation was just as possible for a character coping with the cruelty of men, but there was so much more possibility of temporary respite than the chance that a kind stranger might briefly enter one’s life.
Just as importantly, the Ashcroft-Laurie relationship carries through from Rich and Strange a classic Hitchcock caution about the misery that can result from loveless marriage and its potential stunting of one’s freedom, accompanied by many earlier incidental jabs in the film’s dialogue (almost universally by unnamed characters) comprised of men bellyaching about their wives, their unattractiveness or their needling or just their existence. It’s such a universal language that Hannay is forced to use it to get out of a tight spot early on, borrowing a milkman’s uniform to escape the scene of the Schmidt murder by claiming he’s trying to escape his lover’s husband. Laurie represents the logical conclusion of this idea of marriage as a prison in which one is subservient by default to a sort of casual, everyday cruelty and control, but in the second half of the film Hitchcock explores romance as something more complex and liberating. The most obvious measurement is the cheerful couple running the bed & breakfast into which Hanny and Pamela stumble when they are linked by handcuff after escaping two agents out to kill them. Taking note of the pair’s obvious nerves and assuming they’re not newlyweds, as they claim, the co-owner whispers giddily to her husband “They must be terrible in love!” and admonishes him about even considering letting a pair of alleged investigators know that there’s a “runaway couple” on the premises.
In the meantime, Hannay and Pamela’s relationship enjoys a logical progression after its awkward beginnings that serve as a perverse, underworld mirror of the cross-country travelers in Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night, not the last time Hitchcock would provoke memories of that source. She doesn’t believe Hannay is innocent, especially after he begins their drawn-out alliance with an unexpected kiss (the only way he can think of to escape pursuit by the police aboard the train) but he disarms her with his outrageous stories about his spontaneously invented criminal past, and the obvious compassion he demonstrates when he helps her hang her stockings and borrows a nailfile to try and separate them. It goes back to the force of identification common to all of Hitchcock’s best movies — you are running from the law and making these big sweeping movements and dodging treachery with Hannay and Pamela, and when she learns he’s telling the truth and journeys out to Scotland Yard to warn them of the pending leakage of state secrets, she becomes the hero of the film in its final act. The closing reveal that resolves the MacGuffin — carried out of the country not on paper but via Mr. Memory — is mostly incidental by then, because thanks to our own degree of involvement, what matters is how all of this falls on the two leads, who are finally safe, and their sole gesture of redemption for their chaotic non-romance is when she reaches for his hand in the final shot. Like so many of Hitchcock’s greatest works, the film ends without catching its breath, but having said all that it needed to about the dim possibility of warmth and companionship in a fickle, mad world.
The 39 Steps has been remade at least three times, twice as a feature film (Ralph Thomas’ 1959 version was derivative of Hitchcock’s but with more explanatory material and far more location filming; the 1978 film by Don Sharp was more faithful to Buchan’s novel) and once as a BBC telefilm, as well as being adapted for the stage in 2005 and as a video game (!) in 2013. Many argue that Hitchcock himself virtually remade the film in 1959 as North by Northwest, another film in which an ordinary man (this time Cary Grant) stumbles into a series of bizarre scenarios after he’s mistaken for a spy. Northwest was not the first Hitchcock film to revive such a scenario, which also appears in his later British film Young and Innocent and WWII thriller Saboteur, but structurally North by Northwest is all but a direct revision of the rhythms and breezy style established in The 39 Steps, with a noticeably larger budget, color, big stars, much gloss and a lighter, more carefree and comic air. (That said, The 39 Steps is hardly lacking in humor, much of it from Hannay, whose comment “It’s a whole flock of detectives” when he sees a group of sheep crossing the road could easy be misremembered as a Cary Grant line, while Hannay’s showstopping political speech, in which he knows neither who he’s supposed to be or who he’s introducing, is echoed by Grant’s clueless entrance into an auction house.) These are both masterpieces, but in terms of its flair for pure, incisive technique The 39 Steps still carries an obvious edge, with North by Northwest magnifying this film’s personal scope to an almost cartoonish extreme, making its sexuality more explicit, its action more thunderingly obvious, and presenting it all at far more luxurious length.
Moreover, The 39 Steps is one of the few films in cinematic history that captures an actual feeling of movement — it has such a breathless rush about it as to seem alive. That’s especially true in the chase sequences. It shares again with North by Northwest a feeling of being a passenger as its story and characters travel a considerable distance, which is also the case for all but one of the other Gaumont thrillers, but none of these films have quite the same urgency and intensity as The 39 Steps, the sort of movie that makes the strongest case against technological progress: its depth of focus is impossible to imagine it without the grand dual assets of black & white photography and Academy ratio. Hitchcock tells hundreds of stories in his movie, and he and his cinematographer Bernard Knowles capture thousands more in the lit skies of London, the smog and beauty of Scotland (mostly recreated on sets but gorgeously so), the tense pregnancy of Donat’s face in his impossibly maddening situation, and simply the painterly grace of every shot in the movie. You just can’t make something that looks like this now; the palpable energy in its photography and editing leave the viewer feeling physically affected. There is much time for beauty, as well — the open window and breeze in Hannay’s sitting room just before Annabella’s murder is revealed, Hannay alone in the professor’s office uncertain of his fate, Hannay rendered as a shadow on a mountainside, and the many Scottish night scenes recreated impressively, atmospherically on soundstages, their artificiality never taking us out of the moment.
Because of the editing, the adroit camerawork and that effortless, almost stumbled-upon beauty, the best spiritual “remakes” of The 39 Steps may be the other black & white films that carry on its tradition of rapid movement, the films that make us feel as if we are physically running. The Battle of Algiers is one, The 400 Blows another, and A Hard Day’s Night even feels in some small way like it’s about the same England as the one in Hitchcock’s film. Richard Lester and Francois Truffaut may never have tried to match a woman’s scream to a train whistle, but they clearly learned something from the emotional investment wrought by such imagination and trickery, and the education pays off in the gut-level impact of their films.
On a personal note, The 39 Steps is the film that awakened me to how much movies could really mean to me. It wasn’t the first Hitchcock I loved and it didn’t even hit me the first time I saw it. But when I picked up the Criterion DVD in 2003 and saw the restored print in all its glorious clarity, I was utterly captivated for the duration. It didn’t seem like an “old” movie to me, which started to melt away my perception of what that even meant, and began a process and a passion that has led directly to my writing this at this very moment all these years later. The sensation I felt that night of being seduced by it is very much by design; it’s a step further in Hitchcock’s idealized notion of “pure cinema.” Whatever the topical themes that once drove it, The 39 Steps feels as if it is happening now, like the challenges facing Hannay are direct threats against us. Further outstanding achievements and great experiments were still in Hitchcock’s future, beginning immediately with his darker follow-up Secret Agent and the multiple lean, probing thrillers he would make during his last four years in Great Britain, but The 39 Steps lingers as a monument all its own regardless of what came later. I get a strange chill when I think of that dissolve into Annabella Schmidt’s map of Scotland and the circle around her destination of Alt-na-Shellach in the Highlands (evidently the correct modern spelling is “Achnashellach”; fans of this film should get a thrill out of playing with Street View around that region), and of moving toward that village with Hannay as if I’ve no will over my own legs, yet I never want the foggy, propulsive dream to end. When Mr. Memory says, just before dying, “I’m glad it’s off my mind at last,” my only thought is of how wrong he is because of how soon I will force him to endure the same scenario all over again, loving every moment every time. For me, this movie feels like running off into a cloudy oblivion; its energy still stirs me.
[Extensively rewritten variation on a review posted in 2004.]
!!! A+ FILM !!!
The original intention of this blog was to share my progress as I moved through the canon of classic world cinema; as it turns out, for much of the time I find myself uncomfortable speaking at length about films I have newly discovered, even if I truly love them. The reason is not that they give me little to respond to — on the contrary, there’s almost always so much in them — but that as I feel my way through the past, I don’t have the context yet to speak with confidence about most of the celebrated movies I’m now seeing for the first time. Any essay I write will necessarily be a work in progress for a first-time viewing of a work by a filmmaker or from a country or a movement I’m just getting to know. Sisters of the Gion, for example, is only the second film by Kenji Mizoguchi — Japanese master director who came to be internationally renowned in the last decade of his life, and forever after — I have seen, following The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums earlier this year. My knowledge of his life and films is presently limited, and I cannot provide the kind of historical or holistic perspective that you would see in, say, my Hitchcock reviews. But the problem is that when confronted with a film like Sisters of the Gion, when faced with its compassion, its aesthetic beauty, its cunning and total mastery of the craft of filmmaking, the experience is such that a shortened or roughly encapsulated response seems wholly insufficient. Not when a film so moves and shakes me that it temporarily makes all other cinema seem entirely irrelevant. So the thoughts to follow are informal and incomplete, but absolutely sincere.
With Osaka Elegy, Sisters of the Gion is one of the earliest Mizoguchi films to pass into some degree of immortality, though it’s widely considered one of his lesser works (which means he will most likely be the subject of many haphazard essays like this one). His films are known for their status as serious, naturalistic sociopolitical examinations of Japanese life; but while Last Chrysanthemums, from a few years later, is fascinating because of its specificity to the time and place of its choosing (Osaka and Tokyo in the 1880s), Sisters achieves a certain universality despite its focus upon the lives of two geisha. In its broadly moral interpretation of how their lives unravel, one finds a strong if slightly nuanced layer of feminism.
The Gion of the title is a “pleasure district” of Kyoto and, in the film, the home of Umekichi (Yōko Umemura) and her younger sister Omocha (Isuzu Yamada). Umekichi has the patronage of a shop owner named Furusawa (Benkei Shiganoya) who’s gone bankrupt; when Furusawa’s wife gets fed up with him, he walks out on her and begins mooching off the gentle, naively accommodating Umekichi, to the chagrin of the more skeptical, manipulative Omocha. In their conversations it’s made very clear that Omocha has no personal use for the men she’s forced to rely upon for her well-being, and she never wavers from this well-earned cynicism. Through various machinations she’s able to rid the house of Furusawa without her sister knowing, while she simultaneously falls into the center of a mostly unrelated blowup between a young man and his father slash employer; the former ends up being fired and seeking revenge, validating Omocha’s feelings about her and her sister’s oppressed state. Umekichi finds out the truth about Furusawa’s departure but is then let down just as unceremoniously by him, even as he makes a show of devotion and dedication to her, and once again Omocha is shown to be correct. Hauntingly, Mizoguchi closes the film with a long monologue, a cry in the night, by her — begging to know why women are subjected to such treatment, why such a thing as a geisha even exists. It’s impossibly powerful — and giddy, even mobilizing in its directness and emotion.
Initially it’s difficult to know just what to make of the fact that Omocha, with her nontraditional clothes and modern attitudes, is giving voice to radical, righteous thoughts about the subservient roles expected of women (in Japan, but also everywhere), given that she also is shown clearly as a much colder, more bitter person than her sister — at least, we’re trained by other films to believe that’s the way we’re meant to see her. What we learn, however, is that her attitude is completely earned, and a necessary guard. In an abstract sense we find ourselves liking and sympathizing with Umekichi, with her patience and the genuine love she demonstrates toward Furusawa, but “likable” and “correct” are different matters entirely; while both women seek out men for financial security, even taking Furusawa’s cavalier laziness into account, it feels like his relationship with Umekichi is the one shred of warmth in a film full of so much drab brutality. However, what makes the denouement of Sisters of the Gion so breathtaking, so devastating, is that it’s as unerring in its honesty and cynicism as a film like Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole: Omocha is physically attacked and Umekichi, leaving a visibly concerned Furusawa behind at the small room they’re now sharing, chides her about how this is what she gets for being unkind to men. Omacha rightfully responds that she did nothing to provoke the treatment she received, and Umekichi then learns that she has once again been deserted by her lover. This is not a moment of bets being hedged or of ambiguity about sexual equality, or of pure shame being cast upon these women for the lives they lead; it is not the end of Pabst’s Pandora’s Box, as easy to interpret as a screed against the independence of woman as for the opposite. It’s an unmistakable indictment of the men swirling around the sisters, of their hypocrisy and apathy, and an expression of loathing for establishment mores. Umekichi is punished for her faith in men. Omocha is punished because she has faith only in herself. A woman simply cannot win. It’s shattering to see a film from 1936 express this kind of tortured frustration in words and visuals that are almost unimaginable now, that most assuredly would be toned down and prettied up for a modern-day viewer.
Which isn’t to say that this film is not eye-gougingly gorgeous, and a handy primer for anyone who doesn’t understand the inherent superiority of black & white film stock. Mizoguchi’s signature is to shoot these delicate scenes, with marvelous depth and clarity, in long shot with extended takes; the effect is cinematic rather than stagy because the camera movements are so versatile and immersive. It feels like one is on the outside, eavesdropping on robustly detailed but desperate lives being led. He also indicates a masterful skill with actors, with both leading women truly superb but especially Yamada, a regular of Mizoguchi’s films and later of Akira Kurosawa’s. Hers is a magnetic presence — as soon as she first walks into a scene playing out between her sister and her patron, Omocha draws us to her with her effortless, casual rhythm and sense of obvious incredulity at the situations developing around her. Each time she slips briefly into her deferential geisha persona, it’s as unnatural and jarring to us as it seems to her. The only false note in any of the performances is a bit of overwrought “drunk” acting from Fumio Okura, playing an antique dealer who figures in one of Omocha’s elaborate schemes. The film’s incredible gravity and completeness comes about in large part because of the combination of these subtle, emotive performances and Mizoguchi’s absorbingly unorthodox use of the camera, the distance it keeps from events and the care we must take in bearing witness to them.
The greatest thing about exploring cinema in depth is when a film can genuinely surprise you, shake you to your core, and Sisters of the Gion did that for me to an extent few of the wonderful, provocative films of the 1930s that I’ve seen recently have. I found myself flashing back to the feeling I got when I first saw All About Eve or Robert Wise’s I Want to Live!, the sense of shock and validation that a film would so emphatically up-end my own expectations about it. A movie’s actual radicalism of message can be enhanced immeasurably by the knowledge of how much it was pushing against, and this is easily as true of Japan in the 1930s as of America in the 1950s. In his calm, methodical way, Mizoguchi proves himself a courageous storyteller here. I’m thrilled to continue discovering his work.
!!! A+ FILM !!!
“I just wanna be alone right now.”
“It’s okay. I’ll go with you.”
James L. Brooks is a maverick humanist, if a deeply skeptical one, which means that his carefully detailed work seems autobiographical even when it almost certainly isn’t. A master of both restraint and bruising humanity, he consistently creates comedy that stings; his career began in the 1960s with the seriocomic, socially progressive high school series Room 222 and stretched all the way through a co-domination (with Norman Lear’s work) of the 1970s sitcom via The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi, both of which have aged more gracefully than almost any other television of their time, and of course The Simpsons, probably the ultimate game-changing tentpole of TV history. In between all of that, Brooks initiated a film career with the Burt Reynolds vehicle Starting Over (directed by Alan J. Pakula) and his own directorial debut, the deservedly celebrated Larry McMurtry adaptation Terms of Endearment. Even with that pedigree, however, Broadcast News is his masterpiece and his most durable, complete work as both a screenwriter and a champion of actors. Looking over his script, which has the creative wind at its back in the same way Joseph Mankiewicz’s for All About Eve does, one gets the sense that this was the story that was nagging at him to be passionately brought to fruition, and the logically perfect use of the influx of credibility and financial security brought forth by Terms. There has been no point since 1987 when it would have been ideal for Brooks to make a film like this, and he made that opportunity count.
Brooks’ original background, before he began writing scripted shows, was in TV news, and the show that really made his name — MTM — was a farcical account of daily life in the newsroom of a local station. But in making a film on the subject of network news he spent several years after the release of Terms researching the business, interviewing others who’d worked in it in more recent years, questioning them on their work and its interference with their personal lives; and while Brooks spends years laying similar groundwork for all of his films, it was never handier than in this case, with the result that seemingly every exhibited nuance, behavior or event feels truthful, with some basis in life that has been legitimately lived. Nothing in the script comes across as arbitrary or weakly justified; in this regard Broadcast News is among the most completely believable of all Hollywood films. That said, Brooks can hardly be accused of merely aggregating others’ experiences for his own benefit. The three characters who populate the bulk of the film are his own perceptive creations, and so fully realized are the portrayals of these principals — thanks both to Brooks and his staggering cast — that the audience identifies deeply with all of them even as they clash violently. It goes beyond even his skill with harnessing these performances, however; accused as often as his antecedent Billy Wilder of being a visually lazy director, Brooks takes inspiration from television itself and his knowledge of that world to place the viewer as a fly on the wall, intimately exploring the process and the people involved.
One of the few senses in which Broadcast News could be accused of being mired in the 1980s, apart from the usual caveats about fashion and technology that don’t and shouldn’t count, is one that time has eventually shown to be a repeatedly reoccurring concept in our capitalist society: the notion of living to work. These people’s personal lives are almost irrevocably intertwined with what they do for a living, which requires so much of them during even their leisure hours that it seems as if they are incapable of any sustained variety of relaxation. Much of this comes from reality: scheduled crying sessions, drinking oneself to sleep over problems at the office, fighting tooth and nail for a level of status that means prolonged security, and the shrinking of one’s scope of social contacts until it almost exclusively includes the people one sees at work and work-related functions. This was a visible, even glamorized trend in the ’80s — even the satiric, surreal detective series Moonlighting built its entire premise on the idea of the cloistered, incestuous office — but news stories cheerfully reporting about teenagers forced to work fast food jobs with neck braces on, or ads glorying the so-called “gig economy” strongly suggest that the film’s unstated central issue of people running themselves ragged even in white-collar, professional environments to the detriment of their own emotional stability and inner life (or even just “avoiding time alone,” as Roger Ebert put it in his review) remains depressingly relevant.
It’s important to add that this lifestyle critique doesn’t direct any derision toward one of the three central characters, Jane, for being — in the parlance of the time — a “career woman.” Although the film spends the bulk of its time on interpersonal relationships, it also takes feminism as a given and makes nothing of Jane’s status or competence. The only sense in which her gender is a factor at all, apart from a note in the dialogue late in the narrative that she’s the first woman to become one of the network’s bureau chiefs, is that the other two central characters are interested in her romantically. (And they think with their hearts and loins no less than she does.) Jane’s brought to life as a brilliant producer with fire and dedication behind her eyes, who works carefully to make her imbalance of personal need with outrageous career commitment seem outwardly healthy, to the extent that (as we witness near the end of the film when much of the newsroom is laid off) others view her as a model to follow as they trudge home to try to explain everything to their spouses, the irony of this only evident to her and to us.
As for the specific type of work in which these people are embroiled, the film to which Broadcast News is inevitably compared most often is of course Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky’s classic satire Network, made a decade earlier and routinely described as one of the most prophetic works of American satire from the twentieth century. Lumet’s film relies on stagy overstatement, wild and over the top; Brooks’ identifiably takes place, apart from a few scattered moments of slapstick or farce, in our own world. Two of the characters in particular are concerned, in fact, with the very state of the business predicted by Network: that TV news is gradually becoming schlocky, frivolous entertainment rather than an important source of information. Within a decade, this transition would be complete; within two, network news would scarcely be relevant at all in the even more punishing 24-hour cycle; within three, American journalism would have finally become a gigantic gag that everyone was in on, a communication service for the forces of oppression. Broadcast News captures, as one character describes it in a formal speech, another in a confessional moment, the early incremental steps inescapably requiring this conclusion, from airtime given to domino tricks to a pretty-faced anchor with no experience writing or editing.
However, these questions and attacks wouldn’t carry much weight if the actual body of Broadcast News were not made to seem so real and to have all the weight of actual adults coping with daily problems; in fact, in this too one can see the deficiencies of the culture we wake up and look at every day, at a time when it’s unfathomable that the studio the size of 20th Century Fox would bankroll and campaign for a movie that’s simply about grown people talking to one another. That, of course, is a reductive description, at least until you make the operative distinction between characters and people, which is what these are. William Hurt is wonderfully vivid as Tom, a handsome, well-meaning but slightly oafish newsman who took a fast track from local sports to major network reporting on the basis largely of his appearance and is fatally unsure of himself — he bellyaches about this to an unimpressed Holly Hunter in their first few scenes together — but is a celebrity around the newsroom when he starts appearing on the air and can suddenly do no wrong. He also is a calculating, occasionally nasty and condescending agent of destruction mostly unconscious of how far his own empty privilege has taken him, too easily hurt by accurate assessments of his shortcomings, and all too ready to harness his own advantages in unfair ways or to indulge himself in denying empathy to others, as seen when he shrugs at the layoffs and talks about having seen it all over and over again, immune. Seen variously as a vapid prep and as a quietly cunning charlatan, he exhibits insecurity and understanding of others’ case against him — that he has no serious knowledge of what he does, that he’s all surface-level style — that almost anyone who’s struggled, justified or not, with impostor syndrome will understand, particularly during the early scene in which he scrambles for the right words to compensate for all this while attempting to court Hunter.
She is Jane, the hotheaded producer who would slice Mary Richter to bits and probably Lou Grant as well. She decries the dumbing down of her field; Tom represents this in almost perfect human form. So it’s inconvenient when she finds herself, gradually and after many out-of-hand dismissals, falling in love with him. Embodied magnificently by Hunter, with a wisdom and liveliness that are irreducibly impressive, Jane comes to feel like a person you might know, someone you would admire from a careful distance and privately wish to become. She deserves such accolades even as the script and Hunter don’t shy away from exploring her faults and darkness, her struggles with isolation and single-minded, meddlesome perfectionism. Is it, after all, correct or commendable that she lashes out at Tom for a lack of education and training (“at least I’m upset about it, fooolks,” she mocks him, unforgettably) when he is clearly reaching out for her guidance? Does any well-adjusted person turn on such a dime from serenity to overheated, tempestuous anger, as we witness more than once? In one horrifying moment she accidentally lays into Tom when his father is present — and from her later responses we know that she as much as Tom is conscious of her own mistakes, and wants in some ways to break away from what she at one point calls her conservatism. Tom symbolizes not only an attractive man who repeatedly indicates a strong interest in her but also a covert opportunity for her to demonstrate a purging or softening of principles she’s beginning to worry are too staid to be malleable within her chosen industry’s environment (although ultimately, these warring impulses are put to the test at the film’s climax and her integrity carries the day).
Such a softening is never demonstrated by the third, funniest and least self-aware major character, Aaron, portrayed by Albert Brooks in what could be the most galvanizing of the three performances, though it’s difficult to really put any of them above the rest. He is Jane’s best friend, and he loves her. (It seems crucial to note, by the way, that this isn’t a “love triangle” because Jane never shows any interest in being with Aaron, so she’s not “choosing between” them as PR copy so often alleges.) Their obvious rapport gives the sense of a long, complicated history; by the time we join them their friendship is at the stage when they are so much an outlet to one another that Jane, just before hanging up the phone after a conversation with Aaron, advises “Call if you get weird,” really the ultimate expression of the kind of best friend everyone needs, within or outside of a career. Holly and Albert Brooks (referred throughout this essay by his full name to avoid confusion with the director, no relation) play this perfectly, especially when the peaceful, cathartic relationship hits the interference of Aaron’s unrequited love for Jane, and the intrusion of Tom into their world. Jane hates Tom before Aaron does, meeting him at an unsuccessful speech she gives to local anchors decrying exactly the kind of superficial news Tom’s existence is destined to indicate, but when Aaron finds liberation in openly mocking him and his lack of knowledge about the news he is (or isn’t) reporting, it’s eventually hard to tell how much of his hatred is born of principles, how much of jealousy.
In some ways it’s a very simple, familiar dynamic — we initially see Tom and Aaron as children, Tom a cute-as-a-button tyke who gets bad grades, Aaron a hard-working, socially pathetic early valedictorian. The out-of-place dork in us can’t help but enjoy Aaron’s attempts to cut Tom down, his open demonstrations of how vastly superior he is as a journalist, and we may even chuckle when he’s clearly taking this too far, as when he makes derisive, dismissive comments toward a piece Tom turns in on date rape. (By the way: despite what at least one New York writer recently argued, Broadcast News does not side with Aaron on this issue; Brooks is careful to show the others in the newsroom express disgust with his comment that Tom “blew the lid off nookie.”) Brooks takes pleasure in smashing the two of them together in uncomfortable scenarios, especially when Tom trains Aaron on playing to the camera. But the great achievement of the script is that both of these men are underdogs, as is Jane, and as Brooks would later explain, the “guy who’s right” (meaning Aaron) is less sympathetic than the one who’s “defiling the profession.”
I must break in at this point, however, and bring up an aspect of Broadcast News that requires me to be more personal than usual in this space. When I first saw Broadcast News — purchased on VHS at a pawn shop wholly because of my love of The Simpsons and As Good as It Gets — I thought I was Aaron. In retrospect the issue was more that I wanted to be Aaron. First of all, Albert Brooks is such a charismatic and sensitive comic actor and this was only my second real encounter with him, and at 14 or 15 how could I not be taken with him? Aaron is the perfect adult equivalent to the enraged adolescent who sees the entire world as unfair. Seeing the film now, I realize that this is intentional, that quite apart from his virtues as a man who’s brave in his career and admirably sharp-tongued, he is a pouting man-child and a classic Nice Guy, and that this is his great flaw immediately circumventing any possibility that he will become selfless enough for Jane to ever respond in kind to his affections. And when he sits in a diner, lets himself boil over and exposes Jane, like others before her, to the full scope of his petty, selfish anger, we can see through Albert Brooks’ eyes the emptiness in Aaron’s heart. The older I get, the more disturbed I am that I once thought of Aaron as the character in all of film that I identified with the most — even if much of this was just born of being envious of his wit, of his harnessing of his pain as a laugh-a-minute cross to bear, and of the actual joy he seemed to derive from being put-upon, and even though I saw directly through the manipulative actions of similar but less acerbic characters like Duckie in Pretty in Pink. That Aaron is something of a snide prick is not a weakness of the film — it’s a perfect articulation of its brilliance and complexity, as is my (and I suspect many other viewers’, especially young men’s) evolving awareness of who he really is. (The same principle applies to Alvy Singer in Annie Hall, a funny, neurotic, delightful loser who seems more the intended sociopathic jerkass the more times one sees that film — which has made me love it more, not less.)
An operative difference between Aaron and the everyday Nice Guy archetype is that neither Brooks smooths over Aaron’s edges; indeed, they allow us to look into the face of a neurotic person and watch him periodically unleash his contempt, letting the mask slip. And we become aware that Aaron’s “wanting more” from a friend whose obvious care for him should be a thrilling and fulfilling presence in his life is less about love and more about a misguided sense of justice: Aaron’s hard work and long-suffering nature entitles him to, in the words I’m sure he would use, “get the girl.” I suspect this too is one reason I once found him so compelling; I was quite familiar at that age with wishing a long-running friendship with an extremely intelligent and vibrant person was “more.” I suspect there are very few people in the world who’ve never experienced this with a close friend, and it’s not an automatically destructive gesture; in fact it’s to Aaron’s credit that he’s very direct about his feelings, but less so that he spends almost the entirety of the film in complete denial of her response. There’s also the uncomfortable truth that Aaron has a monopoly on the most beautifully composed, stirring, fiery speeches in Brooks’ script. One example fully deserves to be printed in full, here or anywhere: “I know you care about him. I’ve never seen you like this with anybody, so don’t get me wrong when I tell you that Tom, while being a very nice guy, is the devil. What do you think the Devil’s going to look like? Come on. No one’s going to be taken in by a guy with a long, red, pointy tail… No, he’ll be attractive, he’ll be nice and helpful. He’ll get a job where we’ll influence a great and God-fearing nation. He’ll never do an evil thing. He’ll never deliberately hurt a living thing. He’ll just, bit by little bit, lower our standards where they’re important. Just a tiny little bit. Just coax along flash over substance. Just a tiny little bit. He’ll talk about all of us really being salesmen. And he’ll get all the great women.”
The truth is that I still relate to Aaron. I don’t especially want to feel underappreciated in my career and like I sometimes want to cut down the preconceptions, opinions and fixations of people around me, but I do. An extrapolation from that is that what has made Broadcast News so repeatedly rewarding to me — when I had cable, it was one of two films (with Jaws, another masterpiece driven by a robust three-character dynamic) that I could never turn off if I happened upon it at the halfway point, even if there were commercials — is that all three of these characters are among those I find most realistic and sympathetic in the entirety of modern cinema. Moreover, Hunter, Hurt and Brooks — all of whom have been terrific in other films — are forever marked with these characters for me. They occupy these personalities to such an extent that I always see their Broadcast News counterparts when I find them in other works, and I believe I always will. And I see myself in them. That’s not to say they’re at all like me; they’re more ambitious, more assertive, more professional, and more dedicated — it’s just a mark of the sophistication and intricacy of Brooks’ writing and of the three performances. You understand why they hate one another when they do, which is often, but you also feel a kinship with each of them. It would be easy enough for Brooks to just write a headstrong careerist woman, a wisecracking fall guy, and a vapid pretty-boy, but the doubts and insecurities of even the “vapid pretty boy” have astonishing resonance; this dynamic and its destiny of being only a temporary diversion in these lives is visualized impeccably by Brooks’ tendency to place the three of them on different vertical levels in his various locations and sets. We learn, at the finale of the movie, just how much this means.
It seems unjust not to mention the supporting cast, who are in the shadows of the major players but still add such flavor and life as to be inextricable from the main body of the film — Joan Cusack’s editorial assistant is a vivid creation blessed with the movie’s biggest comedic setpiece, when she races through the hallways clutching a tape that needs to be transmitted in the next few seconds; she practically engulfs the much shorter Holly Hunter when they hug, and it’s a memorable and humane image in a film that sometimes seems so dominated by cold professional relationships and the attendant doublespeak, though even their goodbye has a sting: “Except for socially,” she tells Jane, “you’re my role model.” Jack Nicholson has an appropriate cameo as the nightly news anchor, a part that requires an intimidating gravity that only an actor of his stature can really offer. Lois Chiles (ex-Bond girl, otherwise largely stuck in garbage) figures in one of the film’s best, cruelest gags when her reporter begins an affair with Tom only to be reassigned by Jane to a serial killer trial in Alaska. Salty character actor Robert Prosky gives warmth and grace to the part of the Washington bureau chief, and former NBC reporter Peter Hackes makes his acting debut as the head of the network’s news department, but some of the strongest and most human moments come from the smallest of these roles, the video editor Bobby portrayed by Christian Clemenson, who wrings so much from his very brief screen time; my heart swells every time he thanks Tom for being the first person ever to ask his opinion of a certain cut.
The scenes in the newsroom are far more riveting (and humorous) than anything you’ll ever see in the eponymous urgent facility of ER: Jane barking orders to everyone, including Tom through an earpiece as he goes on the air for the first time; Aaron bowing as weekend anchor for the first time and suffering a huge bout of nervous sweat just as the cameras roll, with complete disaster ensuing, the ramshackle nature of the stage abruptly visible; the drama of a reporter manipulating footage to change outward impression of a scene he captures, forcing himself to cry for the camera; the layoffs, the anger, the sense of loss — “Is there anything I can do for you?” “Well, I certainly hope you’ll die soon.” Parties persist with work and the insecurities that run rampant in the office never far away. During a live broadcast to which expert Aaron is pointedly not invited, he tries to move past the slight but can’t keep the TV off and ends up providing unpaid help to Jane remotely. “I say it here, it comes out there,” he says to himself ruefully. Indeed, Broadcast News was marketed and even reviewed as a workplace film, but its reach extends so much further; there are so many conversations in this movie that I feel like I have had, and relationships (and their endings) that I feel like I have gone through. And I don’t think it’s anything to do with me — I think that’s just the way the movie’s built. Moreover, Brooks never cheats to punctuate the moment; he lets the dialogue and the actors do all the work.
Brooks also does not sacrifice the film’s integrity for the pat conclusion that mainstream audiences undoubtedly enter it expecting. The finale of Broadcast News is possibly my favorite ending of any film. After the crying incident, wherein Aaron discovers that Tom had faked tears for the camera on one of his earliest stories, drives a wedge between Tom and Jane, she snubs a trip she’d planned to take with him. She taxis right back into the Washington octopus. Tom’s being transferred to London, and Aaron has quit; the last meeting between Aaron and Jane is heartbreaking, the former deliberately underplaying the moment and filling it with unnecessary insults. We rejoin them seven years later, when a newly engaged Tom’s giving a speech about his new job as nightly anchor but not head writer. Aaron, now married, comes to shake his hand and cast further shade in his former adversary’s direction; he has a kid now, who’s been trained to call Tom “the Big Joke.” The three of them go to a park to join Jane, who’s decided to work for Tom’s newscast but has clearly moved on from this tumultuous period and, as the script puts it, she and Aaron and Tom can find themselves at ease again but won’t be recapturing their former intimacy, in any combination. The film collapses into the shape of a TV screen at that moment, tentative and unresolved, old questions and wants permanently unanswered and unfulfilled; it more effectively and realistically captures the fleeting, temporary nature of most relationships than almost any other film. It spurns the very idea of satisfying its audience in any sense, refusing to compromise in any direction besides what would be the most probable outcome of the situation depicted, but that doesn’t mean those final scenes don’t positively ache with longing and missed opportunity… on the part of the viewer if not the characters, whose ability to move forward seems unquestioned even as the slightest tinges of resentment bubble upward from all three. People move on, some scars stay and others go. But in the very final moment, when Aaron’s son races enthusiastically toward Tom as he leaves, it’s one final kissoff, a refusal by the writer-director to come even close to making things simple.
The cheapening of TV news is still a hot topic, and some will probably now view the central flash versus substance conflict of Broadcast News as adorably quaint, the ultimate offense of faking a reporter’s tears on tape now so mild as to be laughable. But at least the film correctly foresees the apathy with which such an incident would be received. When Jane tells Tom “You could get fired for things like that,” his response is “I got promoted for things like that.” It’s in this way that Brooks’ dialogue — pages and pages of wonderful quotes too numerous to try and get a handle on in this space; just watch the damn movie again — overcomes any dated aspects of the story he’s telling. As years pass, the grander truths of the story itself overcome the specific circumstances of network news in 1987; like Network, the film has now become allegorical, and only the stronger for it. At the 60th Academy Awards, Broadcast News had seven nominations and won not a single award, a distinction that now seems astonishing. The films it lost to include The Last Emperor, Moonstruck (for its writing and for Cher rather than Hunter as lead actress, both deplorable choices), Wall Street (Michael Douglas’ buffoonery over Hurt’s most sensitive, fully realized performance) and most infamously The Untouchables (Albert Brooks was widely regarded as the favorite against this largely silly turn by the mediocre Sean Connery). None of these films seem nearly so relevant or so fondly remembered now, and none if newly encountered are likely to imbue the same duty of championship in their audiences. Broadcast News is truly a special, singular experience whose depth and layering allow it to hold up to numerous viewings, and you come away wishing far more movies, modern and otherwise, felt nearly so complete and so honest in their explorations of people who become, however briefly, a part of our own lives.
[Includes scattered excerpts of my writings about the film from 2004 and 2005.]
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS OSCAR WINNERS
Gale Sondergaard, Anthony Adverse (1936, Mervyn LeRoy) [cap]
Alice Brady, In Old Chicago (1937, Henry King) [cap]
Fay Bainter, Jezebel (1938, William Wyler) [cap]
Hattie McDaniel, Gone with the Wind (1939, Victor Fleming)
Jane Darwell, The Grapes of Wrath (1940, John Ford)
Mary Astor, The Great Lie (1941, Edmund Goulding) [cap]
Teresa Wright, Mrs. Miniver (1942, William Wyler)
Katina Paxinou, For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943, Sam Wood) [cap]
Ethel Barrymore, None But the Lonely Heart (1944, Clifford Odets) [cap]
Anne Revere, National Velvet (1944, Clarence Brown) [cap]
Anne Baxter, The Razor’s Edge (1946, Edmund Goulding) [cap]
Celeste Holm, Gentleman’s Agreement (1947, Elia Kazan)
Claire Trevor, Key Largo (1948, John Huston) [cap]
Mercedes McCambridge, All the King’s Men (1949, Robert Rossen)
Josephine Hull, Harvey (1950, Henry Koster) [cap]
Kim Hunter, A Streetcar Named Desire (1951, Elia Kazan)
Gloria Grahame, The Bad and the Beautiful (1952, Vincente Minnelli)
Donna Reed, From Here to Eternity (1953, Fred Zinnemann)
Eva Marie Saint, On the Waterfront (1954, Elia Kazan)
Jo Van Fleet, East of Eden (1955, Elia Kazan) [cap]
Dorothy Malone, Written on the Wind (1956, Douglas Sirk) [cap]
Miyoshi Umeki, Sayonara (1957, Joshua Logan) [cap]
Wendy Hiller, Separate Tables (1958, Delbert Mann) [cap]
Shelley Winters, The Diary of Anne Frank (1959, George Stevens) [cap]
Shirley Jones, Elmer Gantry (1960, Richard Brooks)
Rita Moreno, West Side Story (1961, Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins)
Patty Duke, The Miracle Worker (1962, Arthur Penn) [cap]
Margaret Rutherford, The V.I.P.s (1963, Anthony Asquith) [cap]
Lila Kedrova, Zorba the Greek (1964, Michael Cacoyannis) [cap]
Shelley Winters, A Patch of Blue (1965, Guy Green) [cap]
Sandy Dennis, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966, Mike Nichols)
Estelle Parsons, Bonnie and Clyde (1967, Arthur Penn)
Ruth Gordon, Rosemary’s Baby (1968, Roman Polanski) [cap]
Goldie Hawn, Cactus Flower (1969, Gene Saks) [cap]
Helen Hayes, Airport (1970, George Seaton) [cap]
Cloris Leachman, The Last Picture Show (1971, Peter Bogdanovich)
Eileen Heckart, Butterflies Are Free (1972, Milton Katselas) [cap]
Tatum O’Neal, Paper Moon (1973, Peter Bogdanovich)
Ingrid Bergman, Murder on the Orient Express (1974, Sidney Lumet) [cap]
Lee Grant, Shampoo (1975, Hal Ashby) [cap]
Beatrice Straight, Network (1976, Sidney Lumet)
Vanessa Redgrave, Julia (1977, Fred Zinnemann)
Maggie Smith, California Suite (1978, Herbert Ross) [cap]
Meryl Streep, Kramer vs. Kramer (1979, Robert Benton)
Mary Steenburgen, Melvin and Howard (1980, Jonathan Demme)
Maureen Stapleton, Reds (1981, Warren Beatty)
Jessica Lange, Tootsie (1982, Sydney Pollack)
Linda Hunt, The Year of Living Dangerously (1982, Peter Weir) [cap]
Peggy Ashcroft, A Passage to India (1984, David Lean) [cap]
Anjelica Huston, Prizzi’s Honor (1985, John Huston) [cap]
Dianne Wiest, Hannah and Her Sisters (1986, Woody Allen)
Olympia Dukakis, Moonstruck (1987, Norman Jewison) [cap]
Geena Davis, The Accidental Tourist (1988, Lawrence Kasdan) [cap]
Brenda Fricker, My Left Foot (1989, Jim Sheridan) [cap]
Whoopi Goldberg, Ghost (1990, Jerry Zucker) [cap]
Mercedes Ruehl, The Fisher King (1991, Terry Gilliam) [cap]
Marisa Tomei, My Cousin Vinny (1992, Jonathan Lynn) [cap]
Anna Paquin, The Piano (1993, Jane Campion)
Dianne Wiest, Bullets Over Broadway (1994, Woody Allen)
Mira Sorvino, Mighty Aphrodite (1995, Woody Allen) [cap]
Juliette Binoche, The English Patient (1996, Anthony Minghella)
Kim Basinger, L.A. Confidential (1997, Curtis Hanson)
Judi Dench, Shakespeare in Love (1998, John Madden)
Angelina Jolie, Girl, Interrupted (1999, James Mangold) [cap]
Marcia Gay Harden, Pollock (2000, Ed Harris) [cap]
Jennifer Connelly, A Beautiful Mind (2001, Ron Howard)
Catherine Zeta-Jones, Chicago (2002, Rob Marshall)
Renée Zellweger, Cold Mountain (2003, Anthony Minghella) [cap]
Cate Blanchett, The Aviator (2004, Martin Scorsese) [cap]
Rachel Weisz, The Constant Gardener (2005, Fernando Meirelles)
Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls (2006, Bill Condon) [cap]
Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton (2007, Tony Gilroy) [cap]
Penélope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008, Woody Allen)
Mo’Nique, Precious (2009, Lee Daniels) [cap]
Melissa Leo, The Fighter (2010, David O. Russell) [cap]
Octavia Spencer, The Help (2011, Tate Taylor) [cap]
Anne Hathaway, Les Misérables (2012, Tom Hooper) [cap]
Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave (2013, Steve McQueen)
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood (2014, Richard Linklater)
Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl (2015, Tom Hooper) [cap]
Viola Davis, Fences (2016, Denzel Washington) [cap]
Best Supporting Actress is, for now, the last Academy Awards category whose winners I plan to exhaustively evaluate. Because it’s the last, any film that came under the microscope received no awards in any of the previous five categories I worked through — and not that I’m advocating any sort of unquestioning faith in the Academy’s taste, but I assume that’s one reason this proved the biggest slog to date despite the relatively small number of movies I needed to see. The only movie I saw for the first time by doing this that’s going to enter my personal collection is Key Largo, and because of its cast and director, it’s one I would inevitably have seen anyway. The rest, well, wow. What went wrong here! By the end, I was openly dragging my feet, especially when the last two films I needed to check off were both recent prestige pictures directed by Tom Hooper. They sat in my bag for two weeks before I motivated myself to screen them, and then mostly with the knowledge that I will mostly be concentrating on movies that excite me a lot more for the forseeable future.
Still, I’m glad to have taken this on and filled the gaps in the Movie Guide, which is really the idea anyway, and I’ve experienced so many surprise hits from going through Oscar winners that I can’t complain too much when one of the categories finally drums up exactly the response I feared from all of them. For the record, I began this project by revisiting Rosemary’s Baby on February 11, 2017 and finished with a protracted, tortuous viewing of Hooper’s Les Misérables on July 6, 2017. Out of 81 films rewarded in this category, 41 had not been previously reviewed here. (That number includes Fences, which won while I was working on this, but not any future winners that will be added below.)
Notes on Availability: All 81 of the films containing performances that have received the Best Supporting Actress Oscar are (at this writing) either in print on DVD or available to rent online except for: Sayonara (out of print DVD is affordable), Prizzi’s Honor (expected to be re-pressed on disc later in 2017), Bullets Over Broadway (out of print and increasingly difficult to find) and Mighty Aphrodite (out of print but relatively easy to find). Public and university libraries are very likely to have all four available; I have owned a copy of Bullets for years but was easily able to get hold of the others for this project. Additionally, both Anthony Adverse and None But the Lonely Heart are strictly available through the Warner Archive burn-on-demand service.
FIRST-TIME VIEWINGS RANKED
And here you find why I was less enthused with the results of this venture than with probably any other thus far.
01 Key Largo
02 None But the Lonely Heart
03 My Cousin Vinny
04 East of Eden
05 A Patch of Blue
06 Michael Clayton
07 Written on the Wind
08 For Whom the Bell Tolls
09 The Aviator
10 Murder on the Orient Express
12 National Velvet
13 Cactus Flower
14 In Old Chicago
15 Anthony Adverse
16 The Great Lie
18 A Passage to India
19 The Year of Living Dangerously
22 Butterflies Are Free
23 The Diary of Anne Frank
24 Cold Mountain
25 Zorba the Greek
26 The Razor’s Edge
27 Les Miserables
28 The Accidental Tourist
30 The V.I.P.s
31 Prizzi’s Honor
32 California Suite
33 The Danish Girl
THE PERFORMANCES, RANKED
I have to admit — I know how much you’ve put your faith in me over the last five years, but at the moment I quite simply don’t have the energy to type out much commentary. So I hope you will forgive the indulgence here, as I’ve frequently invoked my own previously written words in tracking my subjective views of each of these performances. Many thanks.
1. Cloris Leachman as Ruth Popper in The Last Picture Show (1971, Peter Bogdanovich)
A common denominator with my favorite performances to win in this category (besides that I was already familiar with them before this project) is that they tend to be the highlights of their respective films; my older writings about them serve as an illustration. “The central and most consuming story in a very multilayered and intricate movie is that of Cloris Leachman’s terminally sad Ruth Popper, her mildly terrifying marraige, her unapologetic happiness with an illicit teenage lover, and the lifetime of contours on her face. More than the quest to lose virginity, the restlessness of rural life and adolescence, the shouldering of responsibility, the insane inevitability of both losing and repeating the past, all handled delicately, The Last Picture Show is about that face. Leachman is saintly.” – from my review
2. Mary Steenburgen as Lynda Dummar in Melvin and Howard (1980, Jonathan Demme)
“Mary Steenburgen plays Melvin’s long-suffering wife, who escapes more than once but returns out of love for Melvin and, more importantly, their young daughter; she finally gives up when her last-ditch effort to get the family into the black is squandered by her husband. Steenburgen’s performance is the highlight of the picture; she is seemingly the recepient of constant aggression, but she emerges as a strong-willed person and the source of some of the most knowing comedy in the film.” – from my review
3. Anna Paquin as Flora in The Piano (1993, Jane Campion)
“Anna Paquin as Flora does just as much with an equally complicated role. You find yourself disappointed with her at several points before reminding yourself that she is a little girl; most films of this nature wouldn’t explore her misplaced morals and duplicity so well, and few actors could sell it like Paquin. Nearly everything she does fits right in with the film’s woozy romanticism and black humor alike; given what we hear of Ada’s personality, the fanciful and coy Flora is very much her mother’s daughter. The camera loves her: dancing, singing, proclaiming that her mom’s destiny is Hell, undermining and scheming and enterprising, constantly intense with the selfishness but budding humanity and compassion of a real child her age.” – from my review
4. Kim Hunter as Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951, Elia Kazan)
“If not for Kim Hunter, brilliant as the carnal sister Stella, the movie would fall apart within ten minutes of its opening. Hunter is naturalistic, believable, emotionally resonant, everything Brando isn’t and everything Leigh gets only halfway to managing. The movie’s one and only genuinely brilliant sequence involves Stella and Stanley’s erotic rekindling after a massive argument. It is the famous scene in which he calls for her at the bottom of the stairwell. Resistant at first, she is drawn back down to meet him. Everything in the scene is perfect: The shadowy visuals, the passionately intense cutting, Hunter’s raw and knowing sexuality, and Brando’s brutish yelling. That alone may justify the film’s reputation.” – from my review
5. Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey in 12 Years a Slave (2013, Steve McQueen)
“There’s no doubt it’s as difficult and terrible as it should be […] and occasionally as adventurous as you might hope, [with] one [long take] agonizingly documenting the for-no-reason whipping by drunken plantation owner Epps (Michael Fassbender), in a jealous rage, of his slave and mistress Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o, haunting and brilliant). These are raw moments of cinematic near-miracle — as admirable as they are technically, their emotional utility of communicating fear and violence raw and unbroken is what resonates and renders them unforgettable.” – from my review
6. Tatum O’Neal as Addie in Paper Moon (1973, Peter Bogdanovich)
Two child actors in the top ten seems weird, unless you’ve seen these two films. “We say ‘two heroes’ but really there’s just one: Tatum O’Neal as Addie Loggins, a chain-smoking ten year-old girl tagging along with a con man selling faux-classy Bibles to the widows of the recently deceased. […] [A]s terrific as both O’Neals’ performances in the film are, Tatum’s is extraordinary — indeed, transcendent in its understatement. She was destined to become the youngest winner of a competitive Academy Award (winning against Kahn, as well as another exceptional juvenile performance, Linda Blair in The Exorcist), and the accolade was well deserved.” – from my review
7. Patricia Arquette as Olivia in Boyhood (2014, Richard Linklater)
“All of the performances are sublime. […] And best of all is Patricia Arquette, whose warmth, intelligence and sadness as long-suffering, intelligent, repeatedly broken mom Olivia are the most haunting element of the film.” – from my review
8. Dianne Wiest as Holly in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986, Woody Allen)
“Wiest provides outsize personality in her brilliantly witty, mildly tragic turn as a lonely baker, partier and aspiring writer. […] [M]aterial like Allen’s disastrous date with [her] makes for simultaneous high comedy and heartbreak that pays off wonderfully an hour or so later.” – from my review
9. Ruth Gordon as Minnie Castevet in Rosemary’s Baby (1968, Roman Polanski)
I’ve not yet written at length about this film, but one of the reasons it’s a cut above most horror is that it’s so well-cast, and while Mia Farrow completely dominates it, Gordon’s brilliantly modulated comic performance as the combination annoying neighbor and local Satanist is what makes the entire production tick, a human dividing line between the rational and irrational worlds Polanski explores here.
10. Hattie McDaniel as Mammy in Gone with the Wind (1939, Victor Fleming)
“Scarlett’s wet nurse Mammy might be a racial caricature, but she’s also a three-dimensional character, and McDaniel deserved her Oscar completely, especially because of the deftly intelligent way she introduces and defines Mammy and Scarlett’s deeply-rooted but volatile relationship and for the way she handles all of the marble-mouthed exposition the script saddles her with. In one scene, she trails de Havilland up the stairs for what seems like an eternity describing the events of the last few weeks in relentless detail, things that we should by all rights have seen happening, but she relates them so well it doesn’t matter.” – from my review
11. Teresa Wright as Carol in Mrs. Miniver (1942, William Wyler)
This is the first placement here that may result from some degree of bias, because I think Wright is so magical in other films that I may be elevating this slightly lesser performance, but it’s still truly wonderful. It’s difficult to speak further about her work without spoiling the film, but let’s simply state that she’s the essence of its narrative.
12. Estelle Parsons as Blanche in Bonnie and Clyde (1967, Arthur Penn)
At this point in the ranking we start to find performances that make their mark because they are distinctive in a sense separate from the qualities of a given film itself. I referred to Parsons as “brilliantly irritating” in my review; she’s one of the most distinctive elements of a film that sometimes suffers from how iconic it’s become.
13. Mary Astor as Sandra Kovak in The Great Lie (1941, Edmund Goulding)
Speaking of brilliantly irritating: Astor’s of the greatest, most versatile actresses in classic Hollywood, and she makes her bizarre role in this soap opera unforgettable. I wrote on Letterboxd: “Astor, looking fab, rises above the fray by having fun with her callous and aloof character who hates the smell of food (!?), but even she can’t maneuver past a script that wants her to deliver a tearful monologue about how much she misses eating pickles.” Then again, if you can live in the memory so strongly despite the pickles, you must have done something right.
14. Patty Duke as Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker (1962, Arthur Penn)
Preferred winner: Angela Lansbury, The Manchurian Candidate, but only by a hair — Duke is incalculably energetic, “full of detail and nuance even if the film never gets to the point at which the brilliant Keller gains the agency she so richly deserves” (from my Letterboxd writeup), as is Anne Bancroft, in this ultimate two-hander.
15. Katina Paxinou as Pilar in For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943, Sam Wood)
Older, sophisticated women in more interesting, less showy parts tend to get thrown into this category, where you’ll find far more actresses who look like real people winning Oscars, though as we’ll see this sometimes extends to a fault when it comes to rewarding caricatured “matronly” or “batty” parts. Not in Paxinou’s case: as I wrote on Letterboxd, “[A]s unforgettable guerilla lifer Pilar, [h]er performance serves as a direct rebuke of studio-system reduction and ignorance of atypical female roles and it’s a pretty terrific thing to see in a 1943 film.”
16. Mira Sorvino as Linda Ash in Mighty Aphrodite (1995, Woody Allen)
Possibly the funniest performance ever to receive an Academy Award, its only competitors being Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda and Diane Keaton in another Allen film. From my Letterboxd writeup: “Sorvino is the star and practically the author of this film. In her very first scene she is so relentlessly funny that it almost doesn’t matter what Allen has written for her to say, and she juggles kindness and awkwardness with impeccable skill, wonderfully reading the character’s cycle of being intrigued and then repelled by her new client.”
17. Penélope Cruz as Maria Elena in Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008, Woody Allen)
“Penélope Cruz’s performance as Maria Elena quickly comes to dominate […] and the film is far better for her presence; she lifts it up immeasurably, lends it resonance and honesty. […] Cruz’s performance is theatrical, galvanizing, scene-stealing, maybe even over the top, but when she’s paired with Bardem it works tremendously well, their chemistry much more obvious and effective than that Bardem shares with Johansson or Hall.” – from my review
18. Shirley Jones as Lulu in Elmer Gantry (1960, Richard Brooks)
Preferred winner: Janet Leigh, Psycho, because it’s a staggering, humane, iconic performance, but Jones in her limited capacity of influence here is terrific as well. “All the same, when the film is powerful, it’s really powerful, and for all of its exhausting and huge crowd scenes and bold moments of polished evangelism, the peak moment is a speech the inimitable Shirley Jones gives when she talks semi-privately about the first time Gantry seduced her. It is a moment of raw, powerful sensuality and humor and even, somehow, terror, almost all because of Jones’ performance, which seems to bubble above everything and operate as a direct communication with the viewer — mocking laughter at all the trumped-up Tower of Power surrounding her scene. She, not Arthur Kennedy’s tiresome reporter, is the true audience vessel here.” – from my review
19. Marisa Tomei as Mona Lisa Vito in My Cousin Vinny (1992, Jonathan Lynn)
Preferred winner: Judy Davis, Husbands and Wives; my mea culpa is that I loved Tomei so much in this film that ever since I saw it I’ve gone around proclaiming how richly she deserved the Academy Award that she’s rumored ever since to have received by mistake, a ridiculous accusation that still makes no sense if you’ve seen the film, but I neglected to remember that the great Davis was nominated the same year for one of Woody Allen’s greatest films, and the continual snubbing of Davis is as shameful as that of Jennifer Jason Leigh. Still, as I argued on Letterboxd: “After winning an Oscar for portraying Vinny’s warm but outspoken wife-to-be, Marisa Tomei became the poster child of the inexplicable Academy Award, to the point that theories widely circulated that she’d been given the statue by mistake; this is completely incomprehensible to me, as I’ve now seen all but about a dozen of the performances that have received Oscars and can tell you that Tomei’s hilarious, charismatic turn is not just one of the stronger performances to win for Supporting Actress but easily in the top half of winners in any of the categories.”
20. Dianne Wiest as Helen Sinclair in Bullets Over Broadway (1994, Woody Allen)
Preferred winner: Jennifer Tilly, for the same film, but Wiest is wonderful too. She’s over the top (intentionally) and her scenes can feel like they repeatedly belabor the same basic joke, but her interactions with John Cusack are hilarious, and she knows exactly how to fully embody her character.
21. Jo Ann Fleet as Cathy Ames in East of Eden (1955, Elia Kazan)
Fleet figures in one of the most realistic dialogue scenes in classic Hollywood cinema. From my Letterboxd writeup: “Kazan’s CinemaScope presentation of all this turmoil is a stirringly beautiful sight, and while Dean sometimes falls down melodramatic Method actorly rabbit holes, there are a few magnificently riveting two-person scenes, the best of all single-handedly and deservedly winning Jo Ann Fleet as the boy’s estranged mother.”
22. Anne Revere as Mrs. Brown in National Velvet (1944, Clarence Brown)
Another archetypal role for this category, of the tough-minded but caring mom, but Revere’s one of the best actors at this type of part, and she’s remarkably expressive and believable here.
23. Jennifer Hudson as Effie White in Dreamgirls (2006, Bill Condon)
Hudson’s dazzling in this extremely disappointing film that requires her to upstage Beyoncé, of all people; when the credits roll and Hudson gets an entire fireworks display when her name pops up, you get the impression Condon knew what the strongest card in his deck was.
24. Juliette Binoche as Hana in The English Patient (1996, Anthony Minghella)
Binoche is in the “present day” scenes of this odd romantic drama, their connection to the main narrative thread tenuous at best, but as I said in my review, “I don’t ever mind spending lots and lots of time with Binoche.” She’s wonderful as always, and it’s great that this mainstream hit brought her to the attentions of so many.
25. Beatrice Straight as Louise in Network (1976, Sidney Lumet)
Another scene that has little to do with the body of its film, but it scarcely matters. “[M]ost wrenching of all is the strong but challenged marriage of Max and his wife, brilliantly served in another meaty cameo by Beatrice Straight. Their scene together is among the most compassionate, poetic, beautiful scenes of a souring (perhaps temporarily) love affair in cinema — because it’s so unusual for Hollywood to confront the existence of lengthy and well-founded adult relationships, Chayefsky’s approach here to actually dealing with the ambiguities, the pain, and even the understanding of a wronged wife and a good man who knows he’s wronging her comes from such a place of deep empathy it nearly overshadows the rest of the film… and has nearly nothing to do with its thesis, but is utterly necessary.” – from my review
26. Mercedes McCambridge as Sadie Burke in All the King’s Men (1949, Robert Rossen)
Rossen’s film’s legacy is that it netted Oscars for what we’d tend to think of as two character actors in the peak years of Hollywood glamour. “Mercedes McCambridge is the standout as an enthused political adviser who achieves as much chemistry as she can wth those around her in her limited screen time; regardless, she makes a major impression and seems legitimately to live inside the world of this character, for whom everything is professional yet everything is personal.” – from my review
27. Anne Baxter as Sophie in The Razor’s Edge (1946, Edmund Goulding)
Baxter is a favorite — All About Eve, I Confess, hell, Batman — but she won her Oscar for this interminable film as a result of one scene and one scene only, her drunken confrontation with her former circle in Paris, in which her portrayal of a promiscuous, grieving alcoholic is as compelling as her icily manipulative Eve Harrington a few years later. As you can tell by the ranking, it’s a hell of a moment.
28. Ethel Barrymore as Ma in None But the Lonely Heart (1944, Clifford Odets)
Seeing Barrymore and Cary Grant tackle a script with such realistic dialogue makes you wonder (much like All Quiet on the Western Front does): if the studio system had been different, less restrictive, could its finest fruits have been more amazing yet?
29. Dorothy Malone as Marylee in Written on the Wind (1956, Douglas Sirk)
Preferred winner: Mercedes McCambridge, Giant. This soaper predicted the rush of shlocky 1980s prime time soap operas, and Malone’s sought-after sexpot is compassionately presented by her if not by the film itself.
30. Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator (2004, Martin Scorsese)
Preferred winners: Laura Linney, Kinsey; Sophie Okonedo, Hotel Rwanda; Natalie Portman, Closer… but still, Blanchett is a great choice (it was just an unusually strong year for this category), and her Hepburn is quite believable and the film could have used more of her in lieu of the DiCaprio one-man show as Howard Hughes.
31. Viola Davis as Rose in Fences (2016, Denzel Washington)
Preferred winner: Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea; she’s probably my favorite actor these days, so that doesn’t mean I don’t think Davis deserved an Oscar; she upstages Denzel Washington here as a far more sympathetic character and gets many moments to demonstrate her prowess in this often sensitive adaptation of the August Wilson play.
32. Donna Reed as Lorene Burke in From Here to Eternity (1953, Fred Zinnemann)
The two greatest performances in this film that exists primarily as a showcase for actors are those by its leading women: Deborah Kerr as a sexually frustrated military wife, and best of all Reed, defying the sitcom-derived stereotypical memories of her with an earthy performance as (essentially) a sex worker.
33. Jane Darwell as Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath (1940, John Ford)
Preferred winner: Judith Anderson, Rebecca, and it’s enough of an injustice that I’m slightly reluctant to admit that Darwell is quite strong in one of this category’s highly traditional roles, as the aging mother of the “hero.” From my review: “The only performance remotely worthy of [Henry Fonda’s] is that of Jane Darwell as his mother, a lovely-to-the-core woman unfortunately saddled with far too many mouthfuls of silly dialogue and a dull emptiness in emotional range.”
34. Brenda Fricker as Mrs. Brown in My Left Foot (1989, Jim Sheridan)
Almost a win by default given how physically arduous the role looks, perhaps more so than Daniel Day-Lewis’. I’ve seen Fricker in exactly two other films, both from the Hollywood trash heap (Home Alone 2 and A Time to Kill, the latter enjoyable in a hollow basic-cable sense) and can’t help thinking she’s deserved more respectful treatment than that since her win. She’s now retired from acting.
35. Linda Hunt as Billy Kwan in The Year of Living Dangerously (1982, Peter Weir)
The only instance to date of a woman winning in this category for playing a male role; in the film it isn’t gimmicky or novel, it’s just a physical leap of faith that makes perfect sense, and such things in my view should happen more often. Hunt is the best part of the film, as I argued in my Letterboxd writeup: “The story feels shapeless and lacks clarity, attaining momentum only when Linda Hunt’s unconventional characterization of the photographer Billy Kwan takes the reins of the narrative.”
36. Celeste Holm as Anne Dettrey in Gentleman’s Agreement (1947, Elia Kazan)
“[H]er work here is miles beyond her straight-man presence in a far superior film, All About Eve; she mocks the haters, cackles with good humor and bawdy jokes, holds her own and runs through life with levity, and is in general a strong and feminist portrait of a modern woman. She seems a good match for [Gregory Peck’s character], too — everything each of them starts to say turns into a batshit screenwriterly speech, except Holm makes hers count for a good deal more.” – my review
37. Maureen Stapleton as Emma Goldman in Reds (1981, Warren Beatty)
As I put it in my review, Stapleton is the only actor in this film who “does anything interesting” with her part, while Beatty and Diane Keaton gawk around insufferably. A pity her part is so limited.
38. Sandy Dennis as Honey in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966, Mike Nichols)
“Three of the four players therefore rise to the occasion, with George Segal’s staid stuffed-shirt Nick the weak link compensated for beautifully by Sandy Dennis, stealing the film (yes, really) as his wife, whose flights of fancy and drunken jolts are the funniest and most directly heartbreaking element cast into this brew — an exuberant, naive sideshow of a life just at the beginning of being potentially stunted.” – my review
39. Rita Moreno as Anita in West Side Story (1961, Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins)
From my review: “At first I was uncomfortable with the way that even the attack of Anita (Rita Moreno, giving the film’s best performance) is enacted and emphashized through dance, as though assault or rape are something with such levity; the same goes for fight scenes, scenes of murder and death and other things close in varying degrees, but that places West Side Story in a firm tradition of dance as narrative, not just as a celebratory force but as an evocation and flight of liberating expression of bleak and terrible realities.” Much of that feeling is down to Moreno specifically.
40. Claire Trevor as Gaye Dawn in Key Largo (1948, John Huston)
Trevor has the benefit of playing the only fully developed character in this enjoyable noir, the only one who seems an occupant of the real world; her drunken song sequence — she plays a former nightclub singer — clearly won her the Academy Award all by itself, which is all good and well though I do quietly wish Irene Dunne had long ago been afforded the same recognition for her much lighter version of a similar moment in The Awful Truth.
41. Lee Grant as Felicia in Shampoo (1975, Hal Ashby)
Preferred winners: Ronee Blakley or Lily Tomlin, both from Nashville. All three of the women with major roles in this film do tremendous work, Goldie Hawn being the strongest, Grant the most soulful. I just wish it was a better, less intellectually lazy film. I have many issues with Nashville as well, but in that film fellow nominee Tomlin gives the most moving performance, and Blakley has one of the best musical scenes ever shot, sadly diluted by Robert Altman’s childish refusal to let a single song play without interruption.
42. Marcia Gay Harden as Lee Krasner in Pollock (2000, Ed Harris)
Preferred winners: Frances McDormand or Kate Hudson, both from Almost Famous, with McDormand clearly the better choice. Both Harden and Harris are good in this film, but it’s just the same biopic shit as ever — another standby trait seen frequently in the rest of this list.
43. Octavia Spencer as Minnie in The Help (2011, Tate Taylor)
Preferred winner: Melissa McCarthy for Bridesmaids; although Spencer is a better (and funnier) actress generally, The Help is such an easy, lazy film that despite the many problems with Bridesmaids I just hate to see it encouraged in any way. Still, Spencer’s worth rooting for in any context.
44. Goldie Hawn as Toni in Cactus Flower (1969, Gene Saks)
Preferred winners: Sylvia Miles, Midnight Cowboy; Susannah York, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?… Disregarding a one-season sitcom and a regular spot on Laugh-In, this was Hawn’s introduction to the public, and her persona is immediately in place as she enlivens the part of an impatient mistress to Walter Matthau’s dentist character; Hawn’s incredibly charismatic and her performance style is distinctive and undeniably charming, immediately put to similar use in There’s a Girl in My Soup and Butterflies Are Free, and she would periodically get to explore deeper parts, as in Shampoo and The Sugarland Express… but essentially, like Audrey Hepburn before her, the part she played in her first major film would be the part she played in virtually every film thereafter. And Hepburn won an Oscar the first time out, too.
45. Wendy Hiller as Pat Cooper in Separate Tables (1958, Delbert Mann)
Hiller does phenomenal work here but she’s on the sidelines of one of several subplots in this film, and the one in question is easily the least compelling; as I stated on Letterboxd, it’s “window dressing, aside from the opportunity it gives a staggering Wendy Hiller to break everyone’s heart.”
46. Rachel Weisz as Tessa in The Constant Gardener (2005, Fernando Meirelles)
Preferred winner: Michelle Williams for Brokeback Mountain. Always Michelle Williams. This somewhat strained Le Carre adaptation does feature strong performances, and Weisz’s is the best of these. As I put it in my review, she captures “a hell of a lot in the mere wisps of character she’s given.”
47. Kim Basinger as Lynn Bracken in L.A. Confidential (1997, Curtis Hanson)
Preferred winner: if we define this category as being perfect for performances that save the movies they’re in, Minnie Driver in Good Will Hunting is a better choice than Basinger, who’s probably the weak link in this film, tasked with a necessarily over-familiar femme fatale role. She performs it capably, but doesn’t feel especially distinctive in the part.
48. Anne Hathaway as Fantine in Les Miserables (2012, Tom Hooper)
Preferred winners: Amy Adams, The Master (which I was rooting for very loudly on the night); Sally Field, Lincoln. Still, despite a cornucopia of rather off-putting facial expresses that Hooper’s intrusive camera shoots practically close enough to reach up the actress’ nose, Hathaway does well with her one literal show-stopper here, intentionally evoking Falconetti.
49. Angelina Jolie as Lisa in Girl, Interrupted (1999, James Mangold)
Perferred winners: Toni Collette, The Sixth Sense; Catherine Keener, Being John Malkovich; Chloë Sevigny, Boys Don’t Cry — all would have ranked toward the top of this list. Jolie is fine here, but it’s a showy performance that hasn’t aged particularly well, and outpaced in my view by the less deliberately manic members of the cast.
50. Shelley Winters as Mrs. Van Daan in The Diary of Anne Frank (1959, George Stevens)
Winters is an all-time favorite of mine — though she certainly suffered from typecasting born of her very earliest roles — but I don’t feel strongly about either of her Oscars. The first time out, she won for an average performance in a strange, alienating movie whose existence is difficult to justify. My conclusion on Letterboxd was that “this is hardly the best place to see her talent on display, and her intensity threatens at times to overtake the film.”
51. Eva Marie Saint as Edie Doyle in On the Waterfront (1954, Elia Kazan)
This film’s status remains a sore point around here for many reasons, this being one of them, and again, I love Saint. From my review: “Equally problematic is the renowned performance of Eva Marie Saint, or rather the character she portrays. She is wonderful, beautiful, articulate, understated, and all the rest. But her character has no serious function in the film, except perhaps to provide Brando with a few extra hangups — that scene amid the tires is nice, and you could probably write a good non-threadbare romantic subplot — and her standing-and-crying presence here is a jarring distraction from the rest of the story.”
52. Lila Kedrova as Madame Hortense in Zorba the Greek (1964, Michael Cacoyannis)
Kedrova at a sort of halfway point between two of the Academy’s favorite female archetypes, the nutty old lady and the fallen mother-figure, whom you’ll remember from Anna Magnani’s work in The Rose Tattoo, with the film providing the same touch of condescending exotica to boot. She’s fine, but she deserves better surroundings.
53. Whoopi Goldberg as Oda Mae Brown in Ghost (1990, Jerry Zucker)
Goldberg really is wonderful in this part, but not only is this a dreadful film, it explicitly denies her the chance to move her work beyond the stereotypical.
54. Renée Zellweger as Ruby in Cold Mountain (2003, Anthony Minghella)
Preferred winner: Shohreh Aghdashloo, House of Sand and Fog, but Zellweger does at least give the only really memorable performance in Minghella’s film.
55. Gale Sondergaard as Faith Paleologus in Anthony Adverse (1936, Mervyn LeRoy)
Preferred winner: Maria Ouspenskaya, Dodsworth, mostly because I want Dodsworth to win everything. The first winner of the Supporting Actress Oscar really does fit the award’s name: Sondergaard only appears in the first half-hour of the film, as the mother of the title character, but she’s the first thing you remember when you think of it forever afterward.
56. Jessica Lange as Julie in Tootsie (1982, Sydney Pollack)
Preferred winners: Teri Garr, Tootsie; Lesley Ann Warren, Victor/Victoria. I hate the obnoxious,
unfunny Tootsie so much but both Lange and particularly Garr are fantastic in it, really the film’s only saving graces. Victor/Victoria is the real movie about gender-bending from 1982.
57. Geena Davis as Muriel in The Accidental Tourist (1988, Lawrence Kasdan)
Davis is this low entirely because of bad writing. She begins as a ridiculous proto-MPDG who runs a pet kennel, persuades the divorcee William Hurt to come live with her and her kid, then goes on some sort of impossible rampage apropos of nothing and becomes exceedingly annoying, thus less annoying than the zombielike Hurt, another great actor forced to struggle through this claptrap. But the actress herself does her best throughout the ordeal.
58. Miyoshi Yumeki as Katsumi in Sayonara (1957, Joshua Logan)
Preferred winner: Elsa Lanchester in Witness for the Prosecution. Yumeki isn’t bad, but it’s a weak part and she brings nothing to it to make it any less so.
59. Fay Bainter as Belle in Jezebel (1938, William Wyler)
Bainter’s eyes really burn into you, but Bette Davis so dominates this production that I’m surprised the Academy remembered her name.
60. Vanessa Redgrave as Julia in Julia (1977, Fred Zinnemann)
Preferred winners: Quinn Cummings, The Goodbye Girl; Melinda Dillon, Close Encounters of the Third Kind… although frankly it’s Teri Garr who should’ve been nominated for that film. A loss for Redgrave would deny us one of the most berserk and uncomfortable moments in Oscar history, but the part she plays isn’t much of a challenge — it only requires her to be enigmatically urgent, really. She’s far better than Jane Fonda, at least.
61. Catherine Zeta-Jones as Velma in Chicago (2002, Rob Marshall)
Preferred winners: Kathy Bates, About Schmidt; Meryl Streep, Adaptation. The controversy over Zeta-Jones was that she won for this film and star Renée Zellweger did not, but come on, who doesn’t think this should’ve been Bates’? (Streep has enough and was really more of a lead in Adaptation, though this is my favorite performance of hers.)
62. Jennifer Connelly as Alicia Nash in A Beautiful Mind (2001, Ron Howard)
Nothing objectionable about this except the movie it’s in. She’d retroactively deserve the Oscar for House of Sand and Fog anyway.
63. Mo’Nique as Mary in Precious (2009, Lee Daniels)
Preferred winner: Vera Farmiga for Up in the Air. Mo’Nique’s part — dominated by one monologue late in the film — is quite compelling, and she performs it like a star, but it seems to come from a different and more theatrical universe than the rest of this rather dismal suffering narrative and essentially renders the rest of it flat and colorless by comparison.
64. Ingrid Bergman as Greta in Murder on the Orient Express (1974, Sidney Lumet)
Preferred winners: Madeline Kahn, Blazing Saddles; Valentina Cortese, Day for Night. Bergman’s probably my favorite actress of all time but she’s snoring all the way through this one — which is what she’s supposed to, because it’s a cameo! Not Oscar material.
65. Peggy Ashcroft as Mrs. Moore in A Passage to India (1984, David Lean)
It should’ve been Judy Davis, but anyway, you may not be aware that a much younger Ashcroft was the overly sheltered farmer’s wife in one of the most beautiful scenes of Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, so let’s pretend she was getting a lifetime achievement award for that.
66. Olympia Dukakis as Rose in Moonstruck (1987, Norman Jewison)
I just saw this in 2014 and have already forgotten pretty much everything about it, but I did say this performance was “enjoyable” when I reviewed the film (which I hated) on Letterboxd. I do vaguely remember it after looking at the trailer, but not enough to investigate more or to rank this higher.
67. Alice Brady as Mrs. O’Leary in In Old Chicago (1938, Henry King)
Mother figure, check. Doddering old person, check. “Historical figure,” check. Perfect Oscar formula. Brady’s OK but this is all pretty silly.
68. Meryl Streep as Joanna in Kramer vs. Kramer (1979, Robert Benton)
Preferred winner: Mariel Hemingway for Manhattan — one of the most perfectly modulated and emotionally disarmingly performances in film. Streep can’t figure out how to play a character who makes no sense and speaks in ’70s psychobabble in this MRA child custody fantasy disguised as something more progressive. (I actually like this movie, but you can’t deny that’s what it is!)
69. Gloria Grahame as Rosemary in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952, Vincente Minnelli)
Preferred winner: Jean Hagen, Singin’ in the Rain. Ever since I reviewed The Bad and the Beautiful it’s the film I’ve probably been told the most often (in recent years, that is) that I got totally wrong, and I was especially hard on Grahame, calling her “sensual but ridiculous” and her Oscar “inexplicable” in my review. But come on, that’s Lina Lamont we’re talking about!!
70. Alicia Vikander as Gerda Wegener in The Danish Girl (2015, Tom Hooper)
Preferred winners: Rooney Mara, Carol, or even Rachel McAdams in Spotlight, even though that wouldn’t make much sense when every member of that ensemble pulls equal weight. Carol is an extraordinary film about LGBT issues. The Danish Girl is one of the most hateful, empty-minded explorations of LGBT issues ever produced in mainstream American film. Vikander isn’t terrible in a traditional long-suffering wife role, but it’s difficult not to be thrown by its complete lack of a relationship with history or with the real-life Wegener. And when everything else about a film is so indefensible, it’s hard to view its performances with real objectivity. By the way, I cannot fathom how this was not considered a leading performance.
71. Eileen Heckart as Mrs. Baker in Butterflies Are Free (1972, Milton Katselas)
Out of all the performances on this list, for me this was the most oddly uncomfortable to watch. On Letterboxd I tried to explain why: “Heckart is freakishly believable as a meddling parent, but her hard work is let down by the crude, facile screenplay, which puts its three central characters through changes over the course of 24 hours that make no sense whatsoever.” Maybe it’s that I felt like she was upset with me, which is really more of a compliment I guess, but it’s hard for me to look past such an oppressive feeling.
72. Melissa Leo as Alice Ward in The Fighter (2010, David O. Russell)
Preferred winners: Helena Bonham Carter, The King’s Speech; Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit. Abrasive matriarch role, hardly offensive but just the Academy doing its thing. It should’ve been Steinfeld. It so should’ve been Steinfeld. Does anyone deny it!?
73. Maggie Smith as Diana Barrie in California Suite (1978, Herbert Ross)
Preferred winner: Penelope Milford, who nearly steals Coming Home in one scene; or Maureen Stapleton in Interiors. I didn’t even really mention Smith in my capsule of California Suite, which is actually probably a good sign for her work’s veracity, as there’s so much there far more worthy of hatred. But the extremely calculated Neil Simon notion of having her play an actress who loses an Oscar and all the half-baked “business” about her personal life — make no mistake, if there wasn’t so much else wrong with this, this would be a whopper.
74. Mercedes Ruehl as Anne in The Fisher King (1991, Terry Gilliam)
I still think they thought Ruehl was Amanda Plummer when they handed this one out.
75. Anjelica Huston as Maerose Prizzi in Prizzi’s Honor (1985, John Huston)
Huston, so brilliant in so many films, won an Oscar for talking on a telephone and smirking, repeatedly, in her father’s weirdest, most stilted effort.
76. Shelley Winters as Rose-Ann in A Patch of Blue (1965, Guy Green)
Winters’ second win is in a better film than The Diary of Anne Frank — actually, a film that might have been a genuine treasure if the scenes she’s in were modulated differently. Winters goes for broke with the wild abusive mom shtick and it’s painful, especially when you think of how powerful she could so often be.
77. Helen Hayes as Ada Quonsett in Airport (1970, George Seaton)
Preferred winner: Karen Black, Five Easy Pieces. Wait, no, not preferred winner — more like, what in the actual fuck is wrong with you if you think Hayes deserved this more than Black? Hayes’ comic relief kooky senior citizen part in Airport, wherein she has a habit of squatting on planes and using her age as a shield from rebuke, merits a mild chuckle at best, certainly not an Academy Award that is so very richly deserved by another performer.
78. Tilda Swinton as Karen Crowder in Michael Clayton (2007, Tony Gilroy)
Preferred winner: Ruby Dee, American Gangster, though I’m being a bit hypocritical. I want Dee to be rewarded for her career while I’m simultaneously objecting to Swinton winning for her career, which is exactly what happened because she sure as hell didn’t win for Michael Clayton.
79. Judi Dench as Queen Elizabeth in Shakespeare in Love (1998, John Madden)
Preferred winner: Lynn Redgrave, Gods and Monsters. I complained frequently about the leading actor and actress Oscars going to roles that weren’t really leading parts. Now I’m going to complain about Dench being rewarded for what amounts to a walk-on, though don’t tell my mom; I still remember her cheering when this was announced.
80. Margaret Rutherford as the Duchess in The V.I.P.s (1963, Anthony Asquith)
Preferred winner: well, every one of the other nominees was probably a better choice. Rutherford’s even worse than Hayes above, playing the exact same role in what amounts to the same film, because she doesn’t even have an opportunity to do anything besides pop pills and complain about her finances. I’m not slamming Rutherford as an actress or her skill set, I’m questioning why this was even nominated as a significant performance in the first place.
81. Josephine Hull as Mrs. Simmons in Harvey (1950, Henry Koster)
Preferred winners: Thelma Ritter or Celeste Holm in All About Eve; Nancy Olson in Sunset Blvd., but obviously it should’ve been Ritter. Because The Way of All Flesh is a lost film I cannot say with absolute certainty that Hull’s is the worst performance to receive an Academy Award. But that’s the only reason. Every moment she’s on screen is like a screwdriver delving into your skull. Why!? Why???
So that’s that. In 2012 I set out to watch all of the winners in seven Academy Award categories — I can’t decide what to call them collectively. It’s not the “Big Five” anymore because I added the supporting performance categories. It’s not “above the line” or “the creative awards” because of course cinematography, editing, foreign films are all “creative” too. So for my purposes I’ll just call them the Big Seven. And now, five years later, I’ve gone through every one of them and seen all the corresponding films apart from the two that are missing and impossible to see. Someday I may or may not explore further categories, but I expect diminish returns if I decide to tackle something like that. For now, my next task will be to run through all of the Best Picture nominees. Those who check my Twitter know that I’ve kept track for some time now of which slates I happen to have seen thus far in their entirety, and now my intention is to follow through with all of the rest, beginning immediately after I post this! This, however, is a huge list of films and it will take some time… so this is the last Oscars Project roundup for some time. Until then!