[1947] Gentleman’s Agreement | Crossfire

So the goal here was to watch Gentleman’s Agreement – 1947’s Oscar winner starring Gregory Peck and Dorothy McGuire – and, like all my other posts, comment on why it fits the Academy’s modus operandi of picking not the best movie of the year (too subjective, too many), but the movie that best represented its year’s gestalt. In 1947 anti-Semitism either had begun to run rampant or a series of filmmakers and studio executives decided that this was the year to tackle this off-center issue. In the span of a year, then, two movies decidedly different – one an overwrought, but ultimately thought-provoking exposé on Judaism and the tenets of pluralism in society and the other a dark-noir that opens and ends with a deus ex machina of “Jewishness” as the lock-and-key.

Usually, when two films operate in the same arena during a year they offset one another. When two films discuss World War II slightly differently, or deal with race and religion, or fall in the same thematic element, the Academy usually will decide that the theme itself is enough and look elsewhere to appropriate its crown for film of the year. In 1947, they deemed that one film about Jewishness was the best representation of the year in film and in theme and not the other. Why?

It goes without saying that the winner, Gentleman’s Agreement, brought with it a bigger tag. Acting, directing, budget, revenues drove Gentleman’s Agreement above its rival-cum-Judaism, Crossfire; Gregory Peck and Elia Kazan command more attention than does Crossfire‘s relatively unknown cast of characters (save Robert Mitchum) and director, Edward Dmytryk. Yet, noir seems to work best when the characters play second to the mood, so compromise would not have done Crossfire favors toward relevance in the eyes of the Academy voters. Is the tag itself enough to leap Gentleman’s Agreement over Crossfire? The distinction seems arbitrary, even to the sometimes wanton Academy voters.

There is also something to be said for the relative quality of the films compared, not only to one another, but to the rest of the competition. I find it hard to believe that among the nostalgia (Miracle on 34th StGreat Expectations) and the light-fare The Bishop’s Wife, that either Gentleman’s Agreement or Crossfire were that much “better” than the other films, or that much better than each other. Instead, I would contend that the quality of the film rather arbitrarily was ignored this year in favor of a more noble notion – bringing to light the sore subject of religious pluralism after the horror of the Holocaust that most Americans did not witness firsthand. Jews, according to Kazan, were unfairly second-rate citizens and Gregory Peck, perhaps the most Gentile human alive at the time, was to tell us all so through some deliberate method acting and overemphasizing the word “JEW” at every instance. This notion over-scored any nostalgia wrought in 1947.  Continue reading

[1970] Airport

Not Airplane!

Though released only a decade apart, Airplane! and Airport can’t have had themes and motives further from each other. The former, having been released at the onset of the goofy 1980s (think leg warmers and neon) is a comedy of the lightest proportions. The jokes are gimmes and the acting is over but all on purpose and the viewer is supposed to be in on the joke. It’s a smart comedy that way. Airplane is a comedy of comedies, still cited today as a tongue-in-cheek pièce de résistance of modern comedic film. The says it all.

Airport, 1970’s understated drama about fateful night at an airport where everything that can go wrong does, stars an ensemble cast whose stories intertwine in a series of random and intersecting events, all of which seem unconnected but together they both create and solve the main conflict. D.O. Guerrero, played by Van Heflin, is mentally ill, out of work and luck and wants to provide for his wife via insurance fraud. In a laughable amalgam of anachronism he both buys insurance (presumably approved on-site) and boards the plane with his homemade bomb, as the staff are entangled in office politics, the man blows up the plane. These themes are almost too relevant post-9/11. There’s humor here but nothing to the effect of Airplane! Airport is a drama about people and has flown under the radar of modern classics, largely because 1970 was Patton‘s year.

Air travel in film emphasizes missed connections, something that connects Airplane! and Airport, even though all evidence points against it. The setting is normalized either around an airport or on a plane and drama is built-in via strict scheduling. Unlike other forms of transportation, once an airplane embarks, thirty-thousand feet separates two major settings – the eponymous airplane and airport. Luckily, we have communication systems to iterate between the two, but for intents and purposes, 1960s and 1970s air travel provides a ripe setting for this concept of missed connections; the plane being just full or just departed. Lovers can literally be star-crossed, seeing as one of the milieu is closer to the heavens. Both movies excel in this regard, but Airport sets itself apart because drama is so much more compelling than comedy within this environment.

Not that Airplane! is any less successful, but Airport excels because a plane crash has no proxy. Its beginnings, complicated, its climax, usually avoided, and its dénouement, often resolved, either for better or worse. Within Airport‘s context, the intertwining stories feel natural, if not too realistic, allowing an “in” for the average viewer: lots of people have a wacky grandmother or aunt, lots of people have unresolved love issues, lots of people have uncertainty in their job and people questioning their motives. All the time. Airport showcases all of these themes through deft acting and tight scriptwriting through the highly dramatized medium of the aviation industry.

Not only do the themes and settings provide for compelling story, the legendary execution rounds out the quality of Airport. Both Burt Lancaster and Dean Martin had had storied careers up to this point, during and afterward.  One could argue that, like the year 1970 in film, Airport provided an apex for the actors as well. Airport also provided a continued launching point for actress Jacqueline Bisset and legendary Helen Hayes with her second Acting Oscar, almost 40 years after her first. These performances alone earn Airport fair standing as a classic, but agglomerated, Airport becomes legendary.

Which is unfortunate that Patton saw release in the same year. I have argued before that 1970 and Patton in particular provided a massive turning point for how movies are made and viewed. The other movies released in 1970 (MASHFive Easy Pieces and Love Story) along with Airport are unfortunate remnants of one of the greatest movies ever made. That said, Airport (and to an extent Airplane!) has earned a spot in the lore of the modern filmmaking, within or without the tombs of The Academy.

[1995] Sense and Sensibility

Of the 512 films nominated since 1927, only a handful exist that I have almost no interest in seeing. Sense and Sensibility was one of them: on my initial screen, I audibly cringed when I approached 1995 and saw that, along with Il Postino, I had yet to see Ang Lee and Emma Thompson’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1811 novel bearing the same name and the same tired, stepping-on-legos annoying people that plagued Ms. Austen’s novels and those of her contemporaries’, too. But it’s important to the blog and to my understanding of film history that I watch all the movies available irrespective of my aversion to them. I still find it crucial that the Academy chose each film based on specific criteria, and that each year’s winner exemplified some zeitgeist-affirming premise, or more likely, mood.

That said, it’s hard to argue against Sense and Sensibility for a nomination: the cast is impeccably English and Austen-esque, Thompson’s adaptation rightly (for film) exaggerates certain aspects about the Dashwood ladies’ wealth, and modernizes some of the male leads to better attract a more modern audience. Lee’s wide shots and modest cuts between scenes created, if nothing else, a beautifully filmed 2-hour adaptation. Really, though, nothing else: Austen, like the Brontë sisters, created this fantastical world where every sister or mother is clever and brooding and every man is either dashing or hopeless, but cruel nevertheless.

Thompson captured the essence of this story with fluidity and passion, but even with her sharp pen, the story suffers from a wanton ambivalence towards any of her characters and a waning clarity regarding the feelings of her moste brooding Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, sufferers of too many male suitors and not enough money to live in a gigantic estate, only a smaller one. At its core Austen’s novel and Thompson’s adaptation proxies Søren Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, within which the brooding lover decides whether she will choose sense or sensibility, never bits of both, but in truth makes no choice, simply an acceptance of fate. Oh the cruelty of Mrs. Dashwood’s husband’s first ex-wife! Oh, my word Colonel Brandon, dashing and handsome, are you too gentle and too schooled on the harshness of the world to love? Are you too sensible for me you old man of 35? Do I sense that you, Mssr. John Willoughby, dashing and handsome, schooled in the fantastical currency of culture and a passion for the senses? Will you betray the poor(ish, not really), beautiful Miss Marianne? Ah Hugh Grant! Will you show up shape-shifted into another bumbling do-gooder who can’t do good right?  Continue reading

[1969] Midnight Cowboy

What a difference a year makes. Between 1969 and 1970, between Midnight Cowboy and Patton, some monumental shift realigned what kind of film could earn the Most Prestigious Award in western filmmaking. Not only are both movies enshrined as Best Picture winners, but are almost thematic polar opposites released just a few months apart. If we extend a film metaphor, that what we capture and release on film accurately reflects some kind of zeitgeist, it follows logically that we can assume the world changed significantly between the end of the decade and the start of the next. But let’s talk about a film’s MPAA “rating:” the elusive “X” given to Midnight Cowboy and the harmless “PG” awarded to Patton in 1970. Was public attitude shifting away from the queer and more towards the centre and the normal?

Since its creation, the Motion Picture Association of America has attempted to create some soft and hard guidelines as to regulate the movie-making process. Originally founded in 1922 (making it older than the Academy), the MPAA sought to create a standard for filmmakers, actors, producers and financiers to ensure stability, both financially and, for a while, morally. For the first 46 years in existence, the MPAA sought (especially under Will Hays) to standardize theme, content and production to a code up to focus on “wholesome” films and ones that don’t include “profanity” or “indecency.” In 1968, after several revisions and unraveling of the restrictive code, Jack Valenti sought to rework Hays’ code into the modern rating system still in use today – shifting the morality burdens off of the producers and onto the viewers, and specifically the parents of children Hays tried to protect.

Curious, then that Midnight Cowboy won an Oscar as the first (and only) X-rated film. This fact is mostly irrelevant seeing as the definition of an X-rated film has changed even more dramatically from 1968 to 2014 than the code has from 1922 to 1968; the definition of profanity has changed more than the actuality of the content; the technology and clarity of the filmmaking process has overshadowed the content somewhat. More likely than not, the rating created fantastic hype around the film, whose only true X-rated premise delves into the correlation between male prostitution and homosexuality. These themes in 2014 most likely would earn this film a soft R-rating – and in fact the newly reformed MPAA rerated the X-rating into an R fewer than 2 years after its release. Continue reading

[1961] The Guns of Navarone

Ok – so it’s been months since I’ve posted. Here we go.

Nineteen sixty-one saw the release and nomination of two post-World War II epic dramas. One, Judgement at Nuremberg, focused on a singular moral dilemma during the Nazi trials held at Nuremberg after the Paris Peace Conferences. This film capitalized on a particular formula – the courtroom drama – to display deep character analysis while holding other aspects like plot, setting and time static. It’s a clever and logical ordeal: Judgement at Nuremberg did not invent this process, nor did it define it. Movies like All The President’s Men and My Cousin Vinny have taken a modern approach to the concept – with wildly different motives and results, but the premise remains the same. The other, The Guns of Navarone, instead morphs the epic war film into a rag-tag collective film. Think Ocean’s ElevenZero Dark Thirty….on quaaludes.

It’s an interesting mash-up of two storytelling modes and this merger is necessarily clunky: the backdrop is World War II, but the Nazi officers’ attitudes seem relatively nonchalant and the conflict seems rather subdued. Set in the Aegean Sea, this conflict has seemingly nothing to do with the Nazi agenda insofar as the plot needed a malleable enemy. This movie is really about the connections between the cast – an emblazoned Gregory Peck as Captain Keith Mallory, an expert mountaineer, a moody and gloomy Anthony Quinn as Andrea Stavarou and smart-mouthed David Niven as Corporal Miller. Among this cast is a further rag-tag group of “doomed” men (and later…women!), sent to the island of Keros to disable radar-enabled anti-ship guns so that the Allied forces can sneak in and rescue a few thousand stranded men. That’s the plot for two-and-a-half hours.

Now, think about the simplicity of this concept: Nazis with no agenda, a black-and-white conflict with minor and almost inconsequential consequences, a cast of characters whose skills are almost irrelevant and a hackneyed moral climate….so the character palate better match that of Judgement at Nuremberg. I won’t ruin a major – the only – real conflict in this film, but I will say that since the audience knows in advance that the overall conflict will be successful, shouldn’t it have hurt to include actual, subtle drama amongst the cast besides some hurt feelings. On a scale of zero to GladiatorThe Guns of Navarone is a Sesame Street. Continue reading

[1995] Il Postino

To use a clear black and white designation to describe a person’s character is antiquated and morally unjust. Very few, if any, people have a clear, dichotomous personality and even fewer have thoughts that are simply just or unjust. Moreover, the idea that a person – a thing even – can be purely good or bad is absurd. Surely even the most egotistical among us have a shred of humility; the most hopeless have a glimmer of promise; and the meanest have a sliver of altruism. As far as Il Postino is concerned, this concept is self-evident and its characters are shaped by this multifaceted and amorphous trait.

Magnificent in the lead, Massimo Troisi commands the screen with his characterization of our presumptuous and humble Mario Ruoppolo. Some might see this portrayal, which, unfortunately was Troisi’s last, as a masterstroke, a real brava performance whose weight can carry the plight of a real man desperate for his life. And it shows. Unhappy has a mere fisherman, Ruoppolo seeks his fortune delivering mail and messages to a lone resident, who happens to be esteemed Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda. Ruoppolo is presumptuous in his solicitation of Neruda. He’s humble and eager to learn to turn a phrase, yet he’s scared to act on impulse. He’s harmlessly dishonest and unflaggingly passionate about the cause – whether it be courtship of his wife-to-be, Beatrice, or about a “new” government.

Neruda, on the other hand plays a wonderful foil to Ruoppolo. He’s demonstrative and proud to Mario’s meekness. Here, these characteristics add together for an enriching dialogue between the two men that jumps off the screen as authentic and warm. Neruda responds to Ruoppolo’s eagerness with patience and deference. Where Ruoppolo is impulsive, Neruda is calculating and learned. Unfortunately, as we learn, Neruda’s casual dishonesty brings with it unintended consequences. Neruda winds and spins through the atmosphere, where Ruoppolo slashes and whips. The additive beauty of the relationship is that both stay within their respective character shells and therefore we, as the audience, start to care what happens to each of them, both separately and together. Continue reading

[1970] Patton

General George S. Patton, Jr. was a real sonofabitch. Ask his superiors; ask his infantrymen; ask the Germans and Italians; ask the Russians. Gen. Patton was the biggest sonofabitch of them all.

George C. Scott was also a real sonofabitch. Physically and intellectually gifted as an actor – with comically ironic roles in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove alongside the many iterations of comedic genius Peter Sellers and Robert Rossen’s The Hustler alongside man’s man Paul Newman – Scott’s most important and visceral role came with his adaptation of the celebrated US Army General in 1970’s Patton.

Here’s the most true assumption of Patton: George S. Patton and George C. Scott, the character and the actor, were not so far apart in reality that for Scott, playing Patton was no more a role than his left arm was an appendage. He carried the weight of one of the United States’ most controversial field generals so convincingly that he even refused the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1970 (for supposed political reasons), something, after having seen the film would not seem so out-of-place for the real-life Patton to have done. For one of the most underrated war dramas (even though it might be the best) the actor was not done acting when the camera stopped. It adds to the mystique of the film.

Patton is best known for its iconic opening scene where we first meet the curmudgeonly field general against an iconic backdrop of an oversized American flag. He is giving a pep talk to a most-likely beaten-down unit of the American army; time is unknown, place is undisclosed, but with his words, Scott is able to set up the viewer’s expectation and limits of his Patton. In the resulting 160+ minutes, no action or reaction is unexpected or . This is not a movie about plot twists and chaotic politicking. The internal narrative, that exclusive look into the character that only the viewer gets to see, is transformed, instead appearing as a history of battle sequences, from the early Peloponnesian triumphs of Ancient Rome to Napoleonic victories of the early 19th century. Because General George S. Patton, you see, was there, not in a figurative sense. It is the courage and immediacy of Scott that we the viewer can see that Patton truly believed he had a very real part in these wars of old. He reads the Bible, it seems, to infuse his very person from it a form of divine battle strategy. There is little doubt that, to him, Sun Tzu’s Art of War, read less as a philosophical treatise and more of a cut-and-dry guide. Perhaps War of War would have been a better title. Continue reading

The Beginning

          

I decided to start this project in the first week of April 2013. At this point in film lore history, the world has seen several hundred thousand films produced, filmed, screened, dissected and shelved. The goal of this project is to focus on the best of the best: the top 503 films ever nominated for the coveted “Best Picture” Award at each year’s culminating Academy Awards gala.

There have been, of course 86 “Best Picture” winners; most recently, and surprisingly to some, is Ben Affleck’s “Argo.”

But this pantheon of excellence as deemed by the politics of their day includes over 400 other films that have fallen short, just missing the chance to be etched into history as the film that best captured the hearts and minds of the eager filmgoer. This is where this project comes in: I will track down a copy of each and every film whose title has ever been spoken aloud last on the night of the award. I’ll watch it and report back with a brief commentary; a review of sorts.

Down to it: I did a quick statistical analysis to know where I stand – how much work I have ahead of me. As of April 9th, 2013 I have seen 94 of the 503, a little over 19%. Now, considering how many awful fantastic movies I’ve watched (including, for some reason, several viewings of Tommy Wiseau’s “The Room”) I’m proud of this number. For the purposes of this blog, it gives me a nice place to start. Here’s where I stand: Continue reading