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Archive for May, 2015

The 21st Academy Awards: My Verdict

jane wyman

Jane Wyman with her Oscar for Best Actress.

Here’s an interesting fact: if you push “save draft” instead of “publish,” your blog post does not show up on your blog. Crazy, right? So I apologize that this post didn’t show up a couple of weeks ago when I reviewed the movies from 1948. I’m also sorry that I’ve been AWOL in general; I got bit by an organizing bug and started cleaning my house. That never happens, so I had to take full advantage of it. But I’m back on track for the coming week, and hopefully I will be able to get back in my blogging groove. So without further ado, I present the 21st Academy Awards.

One thing that I love about doing this project is that I get to see a lot of movies that I’ve been meaning to watch, but have never gotten around to. But it’s sad, too, because some of those movies that I want to watch and expect to be watching (mostly because they’re so famous) turn out not to have been nominated for best picture. For 1948, those movies include Key Largo, I Remember Mama, and Joan of Arc with Ingrid Bergman. I will still probably watch them someday, but it makes it easier if I have an excuse.

Well, I’m going to dive right in and say that I have no idea why Hamlet won best picture. It’s a fine movie, albeit kind of boring, but I would say that Johnny Belinda, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and The Snake Pit are all much better movies. Plus, they’re not boring. Maybe everyone thought that if they didn’t vote for a classic Shakespeare directed by Sir Laurence Olivier, a classic Shakespearean, it meant that they were all boorish hicks who didn’t know great art when they saw it. I don’t know. Whatever reasons the Academy members had to vote for Hamlet that year, they were wrong; it was not the best picture of 1948.

Having said that, I feel like I should say that Hamlet isn’t a bad movie. It has its high points; Laurence Olivier is definitely a high point. He is truly fantastic as Hamlet (except for the blond hair, which looks too unnatural) and completely deserved his best actor Oscar. I think it would have been a hard year to choose acting awards, though. There were many good performances across all the movies.

I do find the lack of nominations for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre interesting. It had many good elements, like cinematography, art direction, and music, that weren’t even nominated. Humphrey Bogart should also have been nominated for best actor. I feel like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre got snubbed in lots of categories. Admittedly, I haven’t seen all of the movies that were nominated for all the awards, but I find it hard to believe that there were that many movies that were that much better than The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in so many categories. But I am glad that John Huston won best director; he deserved it.

John Huston must have been crazy-busy for a couple of years leading up to 1948. He not only wrote, directed, and appeared in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but also wrote and directed Key Largo. I’m not sure how he did that, but it was an impressive feat. I can barely find time to work one job, watch a few movies a week, and keep my house in a semi-clean condition. There’s no way I could write and direct one classic movie, let alone two. He had serious talent.

1948 was an interesting year for nominees because two of the movies dealt with serious contemporary issues: mental illness and rape. Those are still serious issues, and movies about those topics are still rare. I was really impressed that the people working on The Snake Pit and Johnny Belinda were brave enough to tackle those topics.

How do I rank the nominees?

5.The Red Shoes
4.Hamlet
3.The Snake Pit
1.Johnny Belinda and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre(tie)

Why the tie? Both movies are so good in their different ways that I couldn’t put one above the other. Fun fact: They tied for best motion picture-drama in the Golden Globes that year. I think the Globes did a better job picking than the Academy that year.

Hamlet (1948)

laurence_olivier_hamlet_movie_poster_b_2aDirected by Laurence Olivier

There are lots of versions of Hamlet. Kenneth Branagh starred in one; so did Ethan Hawke. David Tennant and Patrick Stewart did an excellent Hamlet onstage a few years ago that was made into a Masterpiece Theatre production. Even Mel Gibson has played Hamlet. And those were all made in the last twenty years or so. There are so many others. Why is Hamlet so popular? I’m guessing because it’s a great story. It’s so psychologically dramatic, and it has the potential to have some really great moments. I like Hamlet. I like Shakespeare in general. I think there’s a reason why his plays have been celebrated for the past 400 years. And yet, I found this production dull. It has all the ingredients for greatness, but it somehow misses the mark.

So what’s the story? Prince Hamlet is depressed and reeling. His father died not long ago, and his mother is already remarried—to Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius, his father’s brother. It only gets worse when the ghost of his father appears and tells Hamlet that he didn’t die of natural causes; Claudius murdered him. Hamlet’s father gives Hamlet a mission – avenge his death.

The Good: The acting is excellent. I’m guessing (because I haven’t done the research) that many of the actors and actresses were well-trained stage actors. They all do a wonderful job. Laurence Olivier has some good moments as Hamlet. Jean Simmons does crazy beautifully as Ophelia. Felix Aylmer is appropriately stuffy and self-important as Polonius. Eileen Herlie shows sorrow, remorse, and confusion as Queen Gertrude. Norman Wooland is a sensitive Horatio. Plus this movie has nerd cred. Patrick Troughton (aka the Second Doctor), Peter Cushing (Grand Moff Tarkin and Doctor Who),  and Christopher Lee (Saruman and Count Dukoo) all have small roles. It’s kind of fun to pick them out.

The costumes are beautifully sumptuous. It’s almost enough to make me want to be a noble in Denmark in the Middle Ages. (Or at least in Laurence Olivier’s Middle Ages. Because I’m not sure on the accuracy of the costumes. But they are gorgeous.)

The Bad: In all the other versions of Hamlet I have seen, the filmmakers take advantage of the fact that they although they are making a movie based on play, they don’t have the constraints of a play; they don’t have to shoot on a stage, but can move outside or shoot on location or do anything their imagination tells them to do. In this Hamlet, I felt like I was always looking at a stage set. It wasn’t particularly impressive.

I will probably never say this about a movie again, but it needed more music. I’m usually a fan of restraint in movie soundtracks, but I think more music would have helped it feel less stark and dull. Don’t get me wrong; the music itself isn’t bad. It’s quite good, in fact, but there should have been more to help the movie along.

While Laurence Olivier is a great actor, and he did a marvelous job in the role, I feel like he was too old to make a convincing Hamlet at that point in his life. It might have worked on stage where the audience doesn’t get any close-up views of him, but his age shows in the film. Also, he does not make a convincing blond.

The Ugly: It is so boring. I can’t put my finger on what makes it that way, but I had to rewind at least five times because I kept falling asleep. I wasn’t mentally captivated by this film. It was a fine film, but it didn’t stand out in a particularly memorable way.

Oscars Won: Best picture; best actor in a leading role (Laurence Olivier); best art direction-set decoration, black-and-white; best costume design, black-and-white.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best actress in a supporting role (Jean Simmons); best director; best music, scoring of a dramatic or comedy picture.

Fun fact: I didn’t plan it this way, but today is actually Laurence Olivier’s birthday. Happy 108th birthday, Mr. Olivier!

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

the-treasure-of-the-sierra-madre-poster-11Directed by John Huston

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was one of the few movies I had already seen but had no desire to see again. I checked it out from the library a while ago, probably because I had been told it was an adventure movie, which I tend to love, starring Humphrey Bogart, who is awesome. It was so boring that I didn’t even make it halfway through before giving up. So I was really surprised this time around at how much I liked this movie. It’s amazing. Now I’m wondering what was wrong with me the day I watched it the first time.

So what’s the story? Dobbs and Curtain are two American men down on their luck in Mexico. Both of them just want to make enough money to make it back to America, but they can’t find work. They meet Howard, an old prospector, who is willing to help them find gold, but he warns them that gold always carries a curse.

The Good: Like I said before, Humphrey Bogart is awesome, but I’ve never seen him quite like this before. He often plays crusty people on the fringes of society, but he always seems to have a heart of gold underneath. Not here. He’s a little frightening, really. I’m not sure why he wasn’t nominated for a best actor Oscar. Tim Holt plays Curtain, who is just an all-around nice guy with dreams of a bigger life. Howard is played by Walter Huston, director John Huston’s father. Normally I’m not a fan of nepotism, but I think this was a case where the perfect person for the role just happened to be related to the director. Huston did such a good job. He was patient with the greenhorns, yet you could see him waiting for the other shoe to drop. He had enough experience and wisdom to know how things were going to go. Huston managed to show all of that without getting annoying, which can be tricky in situations like that.

The cinematography is gorgeous. It was shot on location in Mexico, and the cinematographer took advantage of that. But there are also lots of intriguing camera angles and good moody lighting which help contribute to the movie.

The excellent score was masterfully written by Max Steiner. I’ve decided he could score pretty much anything and it would be amazing. He could score a movie of someone silently reading a phone book and it would become interesting.

The Bad: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre has the usual first half of the 20th century problem with racism, but it’s not the worst I’ve seen. It also moves a little bit slowly at times.

The Ugly: This movie has the single worst fistfight I have seen in any movie ever. The camera angles are all wrong, and you can see that the punches aren’t actually connecting, even though the foley artist is making the correct sounds. It’s sooooo bad. I was cringing all the way through.

Oscars Won: Best actor in a supporting role (Walter Huston); best director; best writing, screenplay.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture.

The Red Shoes (1948)

red-shoes-02Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

This was another movie I first saw on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) about ten years ago. I wonder now if they were spotlighting the movies from 1948, because it seems strange that I would have seen both The Snake Pit and The Red Shoes at the same time if they weren’t. Anyway, when I saw The Red Shoes then, I liked it so much that I when I was home from college on a break, I checked it out from the library and made my younger sisters watch it. I was kind of excited to see it again, but I didn’t like it nearly so much this time around. That made me wonder what has changed about me or my tastes. I’m not sure what it is, but whatever happened in the last ten years, I noticed some definite weaknesses that I hadn’t noticed before.

So what’s the story? Two young artists, composer Julian Craster and dancer Victoria Page, are taken under the wing of ballet master Boris Lermontov. With his guidance and support, both are able to soar to new heights in their respective arts. But when Julian and Victoria fall in love, they will have to live with the consequences of their choices.

The Good: The dancing is beautiful. Moira Shearer, who played Victoria, was a ballerina, not an actress. Her acting is competent, nothing special, but her dancing is glorious. Leonide Massine is Ljubov, the choreographer/featured performer (sorry, I don’t really know ballet terms) of Ballet Lermontov. He’s a fabulous dancer (and a very good actor).

Most of the acting isn’t anything special, but Anton Walbrook does an excellent job as Boris Lermontov, the man who cares about his ballet company more than anything in the world, who only values people for what they can contribute to his art.

I loved the music. The composer, Brian Easdale, had to not only write a score, but also music for ballets. It was all really very lovely.

The Bad: The Red Shoes ballet kind of annoyed me. There were a couple of special effects (like the red shoes suddenly appearing on Victoria’s feet, magicked on by the shoemaker) that wouldn’t have really worked in a real stage ballet. I hate it when a movie is supposed to be showing something real, but takes advantage of movie special effects. It’s cheating. And stupid.

The Ugly: When you take a creative writing class, one of the first things you learn is “Show, don’t tell.” That means that you shouldn’t say, “Victoria and Julian are madly in love;” you should actually show them talking together more than once. You should show meaningful looks and lingering hand holding. This rule should apply to movies, but the writers of The Red Shoes apparently had never heard of it. The love story was extremely weak, which made it hard to believe the rest of the movie. I’m not sure how I missed that the first time around, but I must not have been as discerning when it comes to love stories ten years ago as I am now.

Oscars Won: Best art direction-set decoration, color; best music, scoring of a dramatic or comedy picture.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best writing, motion picture story; best film editing.

The Snake Pit (1948)

snake pitDirected by Anatole Litvak

My family didn’t have cable TV when I was growing up. We didn’t watch much TV (although we watched lots of movies on the weekends), and my mom thought that cable didn’t have much to offer, so my first real experience with cable was in college, when most of my apartments offered free cable. That’s when I found out that my mother was right; cable didn’t have much to offer. But there is one awesome cable channel that I still miss: Turner Classic Movies. It’s a fabulous station that shows (surprise) classic movies. I couldn’t always convince my roommates that it was a fun station, but when I was home alone sick or just on a quiet night, that was my channel of choice. And that is where I first saw The Snake Pit. At that point, I missed the beginning, but I was still blown away by the honest look at the treatment of the mentally ill in the 1940s.

So what’s the story? Virginia Stuart Cunningham has had a mental breakdown and has been committed to a mental institution in upstate New York. She doesn’t know where she is or why she’s there at first, but with the help of a caring, patient doctor, she slowly discovers what brought upon her breakdown.

The Good: Olivia de Havilland is always good, but she is amazing in this movie. Her acting is never over the top; she makes Virginia a very sympathetic character. She puts a human face on mental illness. Leo Glenn as the understanding Dr. Kik also does a good job. The cruel Nurse Davis is played wonderfully well by Helen Craig.

The story and screenplay were wonderful. There is still a lot of prejudice and misunderstanding when it comes to mental illness, and based on the care Virginia received, I’m sure it was even worse in the 1940s. And yet this movie is very respectful and understanding toward the mentally ill. None of the patients were mocked or despised by the filmmakers themselves. In fact, the villain of the movie, Nurse Davis, is a nurse who openly despises her charges. Her treatment of Virginia and the other patients is shown as cruel and terrible. The sensitivity and kindness that the movie shows towards people with problems gives hope that things will get better.

The Bad: Some of the treatments used on the patients are not nice. Watching people get electroshock therapy or being put in a straightjacket is kind of scary, but it does make me glad that we have come so far in the treatment of mental illness.

The Ugly: There is nothing really ugly about this movie. It’s really very good.

Oscar Won: Best sound, recording.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actress in a leading role (Olivia de Havilland); best director; best writing, screenplay; best music, scoring of a dramatic or comedy picture.

Johnny Belinda (1948)

johnny-belinda-movie-poster-1948-1020435490Directed by Jean Negulesco

When I was a little girl, my family always had a copy of Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide on hand. This was in the days before IMDb, and we liked to look up people who looked familiar in movies to figure out what other movies they had been in. In the back of the books was a list of the Oscar winners for best picture, actor, actress, and director for every year. Johnny Belinda was on that list because of Jane Wyman’s win, but that was all I knew about the movie before I saw it. I had a vague idea it was about a boxer; I’m not sure why. It most definitely is not. It’s a beautiful and moving story about people in a small town.

So what’s the story? Dr. Robert Richardson is the new doctor in a small fishing village in Nova Scotia. He goes out to the mill to help the mill owner and his sister deliver a calf. There he meets Belinda, the owner’s daughter, who is a deaf-mute. Because she can’t communicate, everyone in town assumes she is mentally incapable, but the doctor recognizes her intelligence and teaches her lip-reading and sign language. Belinda begins to blossom under his tutelage, but when she is raped and becomes pregnant, the town turns on her and the doctor.

The Good: Johnny Belinda was deservedly nominated in all four acting categories. Jane Wyman plays Belinda with sensitivity and tact, never over-acting. It’s a fabulous performance. Lew Ayres is the outsider doctor who ties to a more modern society allow him to help a woman who would have been stuck in her own world for her entire life. Belinda’s father is played by Charles Bickford. He grows from an impatient, rather uncaring father to a man who is proud of his smart, beautiful daughter. Agnes Moorehead, perhaps best known for her role of Endora in Bewitched is Belinda’s aunt Aggie. Aggie isn’t impressed with Belinda’s progress and is unkind to Belinda until Belinda becomes pregnant. At that point, Aggie becomes protective and loving. It’s a quick turnaround, but it’s very realistic. All of those performances were fantastic. And they weren’t the only ones. Stephen McNally is nicely creepy as the cocky Locky McCormick (and yes, his name is Locky, not Lucky; it’s short for Laughlin, apparently), and Jan Sterling plays the vain, pettish Stella perfectly. The whole movie is very well-cast.

The screenplay was also excellent. The story is sad, yes, but there were moments of humor, because that’s life. I loved the part where Dr. Richardson takes Belinda into a bigger city to see a doctor about her deafness. She looks into the window of a store and sees a brassiere for the first time. She has no idea what it is, and asks Dr. Richardson to explain it to her. He has no words for her, and the look on his face is priceless. Moments like that keep the movie from being too depressing. The subject matter is not easy, but the screenplay treats it sensitively. It’s very well done.

The music underscores the movie well. It helps plot Belinda’s moods and her growth as she becomes more a part of her world. The cinematography helped with that, too. Both elements added a lot to the movie.

The Bad: I had a hard time figuring out what time period the movie was set in. The townspeople didn’t look particularly modern, but the doctor’s clothes were completely 1940s. But then I thought about my grandma. She grew up in a small cabin in backwoods Tennessee in the 40s. Her family didn’t have electricity until after World War II. I’m sure her family wasn’t wearing the latest fashions, either. So although it took me awhile, I don’t have a major beef with it. If you’re aware that it’s contemporary to the time that the movie was made, it shouldn’t bother you at all.

The narration at the beginning bothered me, but I can’t think of another way they could have established some of the background without a lot of conversation that would have seemed kind of stilted and pointless, so I guess I can’t really complain.

The Ugly: I have never seen a more obvious stunt dummy than in this movie. I know this movie was made in the 1940s, but still. Real bodies don’t move like that. It makes a high-tension moment a little less dramatic.

Oscar Won: Best actress in a leading role (Jane Wyman).

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actor in a leading role (Lew Ayres); best actor in a supporting role (Charles Bickford); best actress in a supporting role (Agnes Moorehead); best director; best writing, screenplay; best cinematography, black-and-white; best sound, recording; best film editing; best music, scoring of a dramatic or comedy picture.

The 45th Academy Awards: My Verdict

45th_Academy_AwardsAll I can think to say about the 45th Academy Awards is: What were they thinking? Some of the awards and nominees are so odd. So many people were put into the wrong category. For example, while Paul Winfield did an excellent job as the father in Sounder, he wasn’t in most of the movie. I would have thought he belonged in the best supporting actor category. And frankly, The Godfather is not about Vito Corleone, but about Michael. Al Pacino should have been nominated for best actor, not best supporting actor (Al Pacino thought so too, and didn’t attend the ceremony out of protest). I understand that Marlon Brando was an established actor, but his role in The Godfather was a supporting role, and that’s where his nomination belonged. I also felt that the man who actually won for best supporting actor didn’t even deserve to be nominated. Joel Grey did a fine job singing and dancing in Cabaret, but he didn’t appear outside of his cabaret performer makeup. He was only shown onstage at the Kit-Kat Club. We know nothing of his character’s life, backstory, anything. I just don’t understand that nomination. If the Academy wanted to award great singing and dancing, then that’s fine. But the award is called “Best Actor in a Supporting Role,” not “Best Singer and Dancer”. And if they did want to give an award for a singer in a supporting role, I would have nominated John Cullum for his role as Edward Rutledge in 1776. He not only sings, but he also acts. Maybe I’m just not as good a judge of acting as I thought I was, but the nomination (and win) of Joel Grey is truly puzzling to me.

I will admit right here that 1776, although a musical, is one of my favorite movies. I could watch that movie over and over and be happy about watching it every time. I love the songs and the music and actors. The costume design is fantastic, too. And yet it was only nominated for one Oscar – cinematography. That also confuses me. 1776 does have a couple of flashy cinematographic moments, but overall, it doesn’t compare to the cinematography of The Godfather or Deliverance, neither of which were nominated. Cabaret won for cinematography, which is odd. It didn’t have bad cinematography, but it wasn’t nearly as impressive as The Godfather.

Actually, I’m just now realizing that of the awards that I feel able to judge, the only awards I would have given to Cabaret are best actress and best film editing. Liza Minnelli was admittedly fabulous as Sally Bowles, and I liked the way they cut between the musical numbers in the Kit-Kat Club and Sally’s real life. It was effective. But I would have given best director to Francis Ford Coppola for The Godfather over Bob Fosse. I can’t judge best sound, and I have no clue whatsoever what “Best Music, Scoring Original Song Score and/or Adaptation” means. I know that the number of Academy Awards won does not necessarily correlate with how good a movie actually is, but I feel like The Godfather got a little shafted. It only won three awards to Cabaret’s eight.  At least the Academy got one award right – The Godfather truly deserved its best picture win.

How do I rank the nominees?

5. Deliverance
4. Sounder
3. Cabaret
2. The Emigrants
1. The Godfather

Join me next week for reviews of dramas about murder, rape, mental illness, and ballet!