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Archive for the ‘Drama’ Category

Driving Miss Daisy (1989)

Driving Miss DaisyDirected by Bruce Beresford

It has taken me forever to finally get my thoughts about Driving Miss Daisy written down. It’s partly because my feelings about it are complex, but it’s also because I have a new boyfriend, and while I like to write about movies, there are many things that are more enjoyable that I can do with my boyfriend, so this has been put on the back burner for a bit. Once I get in the rhythm of having a boyfriend again, posts should start appearing with more regularity. So without further ado, I present my thoughts on Driving Miss Daisy:

As is oddly common with so many of these movies from 1989, Driving Miss Daisy is a movie I grew up watching. Again and again and again and again. Yet somehow, I haven’t ever gotten tired of it. In fact, immediately after I finished watching Deliverance and was traumatized by it and wanted to get it out of my head, I turned on Driving Miss Daisy. It calmed me down and got the scary, icky feeling to go away. It reminded me that there is good in this world.

So what’s the story?  After 72-year-old Miss Daisy Worthen crashes yet another car, her son Boolie decides that she needs a chauffeur. Against her wishes, Boolie hires Hoke Colburn for the job. Although Miss Daisy refuses to even acknowledge that Hoke’s existence at first, their relationship slowly becomes one of mutual admiration and friendship, something amazingly unusual between and white woman and a black man in pre-Civil Rights era Georgia.

The Good: Because I have a hard time explaining everything else, I’m going to start with the screenplay. It’s easy. The screenplay is wonderful. The author, Alfred Uhry, adapted his own Pulitzer-prize winning play for the screen. In my opinion, the best way to get a good movie from another medium is to have the author of the original medium write the screenplay. They know why they wrote the play/book/short story and can put that motivation and intention into the screenplay. They are able to take out the less important things and expose the important core more easily than some random screenplay writer. Anyway, back to the screenplay – it’s delightful. The speech patterns and expressions of the American South are fun, and in this case, you get to hear ways of talking from the black people and the white as Hoke and Daisy become close and share so much of their lives.

Here is where I come to the tricky part that I’m not sure how to explain. To show the passage of time in a movie that spans 25 years, everything had to come together perfectly–and everything did. The film elements do double duty; they show things about the characters, like social class and funny characteristics, but they also have to show the passage of time. Instead of making one long paragraph explaining how all the film elements came together to really show that the relationship took time to grow from nothing to tolerance to true friendship, I’ll write about each one separately to highlight how exactly it did its job.  

Acting: Jessica Tandy as Daisy and Morgan Freeman as Hoke both give amazing performances. Daisy, who is described as “too much there,” is intelligence, fierce and iron-willed, unyielding in her ideas of standards. Tandy shows how Daisy softens as she ages, realizing in her old age that maybe some of her ideals weren’t so good after all.  Freeman plays Hoke as a man who is too proud to take money for nothing, a man who knows his own worth but isn’t pushy about it. I love the habit that Hoke has of working his mouth in a certain way; it’s something I’ve always respected about Freeman’s performance. As he ages, Hoke realizes that he and Daisy are on a much more equal footing, and he acts accordingly. Dan Akroyd is excellent as Daisy’s only child, the long-suffering Boolie. Although he respects his mother, he is often impatient with her stubborn ways. He mellows, though, especially toward the end when he realizes that he misses his mother’s funny ways. Boolie’s wife, Florine, is played by Patti LuPone. Florine tries hard to be kind to her impossible mother-in-law at the start of the movie, but eventually realizes that no matter what how hard she tries, Daisy is never going to accept her. Florine remains high-strung her entire life; some people just don’t change. LuPone shows this to perfection.

Set Decoration: As happens in life, the things surrounding the characters change. Since the movie is about driving, the cars are an obvious example of this. The car that Miss Daisy crashes, the catalyst for the events of the movie, is a brand-new 1948 Hudson. Her car is replaced by another exactly the same, but whenever Boolie decides it’s time for his mother to have a new car, every five years or so, the styles change. The car from the fifties is longer and sleeker than the 1948 Hudson, and the cars continue to get more aerodynamic as time goes on. The photography occasionally highlights the registration tag, which changes year to year as does the registration on cars in real life. Daisy often calls Boolie, and since Boolie’s wife, Florine, is fashion-forward, her telephones are, too. They have a standard black dial phone in the 1940s, but the phone Boolie uses in the 1970s is harvest gold. It’s a teeny detail, but it’s evidence of how hard the crew worked to make everything perfectly fit the time. Boolie’s factory is another place where we can see the passage of time. At the beginning, it’s full of factory workers manually running the machines. By the end, the factory has many more machines with fewer people; these people are keeping an eye on the machines rather than physically running them. Even the songs used keep the passage of time in mind. The songs are always accurate for the year. Daisy sings songs that were written before the turn of the century, ones that a woman of her age would have learned as a child. When Florine throws her <GASP> Christmas party, one of her records is “Santa Baby.” Boolie is looking skeptically at it, as it’s the first year it came out. I suppose the music isn’t usually set decoration, but in this case, where it’s used to set the year and not just the feeling of a scene, I think it fits.

Makeup/Hair: Every single makeup artist who needs to age people for a movie needs to take note of the artistry of Driving Miss Daisy. Growing up watching  this movie may be why I am so impatient of poorly-done aging. (I’m looking at you, Giant!). All of the actors get more wrinkly as the age, even Miss Daisy, who is so old to begin with. She becomes skinnier the way that some old people do as they age. Boolie gets chubbier and balder with the passage of time. Hoke looked like an old man to begin with, but the makeup (along with Freeman’s old man walk) manages to age him, too, with the wrinkles on his forehead becoming deeper and more pronounced. His hair  slowly goes from grey to white. Flourine gets some wrinkles, but she also looks incredibly preserved, leading the viewer to wonder if maybe Florine got some work done. Her hairstyles change with the times perfectly. (Also, her makeup is so well-done that I didn’t even recognize Patti LuPone, even after I realized that she was in the movie.)  Near the end of the movie, Hoke’s granddaughter drops him off at the Worthen home. She has an Afro. Again, a tiny little detail is snuck into the movie to show how much time has passed and how the world has changed.

Costumes: The costuming was so crucial for this movie. If the clothes hadn’t been right, no one would have believed that 25 years had passed throughout the movie. Daisy’s clothes don’t change much, of course, because she’s an older woman and is happy in the clothes she has. My great-grandmother was the same way; when I was in my 20s, she was wearing the same clothes I remembered from my  childhood. Hoke wears a uniform, so his clothes don’t really change. But Boolie’s clothes – oh, they change. The first time we see him, his suit pants are high-waisted and his tie is very wide. Throughout the movie, the pants’ waists get lower, the ties get skinnier, and the colors of the suits vary as the styles change. He wears a hat at the beginning, but has given up his hats by the end of the movie. He starts wearing glasses as he gets older. While Florine is always wearing year-appropriate fashions, she’s not in the movie nearly as much as Boolie is. I can imagine her picking his clothes for him so that he is always stylish, and I can see him wearing whatever she tells him to because it’s just not  worth the fight.

The Bad: The score itself  isn’t bad; I once had a film teacher say it was “nice,” and you “can tell it’s nice, because it has lots of clarinet in it. Clarinets are nice instruments.” The themes are fun and positive. The thing that bothers me is that it’s always there. It’s like the filmmakers just couldn’t stand the silence. I realize that was how film music worked at the time, but I’m glad that’s not the fashion anymore.

The Ugly: It’s too nice of a movie to have anything ugly in it per se, but there is ugly beneath the surface. I just accepted the story as it was presented in the movie when I was young, but now I feel kind of uncomfortable watching it. There’s almost an undertone of “Isn’t the white lady wonderful because she made friends with a black man?” The only thing that makes me okay with watching the movie is that Alfred Urhy based his play/screenplay on the relationship of his white southern grandmother and her black chauffeur. I guess I would like to see the story from both sides: how did Hoke feel about the relationship? How did the growth of this friendship change or not change his life? Part of me wants to say it was just the South in the 1940s-1970s and to accept what’s there, but the rest of me wants to point out that Hoke has a life outside of being Daisy’s driver, and we don’t get to see any of that. It’s a two-sided story that only gets told from one point of view.  

Oscars Won: Best picture; best actress in a leading role (Jessica Tandy); best writing, screenplay based on material from another medium; best makeup.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best actor in a leading role (Morgan Freeman); best actor in a supporting role (Dan Aykroyd); best art direction-set direction; best costume design; best film editing.

My Left Foot (1989)

downloadDirected by Jim Sheridan

I realized today that writing a post and getting it ready does absolutely no good if you don’t actually schedule it. Sorry for the delay. I promise I’m not always this flakey.

My family went to the movies one night when I was six, and I saw a poster for a movie called My Left Foot. I thought the title was weird, so I asked my mom what the movie was about. She said it was about a painter who used his left foot to paint, because that was the only part of his body that he could move. That explanation sounded so fake to me that I assumed she was lying; the movie must be about some grown-up thing she didn’t want to tell me about. When I saw My Left Foot for the first time 25 years later, I found out that not only was my mom telling me the truth about that bizarre plot, but that the movie was a true story. It blew my mind.

So what’s the story? When Christy Brown is born into a large Irish family in 1932, his parents find out that baby Christy has cerebral palsy. People assume that his parents will put him into a home, but his father refuses to do so. He grows up surrounded by his loving family, most of whom assume that he’s not really bright. Through much practice and perseverance, Christy learns to write the alphabet holding a piece of chalk with his left foot. From then on, Christy blooms into a brilliant painter and writer.

The Good: Daniel Day-Lewis is a brilliant actor. I would go so far as to say that he might be the most talented actor of his generation. I’ve seen him star in several movies without realizing it was him because he submerges himself so deeply into his roles. It’s no different in My Left Foot. Day-Lewis becomes Christy Brown. It’s almost frightening how well he does.

The supporting cast is excellent as well. Brenda Fricker was recognized with an Academy Award for her portrayal of Christy’s supportive, loving mother who refuses to give up on her son. Ray McAnally plays Christy’s father with equal gusto. He may not believe that his son is actually smart, but the love and pride that shines out of his eyes is beautiful to see. While Hugh O’Conor may not be quite as brilliant as Daniel Day-Lewis, he does a fantastic job in his incredibly difficult role of young Christy Brown, showing the audience the struggles of a young boy who just wants the people around him to understand what is going on in his head. Christy’s speech and physical therapist, Dr. Eileen Cole, who is intelligent and sympathetic, is played by Fiona Shaw. Shaw just slips into the role, becoming immersed in Cole’s personality.

Sometimes biopics fall into the trap of making the subject too perfect, almost saintly. The screenwriters of My Left Foot avoided making this mistake. While his achievements were incredible and inspiring, Christy Brown was sometimes still a jerk, and the filmmakers are not afraid to show this side of him. In the movie, he throws fits when he doesn’t get his way. He makes a horrible scene in a restaurant when he finds out that the woman he loves is engaged to someone else. He pesters a woman to go on a date with him even though she keeps telling him no. He has his good side, too, but the writers showed him as a whole person who has ups and downs and good and bad all mixed together. That makes for a wonderful screenplay.

The Bad: I didn’t get much of a sense of passage of time. Sheila, Christy’s older sister, is the only character whose clothes changed with time. I realize that this is a poor family in a place where fashion doesn’t change much, but there could have been other clues. Headlines in the papers? People talking about World War II in the pub? His brothers getting called up, maybe? It’s not a huge deal, but it left me feeling a little bit rudderless.

The Ugly: My Left Foot has nothing bad enough that it can be called ugly.

Oscars Won: Best actor in a leading role (Daniel Day-Lewis); best actress in a supporting role (Brenda Fricker).

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best director; best writing, screenplay based on material from another medium.

 

Field of Dreams (1989)

field-of-dreamsDirected by Phil Alden Robinson

I know this review is late; I’ve been putting off writing it. I have such mixed feelings about Field of Dreams that’s it hard for me to know what to say. Field of Dreams is a movie I grew up with. My dad would stick it in the VCR when he was working at home. As soon as the movie finished, Dad would simply rewind it and start it up again. He loved it so much that when my mom started to slim their movie collection down, there were three VHS copies and two DVDs of Field of Dreams among the other movies. I liked it when I was a child, but now I have very little patience for it. I don’t know what changed, but it was a chore to watch this movie.

So what’s the story? Reluctant farmer Ray Kinsella hears a voice in the cornfield: “If you build it, he will come.” Ray becomes convinced that it means that if he builds a baseball diamond in his fields, long-deceased baseball player Shoeless Joe Jackson will be able to come play baseball. Ray takes a leap of faith and makes the baseball field, and miraculous things happen.

The Good: Field of Dreams is based on the novel Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella. Because I had seen the movie so often, I was excited to read the book in high school when one of my teachers had it on the free choice book list. The book was not so great. I don’t say this often, but the movie is much, much better than the book. The screenplay takes all that is wondrous and beautiful from the novel and makes a much more concise, coherent experience. Making a screenplay that is better than the book is not easy; Phil Alden Robinson did a fabulous job with the adaptation.

James Horner’s score is hauntingly beautiful. It fits the movie so very well, ethereal and peaceful. It never takes over what is happening on the screen, but supports it as a good musical score should.

Most of the actors were perfect. Amy Madigan is amazing as Ray’s scattered, yet down-to-earth wife, Annie. She hits just the right combination of crazy, passionate, supportive, and stable. Annie is a complex character, and Amy Madigan nails it. Although author J.D. Salinger is a character in the novel, Salinger was adamant that he not be a character in the movie. James Earl Jones plays the replacement character, fictional author Terence Mann. At first truculent and reluctant to listen to Ray, Mann slowly turns into a believer and champion of Ray’s mission. Jones subtly portrays the changes of the character and brings Terence Mann to life. The minor characters are also well cast. Gaby Hoffman as Ray and Annie’s daughter Karin, Frank Whaley as Archie Graham, and the great Burt Lancaster as Doc Graham all do a wonderful job. I especially love the kindness that shines from Doc Graham’s face. The minor baseball players whose names I do not know have a good bromance chemistry. Shoeless Joe is played by Ray Liotta. He brings an intensity to the role that makes him believable; you can see the love of the game emanating from him. (Also, Ray Liotta is extremely attractive in this movie. I thought so even as a six-year-old girl.)

The Bad: My view of this may be tainted by personal feelings, but I’m not a big fan of Kevin Costner’s performance as Ray Kinsella. He has his moments (notably his fanboy excitement when he meets Shoeless Joe for the first time and then later during the kidnapping of Terence Mann), but he’s not consistently impressive. Again, this might be my feelings getting in the way. I am not a fan of Kevin Costner the man. I’m not entirely sure why, but he just strikes me as being full of himself.

It is never explained why Terence Mann needed to be brought to Iowa. Yes, he loves baseball, but there was nothing else. He’s fabulous character, and I love that he’s in the movie, but he doesn’t have a why, so it niggles at my brain.

The Ugly: In his introduction, Ray says that he was born in 1952. He and Annie both talk often about “experiencing the 60s,” especially during their college years at Berkley. But they would have turned 18 in 1970; they would only have had 70s experiences in college. They would have only experienced the 60s as teens in high school, and based on the strictness of their families, they wouldn’t have had much of a 60s experience then. That stupid wrong detail has bugged me for years. Come on, people. Details are important!

Oscars Won: None.

Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best writing, screenplay based on material from another medium; best music, original score.

Dead Poets Society (1989)

deadpoetssocietyDirected by Peter Weir

I saw Dead Poets Society for the first time during my sophomore year in high school. My English teacher technically tied it to the curriculum (it’s about a boarding school; we were reading A Separate Peace, which takes place in a boarding school), but I think she really just didn’t want to teach. Either that, or she had a crush on Robert Sean Leonard and wanted an excuse to watch the movie. This theory is not as far-fetched as it sounds; when we were talking about sexual objectification, we watched the volleyball scene from Top Gun.

So what’s the story? A unconventional new teacher inspires a group of teenaged boys at a boarding school in the late 1950s.

The Good: The screenplay for this movie is astounding. There isn’t one main character; Todd, Neil, Charlie Dalton, Knox Overstreet – they all have their struggles, their own voices, their own parts of the movie. John Keating is not so much the main character as he is the eye of the storm, the catalyst for the boys’ growth. All of the boys change, but in their own ways. Charlie finds a constructive way to use his humor and brash personality. Knox learns to stand up for love. Neil finds his passion. Todd finds himself. Keating’s speeches are written perfectly, from the choice of words to the choice of poems used. An entire relationship is shown by the fact that Neil uses the word “father” instead of “dad.” Even after almost twenty years, I hadn’t forgotten the line about being the intellectual equivalent of the 98 pound weakling. The writing is simply brilliant.

I can’t praise the acting enough. Robin Williams gives a magnificent performance as John Keating. The part calls for an actor who can balance slightly zany with inspiring and wise. I can’t think of a better actor for the part. Both Robert Sean Leonard and Ethan Hawke had their breakout roles as Neil Perry and Todd Anderson, respectively. (Of course, Ethan Hakwe has changed so much since 1989 that I had to check out his IMDb page to make sure it was the same Ethan Hawke that appears in Gattaca.) Josh Charles (Knox Overstreet), Gale Hansen (Charlie Dalton), Dylan Kussman (the traitor Cameron), and James Waterston (Pitts) are each completely believable in their roles. Also, I would like to thank the casting director for not casting 30-year-olds as high school seniors. The young men were all within a year or two of 18. They actually look like high school students. It’s a wonderful thing.

The cinematography adds a fascinating dimension to the film. The scenes where Keating is teaching are shot from different angles so that sometimes the viewer feels like one of boys watching him from a seated position, while other times the viewer feels like Keating, watching the faces of the boys as they learn to think for themselves. The whirling swirling cinematography of the scene where Todd finds a poem in himself allows us to see the Todd’s inner dizziness for ourselves.

The Bad: There isn’t a lot of original music in Dead Poet’s Society, but the themes written for the movie are a beautiful: stirringly inspirational with just a tinge of sadness. However, there is a section where the music is played on a synthesizer. Inspirational music played on a synthesizer does not age well.

The Ugly (Spoiler Alert): I have struggled with depression and despair. I have decided to kill myself more than once; I had plans and suicide notes, but never the guts to do it. I am incredibly grateful to the friend who had the foresight to not leave his handgun at my house when he stored most of his stuff in my closet. I mention all of this because I have learned that it takes incredible bravery to kill yourself. Neil looked ahead and saw a life he didn’t want stretching in front of him, but in my experience, hopelessness and despair (and for such a short time; he hadn’t even talked with his father at a calmer moment) is not reason enough to kill yourself. Maybe Neil had more going on than was shown in the movie, but he had accepted his life up until Keating encouraged his class to be true to themselves. Maybe he could have held out until graduation and then gone and lived his life, but I don’t think that a Neil who looks down the road of his life and believes that he will never have the courage to stand up to his father is a Neil who could have sufficient strength to take his own life. Cinematically, Neil’s suicide is necessary to the movie, but realistically, I don’t think it would have happened.

Oscar Won: Best writing, screenplay written directly for the screen.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actor in a leading role (Robin Williams); best director.

Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

Born_On_The_4th_Of_JulyDirected by Oliver Stone

Happy Independence Day! I thought that there could be no better day to review Born on the Fourth of July than actually on July 4. I remember when this movie came out. I was pretty sure it was about someone whose birthday was July 4, and I thought there could be no better thing. Fireworks on your birthday! How fun is that?* What I didn’t know was that even though Ron Kovic was actually born on the Fourth of July, the movie is not about someone’s amazing birthdays year after year.

So what’s the story? All-American kid Ron Kovic decides that it’s his duty to join the Marines and fight in Vietnam to stop the spread of Communism. He is injured and sent back home to a VA hospital, where he learns that he will never walk again. As he slowly becomes disillusioned by the way the government treats the veterans, he realizes that it’s possible to love America without blindly following the leaders. Ron begins to make his anger known, eventually becoming an anti-war activist.

The Good: I’ve never thought of Tom Cruise as a serious actor. He does action movies, and he does a good job in action movies, but I would not have guessed that Cruise could pull off a role like Ron Kovic. He does a really good job of being a man with a message, not just a man with a pretty face. The rest of the cast is also good, but the true standout is Willem Dafoe. He plays Charlie, another Vietnam vet who is also paralyzed. He’s not in the movie for very long; I’d say ten minutes at the most. But what he does in those minutes is amazing. His scene with Cruise is the best in the movie, the moment that made me connect with Ron more than at any other time. Although he was not nominated for best supporting actor, Dafoe’s performance is Oscar-worthy.

I was struck by the cinematography. When I hear the word “cinematography,” I often think of sweeping panoramic views. Born on the Fourth of July does have those, but Robert Richardson, the cinematographer, also uses extreme close-ups: the character’s faces fill the whole screen. This helps to highlight the inner struggles that the characters are feeling, as their world shrinks to nothing but what’s going on inside their heads. The editors worked with these shots, interchanging the shots of the characters as they argued to show that the characters were so wrapped up in themselves or their point of view that they couldn’t see anything else.

John William’s score is beautiful. Much of the orchestration uses a solo trumpet, which is reminiscent of soldiers fighting in wars, but which also represents Ron Kovic’s lonely fight, first against his own disillusionment, and then against the United States Government.

The Bad: The soundtrack is not great. Pop songs of the era are sprinkled throughout the movie. While some of the songs used fit naturally into the movie’s action, other songs seem to be placed completely randomly. There were way too many songs used, and “American Pie” was used twice. It almost felt like someone decided that they were going to put every single one of their favorite songs from the 1970s into the movie. It was so distracting.

I will get this out of the way before I criticize the storytelling of Born on the Fourth of July: Yes, I understand that this movie is based on a true story/an autobiography, and as such, had less leeway with how the story goes. However, what really bothers me about this movie was that they tried to show Kovic’s entire life. It starts with his idyllic childhood, showing him playing war and baseball with his friends, watching television with his family, and having his first kiss. Then it jumps to his high school days, with wrestling and the prom. Then Ron is on his second tour of duty for about 15 minutes, and then in the hospital, etc. Biopics do not usually try to show an entire life. There might be a flashback to childhood, or people may discuss their past with each other, but cramming in an entire life doesn’t really work. I suppose it’s the way it is because the real Ron Kovic wrote the screenplay with Oliver Stone; he probably felt like every bit of his life was important. But because Stone and Kovic tried to shove everything in, I had a harder time connecting to this movie. The characters were there and gone in a flash. I know that people can have an impact on you in just a few minutes in real life, but it didn’t allow for any relationships to come off as meaningful. Even Kyra Sedgwick’s character, Donna, who it seems is supposed to be Ron’s girlfriend, barely interacts with him. I had a hard time feeling Ron’s trauma from the war because only one quick incident from the war was shown. I feel like Stone and Kovic should have picked more impactful moments and perhaps taken a bit of liberty with the storyline to give it more focus. The meandering way that Kovic wanders through his story works well for books, but it’s not nearly as effective in movies. I usually like it when an author does the screenplay based on his work, but I think that’s not as good an idea for an autobiography.

I hate to compare movies; it’s just not fair. However, since The Deer Hunter, Coming Home, and Born on the Fourth of July are all stories about the Vietnam War and how it affected the people caught up in it, my subconscious comparison is more understandable. Both The Deer Hunter and Coming Home worked better as movies because they didn’t try to tell the backstories of every relationship. The backstories of the relationships come out more naturally in those movies because we see what their relationships are now. In The Deer Hunter, we don’t have to be told that Michael’s group of friends have been friends forever; it’s obvious in the way they interact with each other. We don’t have to be told that the whole town is devastated by the loss of their sons; it’s evident in the reactions of the people in the town to the tragedies of war. Born on the Fourth of July doesn’t get this quite right.

The Ugly: Again, I understand that it’s a true story, but it was incredibly selfish of Kovic to go tell Wilson’s family that Kovic himself had accidentally killed Wilson. It was self-indulgent, and while it may have been cathartic for him, it just added to the pain that the Wilson family was feeling. That scene left a bad taste in my mouth.

Oscars Won: Best director; best film editing.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actor in a leading role (Tom Cruise); best writing, screenplay based on material from another medium; best cinematography; best sound; best music, original score.

*I could have a holiday celebrated with fireworks on my birthday, too, but I live in the wrong country.

 

The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

The_Life_of_Emile_Zola_posterDirected by William Dieterle

Alfred Dreyfus=Dreyfus Affair=Emile Zola=J’acusse. Alfred Dreyfus was Jewish and this whole story has nothing to do with Richard Dreyfuss. This is what I remember from the European history class that I took in high school. I could not have told you what the Dreyfus Affair was about, just that it had happened. I knew Zola was an author who championed the lower and middle classes, but even though I’m a librarian and librarians are supposed to have read every book ever, I have never read anything by him. That is everything I knew about Emile Zola before I watched this movie. Yes, I realize it’s a biopic and therefore full of half-truths or stuff made up to make it more interesting, but I will never forget the intricacies of the Dreyfus Affair or the booming character of Emile Zola.

So what’s the story? The young writer Emile Zola has a penchant for getting into trouble.He writes about prostitutes, oppressed coal miners, and the ineptness of the French army. He loses jobs and gets called into the office of the Censor of Paris more than once on account of his controversial books, but he refuses to stop exposing the uncomfortable truths of French society. However, Zola eventually stops writing. His wealth insulates him from the poverty around him. The story stops following Zola at this point, and switches to the story of Alfred Dreyfus. The higher-ups of the French army discover that someone has been passing secret military information to the Germans. They decide to pin the blame on Alfred Dreyfus, mostly because he’s Jewish. Dreyfus proclaims his innocence, but he is convicted and exiled anyway. Evidence is later found that Dreyfus is not the traitor, but the army doesn’t want to admit their mistake and tries to cover up what they have found. At this point, Anatole French, one of Zola’s writer friends, urges Zola to remember his commitment to social justice and intercede on Dreyfus’s account. Zola is reluctant, but eventually writes what would become his most famous and influential piece: J’accuse.

The Good: Emile Zola was quite the character. It would have been easy to overplay him, to ham it up and turn him into a caricature of the man. Paul Muni, however, plays him with more subtlety. His optimism, his despair, his desire to stand up for the underdog, his self-satisfaction in later life, are all brought out brilliantly by Muni. Muni’s delivery of Zola’s last speech in court was so amazing that it brought me to tears. It’s a truly great example of acting.

Paul Muni is not the only great actor in this film. Joseph Schildkraut plays Alfred Dreyfus to perfection, bewildered as to why his beloved France would do this to him, despairing as he realizes that nothing he can do will convince the army that he’s innocent, joyful when he’s released and reinstated into the army. Gale Sondergaard is Dreyfus’s stalwart wife, determined to do everything in her power to reveal the truth and exonerate her husband. Zola’s defense attorney, played by Donald Crisp (not Claude Rains, even though he looks like Claude Rains here), doesn’t have a large role in the movie, but Crisp does such a good job expressing his exasperation with the court that blocks him at every turn. The brave Colonel Georges Piquart, the only officer to stand up for the truth, was very well portrayed by Henry O’Neill. I love a well-cast movie.

The screenplay was very good. The writers managed to be inspiring without crossing the line into cheesiness, there was enough humor to balance out the drama, and I loved the foreshadowing of the (paraphrased) line that if you get too fat, you can’t see past your own stomach. I assume some of Zola’s words were his own, especially his dramatic last speech, but it’s all woven seamlessly together.

The clothing and makeup were well done. The clothing styles changed as the years passed, giving a hint to how much time had gone by. The makeup captured the real-life people excellently. The movie Dreyfus matches photographs of the real Dreyfus so well it’s almost uncanny. The makeup done to age the actors was also good.  I don’t know what happened in the years between 1937 and 1956 when Giant was made, but makeup artists in the 1930s were wonderful at using makeup to make actors look decades older.

The Bad: The actual words that were spoken were good, but the screenplay was rather disjointed. The story started with Zola’s life, and then completely cut Zola out while it explored the Dreyfus affair. Zola came back eventually, but it just felt odd to change perspectives like that.

It was very hard to tell the many mustachioed army officers apart. I know the mustaches were the fashion of the time, and since they were officers, it makes sense that they were in uniform, but I was never exactly sure who was who. Dreyfus wore glasses and Colonel Piquart had a longer face, which helped, but other than that, I could not tell you which officer was which. It got very confusing.

The Ugly: Although there were some slight problems with The Life of Emile Zola, there was nothing so bad that it fell into the ugly category.

Oscars Won: Best picture; best actor in a supporting role (Joseph Schildkraut); best writing, screenplay.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best actor (Paul Muni); best director; best writing, original story; best art direction; best sound, recording; best assistant director; best music, score.

Mind-boggling Fact: The Dreyfus Affair wasn’t completely resolved until 1906, only 31 years before The Life of Emile Zola was made; Alfred Dreyfus himself died in 1935. That means that the Dreyfus Affair was as close in time to the filmmakers as 1986 is to us. 1986 is not that long ago. Crazy, right?

A Star is Born (1937)

Poster - A Star is Born (1937)_02Directed by William A. Wellman

Surprise! There are extra posts this week! I miscounted the movies, and since I had a specific movie in mind for next week, I needed to finish 1937. So for your reading pleasure, I present The Rest of 1937.

I had a hard time getting hold of this movie, even though there are several copies of it in my library system. I had put it on hold, but it didn’t come in, so I called the customer service line to see what was going on. The lady on the other end said, “Oh, let me place that on hold for you again; it should spark the hold then. So you want A Star is Born? Oh, here it is. I just love Judy Garland in that movie. Wait. You don’t want the one with Judy Garland? You want Janet Gaynor? Are you sure that’s the one you want? It’s rather old.” She still sounded skeptical after I assured her that, yes, I was looking for the version with Janet Gaynor. I ended up having to call a coworker to grab a copy off the shelf at the library I work at so that I could get it. Yes, young people like old movies and just because something has been remade (and remade three times) doesn’t mean that the first one is obsolete.

So what’s the story? Young Esther Blodgett runs away to Hollywood with stars in her eyes, convinced that she will become a famous actress as soon as she gets there. Esther finds that it’s harder than she thought, but soon she catches the eye of the famous actor Norman Maine and finds herself shooting to stardom, even as Norman’s career begins to fail due to alcoholism.

The Good: I had only seen Janet Gaynor in silent movies before I watched A Star is Born. I had to check to make sure it was the same actress; she made such a good crossover to talkies that I felt a little unsure. Gaynor captures the spirit of Esther Blodgett as she goes from starry-eyed girl to mature woman. She also makes sure that the film doesn’t descend into melodrama.  Norman Maine, a man of humor and despair, is played to perfection by Fredric March. In his third role in an Oscar nominated movie in 1937, Adolphe Menjou plays Oliver Niles, Norman and Esther’s sympathetic agent. There was no type-casting for him, by the way. The three (large) roles he played in One Hundred Men and a Girl, Stage Door, and A Star is Born were all completely different. He did an excellent job in each.  I’m always glad to see Andy Devine, and he does a good job (as always) as Esther’s brotherly neighbor Danny (and he looks so young!). May Robson gives a sassy performance as Esther’s strong-willed grandmother Lettie.

The screenplay was co-written by one of my personal heroes: Dorothy Parker. Her trademark wit is scattered throughout. Again, although the story is a good one, A Star is Born could easily have become a melodrama. Thanks to Parker and her colleagues Alan Campbell and Robert Carson, the screenplay was able to help avoid that.

A Star is Born is a study in contrasts. The costuming, art direction, and music all work together to highlight Esther’s rise to stardom. Esther starts out as a girl from the sticks; her family lives in a small, plain house in the freezing mountains. She wears simple, practical clothes. The music that underscores these homely scenes includes familiar melodies, such as “Auld Lang Syne.” When she moves to Hollywood, her simple clothes stay the same, but her poverty is evident through her boardinghouse, which is old, cramped, and falling apart. Her neighbor Danny’s suits are of poor quality and always rumpled. The music here is rather sweet and innocent. The night that Esther goes to waitress at a party for Hollywood’s elite, everything changes. The suits and dresses of the wealthy are of a much better quality and cut, and of course of the highest fashion. The homes of the wealthy are also beautiful and fashionable, clean and open. They even have more modern telephones – and Oliver’s is even gold plated. The music is jazzy and fun, because these wealthy people seem not to have a care in the world. As Esther becomes a star, her clothes become more and more fantastic. At first they are of better quality, but still conservative. They get more fashionable the wealthier she gets. Esther and Norman’s house that they buy together is amazing, too. It has spacious rooms, beautiful gardens, and even a swimming pool. The music becomes much more sweeping and dramatic as Esther’s life fills not only with luxuries, but also difficulties. However, no matter how much life changes for Esther, she is still the simple farm girl inside. She’s obviously sending money home, because when Grandmother Lettie comes to remind Esther that Esther is strong and can get through anything, Grandmother Lettie is wearing fashionable old lady clothes instead of the old-fashioned country clothes she wore before Esther left. As her house empties out around her, the gentle music is a reminder that life can get better. Although not always the flashiest elements, the costuming, art direction, and music subtly add an extra dimension to the movie.

The Bad: The story on its own is a tad melodramatic. The theme of a country girl making it big and marrying the man of her dreams is not unfamiliar, but the story of Norman’s alcoholism could be a story written by a teetotaler in the 1880s. The title would be something like “The Evils of Drinking,” and it would detail the story of a wealthy man who ended up dying broken and alone because of his inability to give up alcohol. The original ending would have ruined the movie. Luckily, due to the screenplay and the excellent acting, A Star is Born avoids becoming a heavy-handed tale; it is instead a sensitive portrayal of an all-too-common issue.

The Ugly: There’s nothing truly horrible about A Star is Born; I had to reach to even find anything bad.

Oscars Won: Best writing, original story.

Honorary Oscar Won: W. Howard Greene, for the color photography.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actor in a leading role (Fredric March); best actress in a leading role (Janet Gaynor); best director; best writing, screenplay; best assistant director.

Fun Fact: A Star is Born was the first all-color best picture nominee.