Sunday, January 31, 2010

Oscar Year 1969--Best Actor

Five of the cinema's most enduring leading men landed in the 1969 competition for Best Actor.  Two of most memorable roles of the year were played by Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman.  Both were in the same film and no doubt cancelled out each other's votes; Hoffman may have competed more successfully in the Supporting category.  No one who has ever seen "Midnight Cowboy" will ever forget Joe and Ratso, in two of the finest screen performances to emerge from the '60's.  Another two of the  nominated actors were industry giants who had competed many times in this category; tragically, neither Richard Burton (seven nominations) nor Peter O'Toole (eight nominations) ever won an Academy Award; O'Toole managed another unsuccessful bid just a couple of years ago in "Venus".  Burton was in familiar territory in a costume epic, playing a royal figure with bravado.  O'Toole played against character in a musical, and while critics admired his realization of a beloved character, his singing skills were cooly received.  Rounding out the category was one of the most popular screen legends in movie history, and his very nomination was a sentimental nod for his entire career.  John Wayne good-naturedly parodied his own screen persona and created a lovable character.  I would argue that any of the other four actors were more deserving by virtue of their technical skills; but it was Wayne's year, and the Academy found a vehicle to justify their recognition of him at last.

Richard Burton, "Anne of the Thousand Days".  By 1969, the portrayal of King Henry VIII by Richard Burton was close to typecasting. Well-loved in his Broadway triumph in "Camelot", he earned Oscar nominations for costume epics like "The Robe" and "Beckett" before turning in a fine performance in this film.  Burton's strengths were the intelligent scowl, the slowly-building  dramatic speech, and his perfect diction.  Here he finds a core of humanity within the bluster, and his interpretation of Henry gives a by now too-familiar story (told just three years before in the Oscar-winning "A Man For All Seasons") an originality and a fresh intensity.  It is possible that, in spite of these strengths, he was upstaged by his red-hot co-star, fellow nominee Genevieve Bujold.  Or, maybe Burton's devastating portrayal of George in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" three years before rendered his return to the stately pageantry of royal England seem like a retread.  Or maybe the costume epic was losing favor with voters and audiences alike.  Burton was one of those performers who was always so good that Academy voters took him for granted.  Whatever the reason, Burton's nomination was assured but he never emerged as a favorite to win, sentimental or otherwise.  Other than an attempt to appeal to a tried-and-true audience for these epics (as well as creating Oscar-bait), the inclusion of this movie in the Oscar race, let alone its release during the heady protest era of 1969, seemed  almost anachronistic.  Burton gives an expert realization of the character; but he is just one element in a movie filled with visual splendor and the amazing presence of Bujold.  Interesting note: Hal Wallis, who produced " the historical epic "Beckett" which earned Burton (and Peter O'Toole) nominations, also produced "Anne of the Thousand Days" and John Wayne's Oscar vehicle "True Grit".  The two films might have been conceived on different planets. I wish I could have asked Wallis which of his two nominated actors he was rooting for in '69.

Peter O'Toole, "Goodbye, Mr. Chips".  In "Goodbye, Mr. Chips", Peter O'Toole had the daunting task of re-creating one of the most lovable screen characters in all of filmdom: the shy, gentle English schoolmaster Arthur Chipping, who earns the admiration of his students and the love of a free-spirited woman in the decades during and after World War II.  It had been thirty years since the classic original version won Robert Donat an Academy Award (beating among others Clark Gable in "Gone With the Wind").  Considering the unrest on school campuses during the late 1960's, it is interesting that two of the biggest Oscar contenders of the year were from stories about schoolteachers in more traditional times.  "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" was as sentimental as "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" was tough.  While this re-make of "Chips" found modest success on the strength of its beloved story and the popularity of its stars Peter O'Toole and popular singer Petula Clark, it faced some critical lambasting for adding songs and turning the production into a sort of musical.  O'Toole struggled gamely with his numbers, often "speaking" the lyrics in the manner of Rex Harrison in "My Fair Lady".  The music, by Leslie Bricusse, was pleasant but mediocre despite its Oscar nomination for Adapted/Original Music Score. Told as a straight drama, the film works exceedingly well.  This role was something quite different for O'Toole, who made his reputation in epics and costume dramas.  In the previous year he scored his third nomination with his rip-roaring portrayal of King Henry II in "The Lion in Winter". In "Chips", O'Toole is called on to communicate with a whisper rather than a roar. O'Toole's subtlety is everywhere in evidence, most notably in his scenes with Clark, who provides marvelous support, and in the quietly tragic sequences when the devastation of the war in Europe hits too close to home.  It is also to his great credit that he is never upstaged by the boys with whom he shares numerous dramatic scenes and musical numbers.  While this is rarely cited in discussions of O'Toole' finest work, it is nevertheless a fine piece of work in a kind of big traditional musical drama that would all but disappear after the late 1960's.

Dustin Hoffman, "Midnight Cowboy".  Dustin Hoffman's portrayal of the sickly Ratso Rizzo in the cutting-edge, X-rated "Midnight Cowboy" is resonant in so many ways and works on so many levels one hardly knows where to begin.  It was a brave performance, an unforgettable appearance.  It was funny and sad and human.  Afraid of being typcast in bland romantic leads, Hoffman took the risk and portrayed the thieving, tubercular cripple who lives in a condemned New York apartment building, forming an unlikely friendship with Joe Buck, a naive hustler from Texas portrayed by fellow nominee Jon Voight.  While Voight is the emotional heart of the film, Hoffman is its conscience, grounded in the reality of the loneliness, sickness, and survival-at-all costs mentality that was the New York City of their existence.   Not appearing until nearly thrirty minutes into the film, and then introduced almost off-handedly, Hoffman's Ratso soon embodies the dark aspects of the film's descent into a hell.  At the same time, he introduces the film's first real moments of affection.  His angry epithet to a cab driver, pounding the hood and crying "Hey! I'm walkin' here!" is legendary.  Hoffman insists that the moment was improvised, although Producer Jerome Hellman has disputed that.  Chances are that the scene was scripted but a miscue caused hoffman to react differently than was expected; he stayed in character to save the take, and it wound up in the movie.  Hoffman connected to young audiences everywhere by the time he took the iconic final bus ride with Katharine Ross in "The Graduate" in 1967; in "Cowboy" he ends up in another fated bus ride in an act of almost Christ-like sacrifice that makes the troubling resolution to the film all that more resonant.  I will never forget Hoffman's command of the camera when Ratso can no longer walk; his plaintive "I'm scared" shakes a viewer deeply.  On the other hand, Hoffman's sly portrayal of Ratso's shyster character is filled with humor and keeps the film lively even in its darker moments. In a film filled with favorite scenes I particularly enjoyed Ratso's sprightly daydream of his life in Miami Florida, cooking for rich ladies and out-running Joe on the beach.  Hoffman's Ratso is a character we warm to and care about, and we are as devastated as Joe is by his fate.  This is a potent portrayal in an endlessly inventive work. Given the lack of screen time relative to Voight, it may be argued that Hoffman might have had a real chance at an Oscar had he competed in a Supprting role. Hoffman would go on to win two Oscars and have a long and varied career (he won the British Academy Award for Best Actor in "Cowboy"); but this will always be my favorite of Hoffman's portrayals.

Jon Voight, "Midnight Cowboy". This was Jon Voight's first leading role, and this film belongs to him.  It is one of the greatest screen protrayals ever, up there in my estimation with George C. Scott's "Patton" or Brando in "On the Waterfront".  Amazingly, he almost lost the role of Joe Buck to Michael Sarrazin, who more cloesly fit the character's description in James Leo Herlihy's novel.  After Sarrazin's representative failed to agree to terms, Voight's screen test was reconsidered,  and with the urging of Dustin Hoffman, the role became Voight's.  Joe Buck is a naive innocent with a troubled past. Decking himself according to the images of cowboys he learned as a child at faded drive-ins, he heads to New York thinking his Western garb will attract rich lonely women only too glad to pay him for his attentions.  Soon overwhelmed by the crowds, the cruelty and the loneliness he encounters in the big city, and rejected by all but hustlers and a desperate gay student (Bob Balaban), he meets Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), a sickly con-man who first cheats Joe, then offers him hospitality in his condemned apartment as winter approaches.  It is soon apparent, through flashbacks and edgy dream sequences, that Joe is a very troubled young man indeed, haunted by a sordid affair with a girl from home, left desolate by the death of his abusive grandmother, and needing to prove himself sexually after being subjected to a gang-rape by a group of redneck toughs.  Voight is funny, endearing, sexy, kind and child-like, vulnerable and saddened by the world around him. Voight raises the register of his voice slightly to create the gee-whiz innocence of his character, as Joe moves from one shocking and degrading encounter to another,: from a wise streetwalker (Sylvia Miles), to a deranged Evangelist; from a creepy mother-and-son-and-rubber-mouse encounter in a dreary diner, to that lonely student looking for sex in a theater balcony; from a Warholesque couple and their drugged-out partygoers, to a middle-aged john wanting love and violence.  The movie's frequent theme-refrain, Nilsson's "Everybody's Talkin'", is a perfect musical representation of this idealistic young man slowly losing hope.  Voight cleverly keeps the pain in check, and so Joe always seems ready to move to another adventure, and allows viewers to thoroughly engage with his character and follow him anywhere.  When Joe finally resorts to the brutality he at first rejects, it is a deep shock to the viewer, and Voight consummately shows Joe's inner discord, the confusion mixing with anger and violence in his expression, his determination to survive and help his friend get well.  Jon Voight's Joe Buck becomes real to us, and in the final shot of him on the bus holding his friend in his arms, we agonize with him and wonder, as he does, what will become of him.  This is an incredible role and a terrific portrayal by Voight that might have been a winner in any other year.

John Wayne, "True Grit", Oscar Winner. I think the Motion Picture Academy wanted to find some way to honor John Wayne for a long time. A resilient veteran of scores of films since the 1930's, Wayne was an enduring and well-loved screen presence. His appearance in a film represented values held dear by the conservative members of the movie industry.  With "True Grit", Wayne finally got a role in which he could relax, enjoy himself, and turn his well-known screen persona upside-down.  Wayne would most likely never again play such a riotously likeable role as Marshall Rooster Cogburn, and for successfully realizing the part without one misstep, the Academy had its reason to award him at last.  Playing a fat, lazy drunken lawman who reluctantly agrees to help a young girl (Kim Darby) avenge her father's killers, he successfully finds the comedy in his character, rallies the affections of the audience by "getting the bad guys", plays hero to the girl that hires him, and does amazing stunt work.  Be prepared to cheer when Wayne shouts "Fill your hands, you son of a bitch!", grabs the reins in his teeth and gallops away blazing, a gun in each hand.  It's goofy, it's nothing but fun.  It isn't great acting, but you're just happy to see Wayne accomplishing this portrayal so effortlessly.  Oddly enough, Wayne gets an unlikely tribute in the film "Midnight Cowboy."  When Dustin Hoffman claims that Jon Voight's "cowboy crap" doesn't appeal to the ladies but is "strictly for fags", an incredulous Voight blurts out, "John Wayne! You're gonna tell me he's a fag?"  So, the cutting-edge movie year of 1969 sees the Academy Award for Best Actor go to an old-guard sentimental favorite.  They even forgave Wayne for his embarrassing polemic, "The Green Berets", just the year before.  The Oscars that year symbolized the divisions in ideology in the movie industry as well as the world.  It was perhaps appropriate that as the industry started to change forever, one of filmdom's indelible personalities was singled out for recognition.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Oscar Year 1969: Best Actress

Among the Best Actress nominees of 1969 is one performance that I admire a lot, in one of those historical costume epics that were the staple of the Oscars through the 1960's. Genevieve Bujold burst on the scene in this film to loud critical praise.  Her critical recetption then recalls the enthusiasm today for another fine French actress, Marion Cotillard, whose talent is similar to Bujold's.  Also among the nominated performances in '69 are two true classics by enormously talented and popular actresses who are no longer so familiar to contemprorary filmgoers.  Both of them received their first nominations in 1969..  The films from which they were nominated were part of an important group of movies that examined the counterculture in radically different ways.  I miss Jane Fonda and Liza Minnelli on the big screen. In their heyday, each captured the love and imaginaiton of worldwide audiences. Fonda went on to a terrific career in a variety of roles in important films, and shocked audiences with her talent here.  Minnelli would never surpass her most famous role three years later "Cabaret"), but her part in this all-but-forgotten 1969 film is perhaps her most stunning piece of acting.  Another 1969 Best Actress nominee was in a role in a movie that was released so early in the year that in today's Oscar derby she would have been forgotten.  But Maggie Smith's performance was so strong, so unforgettable, that her award was  almost assured.  And finally, I admit that there is one 1969 nominee from a film I have not yet seen; the recent death of Jean Simmons may make her nominated performance more accessible now.

                                                                           Genevieve Bujold, "Anne of the Thousand Days"   Born of French Canadian parents, Genevieve Bujold began her film acting career for Alain Resnais in his classic "La Guerre est Finie" opposite Yves Montand, who appeared in "Z", one of 1969's Best Picture nominees.  Her big break came as the passionate and wily Anne Boleyn in Charles Jarrott's film of the play by Maxwell Anderson.  Critics adored Bujold, and her strong line readings and command of the screen opposite Richard Burton guaranteed that she would receive much attention for this performance, as well as award recognition.  In fact, Bujold was somewhat of a favorite on Oscar night, having won the Golden Globe for this role. Her Boleyn was both a fresh-faced innocent and crafty, fierce adversary to her rivals in love and, ultimately, to her husband King Henry VIII.  I chuckled in dismay when Pauline Kael described Bujold as "having the wrong nose for tragedy." Bujold's innocent demeanor makes the tragedy of her days as queen--the thousand days--before her execution all the more riveting and poignant.  Bujold's rendering of the famous speech in which she swears that her daughter Elizabeth will someday be Queen rivals the skill and intensity of several other nominees in this category.  Her Oscar, and her career, may have been stymied by her reputation for being difficult, and although she appeared in many other films to settle a breach of contract with Universal studios, she never again had a role to display her unique strength on screen.

Liza Minnelli, "The Sterile CuckooFirst, a word about the title.  One of the things that still endears me to the films of 1969 is their willingness to take chances.  How many studios today would bankroll a film titled "The Sterile Cuckoo", and then not explain the title in the film?  Actually, it appears a poem, written by Pookie Adams, the quirky, desperate protagonist played by Liza Minnelli; the scene in which she reads this poem was edited out of the film before its release.  So, a number of interpretations of the title's meaning were discussed, including the subplot involving Pookie's faked pregnancy in order to cling helplessly to the only boy who has ever been nice to her, a fellow college student she meets on the bus (played with awkward innocence by Wendell Burton).  The film is a small, wistful and atmospheric gem about two people who find each other and whose relationship changes each of them forever.  Pookie has created her own world to shield her from the hurts she has already suffered but barely alludes to.  It is a lonely life in a world filled with "weirdos and kooks", in her eyes.  So she grasps at any kindness that comes her way. Minnelli, still laboring under her reputation as the daughter of Judy Garland and director Vincente Minnelli, finally broke out in a big way here, and proved that she had the talent to stand on her own as a film lead.  Her unconventional looks helped her gain a following among young people bored by matinee idol charm and who wanted more honesty and a reflection of their own experience on screen (qualities that helped propel Barbra Streisand and Dustin Hoffman, for example, to stardom).  Pookie Adams is one of those people who tries so hard to charm with her humor and "personality" that she alienates those she desperately wants as friends.  As the film progresses, Minnelli handles scenes of melancholy and desperation to stunning effect.  Particularly fine are several scenes in the final 20 minutes, as her fantasy world begins to unravel and she must accept that she has finally pushed away the boy she loves.  We hold our breath for her, want her to wake up, to look at reality, to survive.  Like a cool mist on a summer day, the Oscar-nominated theme song "Come Saturday Morning" captures the longing, nostalgia and sadness of that semester in Pookie's life.  Minnelli truly deserved this, her first Oscar nomination.

Jane Fonda, "They Shoot Horses Don't They?"  Like Liza Minnelli,  Jane Fonda was also struggling to distinguish herself from the reputation of her famous actor-father, Henry Fonda.  Both she and her brother Peter, who starred in "Easy Rider", had breakaway, career-defining successes in 1969. Jane Fonda had been in movies for about a decade before "Horses", then most recently as co-star to Robert Redford in "Barefoot in the Park", and notoriously in the sci-fi-sex-comedy "Barbarella", a cult favorite she still, nevertheless, would rather forget.  On the basis of her light comedic roles and less-than-noticeable dramatic turns, it was a breathtaking surprise to witness Fonda's Gloria, a cynical, angry contestant in a California Dance marathon during the Depression, a character without hope, dancing in the marathon as a last resort, scathing in her contacts with everyone around her, so deeply wounded that all she can do is lash out at anyone who tries to get too close.  Fonda's performance seemed to draw from deep wells of pain and anger , and whenever she spoke in this film it affected viewers deeply as well.  This is one of the most fascinating movie characters I have ever seen, and Fonda amazingly matched and surpassed her intensity here two years later in "Klute", for which she scored the first of her two Oscars (the second was in 1977's "Coming Home").  The savagery of her presence in her scenes with supporting players Michael Sarrazin, Bonnie Bedelia, Bruce Dern, Red Buttons, and Susannah York, drew some of the best work these actors have ever done.  Only Gig Young (Best Supprting Actor) matched her venom and cynicism, most evident in a marvelous scene in which Fonda indirectly appeals to Young for favors.  Young asks her two questions to which she replies "No".  He finally gives her a long, lingering, questioning look, an obvious solicitation (marvelous work) and Fonda's third reply of "NO!" draws more meaning from that one word than most actors can lend to an entire speech.  Her defeated sobs when she loses her only valuable possession, a silk stocking,  complete a portrait of abject resignation.  Weary and broken at the end, Gloria can only smile in relief as a gun is placed against her temple....   Much of Fonda's anger was publicly visible in her real-life anti-war protests. Made during the worst years of the Vietnam war, as the generations fought bitterly and young people questioned the ethics of a capitalistic life, Fonda was the face of discontent and protest, channeled intensely in this, her first Oscar nomination.

Jean Simmons, "The Happy Ending"  With the death of Jean Simmons earlier this week, I wonder if this film, so long unavailable, will find a renewed demand, a new audience. It was a film I was barely aware of at the time; not part of the exciting counterculture experimentation of the best of the films of '69, it always appeared to me like a soap opera, and so I had little interest in seeing it...and never have, unfortunately.  It had a pretty well-known group of cast members: John Forsythe, Lloyd Bridges (father of of this year's Oscar front-runner Jeff Bridges), Teresa Wright (star of of my all-time favorite "The Best Years of Our Lives"), Nanette Fabray, and Dick Shawn.  The theme song by Michel Legrand and Marilyn and Alan Bergman is a classic ballad (and nominee...Legrand won the year before for "The Windmills of your Mind").  Simmons' then-husband, Richard Brooks, directed.  Recently I caught part of "Elmer Gantry", also starring Simmons, also directed by Brooks.  I always found him a bit heavy-handed, and. at least in "Gantry", Simmons was a little wooden.  All of this has no bearing on her achievement in "The Happy Ending", the story of a bored housewife who leaves a happy home and loving family to re-capture the excitement of her youth.  In a nod to the idea of re-invention, this sounds all the more intriguing today, and I will devote a post to a review as soon as I do.

Maggie Smith, "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie"  In what I would consider to be an excellent field of Best Actress nominees, Maggie Smith deservedly triumphed in the role of a schoolteacher in 1930's Scotland,  her unconventional relationships with her special circle of students, her romantic conflicts, and her lasting effect on the lives of her "girls" before one of them destroys her out of romantic rivalry. Jay Presson Allen (Screenwriter, "Cabaret," 1972) turned Muriel Sparks' short novel into a play in 1968, for which actress Zoe Caldwell won a Tony Award.  It is a marvelous part for any actress with the romantic spirit, tempestuousness, and absent-minded eccentricity that Smith provides in spades.  This movie was released very early in the year, which is usually the kiss of death for any nominated performance, since voters are usually still moved by what they most recently see.  However, with films in distribution in theaters for longer periods of time, and by virtue of Smith's brilliance, not to mention her familiarity in the industry (she was nominated in 1965 in Laurence Olivier's film version of "Othello") Smith was swept to victory.  This is a movie that one sees differently at different stages of life.  First viewings endeared me to Smith's quirky humor, her authenticity in the classroom, and her skillful plays of emotion as she remembers lost loves.  Later, I noticed Smith's anger, as she fights a system that sought to deny her the freedom to be true to herself.  She could have won the award alone on the basis of her plea to the headmistress, "I am a teacher, first, last, always...". or her shrill, deathlike  final cry to her vindictive student, "Assassin!" Finally I warmed to her complications, romantic entanglements, and deep love for her students, even though she well-meaningly but ignorantly disregards their safety in her effort to engineer romantic lives for them.  Maggie Smith has reinvented herself many times in her career, playing eccentrics, greek goddesses, an actress who just lost an Oscar (a role in "Californis Suite" for which she won her second trophy), and sorceresses.  But her legacy should, and always will be, this powerhouse performance from 1969.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Oscar Year 1969 Will Return on Friday

Thank you for those who have followed the series so far.  I felt a need to take a break today to address some immediate issues that were of interest to me, and I hope, to many of you.  Those are the two "Intermissions" that follow.

Going back to revisit these films that I have studied for so long has been a freeing, fun and encouraging experience. I have found less to keep me truly enthused at the movies this year. Yes, there are always great films relative to what else is out there, and if you have read a few reviews on these pages, you already know what I favored this year, what I resisted, and why.  Every year offers its gems.

But in 1969, almost every major film had at least one compelling, ground-breaking reason to see it, and the Oscar films are, for the most part, excellent signposts of their time, with some gaining unusual relevance today.  There are those viewers who find no relevance in these 40-year-old works, but to them I would ask to look more closely; some viewers just lack the context that renders many of these movies truly exciting. I hope I have given some incentive to new visitors to the movie year of 1969, to lean more about that unusual and defining era, and see how the movies reflected and influenced those times.

It's a little late so I won't start in on the next installment (Best Actress) until tomorrow.  In the next few days we'll have a look at some different films, as well as some amazing performances that are now regarded as classics.

Intermission 1: State of the Union

I watched and listened to Barack Obama's State of the Union Address last night, and remembered why I supported him in his Presidential campaign over a year ago.  There was the intelligent, measured cadence of his delivery, the easy rapport with the listener/viewer.  He provided reassurance with his declared support for the issues that his supporters rallied around and voted him in office to address.  Then I felt sick at heart, because I knew I had heard this before, and I stopped trusting in my own naive hope for the future. 

It was certainly a great speech...but essentially I fear it will change nothing.

He said what he had to say, and made his applause-points to all of the issues people are angry about, scared about, the issues writers blog about and that voters destroy political careers over.   Yes, it was an excellent speech. But, I thought he said everything he HAD to say....assuaged fears, gave us vicarious pleasure in lambasting Republicans, the supreme court, filibusters, etc.

Obama declared a new jobs bill, and urged Congress to get one on his desk without delay. I remember hearing a similar urgency once with his Health Reform Bill.

The Health Care Bill was not mentioned until nearly a half-hour into the speech.  He was right to keep the tone light, and place a large measure of responsibility on himself for its being grossly misunderstood by the public.  While he assured listeners that he has not given up, and that he wants to see the bill passed, it's a far cry from the urgency and importance it commanded just months ago, and it is not the bill many rallied behind with enthusiasm.

He cleverly stated that he would work with Congress to repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell.  But he could have declared this already, at least by de-funding the current military expulsions. If he works with Congress here as effectively as he did with Health Care, then repeal of DADT is doomed.

Obama made sense when he accused politicians of doing nothing more than campaigning to get re-elected. He himself earlier this week told ABC's Diane Sawyer that he would rather be a "good 1-term President than a mediocre 2-term one."  I hope he has the courage of his convicitons.  He MUST ignore the churlish bunch on his left, who sulk silently at every point.  He MUST decide that he will do what is right and not what is politically expedient for him (since, if he meant what he said, he will not make his elected office a campaign for re-election, as he blames others for doing) and he will concentrate on his supporters, use his powers to persuade and lead, get a job done, and leave office with some modicum of success.

Obama must realize that he can no longer appeal to the Republicans for any help, or applause, or approval.  They are showing themselves to be almost psychotic in their lack of reason.  If they truly are representing the best interests of their constituents by behaving in this manner, then the country may be better off by ignoring them to silence.   Mr. Obama needs to stop pandering to his adversaries, and keep an image of his diverse supporters firmly in mind as he shapes Year Two.

I hope he can "get health care done", pass a jobs bill, get money to Community Colleges, pass a campaign finance reform bill in reaction against the Supreme Court's recent ruling, take away tax breaks to companies that outsource..... I wish he can do that and more.  I have no big hope for pro-gay legislation beyond lip service. Yes, he stirred up the emotions I had during his campaign speeches......It was an excellent, outstanding speech to be sure. But that's about all.

Intermission 2: Prop. 8 Testimony Ends

The victory of Proposition 8 in California in November 2008 was the result of one of the most frightening campaigns of misinformation and fear-mongering ever perpetrated on a voting populace......
Check out the simplistic e-mail campaign propaganda to the right........... (no pun intended there really, but if the condom fits...)

You may not know it if you only follow mainstream television news media, but the testimony in Perry vs. Schwarzenegger has ended.  The historic trial to overturn California's constitutional definition of marriage as the union only between a man and a woman is now in the hands of Judge Vaughn, who may take until March to review evidence before hearing closing arguments.  Whatever his decision, the case is likely to be appealed to the Supreme Court.

The trial has lasted twelve days.  It's shocking how little coverage this has received on the Networks.

The Washington Times offered a good brief summary of the arguments on both sides. One particular quote by an attorney defending Prop. 8 in favor of the same-sex marriage ban is worth examining further:
Andy Pugno, a lawyer representing Proposition 8 backers, credited the plaintiffs with "putting on a spectacular show" but insisted much of their testimony was irrelevant to proving California voters acted irrationally in approving Proposition 8.
"To invalidate people's vote, the plaintiffs have a really tough job," Mr. Pugno told reporters. "They have to prove the people voted irrationally when they voted to preserve the traditional definition of marriage … The question is whether the people have a right to decide what is best."

Do the people always know what is best? How "rational" were voters? Consider the first photo, of a group of Mormons (who spent a lot of money campaigning against Prop. 8) in protest against race mixing in 1959.  Compare it to the next photo of recent protestors for the same-sex marriage ban.  Once again I ask myself:  Should we have left race relations up to the voters then?  Should we trust voters to make the historically right decision now?
As I have asserted before....this is not an issue for popular vote:

From the Daily Show with Jon Stewart:  A devastating lampoon of the racial disconnect in the way votes were cast on Prop. 8 Ballots in 2008: 
"Some Proposition 8 supporters say they aren't against gay people, just gay marriage; and if you like your injustice tinged with a little irony, 69% of African-Americans supported Proposition 8 in California."
Which means if the folks in the Race Mixing photo at top had prevailed, African Americans might not have had a chance to vote against gay civil rights in this ballot.....
Check out the clip from November 2008, The Daily Show HERE

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Oscar Year 1969: Best Supporting Actor

The films represented by the Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominees for 1969 run the gamut from an old-line, conventional Hollywood costume pageant to a low-budget, experimental counter-culture juggernaut.  The nominations in this category were a decidedly mixed bag of mostly solid  supporting roles. A couple run-of-the-mill nods competed with some now-classic performances.

Elliott Gould, "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice"
Elliott Gould was one of the biggest stars of the early 1970's.  Known at the time as Barbra Streisand's husband while starring in minor comedies like "The Night They Raided Minsky's", Gould soon became one of the counterculture's most recognized and sought-after anti-heroes in films like "M*A*S*H" and "Getting Straight". Even director Ingmar Bergman used him in "The Touch". It was in his role as Ted, Alice's hapless husband in "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" that Gould established himself as a viable star.  His character Ted is seduced by the newfound moral and sexual freedom of his friends, and Gould perfectly captures the amusing uncertainty of a man with one foot in a garden of delights and another in the secure home he shares with his loving but skeptical wife.  In the comic centerpiece of the film, Gould and Cannon discover Bob's infidelity and Carol's acceptance of it, and engage in a lively, lengthy and hilarious bedroom conversation.  Ted, amorous, nervous, and siding with Bob against Alice's disapproval, nails every subtle nuance of this wonderfully-written scene.  It stands alone like a good one-act play.  Gould gives an entertaining performance and reminds us of the reasons he had such a huge following.  It is not a role of high emotions, but Gould created a very real character, perfectly likeable and hilariously complex, and one we easliy identify with.

Rupert Crosse, "The Reivers"
Rupert Crosse's story is at least as interesting as his appearance in the film adaptation of William Faulkner's novel, "The Reivers".  Cross was the first black actor to be nominated in this category.  After working at New York's Bloomfield College as a counselor, he studied acting under John Cassavetes, winning a Venice Film Festival Award in Cassavetes' film "Shadows" (1959).  "The Reivers" is a pleasant film, an episodic, turn-of-the-century coming-of-age tale.  Crosse shines as sidekick (and very distant cousin) to Steve McQueen, as they and their adolescent protagonist (Mitch Vogel) steal (or, "rieve") a car for a road trip to Memphis, having adventures that take them from a brothel to a race track and everywhere in between.  The film was well-crafted and proved a modest success.  Crosse is very good and provides great support to the leads. Still, it is a relatively minor role, and he had no real chance of winning this Oscar.  Soon, his film career was cut short.  Originally set to co-star with Jack Nicholson in "The Last Detail", Crosse died of lung cancer, just four years after his Oscar nomination.  He was only 46 years old.

Anthony Quayle, "Anne of the Thousand Days"
Incredibly, "Anne of the Thousand Days" was one of only two of the Best Picture nominees to receive nominations in acting categories (the other one was "Midnight Cowboy".)  Anthony Quayle (shown here in one of the costumes that earned "Anne" it's only victory) turns in fine work as Cardinal Wolsey, advisor to Henry VIII in the King's bid to secure a divorce, in this epic tale of Anne Boleyn's tempestuous days as Queen.  In addition to being recognized for this performance, Quayle was an already established veteran, directing the Royal Shakespeare Company, and co-starring in films such as "Lawrence of Arabia" and "The Guns of Navarone".  Quayle's best moments in "Anne of the Thousand Days" occur in his banishment from court.  His look of pain and his slow, resigned walk never fail to elicit viewer sympathy.  Apparently Academy voters agreed enough to cite him in this category, but even the studio junkets, complete with champagne and filet mignon for Academy voters after every screening, were not enough to put Quayle in the winner's circle.

Jack Nicholson, "Easy Rider"
Jack Nicholson's 30-years-plus relationship with the Academy Awards began here in 1969.  He had worked with Roger Corman in low-budget horror and exploitation films in the early '60's, and teamed with Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in psychedelic youth-films prior to this breakthrough.  "Easy Rider" was one of the most cinematically unusual and exciting films of the year, and had a huge influence on the film industry at that time.  Made with a small budget and reaping millions in profit, it touched the zeitgeist and connected with millions of disaffected youth, opening the floodgates for young fimmakers to create personal, anti-establishment pictures with studio backing. (None were ever as successful as this.) The story of two "outlaws" who score a big drug sale and ride their motorcycles across the Southwest to New Orleans and Mardi Gras (in a reverse of westward expansion) was haunting, troubling, lyrical and shocking, and moved to the music and attitudes of the times.  It was described in ads with phrases like: "A man went looking forAmerica.  And couldn't find it anywhere."  and "Go. Think about it. Squirm."  Director Hopper (Billy) and co-star and writer Fonda (Wyatt) presented an iconic image to America's youth, although the restrictive R-rating drew their confused, alarmed parents as well. 
Nicholson appears mid-way as George, an alcoholic Southern lawyer who helps Wyatt and Billy out of jail and agrees to join them in their odyssey, encountering free love, mysticism, and prejudice in horrifying measure.  Jack Nicholson became an instant star with his joyful, playfully ironic and tragic turn as an innocent who articulated the fears of a generation.  His famous monologue, ruminating on what happened to "a hell of a good country" and why the freedom Billy and Wyatt represent make them dangerous to the status quo, is oddly relevant today.  This speech helped earn "Easy Rider" its only other nomination, for Screenplay.  The tragic fates of each character left audiences speechless and riveted to their seats after the credits rolled and the lights came up.  Nicholson's playful, thoughtful performance was a promise of the great film roles yet to come his way.

Gig Young, "They Shoot Horses Don't They?"--Oscar Winner
"Yowseh! Yowseh! Yowseh!"
It's good to have another opportunity to look again at this amazing film.  Gig Young's victory as Rocky, the cynical and slimy Emcee of a Depression-era dance marathon, was the only Oscar win for "They Shoot Horses Don't They?"  This was one of the most thought-provoking, performance-rich films of the year.  Young capped a long career in light comedy with his startlingly manipulative and fatalistic turn here.  Pitching the competition to stir up his dancers and spectators alike, working the ballroom to a frenzy, he nevertheless is a man of dark demons. In a powerful speech, Rocky describes how he worked as a shill for a medicine salesman, in order to give people hope, pretending to be a crippled boy who could walk.  Sleep-addled, sweat-soaked and alcohol ridden, he puts himself together for another public show, knowing that he is all the hope the "kids" out there have.  Young's constant patter is unforgettable, and works on us like a hypnotic salesman, urging his dancers to keep striving, to give the crowds something to believe in, "because that's the American way", as the dancers, hoping to win the prize money, demean themselves, go without adequate food or sleep, and push themselves to extreme limits just to survive.  An elimimation round, The Derby, a heel-toe track race that builds to incredible suspense, is still one of the most powerful and exciting pieces of filmmaking I can remember.  Young keeps the energy of the film high.  His seduction scene with Jane Fonda, and his gentle coaxing of the broken-down Susannah York, are legendary.    This is a classic performance in a challenging, somber, yet artistically exciting film that takes chances and almost always succeeds.                                                                                   

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Oscar Year 1969: Best Supporting Actress

Our return to the Oscar films of 1969 begins with a look at the five performers nominated in the category Best Supporting Actress, and the remarkable films that were the vehicles for their recognition.  The movies in this category perfectly represent the cinematic excitement, the envelope-pushing intensity, the foray into previously unfilmable subject matter, the inherent style and philosophy and "groovy" romanticism of the late '60's that make my return to this year such a completely satisfying journey.

Catherine Burns, "Last Summer" 
This is one of the most interesting nominations of the year, and also the most obscure.  "Last Summer" is almost impossible to find today; a full version can be seen in segments on YouTube; our local public library still owns a copy on VHS tape.  It has never been released on DVD.
This was Burns' film debut, and while she appeared in various television episodes for the next few years, and wrote a few plays, she never had a high-profile film career.  But what a legacy she leaves here.  "Last Summer" is one of a number of Counter-Culture films that examine the changing mores and new attitudes of young people during a volatile time of sexual experimentation and reaction against status-quo oppresiveness.  It tells the story of a trio of aimless teens on a summer holiday on Fire Island (Barbara Hershey, Richard Thomas, and Brauce Davison).  Burns plays Rhoda, a lonely, painfully un-hip loner, who finds herself in the company of these insensitive yet attractive companions.  After forming an unlikely bond, the three conspire to exclude the idealistic and serious-minded Rhoda.  Symbolized by an injured seagull (whom the trio nurse to health, then kill when it asserts its natural protective instincts), Rhoda threatens the three with her intellect and opens her soul to her new friends, only to have her innocence, her very life, destroyed in a final act of  mindless cruelty and horror. Burns' Rhoda captivates viewers and breaks our hearts in a scene in which she delivers a now-famous monolog about the death of her mother. By the time the shocking final scene unfolds, we feel the pure tragedy of innocence demolished.  Burns' chances at an Oscar may have been hurt by the film's edginess, and its explicit climax.  Also, she was the least well-known performer of the five, and least connected to Hollywood insiders.  It is an unforgettable performance that has been well-commemorated with this nomination.   

Sylvia Miles, "Midnight Cowboy"
Now a classic, "Midnight Cowboy" figured prominently in the Oscar competition for 1969. Sylvia Miles rode the wave to a nomination for her funny, brash and clever portrayal of Cass, the high-class streetwalker who trumps the naive, aspiring hustler Joe Buck at his own game.  Hers is a  brief screen appearance. In just one very potent scene, Miles runs the gamut from controlled and controlling lady-for- hire, faking ecstasy with Joe while on the phone with her next trick, then dissolving in tears to manipulate her "customer"to her advantage.  All at once, we see Cass as a fading beauty, lying about her age, going from seductress (note her double-edged reading of the line "beautiful, baby!"  when she discovers Joe's endowments) to outraged woman scorned, then becoming vulnerable and helpless...all the while viewers are deliciously unclear if Cass is sincere, or merely acting her part as a professional in the busines of the flesh.  Miles triumphs in every second on screen.

Susannah York, "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?"
One of Oscar's dubious distinctions still belongs to "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?"  This incredible adaptation of Horace McCoy's allegory, about the struggle for the American Dream symbolized by the gruelling Depression-era Dance Marathons, holds the record for receiving the most nominations of any film (9) that did not go on to earn one for Best Picture.  Fortunately, one of the 9 was in recognition the amazing work of Susannah York.  York is Alice, an aspiring actress desperate to be noticed by film producers like Mervyn LeRoy.  Alice enters the Dance Marathon with ideas of glamour and recognition of her star presence, which the promoters of the Marathon exploit to tragic effect. Soon the exhaustion, degradation and even death around her cause her to slowly lose her grip on reality.  York's portrayal of a fragile, privileged individual, with a pathetic attachment to her beautiful possessions, and a regression to voracious sexual appetites when under extreme duress, is beautifully calibrated.  In her showpiece scene, she descends into madness, needing to be coaxed from the shower where, fully dressed, she has retreated like a wounded animal.  Her stillness hides a tension that is released in a piercing scream that never fails to chill this awed viewer.  York apparently alienated members of the Academy with less-than- gracious comments after her nomination, which is too bad because this is a performance that could have earned her the award.  Fortunately, her nomination is part of movie history. She never earned another Oscar nod.  

Dyan Cannon, "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice"
Somewhat dated, firmly rooted in the era in which it was made, this nevertheless remains one of my favorite films of 1969, mostly because the human interactions are so universally funny and moving.  That year, its questionable moral tone made it a hugely controversial choice to open the New York Film Festival.  Soon, however, misgivings were relaxed as audiences were transfixed by this comedy of (bad) manners.  The title quartet is a pair of couples, best friends all. Bob and Carol spend a weekend at an Esalen-style sensitivity retreat, and are hip to living their lives in total honesty.  Their more conservative, uptight friends, Ted and Alice, are uncomfortable with this change in the dynamic of their relationship.  When Carol reveals Bob's infidelity, the film takes off, becoming a banquet of clever dialog and ever-changing attitudes, and there is real suspense in the prospect of whether a 4-way orgy will strengthen their bond or destroy it forever.  It's sentimental, idealistic, and hugely entertaining.  Dyan Cannon plays Alice (another Alice!  see above) as a loving wife and friend who would rather maintain her life of comfort without pushing the boundaries of her marriage or her friendships.  Her scene with a rather creepy psyciatrist made me laugh out loud.  It might have been improvised but exhibits marvelous comic timing and control.  And when she confronts her friends during a weekend in Vegas, and challenges them to live the honesty they have been playing at, we completely believe in her dilemma. Alice is perhaps the most likeable character, and the one with whom most audiences will readily identify even now.  Her command of the role is what pulls the whole film together.  "Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice" unreels like a visit to an old friend, and Cannon's portrayal is most responsible for that.

Goldie Hawn, "Cactus Flower"--Oscar Winner
Winning for her film debut, Goldie Hawn was the favorite that year, owing to her huge success and high profile in the zany TV Comedy pastiche "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In", which was still on the air in 1970.  Hawn's win was partly due to her huge popularity.  I think she competed in the wrong category. Her role as Toni Simmons in this Neil Simon romantic comedy is definitely a lead.  Yet with Walter Matthau and Ingrid Begman headlining, newcomer Hawn was relegated to the Supporting category.  As is the case with these larger "supporting" roles (like Timothy Hutton in "Ordinary People") it is likely that with longer screen time, she established a bigger impression on audiences and voters, and inevitably won.  "Cactus Flower" is possibly the weakest film of the five in terms of innovation and durability. It is nevertheless entertaining, and breezy in a '60's counterculture way, with its explosion of mod color, clothing and music. Matthau is somewhat miscast as Julian, the dentist Hawn loves; and Ingrid Bergman is a great sport as Miss Dickinson, who in turn is secretly in love with Matthau.   Hawn deserves credit for creating a real character out of her then well-known ditzy persona.  It's hard not to love her as she naively tries to help her "lover" and his "ex wife", falling for the convoluted stories they create to comic effect. Watch her catch a slowly rolling tear in her mouth as she stares, wide-eyed and sentimental, at the children she believes belong to her lover, caught in her own romantic fantasy. "Cactus Flower" belongs to Hawn, and due to her successful portrayal, so does Oscar.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Oscar Year 1969: A Prelude


The Best Picture Nominees took viewers from the sunny streets of Texas to the seamy underside of Manhattan; from the political upheaval of modern Greece to the languid mountains of the American West; from the lively working class streets of the Bronx to the sumptuous court of Anne Boleyn. 

Moviegoers at the Oscar films spent time with pathetic hustlers and jocular train-robbers; a romantic and dangerous Scottish schoolteacher post-WWI, and a gentle English schoolmaster and his wife circa WWII; a paunchy one-eyed lawman and the girl he reluctantly helps; a kooky free-spirit, her dentist and his Swedish assistant; a good-hearted but doomed Southern lawyer on his final road trip; a cynical emcee at a gruelling dance competition; two couples in moral experimentation in freewheeling modern-day Los Angeles; Depression-era hopefuls and losers dying for the American dream; a troubled college co-ed desperate for human connection; and a real-life hippie and his surrogate family in a deconsecrated church.


Viewers went on a dizzying boat ride to Bolivia; biked across a colorful desolate countryside; attended a hallucinogenic Greenwich Village party and an even more drug-addled Mardi Gras parade; witnessed an assassination, a coronation, a manhunt, the destruction of one innocent and the salvation of another; escaped into the musical romantic fantasies of a matchmaker; and were told that all similarity to actual persons living or dead was INTENTIONAL.


As we near the announcement on February 2 of the Academy Award Nominations for 2009, I am happy to concentrate this week's musings to a look back 40 years--to the Oscar year 1969.  That was the year my love affair with movies--and Oscar--began.  

Starting tomorrow, I'll devote each of the next five days to the nominees in each of the major categories. Tonight, I want to try to explain why that year in movies captured my imagination right from the start.

I was barely old enough to understand the Chicago Tribune, but every day I studied the movie pages, memorized  the advertisements, pored over Gene Siskel's reviews, and pondered the ratings and the reasons why I wasn't allowed to see what were considered the best movies in release. I was obsessed with the titles and the themes of the important new films of the day.  I created my own scenarios for the films I could not yet see due to a strictly enforced MPAA rating system, new at the time, with its G-M-R-X classifications.  I was only allowed into G-rated films, mostly Disney flicks and big musicals. 

Movies were distributed differently.  Major films played in one theater in a large city, often for months at a time, before being widely released to outlying and suburban areas.  After 2-3 years in theatrical release and re-release, they made it to television, often heavily cut and incomprehensible.  There was no home video or on-demand cable.  Movies were exciting in their lack of accessibility. Often, the first time that clips for a film were ever shown on television was on the Academy Awards broadcast. 

I learned to value the critics who looked "deeper into movies", and whose essays re-created the experience of seeing the film. This to me was the essence of a "re-view". (No one did this better than Pauline Kael at the New Yorker, still a hero of mine.)  I often enhanced my personal "scripts" for each film in my imagination by listening to the soundtrack music (on 33 1/3 vinyl albums, many of which I still own).

I eventually saw all of the films by the time I reached college, and with few exceptions, they proved as interesting and aesthetically exciting as I imagined they would be.

The movies of 1969 are often regarded as some of the most interesting and innovative since the Hollywood peak of 1939.  The industry was in upheaval.  Filmmakers were given new freedom to explore and present formerly taboo subjects in exciting and vibrant cinematic terms, looking frankly at sexuality and violence, and using more realistic, profane language.  Old-guard Hollywood was losing ground. The biblical epics, spectacles, and overblown musicals were giving way to the strange popularity of what could only be described as the art film.  College students picked up the new Wave mantle and became a true Film Generation, responding to new styles of photography and editing, contemporary stories or modern spins on traditional narratives, new ways of using music, unconventional actors, and extensions of artistic movements found in literature and art.

For the brief period between 1967-1972, there was a ferment in filmmaking, a willingness to take chances, a new artistic sensibility that we have not seen again in quite the same way. 1969 was the peak of this renaissance. Hollywood has reinvented itself, as many of us must, to survive...but has something truly exciting been slowly lost along the way?

In the next few days we'll take a look at the films and performers who made 1969 one of the most talked-about Oscar years ever.  Titans like John Wayne and Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole were among the company of those who all, remarkably, received their first nominations that year: Liza Minnelli, Jane Fonda, Jack Nicholson, Elliott Gould, Jon Voight, Susannah York, and Goldie Hawn.  A big, classic Broadway musical and a rugged, foreign-language political thriller shared the limelight with a breezy buddy-western, a stately costume epic, and a shocking emotional wringer that was rated X (no one under 18 admitted). 

I hope you will enjoy this week-long look back 40 years ago.