Thursday, May 20, 2010

Musings on "The Best Years of Our Lives," Movies and War Veterans, Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett--Wednesday Journal

Among some hidden treasures I found while I was packing belongings for my move on Saturday, I re-discovered an autographed photo of Harold Russell that I picked it up several years ago at a collectibles show.  It was autographed, incredibly, by Mr. Russell himself.

I wonder how many of my readers know who Harold Russell is; I suspect most people, even those who love movies these days, don't remember him. At one time in America's pop-cultural history, Russell was an icon, an inspiration, and an Oscar-winner.

In 1946 Hollywood released what is perhaps, if I had to choose, my all-time favorite movie: "The Best Years of Our Lives."  With an incredible cast including Oscar-winner Frederick March, Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright, Dana Andrews and Hoagy Carmichael, it's a story of three WWII soldiers returning home to the States to face adjustments to family, career, and physical and emotional disability.  Russell is Homer Parrish, a young sailor who loses his hands in a ship's fire, and must overcome his fear of intimacy with Wilma, his childhood sweetheart..

Russell himself was a disabled veteran, a double amputee who used prosthetic "hooks". That's why I treasure his autograph on my photo.  His authenticity and the unabashed honesty of his portrayal earned him one of the film's seven Oscars (as Supporting Actor), plus an honorary Oscar for being an inspiration for disabled war veterans throughout the U.S., making him the first (and only) actor to receive two Oscars for the same role.

Combining subtle and detailed deep-focus camerawork by "Kane" lenser Gregg Toland, a stirring orchestral score by Hugo Friedhofer, strong portrayals by all, with the help of Robert E. Sherwood's mature and entertaining script, and sensitive and perceptive direction by William Wyler, "Best Years of Our Lives" brims with memorable small moments and unforgettable sequences of great emotional power.  While the time period may be dated and the attitudes old-fashioned, the concerns and anxieites faced by these characters are as fresh as any film that could be made today.

Toward the film's climax, Homer and Wilma have a confrontation, a moment of truth. Homer shows Wilma what their life would be like with his physical challenges; we are allowed to fill in details of their future. They must decide if they have the love and courage to marry in spite of Homer's disability.  I like films that deal with human concerns and move me in such a way that I gain more understanding, more empathy, and have an emotional release. This scene stirs people, moves them, wins them over.  Check out the clip (see the whole movie first if you haven't already.):

It occurs to me that Hollywood seems to be forgetting, or giving up on, the presentation of contemporary human drama on the big screen, and practically ignores stories of returning war veterans.  ("Brothers" was good melodrama, but a poor reflection of everyday America; "Hurt Locker" was not really a "coming home" picture).  Certain movie audiences, I think, would come out to theaters to see a film about how today's veterans are adjusting to today's world. 

If done with taste by artists with an instinct for entertaining audiences and tapping into the zeitgiest,  with a good story and characters we can identify with in contemporary terms, today's moviegoers could have their own "Best Years."  If given support by sensitive critics, and possibly an award or two, I suppose it could achieve a success of "Gump"-ian proportions.

It has been evident, after years of combing the movie listings of films playing on Chicagoland screens, that a younger and less mature moviegoing demographic is being curried favor by the businessmen in Hollywood.  Moviegoing habits are slowly changing the way mass audiences regard, and use, theatrical motion pictures.  Moviemakers have addicted people to the adrenaline of thrill rides, base comedies, and  computer-generated worlds, provided little in the way of more serious subject matter, and then claim that that's what audiences want.  

Except for a few weeks in December and January, depictions of the world around us, with flesh-and-blood characters overcoming identifiable real-life obstacles are rarely to be found on movie screens.  And for all of us, a valuable moviegoing experience is being lost. 

I had some interest in seeing the new "Robin Hood", Ridley Scott's re-invention of the legend, starring Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett.  I loved Scott's visual sense and impeccable director's eye in "Thelma and Louise", and a recent re-visiting of "Gladiator" gave me renewed appreciation of his handling of dramatic dialogue sequences.  And I think there are few actors today with the gravity of talent and strength of presence as Crowe and Blanchett.

The reviews have been mixed, with one critic stating that the two leads are too good for the roles they are asked to play. (I still have not seen it, but still plan to, after my move is complete.)

The pairing of these two on screen is still a brilliant idea with great dramatic potential. How interesting it would be to cast them as the mature couple in a  remake of "Best Years"---not the exact film, but a contemporary rendering inspired by the original.  Injured war veterans are returning from the Middle east with grave disabilities, and the porrtrayal of their challenges and triumphs of readjustment, as well as their tragic losses, would make for compelling moviegoing.  I highly recommend the 1946 film, winner of the Best Picture Oscar, and one of the most popular films of its day. It's a lively, dramatic, thoughtful and entertaining movie.  If we could just get good backing for films of this kind, audiences would re-discover how exciting, and emotionally cleansing great films on a big screen can be.  Enough of perpetual dessert...let's start serving a main course....


  1. Excellent post Tom! I have to agree with you wholeheartedly about the direction movie studios are going with respect to pandering to the simpleminded masses.

    If only someone could do a movie with sensitive and thought-provoking portrayals of the human spirit with talented actors, a director with a keen eye for depicting it and a script that brought people to real tears on purpose.

    Instead we are dealt movies with robots and zombies and CGI mega-blockbusters starring the latest no-talent jiggly pair of boobs actresses and their vacuous male model counterparts because that's what Mr. John Q Dumbass wants to watch.

  2. I quite enjoyed this post and will try to watch The Best Years of our Lives as soon as possible.
    You´re probably right about everything else you say, especially about Blanchett and Crowe.
    However I think Hollywood did try to show the theme of the homecoming veteran. Successfully in the last episode of The Pacific, very well in Stop-Loss and horribly bad in Home of the Brave.
    I posted some blogs on these movies on my blog.