Sunday, January 30, 2011

Royal Surprises, and the Old pre-Oscar Anxiety...Oscar 2010

Okay.  I admit it. I am surprised. And I am getting excited.

After ranting about the predictability of the pre-Oscar awards season, the tide has turned.  I was ready to bet the house on a Best Picture win for "The Social Network", and I was resigned to enduring another Oscar telecast in which the final outcome would be a personal disappointment.  I swore I would not let myself become too closely identified with any film this year, so that an eventual loss would not be a personal devastation.  I stated that "Black Swan", "The Kids are All Right", and "The King's Speech" were great films and personal favorites, and would remain so even if none of them won any awards.

I still feel that way.

But now that one of these--"The King's Speech"--has surprised everyone and picked up three important precursor awards in one week (The Producer's Guild, The Director's Guild, and the Screen Actor's Guild), which are accurate predictors of an eventual Oscar win, I am excited in spite of myself.

And once again I run the risk of getting too emotionally attached to my favorites, and too anxious about their chances of losing, especially Annette Bening,  David Seidler, Geoffrey Rush, and "King's Speech".  It seems impossible that "The Social Network" is now an underdog, and I can't bear to speculate that somehow its sudden losses have all been engineered to make it that way, and thus draw it the "sympathy" votes needed to....

Wow.  There I go.  It's 2006 again, and that sure thing for my all-time favorite, "Brokeback Mountain",  was horribly stolen, and I was feeling depressed for days afterward...Once again I'm setting myself up for a huge disappointment.  Time to let my new-found wisdom take hold of me again.  Best to enjoy the glory that is the "King's" for the moment, and just sit back on February 27 and let whatever happens, happen...

Time now to retreat back to 1970 for a final the Nominees for Best Picture...

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Oscar 1970--Best Actor

Two interesting parallels exist between the Best Actor races of 1970 and 2010.  First, both years' front-runners portray important WWII-era figures, whose speaking ability (or lack thereof) resulted in very different problems for each.  Second, Harvard University serves as a backdrop for two of the nominees' characters: one, a story of an advantaged young man involved a special relationship to the exclusion of the outside world; and the other, the story of an advantaged young man who had thousands of "friends" but not one special person in his life.

Rounding out the top five were three heartfelt portrayals of men fighting life's battles: a championship boxer fighting for love and honor against racist attitudes; an aging father fighting for his dignity against a well-meaning son; and an alienated dropout fighting for his place in a world divided by generations and social class.

In what I consider to be Jack Nicholson's finest performance, in one of my favorite films, the confusion and alienation of youth in a time of social and political absurdity is perfectly captured by his portrayal of Robert Eroica Dupea in "Five Easy Pieces".  We first meet Bobby working as a roughneck in a California oil field, living with Rayette, an uncomplicated and good-hearted waitress-girlfriend, drinking with his working-class buddies, and picking up women for dalliances in hotels.  When his sister contacts him and informs him that their father is ill, he drives to Washington with Rayette, and confronts his past, where he gave up a career as a concert pianist and ran away from a life of privilege.  Robert (as he is called in this section of the film), must then choose between two worlds that promise little fulfillment for him.  "Five Easy Pieces" keeps unfolding in surprising ways, and Nicholson's portrayal is complete and unforgettable.

After "Easy Rider" the previous year, Jack Nicholson became an icon for young people who were struggling to break free of the stifling conformity of their parents' generation, and create a future that, as Dustin Hoffman said in "The Graduate", was "different".  In the early 1970's, Nicholson's name on a film meant something relevant and important that spoke to the zeitgeist.  In "Five Easy Pieces" we see many of Nicholson's signature moments: his sudden explosions of anger, his devil-may-care tenderness, his cynically arched brow, and his silent musings where the camera studies him contemplating life and all of its complexities.  Nicholson provided some certified classic moments in this film:  his defense of Rayette against the pompous dinner guests in his family home; his impatience during a traffic jam in which he climbs on the bed of a truck and plays a piano he finds there; and his insistence that he felt no emotion while playing Chopin for a snobbish new love interest ("it was the easiest piece I could think of").  Best of all is Nicholson's now-famous tirade in a restaurant where company rules prevent him from ordering a side of wheat toast.  His slow burn and eruption of protest delighted the counterculture and eveyone else who was fed up with bureaucracy, especially in a diner. Even his confrontation with a barking dog was classic Jack in an era where he did not revert to self parody. Finally, Nicholson's monologue in front of his crippled, non-responsive father, in which Bobby lets go of years of regret, should convince audiences once and for all that his work in this edgy, difficult, and terrific film was worthy of accolades and recommendation to future generations.

A whole generation may have never actually seen James Earl Jones, but know him as the voice of Darth Vader in the "Star Wars" franchise.  Even those who only remember him as the cranky ex-hippie and Kevin Costner's road-trip companion in "Field of Dreams" will have missed this actor's remarkable presence first on display in "The Great White Hope".  In it, Jones reprises the role that brought him a Tony award, as Jack Jefferson, the world's first black heavyweight boxing champion. Completely mastering the requirements of the role, Jones is a surprisingly physical actor.  Behind his wide charmer's smile and ingratiating manner is the coiled anger of a powerful athlete about to be hounded and brought down by the racists among him.  Jones' scenes with the marvelous Jane Alexander convey the tenderness and hurt of a man conflicted by the prejudice of both blacks and whites who object to his love for the white Eleanor.  In the exciting boxing sequences, Jones moves with strength and determination; one understands why opponents and naysayers are frightened of him, as he pummels his opponents with a treacherous wide grin.  Jones was favored in many circles as the likely winner here, but it was a small film, and his competition was too strong for his gem of a performance to score the knockout punch.

Melvyn Douglas, a well-known Hollywood veteran, won his first Oscar for "Hud" in 1963.  As the wise old rancher-father of Paul Newman, Douglas' character lamented the moral decay of an America embraced by his self-serving son.  In 1970, Douglas  played another father, this time of retired professor Gene Hackman, in "I Never Sang for my Father".  Once again, Douglas portrays a man struggling against the hazards and diminishments of age, and battles a well-meaning son who has delayed his own life plans, out of guilt or loyalty, to find his father proper care. Melvyn Douglas inhabits this role as naturally as the cardigan sweater he wears.  Masterfully hiding his fear of powerlessness behind a fierce roar of belligerence, Douglas shifts quickly between confusion and angry denial, and fights back out of fear of having to give up his independence. This role may cut close to home for anyone whose father can no longer take care of himself, but is outraged at any suggestion that he needs help.  Hackman is a perfect foil, playing a son who has never been able to find a pathway to his father's heart, and harbors regrets of never having "sang for" him.  Like "Five Easy Pieces,", this movie treats the contemporary dilemma of the generation gap, and its more personal and emotional implications.  Because of Douglas' long history as a respected Hollywood performer, and his career-capping work in this film, he might have won the Oscar hands-down, except that his competition proved undeniably strong.  He would wait another 9 years before capturing his second statuette for "Being There."

In 2010, the Oscar-nominated "The Social Network" tapped into popular culture and told the story of a Harvard student who could not find love among his thousands of network friends and winds up alone.  Forty years earlier, Hollywood nominated a film about a Harvard student who found deep, profound love, until tragedy intervenes and he, too, winds up alone.  The world changed by gigabytes, but matters of the heart remained constant.  "Love Story" allowed audiences to return to simple, cathartic romance after a decade of turmoil and movies that assaulted the senses in bringing current events to the screen.  Ryan O'Neal, who plays rich and eligible Oliver Barrett III, dwells in the character rather than acting it.  While O'Neal may be the least strong of the five nominees in this category, in 1970 he probably made the biggest impression.  The young actor was hugely popular from his recent regular role on the prime-time TV soap opera "Peyton Place".  He was the right type to portray Oliver, a smart athletic pre-law student with a background drenched in wealth and protocol, but who nevertheless rejected the values and advantages his father offered him by marrying the poor Italian baker's daughter (Ali McGraw) he truly loved.  Again, the Generation Gap provided diverse material for the movies.  (While they would seem to have little in common stylistically, "Love Story" might be the straight-laced, traditional cousin of "Five Easy Pieces", and may be the more subversive for couching its ideology in conventional film aesthetic!)

O'Neal, like McGraw, was swept up in "Love Story" hysteria. But I would not dismiss this nomination outright. Given the role, O'Neal was a convincing Oliver, soft-spoken and headstrong, playful in the snow and devastating on hockey-skates, and we know why Jennifer would love him apart from his wealth.  One might wish he could have been more expressive in the final moments, when, leaving the hospital and finding his repentant father (Ray Milland), they reconcile but part company.  However, in his scenes with McGraw, O'Neal truly is believable as a guy surprised and smitten by this wise-cracking girl, enough to rebel against a stuffy and formidable family. He was still an unknown quantity to Oscar voters, and he would never get another role as influential--nor another Oscar nomination.

In 1970, George C. Scott's commanding and blustery portrayal of the title role in "Patton" was about as sure a bet as this year's odds for Colin Firth in "The King's Speech".  Both have in common stories about men who changed history during World War II.  And both would gain fame---or infamy--for their speeches.  Scott could have claimed the prize for his opening speech alone, which has become almost a classic short-film in its own right.  Based on biographies written by military historian Ladislas Farago and Patton's colleague General Omar Bradley, "Patton" was an accurate portrayal of the North African, Sicilian and European theaters of war, and the rich variety of incident during Patton's command of Third Army.  While Scott's husky delivery is said to be different from Patton's actual high-pitched nasal voice, Scott forcefully recreated well-known moments from Patton's life in an unbeatable performance that was more than just a triumph of makeup and costuming.  Scott was both amusing and frightening as a Commanding Officer who used profanity like an instrument and intimidated anyone who fell out of line.  Scott is breathtaking in a notorious incident as he slaps a soldier in a hospital for nervous stress, and then silently prays over and kisses a badly wounded purple-heart recipient. I will never forget his sidelong glance at a Russian general as they drink a toast, or his reply when asked by a priest if he reads the Bible: "I do...every goddamn day."  Also, Scott is spellbinding in a mysterious monlogue in which Patton insists that he was a reincarnated Greek leader who fought at Carthage.

Only one thing emerged as a possible obstacle to Scott receiving the award.  Notorious for his distaste for pitting actors against each other in awards competitions (going back to "The Hustler" in 1961), Scott flatly refused his nomination. The Academy ruled that it was the performance, not the actor, that was eligible for the award, and the nomination stood.  Would voters take offense to Scott's snub, and not mark their ballots for one of the best pieces of acting in movie history?  In one of the all-time classic moments in any Academy Award broadcast, Goldie Hawn (1969's Supporting Actress winner for "Cactus Flower") opened the envelope and squealed in spontaneous surprise and glee, "Oh my god, it's George C. Scott!"

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Back to Oscar 2010: Newsweek, a Nagging Question... and a Cleaned-up "King"?


Newsweek Had Inside Info?

This past Tuesday, a mere three hours after the Oscar nominations were announced, I received my copy of Newsweek in the mail.  On the cover were six actors who had just been nominated for Academy Awards: James Franco, Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth, Annette Bening, Natalie Portman, and Michelle Williams.  The title read, "Our 14th annual Oscar Roundtable" (click for the whole article with video links).  It's a fine article, with six actors I admire. It was good, for a change, to read about a group of talented, respectable Hollywood celebrities gathered in an atmosphere of fellowship, see them have fun, and mix it up together. 
And then I wondered: how did Newsweek know?  Sure, a lot of the eventual nominees were easy to predict.  And I know that Newsweek had featured these Roundtables before, where occasionally a member of the panel had missed receiving a nomination.  Even then, I don't recall the issue being released the very day of the nominations.

It seemed a little fishy, and roused my inner cynic.  It would have taken at least 2-3 days for the magazine to reach my mail, plus another week or so to produce the piece.  And a few of these, like Michelle Williams, Nicole Kidman, and even James Franco, were far from sure bets. 

I felt foolish on behalf of all of us who study Oscar trends, keep track of the lead-up awards, and labor over our predictions.  Because somehow, Newsweek assembled six actors weeks before they were all announced as Oscar nominees, and proclaimed the gathering an Oscar Roundtable.

If Newsweek knew this a week ago....well, it makes me wonder if they have already completed the congratulatory profile of David Fincher, or the producers of "The Social Network".  If they didn't know the nominees ahead of time, (and there is a chance they did not), then the Oscars may be getting too predictable.

I'm sorry, but all of the media "excitement"over a supposedly level playing field, because "King's Speech" won at PGA, seems like a desperate ploy to create interest in the Oscar broadcast, and an attempt to introduce artificial suspense into a contest that most of us, if we're honest, could have called weeks ago.

~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~   ~

"King's Speech" to Be Edited??

F****ng  MPAA!!   Harvey Weinstein is making a mistake....  He plans to re-edit "The King's Speech" to clean up a scene that the MPAA felt warranted an R rating and resubmit it for a PG-13, or even a PG. Why?  Sh*t!! To make it more "family friendly"...Weinstein states  that young people are not attending this film because of profanity, citing bigger box office in England, where the film has a more inclusive rating.

Really?  Seems to me that the film's box office is doing pretty well ($90 million so far). The movie is in the top 10, and Fandango reports an over 70% uptick in ticket requests since it received 12 Oscar nominations.  Wow...maybe an older audience is flocking in support of this that such a foreign concept that producers are threatened by it? Sons of Bit***s!

The scene in question is crucial to the development of Colin Firth's and Geoffrey Rush's characters. To circumvent the King's (Firth's) tension, his therapist, Logue (Rush) goads him into letting loose with a stream of expletives.  And voila!  The stammer temporarily disappears.  It is a turning point, and also one of the biggest crowd-pleasing scenes in the film.

The problem is NOT with the film, but with the God**mned Motion Picture Association of America, and a sick and confused national attitude that takes offense to fairly common obscenities, but thinks nothing of allowing kids to be exposed to the most unspeakable cruelty and bloodshed in the name of thrills and chills.

Hey a***holes!! No one enforces the ratings any more.  If you want to attract more young people to  your film, find a new marketing angle.  The LAST thing you want to do is make it more "kid-friendly"! 

We need to all "find our voices", all of us who care about cinematic integrity, and express our distaste at what will absolutely ruin a marvelous work of popular art.

This Weekend: back to Oscar 1970, and best Actor and Best Picture.  Next Week: a review of a great new novel, "Enchanted April".

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Oscar 1970--Best Actress

Love was the dominating theme of the 1970 Best Actress race.  Each of the characters in this category had, as a central conflict, a love relationship: two were newly married and one would meet an untimely end; two sought love outside of marriage; one was subject to emotional and physical abuse by the men in her life; one destroyed her lover with cerebral games and icy passion; and one saw her love doomed by the unfortunate effects of racism. The irony evident in the films of 1970 is that in a time of burgeoning feminism, there were  few strong leading roles for women.  These five nominated roles were perhaps the only substantial characters for leading women in 1970, and it is to the credit of all of these actress that they were up to the demands their parts required of them.  All were first-time nominees.
Few sports have captured the attention of Oscar more than boxing.  Beginning with Kirk Douglas in "Champion" in 1949, films about boxers in and out of the ring have flirted with Oscar, including: "On the Waterfront", "From Here to Eternity", "Rocky", "Raging Bull", "Pulp Fiction", "Million Dollar Baby", "Cinderella Man", this year's "The Fighter", and 1970's "The Great White Hope".  Based on a Pulitzer-Prize- and Tony-Award-Winning play by Howard Sackler, the film reunited Tony-Award-winning leads James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander, who made her film debut here. Alexander played Eleanor Bachman, a white woman whose love affair with Jack Johnson, the world's first black heavyweight champion, unleashed racial hatred that lead to Johnson's downfall.  The film's title refers to the boxer who whites hoped would take Johnson's title from him.  As civil rights legislation divided Americans and racism remained prevalent and dangerous, "The Great White Hope" deserved support for bringing these issues to the big screen.  Alexander's was almost a character part, and she was excellent in the role of Johnson's lover. One cannot helped but be moved by the tragic consequences of Eleanor's just wanting to love her man. But this was James Earl Jones' film and Johnson's story, so Alexander would  be overshadowed in this year's Oscar competition. Even the posters of the film (above) seem to place her in a secondary role. By the time I saw this film, years after its initial release, I had already loved Alexander in her appearances in "Kramer vs. Kramer" and "All the President's Men".  She never won an Oscar despite her four nominations, but is admired in the industry for her political and charitable work.
 The most controversial of this year's Best Actress Nominees was probably Ali McGraw in "Love Story".  It was thought that McGraw was carried on a huge wave of popularity for a film which many others considered maudlin and manipulative.  McGraw's later career would prove her limited range as an actress; however, the role of Jennifer Cavalleri was perfectly suited to her talents, and it is impossible to think of the film without her.  I liked "Love Story" better than most critics, and happen to think it has aged rather well.  More than just a weeper about a Radcliffe co-ed whose Cinderella romance with a handsome and rich Harvard jock was cut short by fatal illness, this is an edgy story about late '60's silent-majority youth torn between the conventions of their families and the changing mores and lifestyles of their peers.  Jennifer was a cocky, profane young woman who spoke her mind and charmed Oliver, her straight-laced boyfriend, with her brashness and occasional glimpses of sincere vulnerability. McGraw's sarcastic delivery of wisecrack dialogue, which some found annoying and difficult, actually served the character well.  I think McGraw does a good job hiding Jennifer's fear of dying behind a hard exterior.  In the sticky final half-hour, it is McGraw's skill in maintaining Jennifer's hard edge that prevents this sentimental story from falling into sappiness.  Most Academy voters were not yet convinced of McGraw's Oscar-worthiness, and she would in fact never receive another Oscar nomination.  But she should be well-remembered for her legacy that is Jennifer.

Sarah Miles' Rosie Ryan is almost overwhelmed by the natural spectacle of "Ryan's Daughter", so exquisitely captured by Frddie Young's lens: the impossibly beautiful vistas, the craggy and interesting faces of the townspeople, the oddity that is Michael the town mute, the coastal beaches, and the incredible seaside storm. Yet this is a small, intimate story about a young Irishwoman who marries the schoolteacher (attractively played by Robert Mitchum) as duty dictates; and then is shaken to her foundation by tidal waves of love for a mysterious British soldier (Christopher Jones) during World War I.  As Sarah Miles inhabits Rosie, she must convey her character's torn allegiance and infidelity, and suggest her new-found passion without giving voice to it; hers is a role that depends less on dialogue than on subtle shifts in posture, body movement and facial expression.  "Ryan's Daughter" is an epic treatment about the mysteries of the heart, and uses nature to suggest what words cannot.  David Lean was widely criticized for overblowing this simple love story. Actually, I think passion does take one by storm, can make the world look like a sweeping vista; I thought Lean's method was appropriate, even if the story dragged in spots.  The GP-rated film became infamous for a bare-breasted love scene in a forest teeming with symbolism. Miles role requires her to express various intensities of physical love, "act" like a perfectly happy wife, spurn with sympathy the attentions of an innocent man-child, and suffer at the hands of an angry mob.  She gets to play angry, she gets to experience ecstasy, and she gets to weep with regret. While her character is not always easy to recall in retrospect, while watching Miles is on-screen, she leads us through this soap opera effectively. 
Carrie Snodgress, a Chicago native, made a huge splash in her first major motion picture role as Tina in "Diary of a Mad Housewife". This is a fascinating film about a woman who was
"mad"- as- in- "angry",  and possibly on her way to losing her mind to boredom, frustration, and abuse, first from her snide and demanding husband (Richard Benjamin), and then from her adulterous relationship with a violent narcissist (Frank Langella). I recall that Snodgress' performance was widely discussed and highly touted.  In addition to it being the only nominated performance to confront the changing roles of modern American women, it was one of the few movies in 1970 to make women's liberation its central premise, and the seething frustration of being taken for granted.  The men were caricatures, which lent the film an air of comic resignation.  Snodgress was uninhibited in her service to this part, and although she appeared in various stages of undress, one was captured by her penetrating gaze, and incredible gravel-deep voice. She had one of the most interesting faces and voices in movies. The movie was a showcase for her, a big, big role, and she was heavily favored to win, especially after capturing the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Comedy.  (Ali McGraw, above, captured the drama Golden Globe).  Surprisingly, this movie has fallen off the radar, and is almost impossible to find today.  Snodgress would never again be nominated, as she retreated from acting to deal with her own relationships, first with musician Neil Young, and later with film composer Jack Nitzsche.  A note of trivia: Sylvester Stallone tried hard to recruit Snodgress to play Adrian in "Rocky", which she turned down to accept a role in a Robert Altman film that never materialized.   I still think that her performance in "Diary of a Mad Housewife" had all the ingredients for an Oscar win, but the Academy was atypically cerebral that year.

Maybe because it is one of the most unlikely and unusual performances ever to triumph at the Academy Awards, it is truly a wonder that England native Glenda Jackson took home the gold for her portrayal of the wounding, sensual artist in Ken Russel's film of D.H. Lawrence's "Women in Love". Perhaps because of her win in this category, I always watch Jackson's performance carefully, to pick up the subtleties that brought her performance to the attention of an often shallow Academy.  What Jackson achieves foremost is the fleshing out of a character that was written as a sexual idea, an archetype.  Her Gudrun Brangwen is above all a physical being, and Jackson acts with her entire body.   Mysterious, playful, strong, even cruel, Gudrun can be as icy as the Matterhorn; and yet her fearless, artistic sexuality is hypnotic enough to transfix and then frighten even a formidable herd of cattle, in what is one of the film's many unforgettable set-pieces. Jackson herself is fearless, and she moves with balletic precision.  Above all are the voice, and the singular intelligence in her gaze.  Jackson plays Gudrun like she has the answer to a question you don't quite know how to ask.  This is the key to the book's successful translation to the screen.  (The film itself might have just missed landing a Best Picture nomination, as it scored in Directing, Screenplay and Cinematography categories.)

The story involves the love affairs of two sisters, Gudrun and Ursula (Jennie Linden) with men of a higher social stratum: Gerald, the owner of the local mine (Oliver Reed) and Rupert, a schoolteacher who is ending an oppressive relationship of his own (Alan Bates).  Jackson's Gudrun finds formidable expression in her romance with Reed's Gerald.  Whether it is a cunning exchange of dialogue or  a startling sequence of violent sexuality, we cannot take our eyes off her, and must discover what it is that motivates Gudrun's unusual romantic behavior.  Jackson has since retired from acting and has been a member of the British Parliament for many years. I miss her intelligence and unusual screen presence, and despite winning another Oscar in 1973 for the screwball comedy "A Touch of Class" (a real departure!) I happily keep returning to Glenda Jackson's utterly fascinating interpretation of Gudrun.  

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Oscar 1970--Best Supporting Actor

Fathers, sons, a "grandfather", and a wordless wanderer:  the 1970 Supporting Actor race was as notable for its broad variety of roles as for the diversity of the actors who inhabited them.  Two nominees, each playing lovable fathers, one comic, one tragic, would team up two years later in "The Godfather" as decidedly sinister men.  One nominee, portraying a regretful son, would know Oscar glory one year later as a hot-headed cop breaking up "The French Connection".  Liberal righteousness helped recognize the first Native American nominee for a worthy performance.  And a seasoned British veteran, whose daughter was even more popular to American audiences, silently captured Academy hearts..and votes.

"Lovers and Other Strangers" was a delightful comedy of manners, a gentle social comment on romance, marriage, and divorce in that transitional year of 1970.  With an all-star cast that included past-and future-Oscar winners Diane Keaton, Gig Young and Cloris Leachman, well-loved comic actors like Anne Meara, Bea Arthur, and Harry Guardino, and  hot contemporary performers like Bonnie Bedelia, Michael Brandon, and Marian Hailey, it was a wonderful coup for character actor Richard Castellano to emerge as the film's sole acting nominee.  While Castellano will be forever remembered as Clemenza, the cannoli-loving gangster in "The Godfather", I prefer his performance as Frank Vecchio, the world-weary working-class father of  two sons, one a groom, one a divorcee. Playing off of Bea Arthur as his ever-cooking, always-serving wife Beatrice, Castellano's portrayal of a perplexed Italian patriarch is as true and funny a portrait I've seen on film (until "Moonstruck" 18 years later).  I loved his banter with Arthur in which they proudly proclaim that they're not happy--they're content.  Castellano finds so many nuances in his constant question, "So, what's the story?" that the line feels legendary.  His unassuming simplicity finds full impact in his centerpiece monologue, when he tries with inarticulate charm to explain how "we're all strangers", and that after years of marriage two people become "deeper strangers, which is a kind of love."  Critics raved about Castellano, and it seemed that this could be the favorite to win.  It ranks as my favorite among the five nominees.

"Love Story" had the most acting nominations (3) of any film in 1970.  One of these, John Marley, had a small role in this film, but was so essential to the emotional arc of the story, and so beautifully played, that the Academy could not ignore him.  (Two years later, Marley would wake up to a nasty surprise in "The Godfather"s most notorious scene.)  Marley is Phil Cavalleri, a modest Italian baker and loving father to Radcliffe co-ed Jennifer (Ali McGraw).  Has there ever been a more loving and agreeable dad in the history of movies?  Indulgent to a fault, and willing to do anything for his daughter, he drops the formality of their relationship, and allows Jennifer to call him by his first name. He accepts her relationship with Oliver (Ryan O'Neal), and tries his best to understand all of its modern permutations.  Marley is especially effective in a controversial scene in which Oliver and Jennifer inform Phil, a devout Catholic, that they don't believe in God and that they will not be married in a church.  Without histrionics, Marley registers unshakable disappointment, then resignation and even support. I held my breath the whole time.  "Love Story" tells of a marriage doomed by Jennifer's untimely death.  It wasn't the deathbed scene as much as Marley's regret that he "promised to be strong" that got millions of tear ducts flowing in theaters the world over. 

"I Never Sang for My Father" is playwright Robert Anderson's autobiographical memoir of his final days with his contentious, aging father, and his struggle to make sense of the pain of that relationship. Gene Hackman continued his rise to fame which began with "Bonnie and Clyde" with this, his second Oscar nomination.  This is probably the biggest role of the five nominees, and occupied enough screen time to have been considered a lead.  The film is not screened much (and is not yet available on DVD).  While the movie is stage-bound and subject to the cinematic cliches of that period, the writing is excellent.  Hackman is perfect as a retired professor who regresses back to old ways of feeling and relating to his demanding yet vulnerable father. He projects the frustration of a mature man at a crossroads, delaying his own happiness out of a sense of obligation.  Hackman's bland, everyman persona allows viewers to project themselves into this story and identify with Hackman's character.  There is not an easy resolution here, but the satisfaction that one is not alone in a world where children, even in 1970, have become caretakers.  While Hackman's role may have been too low-profile to be favored for a win (and overshadowed by the power of Melvyn Douglas) it was a worthy nomination.

Director Arthur Penn continued his string of successful social comment, after "Bonnie and Clyde" and "Alice's Restaurant", with "Little Big Man", a tall tale told by Jack Crabb, a 125-year-old survivor of Custer's Last Stand (Dustin Hoffman in great makeup and Dorothy Michaels' phrasing).  Among the cast was an elderly Native American actor with authentic presence and an amusing deadpan delivery named Chief Dan George, who was himself an author, poet, and chief of a tribe in Vancouver.  He played Old Lodge Skins, the kindly leader of a Cheyenne tribal village, who takes in the young Crabb and becomes his "grandfather".  Chief Dan George mesmerized audiences with his unique brand of wisdom and subtle humor, and was a shoo-in for a nomination; many thought that he would be a favorite to win.  "Little Big Man" is a big, episodic, humorous epic that successfully, I think, tells an honest story of the Native American experience and fight for independence.  Penn gave play to the exaggerations and pomposity of his narrator, but did an admirable job offering a more sympathetic portrayal of Native Americans than had been attempted before.  The renewed interest in battles like Little Big Horn may have been a result of American involvement in Vietnam.  By masking the horrors of Southeast Asia in tales of the American West,  Hollywood, which was not prepared to deal with these events directly, could allude to tragedies like the My Lai massacre.  Young people who were attuned to mind-altering experiences turned to Native American mysticism and fashion (and drugs).  In this atmosphere, a film like "Little Big Man" was very successful.  The appearance of Chief Dan George, with his wonderful portrayal, gave the film the credibility to be taken seriously.

John Mills' victory for his portrayal of Michael, the unfortunate brain-damaged mute inhabiting a WWI Irish coastal town in "Ryan's Daughter", was somewhat of a surprise.  Other nominees had more critical support in high-profile, even leading, roles.  And David Lean's film, although admired for its brilliant photography and technical achievement, was not a critical success.  In retrospect, however, Mills' win makes sense.  He was a long-time film veteran, appearing in scores of British and American productions; Hayley Mills, his daughter, was an extremely popular child-actor in the 1960's; and Oscar had a penchant for rewarding mute and disabled characters (Jane Wyman for "Johnny Belinda" in 1948, and later Marlee Matlin for "Children of a Lesser God" (1986), Daniel Day-Lewis for "My Left Foot" (1989) Holly Hunter for "The Piano" (1993) come to mind).   This was also a departure for Mills, who played against type and was nearly unrecognizable as the "village idiot", whose simple love for the newlywed schoolteacher (Sarah Miles) proved the catalyst for her downfall and the town's political upheaval. Mills effectively used his entire body to suggest a misshapen misfit, and even under heavy makeup, drooling and with a perpetual grin, he communicated enormous longing with his eyes, and conveyed the innocence of a prince trapped inside a broken body.  It is the showiest performance of all 20  acting nominees in 1970. Mills had the respect of his fellows in the Academy, and they recognized the gruelling physicality and level of difficulty he endured to pull the role off.  Even though my personal preference would be for Richard Castellano, Mills created an unforgettable character, and the award here was well-deserved.

A Brief Break From 1970..To Look at 2011 Oscar Surprises

By now, anyone who follows Oscar is aware of the nominations, and to no one's surprise, the same titles appear that have been discussed at great length for months: "Black Swan", "King's Speech", "Social Network", "Toy Story 3", "The Kids are All Right", "The Fighter", "True Grit"....many of us are reciting this list in our sleep.

This space is devoted to personal observations: condolences to the forgotten, cheers to the happily remembered, the obscure mentions, and one very, very big surprise that so far (11am Central Time) has received almost no press....

I wish the following names had been called today:  Andrew Garfield (the best thing in "Social Network" and compelling in "Never Let Me Go"), Ryan Gosling ("Blue Valentine"), Julianne Moore ("Kids..."), Rachel Portman (score for "Never Let Me Go") and  Carey Mulligan (same film), Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin (writers of "Black Swan"),  Mila Kunis (same film), "I Am Love" for Foreign Language Film, "The Tillman Story" for Documentary.

I was happy these were remembered:  "Hereafter" for Visual Effects (discussed here in November), Mark Ruffalo (for "Kids..."),  "I Am Love" for Costume Design, "How To Train Your Dragon" for Animated Film and Score, and best of all, Javier Bardem in "Biutiful".

My Sentimental Choice So Far is: David Seidler for his Screenplay, "King's Speech". Classic screenwriting at its best. Seidler's personal story, leading up to how he eventually came to write the film, deserves a nice, tearful finish at the winner's podium. (I would also cheer for  a Lisa Cholodenko/Stuart Blumberg upset for "Kids...")

Because of the Oscar Nominations I Will Have to See: "The Fighter", "Winter's Bone", "Rabbit Hole".

In Spite of the Oscar Nominations I Am Still Not Interested: "True Grit", "127 Hours", "Alice in Wonderland".

Really? The heavily improvised "Another Year" gets a screenplay nod.

Biggest Surprise that I Don't Care Either Way:  The inclusion of the Coen Brothers instead of Christopher Nolan for Best Director.

Biggest Surprise--PERIOD!  "Waiting for Superman" did NOT receive a nomination for Best Feature Documentary.  The heavily favored and highly promoted indictment of American public education seemed like a
shoo-in to win, let alone be included in the list of nominees.  The press must be as dumbfounded as I am...I cannot find many
on-line analyses of this snub.  Loyal followers of this Journal may recall my own misgivings about the film; my criticism of it felt like a lone voice in the wilderness
(click here for my review).

I did find an article published in the New York Review of Books, by Diane Ravitch, a Research Professor of Education at New York University and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Ravitch wrote an articulate review of the film, taking an insider's look at the problems she found with facts, and the film's propagandistic methodology ("The Myth of Charter Schools"). Some have credited this piece with helping knock "Superman" out of the running.  (That is, if you believe that Academy members read books, or book reviews.)

You are welcome to offer links to any articles that help explain why this Documentary snub occurred.

Now, back to 1970, an Oscar race that seems to have taken place on an entirely different planet....

Monday, January 24, 2011

Oscar 1970--Best Supporting Actress

The race for Supporting Actress in 1970 contained two classic characterizations, one solid performance, one old veteran playing "cute" (irresistible to Academy voters then),  and a well-known actress in an all-but-forgotten oddity.  This category perfectly encapsulated the schism in Hollywood as reflected in the Oscar race: established actresses in conventional roles nominated alongside risky, cutting edge work in more ambitious, relevant films.

Maureen Stapleton received her second* Academy Award nomination playing Inez Guerrero, the worried wife of a disturbed man (Van Heflin) in "Airport".  Inez comforts her struggling-businessman husband as he departs for Rome, and anxiously awaits news of the flight as it is revealed that a bomb has exploded in the cabin. Stapleton is so believable as an ordinary working woman and loving wife, masterfully modulating her reactions, as Inez slowly realizes that her husband may be responsible for the disaster.  Later, desperate and alone, she earns our sympathy in her final stages of collapse, pleading for forgiveness of the passengers disembarking into the terminal. Stapleton's nomination was doomed from the start.  First, she shared the category with her co-star Helen Hayes, which usually results in votes cancelling each other out.  Second, in this case, Hayes played a more endearing character,and was herself a popular and sentimental favorite. Even with a strong performance, it would have been nearly impossible for Stapleton to win the category. I think Stapleton gave the best performance of the whole cast of "Airport".  It was a relatively brief appearance that nonetheless lent the film a modicum of real emotion, a supporting performance in the best sense.  

Sally Kellerman was responsible for some of the most notorious and well-loved classic sequences in "M*A*S*H".  Her statuesque embodiment of a sincere military professional, undone by the outrageous antics of a group of irreverent doctors in a Korean War    M(obile) A(rmy) S(urgical) H(ospital) unit, is still one of my all-time favorite movie characters.  Months before I was finally able to convince my parents to take me to this, my first R-rated film, word-of-mouth spread about the character of Margaret Houlihan, and how she came by her nickname Hot Lips.  This is not the cute TV-sitcom Hot Lips, but a full-blooded no-nonsense nurse who is a victim of unmerciful, politically incorrect pranksters driven by equal parts bloodshed and boredom.  After a primal and wickedly funny breakdown in Colonel Blake's tent, she comes around to the madness, chucks her hypocrisy, leads a football cheerleading squad, and connects in a tender way with her fellow surgeons.  No longer a "regular Army clown", she proudly bears her nickname in the spirit of blessed insanity.  Kellerman perfectly balances a self-righteous smirk with a healthy and explosive sexuality, and delivers her lines with a throaty, sensual strength. I suppose if I had a ballot I would have voted here, for the sheer pleasure this role gave me in my overall love for this film.  

   But then, there is Karen Black's terrific portrayal of Rayette, the working-class waitress-girlfriend of Jack Nicholson in one of 1970's very best films, "Five Easy Pieces".  Black was an interesting presence in the cutting-edge and quirky films of the 1970's, and "Five Easy Pieces" was a perfect showcase for her unique talents.  She would go on to do interesting work in unusual films like "Day of the Locust" and "Nashville".  After the debacle that was "Airport 1975", her star fell a little, and with few exceptions, it never again shone as brightly.  Her Rayette was a woman of simple pleasures, unsophisticated and good-hearted, with an almost childish demand for love from her brooding partner Bobby, (a triumphant role for Jack Nicholson). It's soon apparent that Bobby has surprising layers of complexity, and may regard Rayette as a symbol of his rejection of a privileged upbringing.  Black knows this character perfectly, and loves her.  She understands the wounds that manifest themselves in annoying behavior, and the deep need to be good to her lover.  Her best scene occurs when Rayette crashes Bobby's childhood home and shakes up the pseudo-intellectuals gathered there.  In this category, Black would be Kellerman's most serious competitor.  My heart would go with Hot Lips, but my vote might go to Rayette.

"The Landlord" was a modest critical success, and found a cultish audience, but it seems to have evaporated from movie-buffs' consciousness. The nomination for Lee Grant in this category might have been a welcome-back-to-the fold after her 1950's era blacklisting for refusing to testify against alleged Communists; or maybe it was a result of few good supporting roles for women in 1970. The film was the directorial debut for Hal Ashby, who would helm "Shampoo" five years later and nab Lee an Oscar.  "The Landlord" examines racial tensions between blacks and whites, as well as within the black community, of a neighborhood in Brooklyn.  Beau Bridges is a trust-fund kid who buys a tenement to overhaul and gentrify, but winds up befriending and caring for the tenants he set out to evict.  Grant plays his flighty, incredulous mother, who disapproves of her rich son's behavior, but winds up playing a marvelous drunk scene with Pearl Bailey. The film, and this nomination, remain intriguing curiosities.  It is a credit to the Oscar that a nomination like this in a major category will save an unusual, quality film from permanent obscurity. Still, Grant had no chance to win here. 

The victory for Helen Hayes as Best Supporting Actress in 1970's "Airport" was a foregone conclusion.  The 70-year old veteran of stage and screen had won her first Oscar for Best Actress in 1932 for "The Sin of Madelon Claudet". She became the first performer to win a Supporting Oscar after a Lead Acting victory; and her 38-year gap between wins still holds a record, over Katharine Hepburn's 24 and Gene Hackman's 21.  Beloved by the entire industry, Academy voters and the general public enjoyed watching Hayes have a grand time playing airport stowaway Ada Quonset.  On the lam from airline officials, she is finally recruited to clandestinely assist in the apprehension of a desperate bomber.  This was clearly a sentimental award; the "cute old lady" role was nowhere near Oscar-calibre, and is never mentioned among lists of greatest Oscar performances.  Still, Hayes was fun to watch, and voters responded to her being such a good sport. 

*I originally indicated her first nom, until astute reader Eric Arvin kindly noted the error...

Next: Best Supporting Actor

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Movies in 1970--Big Names, Interesting Oscar Races

Almost every category in the 1970 Oscar race had colorful personalities or strong nominees.  Even (or especially) in categories other than Acting or Picture, the 1970 Academy Awards are a compelling history of how far movies had come, and a snapshot of Old Hollywood's desire to preserve its traditions while new talents (not all of them young--Robert Altman was already 45) were taking the art of cinema in exciting directions.

Before I tackle some of the more interesting categories, here's a brief summary of some of the trends I noticed in the movies of that year...

The treatment of sexual themes and violent content was still not (for the most part) a no-holds-barred proposition, which meant that the introduction of explicit nudity, sexuality, or violence had to be approached in a context of quality in order to be acceptable---usually.

Just about any important film you could name in 1970 took cinema a little bit further, either thematically or by a memorable or controversial scene.  Political themes, too, were plentiful.  Reading the marquees of theaters in a big city  was like a social network of could share your political affiliation with others at a screening of a particular film, often for repeat viewings.  (Remember, there was no home video then, and no multiplex theaters.)  Lots of movies appealed to the activism prevalent in young moviegoers.  It seemed that certain films could actually change the world, and people of a certain idealistic worldview tended to align with each other through these films.

Or you could champion a new look or style or cinematic groundbreaker. 

An "important" movie of that era was often known as being the first one to try something new, or one with "that must-see scene", or one that called the Establishment to question.  Many were Oscar hopefuls, but not all. 

"Women In Love" had the infamous nude wrestling scene between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates.  It would also prove to feature the first performance by an actress (Glenda Jackson) who played a nude scene to win an Oscar.

"The Boys in the Band" was an unabashed story about homosexuals; and Liza Minneli's follow-up movie after her first Oscar nomination (see "the Sterile Cuckoo")  featured a (horribly stereotyped) gay character in "Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon."

The historic mistreatment of Native Americans drove films like "Little Big Man", "Soldier Blue" and "A Man Called Horse".   The first two featured bloody scenes of slaughter that were obvious parallels to the My Lai massacre (viewers were outraged by the brutality in "Soldier Blue"); the latter became notorious for an initiation rite featuring Richard Harris' pectorals and two chicken claws.

The otherwise sentimental "Love Story" broached the uncomfortable subject of young adults rejecting religion, and startled viewers with the heroine's brash dialogue.  "Patton" was well-known for it's profanity (so mild today it might pass completely unnoticed).  "M*A*S*H" was even more profane, and forced viewers to look at battlefield bloodshed even as they were convulsed with was anarchic, it was a party, and nothing like it had been seen before.

Mike Nichols directed an all-star cast (Alan Arkin, Tony Perkins, Jon Voight, Art Garfunkel, Orson Welles, among others) in the film of the classic anti-war novel "Catch-22".  It should have appealed to the same crowd as "M*A*S*H" but somehow its clunky cynicism and heaviness (and the explicit treatment of  the book's horrifying Snowden sequence) turned off audiences.

"The Revolutionary"  (Jon Voight again), "The Strawberry Statement" (with "True Grit"s Kim Darby), and Michaelangelo Antonioni's "Zabriskie Point" functioned as a rallying cry for youthful alienation and activism started by "Easy Rider" the previous year.  While none of these proved very popular,  Antonioni's film in particular was widely dismissed and misunderstood even by those who loved "Blow-Up" in 1966 (although I really enjoyed it's originality, its beauty, its music, and its vision of an aridly commercial society).

The burgeoning urban film, or "blackxploitation film", which stereotyped the criminal culture of the inner city, got its start in 1970 with the fairly well-made "Cotton Comes to Harlem", reaching an apex of sorts the next year with "Shaft".  Civil Rights and more sensitive treatment of race relations could be found in pictures such as "The Landlord" and "The Great White Hope".

Best Director Nominees Arthur Hiller ("Love Story") and Robert Altman ("M*A*S*H") both made lesser films of varying success in 1970: Hiller added his own venom to New York City in "The Out-of Towners", a raucous, popular but critically lambasted comedy starring Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis;  Altman made the far more quirky and interesting "Brewster McCloud", starring a pre-"Harold and Maude" Bud Cort on a flying contraption in the Houston Astrodome.  Audiences ignored it.

"Joe", very dated now, but one of my favorite films of 1970 or any other year, was directed by former soft-core porn-filmmaker John Avildsen ("Rocky") and  starred Peter Boyle (the "Young Frankenstein" monster) and Susan Sarandon, (in her film debut) portraying, respectively, a bigoted hardhat and a runaway hippie involved in the drug scene.  It was such a powerful film, that the then-Chicago Censorship Board refused admission to anyone under 18.  It drew the battle lines between the working class "silent majority" and an underground movement of anti-establishment activists.  Norman Wexler's screenplay copped "Joe's" only nomination.

Speaking of soft-core porn, Russ Meyer, the "King of the Nudies", got big studio support (and money) to create the bloody, sexy and satirical  cult classic "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls", scripted by Meyer's friend and Chicago film critic, Roger Ebert!  And 1930's movie diva Mae West joined Raquel Welch and John Houston in the abominable guilty pleasure "Myra Breckinridge", in which Rex Reed's female alter ego Myra sets out to destroy Hollywood by first sodomizing a vacuous hunk and then...oh, forget it.  Both from 20th-Century Fox.

*     *      *      *      *      *      *     *     *     *

Here are more highlights from some of the more interesting Oscar categories in 1970:

Best Director:  Robert Altman had been working in television for over a decade before Fox gave him the task of directing "M*A*S*H*.  His method was so freewheeling, that cast members Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould tried to have him removed from the film, but came around when they saw what he captured on celluloid...

My hero Federico Fellini scored a nomination for the phantasmagorical "Fellini Satyricon", sort of a "Dolce Vita" of ancient Rome, or to paraphrase Fellini, a science fiction film of the past.  It was a wallow in color and grotesque imagery and sound, and Fellini's direction was the film's only nomination.....

Ken Russell, with "Women in Love", made perhaps his best film.  Known for ever-increasingly eccentric and over-the-top pictures, "Women in Love" showed what I call passionate restraint.  It was lush with invention and color and gorgeous set pieces and dead-on performances....

And Arthur Hiller was underappreciated for bringing "Love Story" to the screen, a movie that nailed a portrait of a generation and a new kind of relationship, and moved people, deeply, and with quiet sensitivity, in spite of the sentimental (and Oscar-winning) music score....

All of them lost to Franklin Schaffner for the admirable, conventional triumph of logistics, "Patton".

"Woodstock": a category all its own.  This astounding 3-hour Oscar-winning Feature Documentary of the 1969 rock concert nabbed nominations in technical categories usually reserved for fiction films: editing and sound.  Editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who would go on to collaborate with Martin Scorsese, shaped hundreds of hours of film into a brilliant amalgam of musical performance, concertgoer interviews, portraits of the promoters and workers, and commentary by the locals.  Split-screen has rarely been used so effectively. Scorsese, by the way, was a co-editor on the film.

Screenplay, Adapted:  Ring Lardner Jr. won his first writing Oscar in 1942 co-scripting "Woman of the Year" (Hepburn-Tracy).  In the 1950's he was blacklisted for refusing to "out" Communist sympathizers and became one of the infamous Hollywood Ten.   In 1970, he was back at the winner's podium for his adaptation of Richard Hooker's comic war novel "M*A*S*H".  Lardner resented Altman's riffs on the screenplay and willingness to let actors improvise their dialog.  He failed to thank Altman in his acceptance speech....

Larry Kramer, who would become an important playwright ("The Normal Heart") and AIDS activist, did an admirable job adapting the impossible-to-adapt D.H. Lawrence novel "Women in Love"......

And George Seaton, who was snubbed in the Director category for "Airport", got a nod here for  screenplay, which never met a cliche it didn't love, but still managed to be entertaining.  Seaton was an old-guard Hollywood-type, who some might recall directed Natalie Wood in 1947's "Miracle on 34th Street" and Bing Crosby in 1954's "The Country Girl".

Story and Screenplay--Based on Factual Material or material Not Previously Published or Produced:--(In 1970, THAT was the name of what we now call "Original Screenplay"!)  Former Brigadier General Frank McCarthy (and film producer) commissioned Roger Corman alumnus Francis Ford Coppola to co-write the eventual Oscar-winning screenplay for "Patton".  Coppola would return twice more in the 1970's to accept writing honors for the first 2 "Godfather" films...

Erich Segal was eligible for a nomination in this category because his novel, "Love Story", was not published until after the screenplay was finished. This was one of the first novelizations of a film.  The book was one of the biggest sellers of the decade...

Original Song Score: This is a discontinued category, along with Best Adapted Musical Score, which recognized songs from original musicals as well as adaptations of Broadway hits, classical themes, and others.  The Beatles took home Oscars for their music from the documentary "Let It Be", a record of the group's final recording session together.  This is impossible to find nowadays; I remember seeing this on a VHS rental years ago, and thought it to be a well-made cinema-verite.  The win in this category is sort of unusual, probably the Academy's attempt to remedy snubs of the group's work in such classics as "Help" and "Hard Day's Night." (Note the G-rating on the poster!)

Cinematography: Freddie Young scored a hat-trick in his collaboration with David Lean.  He followed his previous two wins ("Lawrence of Arabia" and "Doctor Zhivago") with this one for "Ryan's Daughter".  Young's work was typically magnificent, although the film was an atypical critical and box-office bomb for Lean, who was so discouraged, that it would be 14 years before he would return to filmmaking (and "A Passage to India".)  Although it was about 30 minutes too long, I found "Ryan's Daughter" to be a sweeping and entertaining love story, which used natural landscapes stunningly to symbolize the passion of the young wife of a schoolteacher in 1916 Ireland.

Finally...the Irving Thalberg Award in 1970 went to another hero of mine...Ingmar Bergman.

Next up: Supporting Actor and Actress....which honored two veterans, one of whom had not a word of dialogue in his winning performance.