By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 6, 2010)
I’m sure you are aware that the Academy Awards are coming up this Sunday (can’t avoid the hype). As an alleged “movie critic”, I’m ashamed to admit that I have only seen 5 out of the 10 nominees for 2009’s Best Picture. Then again, it’s been a number of years since Academy voters and I have seen eye to eye as to what constitutes a “best picture”. Either my sense of film aesthetic has changed, or the Academy has lowered its standards over the years. And I don’t think my personal sense of film aesthetic has changed, if you catch my drift.
At any rate, this is my way of explaining in advance as to why you may notice that no “Best Picture” winners from the last two decades made my list, which I have culled from the previous 81 Academy Awards. Perhaps it is just my long-winded way of saying “They don’t make ‘em like they used to.” And you kids stay off my lawn.
You Can’t Take it With You (Best Picture of 1938) Capitalism: a love story. 72 years on, Frank Capra’s screen adaptation of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s stage play resonates anew in the light of our current woes. A Wall Street fat cat (Edward Arnold) comes up with various nefarious machinations to force a stubborn but happy-go-lucky homeowner (Lionel Barrymore) and his eccentric and free-spirited family to sell him his property, in order to make way for a new factory he wants to build in a prime metropolitan location.
Complications ensue when Barrymore’s granddaughter (Jean Arthur) falls in love with Arnold’s son (James Stewart). Hilarity abounds, fueled by the contrasting worldviews of Arnold’s uptight, greedy capitalist and Barrymore’s fun-loving non conformist. There’s lots of great slapstick bits, and like every screwball comedy worth its salt, there’s a scene where the entire cast ends up in a holding cell and has to explain themselves before a hapless judge.
Although this is one of Capra’s more lightweight films, he still works in social commentary about the haves vs. the have-nots; in some respects it feels like a warm-up for some of the pervading themes in It’s a Wonderful Life. Capra also received the Best Director Oscar.
Casablanca (Best Picture of 1943)-Romance, exotic intrigue, Bogie, Ingrid Bergman, evil Nazis, selfless acts of quiet heroism, Paul Henreid, Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, Rick’s Café, Claude Rains rounding up the usual suspects, Dooley singing “As Time Goes By”, the beginning of a beautiful friendship, the most rousing rendition of “La Marseille” you’ve ever heard, that goodbye scene at the airfield, and a timeless message (if you love someone, set them free). What’s not to love about this movie-lover’s movie?
From Here to Eternity (Best Picture of 1953)-Even though James Jones’ coarse and steamy source novel about restless GIs stationed at Pearl Harbor, fucking and fighting with wild abandon in the days leading up to the surprise attack was heavily sanitized for the screen adaptation, Fred Zinnemann’s film was still pretty risqué and heady adult fare for its time. Monty Clift was born to play the complex, angst-ridden company bugler (and sometime pugilist) Pvt. Robert E. Lee Prewitt, a classic “hard case” at constant loggerheads with his superiors (and his personal demons). And what a cast-outstanding performances abound from the likes of Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, Frank Sinatra (in his legendary “comeback” role), Jack Warden, Ernest Borgnine, and Donna Reed (who quite literally put her wholesome image to bed by playing a prostitute). A true classic.
West Side Story (Best Picture of 1961)-You know, there are so many Deep Thoughts that I have gleaned as a result of my many, many viewings of this fine film over the years; and since I am holding the Talking Stick, I wish to share a few of them with you now:
- When you’re a Jet, you stay a Jet.
- Something’s coming; don’t know when…but it’s soon.
- I like the island Manhattan.
- Breeze it, buzz it, easy does it.
- It’s alarming, how charming I feel.
- Deep down inside us, there is good.
Lawrence of Arabia (Best Picture of 1962)-Until you have viewed David Lean’s masterpiece on a theater screen, you can’t really comprehend how big the desert is. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is. Or how commanding 29 year-old Peter O’Toole was in his first starring role. O’Toole gives an appropriately larger-than-life performance as T.E. Lawrence, a flamboyant and outspoken British army officer who reinvented himself as a charismatic guerilla leader, gathering up warring Arab tribes and uniting them in a common cause to oust the Turks during WW I.
Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson based their intelligent screenplay on Lawrence’s memoirs, sustaining a surprising sense of intimacy throughout. This was no small feat, considering the film’s epic sweep and visual splendor (DP Freddie Young and editor Anne V. Coates more than earned their Oscars). Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, Claude Rains and Jose Ferrer round off a fine cast, and you can’t discuss this film without giving praise to Maurice Jarre’s magnificent “Best Score”.
In the Heat of the Night (Best Picture of 1967)-“They call me Mister Tibbs!” In this classic social commentary, Sidney Poitier plays a cosmopolitan police detective from Philly who gets waylaid in a torpid Mississippi backwater, where he is reluctantly recruited into helping the bigoted sheriff (Rod Steiger) solve a local murder. Poitier nails his role; you feel Virgil Tibb’s pain as he tries to maintain his professional cool amidst a brace of surly rednecks, who throw up roadblocks at every turn (I would imagine President Obama knows that feeling as of late).
While Steiger is outstanding here as well, I find it ironic that he was the one who picked up “Best Actor in a leading role”, when in reality, Poitier was the star (it seems Hollywood didn’t get the film’s message). Sterling Silliphant’s brilliant screenplay (another Oscar) works as a crime thriller and a quintessential “fish out of water” story. Director Norman Jewison was nominated, but didn’t score a win. Future director Hal Ashby won for Best Editing. Quincy Jones composed the appropriately bluesy soundtrack, and Ray Charles sings the theme song.
Midnight Cowboy (Best Picture of 1969)-One of the very few times the Academy has given a nod to the dark side (add Hamlet, Silence of the Lambs, American Beauty, and No Country for Old Men to that list, and you can literally count it on one hand). John Schlesinger’s groundbreaking character study also helped usher in a new era of mature, gritty neo-realism in American film that would reach its apex in 1976 with Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (one year before Star Wars).
Dustin Hoffman has seldom matched his character work here as the Fagin-esque Ratso Rizzo, a homeless New York City con artist who adopts country bumpkin/aspiring male hustler Joe Buck (Jon Voight) as his “protégé”. The two leads are outstanding, as is the supporting cast, which includes John McGiver, Brenda Vaccaro, Barnard Hughes and a teenage Bob Balaban. There is a memorable party scene featuring cameos from a number of Andy Warhol’s “Factory” alumnus. The location filming serves as an historical document of the seedy milieu that was “classic” Times Square. Schlesinger picked up a statuette for Best Director, as did Waldo Salt for his screenplay.
The Godfather (Best Picture of 1972) and The Godfather, Part II (Best Picture of 1974)-Yes, I’m counting them as one; because in a narrative and artistic sense, they are. Got a problem with that? Tell it to Luca Brasi. And, taken as a whole, Francis Ford Coppola’s two-part masterpiece is best summed up thusly: Brando, Pacino, and De Niro.
Annie Hall (Best Picture of 1977)-As far as his “earlier, funny films” go, this semi-autobiographical entry ranks as one of Woody Allen’s finest, and represents the moment he “found his voice” as a filmmaker. The Academy concurred, awarding three additional Oscars as well-for Best Actress (leading lady Diane Keaton, in her career-defining role), for Director (Allen) and for Best Original Screenplay (Allen again, along with co-writer Marshall Brickman).
Part 1 of a triptych (or so the theory goes) that continued with Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters, it is also the film that neatly divides the history of the cinematic romantic comedy in half. So many of the narrative framing techniques and comic inventions that Allen utilized have become so de rigueur for the genre (a recent example would be The 500 Days of Summer) that it’s easy to forget how wonderfully innovative and fresh this film felt back in 1977. A funny, bittersweet, and perceptive look at modern romance.
Gandhi (Best Picture of 1982)-I can still remember the first time I saw this film. It was at the single-screen Northpoint Theater in San Francisco, which at the time was the only venue in the city equipped to showcase 70mm prints in their full glory. In its original theatrical presentation, the film had an intermission, which occurred following the scene that reenacts the unthinkably horrible Jallianwala Bagh massacre. When the lights came up in the packed house, you could hear a pin drop-but for the sound of a woman quietly sobbing in the seat right in back of me. That’s all it took for me-I began to lose it, and it quickly spread around the auditorium. I had never before (or since) experienced anything like that at a screening. And therein, dear reader lays the power of truly great film making.