Better than the Oscars: 70-66

The following is from my series of Oscar Best Picture rankings, as well as my strongly worded suggestions for what should have won from among the nominees. For an introduction to the project, click here. For a way to vote on some Oscar-related ideas, click here. If I’ve written a review on any of the films below, I link to it in the movie’s title. Enjoy!

 

70) The Great Ziegfeld, 9th Academy Awards, directed by Robert Z. Leonard

What should have won: Dodsworth

Worth noting: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is probably the purest expression of Capracorn, but it’s also a little more rousing and a little less derpy than some of his other output.

Image links back here

I’ve been down on the idea of movies as escapism ever since I read The Glass Menagerie in high school and came across the line, “People go to the movies instead of moving.” Aside from that, there’s a very bourgeois implication to the idea, especially in the way that the people use the movies to escape often have relatively small problems to escape from. But in the middle of the Great Depression I can see how The Great Ziegfeld is glorious, maybe even unprecedented filmic escapism. Adrian really got let out of the box for this movie, and some of its enormous sets have a pre-Dr. Seuss lunacy to them. Song after song, dance after dance, William Powell after Myrna Loy after Luise Rainer: rarely have the movies been more glamorous than they are here. Nor is it an accident that Florenz Ziegfeld is the center of this giant rotating wedding cake of a picture, as few people so thoroughly symbolize pre-Depression excess and excitement. (Call it the Avatar of the ’30s.) Unfortunately for the movie, it is as empty as a meringue. William Powell was never the actor one entrusted with psychological depth, for one thing; for another, there’s so much going on that one is reminded of poor Emperor Joseph in Amadeus at the end of three hours: “There are in fact only so many notes the ear can hear in the course of an evening.” The Great Ziegfeld is certainly hemmed in by its own premise, for to recreate scenes from the life of the glittering man and his life’s work the film must go big. Yet in so doing—and with a production budget the size of the Ritz—the movie infuses the performances with the same kind of limpid melodrama. There’s not enough counterpoint in the movie to make it work.

As always seems to be the case during Oscar season, the giant spectacle is up against a potent drama of much smaller proportions. In this case it’s Dodsworth, one of William Wyler’s best movies, one of the best movies of the 1930s, an exceptional story about a husband and wife who outgrow each other when nobody had come up with that phrase just yet. Dodsworth’s trifecta of Walter Huston, Ruth Chatterton, and Mary Astor is in a different acting class than (the deservedly beloved) trio of Powell, Rainer, and Loy because they are given so much more to do. Chatterton in particular stands out because she plays an obnoxious person without the benefit of mystique; in other words, she’s Bette Davis without the power. It’s an outstanding, humble performance which repeatedly shows us Fran’s smallness of mind. When her husband Sam wants her to exalt in the voyage of an ocean liner, the sight of England off the bow, or some shred of history, she is bored. Her interests quickly shift away from her (somewhat older and definitely folksy) husband to a series of wealthy, accented Europeans with panache and nice clothes. Nor is Sam entirely blameless; he is maladroit and clumsy in dealing with his wife and family, probably because he has spent most of the past few decades building up a hugely profitable company. The film takes time to consider both characters fully as Fran decides to divorce her husband in favor of a younger man and as Sam decides to take advantage of his wife’s coldness by moving in with a fellow expat. Where Ziegfeld is the world’s biggest bag of chips, Dodsworth is meaty and dense and filling and savory. This Academy decision is an unjust ruling, and I am totally unsurprised that in a different era it was made this way. Update the two films accordingly for the present day, and it almost certainly would be reversed.

 

69) Gladiator, 73rd Academy Awards, directed by Ridley Scott

What should have won: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

What should have won: Traffic is probably the closest a Steven Soderbergh movie will get to the big prize, and it’s almost a shame it didn’t take it here.

Gladiator is this high because of the gladiator fights. I am favorably inclined towards them in part because they are directed smoothly and because they are great action sequences; part of it, I’m sure, is also that this was one of the first truly violent movies I’d ever seen, and one doesn’t forget one’s first time. Virtually everything that isn’t a gladiator fight is a whispered conversation about some plot or another, and over two and a half hours it’s dull. I’m not sure I can think of another movie with such a reputation as a bloody action-packed epic which is, in fact, two hours of staff meetings. There are some good acting performances by Richard Harris and Oliver Reed—as well as one of the only good CGI replacements of someone’s face in a movie for the latter—which also highlight problems with the film in its performances. The best of those performances are by supporting actors who don’t last all that long in the movie, and so we are left with Connie Nielsen being sexy or something, Joaquin Phoenix playing the umpteenth cold-eyed sociopath, and Russell Crowe playing himself in real life a few years out. Like Braveheart, which I think Gladiator can and should be compared to forever, the veneer of political/historical drama glosses over a simplistic plot and simplistic characters. It also, sadly, prefigures that bombastic sweep which has eaten Ridley Scott’s career in the past two decades and completely eroded the more intimate and dangerous successes of his earlier years.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon really is a great action movie, and its setpieces are totally breathtaking. I picked one more or less at random:

I’m usually a little dismissive of movies that make you think about rehearsal too much, but in this case I’m more than willing to make an exception. The choreography of Crouching Tiger is absolutely masterful. (Everything about the direction of this movie is incredible; I’m not on record as saying that this is Ang Lee’s best or anything, but I wouldn’t argue much if you said so.) There’s no time to think about what the next move is if you’re shooting ten seconds of this at a time; to make it look this good, one’s muscle memory has to be perfect. There is one really beautiful setting in Gladiator, and that is Maximus’ home. In Crouching Tiger the entire film is that beautiful, in caves or bamboo forests or deserts or palace interiors. Even a teahouse that gets an unholy beating at the hands of Jen’s victims, if we’re honest, has a sort of intricate, symmetrical attractiveness to it before it starts taking on body-shaped holes. What strikes me as much as anything about Crouching Tiger is the seamless way that a pair of love stories are the true engines of the plot, making the Green Destiny is a Hitchcock-level MacGuffin. The sublimated yearning feeling between Shu Lien and Mu Bai, reflected in their more stoic personalities and their responsible natures, is countered by Jen and Lo’s seething and physical affair, the sort of romance that two reckless outlaws are likely to get themselves into. The film builds around the romances in terms of characterization and action alike, and Lee has enough confidence in that part of the story to let it drive the film.

 

68) Rain Man, 61st Academy Awards, directed by Barry Levinson

What should have won: Dangerous Liaisons

Worth noting: Somehow it’s probably Working Girl, which I didn’t expect to put on the Internet today.

I wonder how Rain Man would fare if it came out in 2018. Either the film would have to be very different to adjust to the fact that people are much more knowledgeable about autism now than they were thirty years ago—Charlie appears to have never heard of autism before he runs into Raymond—or the film would be hit with a morningstar of Vox explainers about how autism actually works and how Raymond doesn’t really measure up. Either way, this is not an entry that’s aged well despite its remarkable critical and commercial plaudits at the time. There’s a fair bit of window dressing on this after-school special, from Las Vegas to a classic car to, sigh, would you believe that a guy’s father died and the guy was mad at him? Rain Man includes a number of moments which are certainly meant to be moving, such as that dance that Raymond and Charlie share in their hotel room, or the meeting which decides it’d be best to send Raymond back to the institution. Other than the scene where Charlie realizes that his invisible friend “Rain Man” was “Raymond,” which works because Cruise manages to sell the realization, practically all of them whiff because of how hard the movie is trying to make them work. No one is working harder than Dustin Hoffman. (Tom Cruise, as you might have guessed, is a close second.) Hoffman clearly threw himself at the role, but in practice this is the epitome of “more acting” in lieu of “better acting.” There’s a great deal of shuffling and twitching and whatever voice Hoffman is using, and all of it is more uncomfortable affectation than affecting performance; if that’s the case, then the movie’s major selling point falls apart within twenty minutes.

Dangerous Liaisons features people doing an awful lot of acting for themselves, and had it won Best Picture it would probably not rank more than ten spots higher than Rain Man does now. Glenn Close and John Malkovich are doing work throughout the movie (though, to be clear, that work is very much superior to Cruise and Hoffman’s performance) aided by a series of costumes and wigs and powder puffs which put them squarely in France before the blessed Revolution. The costumes are essential, too, not just because they clue us in to what we already can guess about the setting, but because they give us a hint as to the performances being given by these seriously disingenuous people to anyone gullible enough to trust them. The inscrutable cliche “Butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth” suits Malkovich’s Valmont, because it’s true of the character and because there’s something off kilter about him. He lives on a stage of his own creation, huzzahed by Tourvel and dodging the fruit that Merteuil throws at him and really only hearing the applause that he gives himself. Almost all of his performances are marvelous, capable of putting him close to what he wants most: the powerful feeling during sex that he seduced his woman and he can drop her whenever he pleases. (I spent a lot of time with the problematic elements of Dangerous Liaisons in my linked review, which, incidentally, probably outnumber those in Rain Man.) Merteuil, for her part, sees the pleasure of one-upmanship in bending Valmont to her will, as if getting on top of his shoulders would make her taller not just than Valmont but all the men he cuckolded and all the women he tricked. Tourvel, though she is less outwardly fascinating than the other members of her menage à trois, holds our interest because she makes judgements about herself based on herself. Valmont and Merteuil are so consumed with the world outside themselves that they’ve lost any ability to introspect, a fact that makes itself clear when Valmont has his crisis. Tourvel is concerned with her own sense of propriety and virtue, and so when she collapses under the pressure that Merteuil has put on Valmont, it’s because she is cognizant of her own failure to herself and not to a wager or to a persona. The people in Dangerous Liaisons are somehow more contrived than the models in Rain Man, but they look for themselves in a film with personal stakes, which makes all the difference.

 

67) A Beautiful Mind, 74th Academy Awards, directed by Ron Howard

What should have won: Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring

Worth noting: Moulin Rouge! isn’t the best movie ever made, like I might have thought it was when I was 13, but the first half of that movie is absolutely electrifying.

 

A lot of Russell Crowe in this post!

I’m sure someone out there has done a “most Oscarbait” movie study before, but I’m not convinced that out of the ninety Best Picture winners, A Beautiful Mind isn’t the most Oscarbait. Historical figure, but not too famous so as to keep some suspense? Check. Period drama? Check. Respectable but conventional director at the helm who wouldn’t do anything too funky? Check. Leading actress never really threatens to take over the movie from leading man? Check. And, most importantly: did we learn some pseudo-humanist lesson because our protagonist overcame something? You can call A Beautiful Mind Magnus Carlsen because of all these checks. But there’s one more that matters in this sort of movie, and it’s the one that, in my humble experience, is the greatest sign of Oscarbait: it has a tiresome back half. A Beautiful Mind is surprisingly interesting when John Nash is in the throes of his schizophrenia, using a potent mind to find patterns that exist but lack any logic at all, or dodging bullets with a mysterious man in a black suit and black hat. A Beautiful Mind is, predictably, less interesting when John can’t get himself to do things around the house or take an interest in his wife’s attentions. The biopic is so often a struggle between “this person is historically interesting” and “this person is relatable for the schlubs parking their butts in the theater,” and the best biopics tend to find a way to emphasize the former and fill in gaps with the latter. Todd Haynes made sure to establish Karen Carpenter’s bona fides as a tremendous pop star, and then viewed this celebrity’s history of eating disorders as a stand-in for the demands made on American women’s bodies generally. Martin Scorsese painted Howard Hughes as the unstoppable force against immovable objects for most of the film before showing us what happens when great ambition is mortified, and then how that ambition can be rebuilt. (Pointedly, mental illness is a major stumbling block in The Aviator, which goes to show that one can make a great biopic involving mental illness.) A Beautiful Mind all but skips over the Nash equilibrium, and in so doing makes the same mistakes that Good Will Hunting made a few years earlier: the movie is sure that if it tells us how smart the protagonist is, we’ll be roped into his genius. The story of a paranoid schizophrenic alternately fighting and succumbing to his illness is occasionally moving, but there’s no sense that A Beautiful Mind tries to earn our interest.

That’s not a problem Fellowship of the Ring has, perhaps because it knows that should it fail to hook us in the first few minutes it is going to lose us for the next nine hours over three years. Thus:

The world is changed. I feel it in the water. I smell it in the air. Much that once was is lost, for none now live who remember it.

Fellowship of the Ring is almost certainly the best of the Lord of the Rings movies, and it’s incredible how many of that trilogy’s most memorable moments are contained in the first third. The movie spends most of its time from the Council of Elrond on in a dead sprint to Boromir’s death, and while one can hardly keep that sort of pace over as many hours as Lord of the Rings would ultimately do, the rapid-fire progression from Rivendell to Parth Galen is mesmerizing, juggling some truly great action setpieces (“YOU SHALL NOT PASS!”) with thematic development (“Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment”) with indelible and original locations (for me, it’s Lothlorien, but to each their own). In this century, few movies have used every ounce of what was available to them to become excellent. Fellowship has, for my money, the most instantly iconic and recognizable film music since Star Wars to emphasize the unique language of the film, and the sum is that Fellowship really sounds quite different than virtually any other movie. Add in the visuals, which are themselves singular and recognizable, and the end result is that Fellowship is a tremendous pleasure as well as a marvelously made movie. The Academy would eventually make things right, more or less, with the thunderous coronation of Return of the King two years later. Amusingly enough, they just picked the wrong Lord of the Rings movie to shower with that effusive praise.

 

66) Gigi, 31st Academy Awards, directed by Vincente Minnelli

What should have won: Separate Tables

Worth noting: There are a lot of Tennessee Williams movie adaptation fans out there, so we’ll go ahead and say Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Vincente Minnelli’s 1950s were filled to the brim with absolutely remarkable movies, including the Best Picture winning An American in Paris and the smarting The Bad and the Beautiful. The subject material of Gigi lacks the panache of a movie like The Bad and the Beautiful while lacking the total absurdity of Brigadoon; it sits in an uncomfortable area between the two where one isn’t sure if one ought to titter or gape. I also wonder if the lack of a leading man with the energy of Astaire, Kelly, or Kirk Douglas hampered him. Louis “Here Comes Mr.” Jourdan (I’ve been laughing at that joke for ages now) is playing a character in Gaston who does not put his fingers too near the stove, and who temperamentally does not much care to express his passions; this is a far cry from Gene Kelly, the personification of a rippling stream, or Kirk Douglas, who brought the kind of intensity to his movies that one usually only gets in sticking paper clips in wall sockets. With the exception of the song “Gigi,” which fits into a genre of musical number I’ve always been partial to, I’m not sure that anything Jourdan does lands. (Lerner and Loewe would strike again with My Fair Lady, which of course has Rex Harrison buzzing and talk-singing and swinging his limbs around in a way Jourdan couldn’t.) As for Leslie Caron, who is as characteristically charming as ever, not having a partner to bounce it off of hurts her performance and the film. Gigi gets a lot of points for sheer visual beauty and a strong performance from Hermione Gingold, but this is a musical which somehow manages to put its music on the back burner. None of its songs are real winners, not even “Gigi,” and not even “The Night They Invented Champagne,” The lyrics are too knowledgeable of their rhyme schemes, the music is too heavily punctuated and too limp otherwise, and there’s no excuse for a song called “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” not even if the ghost of Maurice Chevalier sings it. Gigi and La La Land have a lot in common.

Separate Tables proves that if a story is carefully hemmed in at the beginning—if the parameters and boundaries of the characters’ lives are set inviolably—then even the fall of a sparrow can feel like an earthquake. In a little seaside hotel in England, it’s uncovered that one of the residents, a jocular World War II vet named Pollock, is a fraud (he’s fudged his rank and war experience with the other residents) and something of a sexual predator besides. A vindictive old woman, one of those proper English harridans, decides that Pollock must be expelled from the hotel; the others are less sure, including her meek adult daughter, Sibyl, who harbors romantic feelings for “the major.” Meanwhile, the hotel manager and her fiance are threatened by the presence of the man’s ex-wife, who has hunted him down after a literally violent split some time before. The movie’s premise is not terribly original; essentially it argues that all of us are invested in covering up the darkest parts of our pasts. But Separate Tables, which must have had a heck of a budget for its name-brand ensemble cast (Lancaster, Hayworth, Hiller, Niven, Kerr…), is tightly held within a hotel. It’s a bottle episode movie, one that constrains its time (the events take place over less than twenty-four hours) and space to build pressure. That description belies how deft Delbert Mann’s direction and Terence Rattigan’s screenplay are, though, for it moves so smoothly between its two plots and connects them effortlessly in the end despite the sheer number of moving parts. Its black-and-white photography is, in its own efficient and telling way, as beautiful as the ravishing Technicolor of Gigi. It doesn’t have any special songs to divert us. Nor is this a perfect movie! There are elements of Separate Tables which I find every bit as creepy and chauvinistic as the central premise of Gigi, which is that it’s not awful for adults to groom a teenager into a courtesan. What Separate Tables has to recommend it is a row of beating hearts, each of which beats for reasons not so unlike the others it keeps company with, none of them at the same tempo, all of them quietly begging to be heard.

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