Better than the Oscars: 45-41

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!

 

45) In the Heat of the Night, 40th Academy Awards, directed by Norman Jewison

What should have won: Bonnie and Clyde

Worth noting: I mean, The Graduate was this year too, but I know my generation isn’t going to try to convince everyone Napoleon Dynamite is one of the greatest American movies when we run the AFI.

Although In the Heat of the Night suffers in comparison to its two longer-lived competitors for the Oscar, it’s a shame that it’s been boiled down for so many viewers to a pop culture reference the average seven-year-old didn’t get in The Lion King. This movie is an underrated technical piece, building mood through editing (Hal Ashby), cinematography (Haskell Wexler), and, yes, Ray Charles singing the title song. And emotionally, In the Heat of the Night times its wallops with gusto. The majority of them use Sidney Poitier, either as the inductive or reactive element, and he proves marvelous at both. Virgil Tibbs stands out from the moment he gets to Sparta, Mississippi, because he’s not from there. Then he towers over everyone else in the film because he is a superior man. He is a better detective than the mostly incompetent cops in Sparta from the word go, so much so that the white widow of the man killed insists to the police chief that Tibbs work on the case. He gets paid better than the other cops in this movie do; he knows how to use the word “whom” correctly; he is dressed a heck of a lot better; he has hidden depths of knowledge, such as when he suddenly reveals his interest in horticulture. Most of all, this movie has moments that throw you back into your seat with the strength of them: none more than this one below, where the bull goose racist in Sparta slaps Tibbs across the face. Tibbs doesn’t have time for that shit.

It’s a marvelously framed scene: symbolic flowers in the foreground (Endicott has made a comparison between a particular type of orchid and African-Americans because both are “essentially rootless”), whites on one side and blacks on another, but Gillespie stands between Endicott and Tibbs. Standing like that means that it must come to blows, and come to blows it does. Endicott slaps Tibbs when it becomes clear that there’s some suspicion of the rich man in a murder case; Tibbs slaps Endicott, and harder, because there is nothing in his character which accepts an insult. Among the Oscar-nominated movies of the year, there might be one or two which bottle lightning like this one does.

Of course, the ultimate bottled lightning scene is the one where Bonnie and Clyde are blown to bits in their car, and there’s a good case to be made that it’s one of the four or five most important scenes in American movie history. Bonnie and Clyde is the Yankee answer to Breathless, and while it fails on a one-to-one basis that doesn’t mean it’s not a great movie. Every one of its performances is a good one; like a lineup in baseball that doesn’t have any bad hitters, it’s incredible just how much good can be squeezed out of a movie where no actor is stepping wrongly. Warren Beatty turns out to be surprisingly good at squeezing every word, every gesture out of himself. Faye Dunaway has a leonine charisma in the film; years before Mommie Dearest, this is what it would look like if Joan Crawford had played a sexually frustrated Texas girl with a need to blow off some steam. Michael J. Pollard, Estelle Parsons, and Gene Hackman all take brief turns in the spotlight and hold it quite well. Gene Wilder even has a little time in the sun as an undertaker who is a very bad reminder for Bonnie and Clyde, who surely know where all of this robbing and killing and running is going to lead them in the end. That it all comes apart in such a mundane way is essential to the film, which has its own nihilistic matter-of-factness in lines like “We rob banks.” C.W. Moss’ father is incensed with his son when he comes home not because he’s been robbing banks or killing people or aiding and abetting, but because he has a tattoo now and decent people aren’t tattooed. Obviously anyone taking the risks that Bonnie and Clyde take puts their life into a fragile vessel, but that a tattoo on the wrong guy spins the wheel of their destruction is truly comi-tragic.

 

44) The Sound of Music, 38th Academy Awards, directed by Robert Wise

What should have won: It’s The Sound of Music here too, though not by a lot.

Worth noting: Doctor Zhivago without the interminable Yevgraf opening/closing would probably have been a better movie, but alas, Alec Guinness was contractually obligated to be in all the David Lean movies. We’ll talk more below.

In retrospect, it’s a miracle that they got Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer to work on this movie, because without them bringing their unique talents to the fore this movie would collapse under the weight of its fuzzy friendliness. (Even the announcement that Captain Von Trapp is being shanghaied back into the Navy by the Nazis is met with a collective “mumble mumble indistinguishable Third Reich” from the audience that’s accidentally hilarious.) “I Have Confidence,” “My Favorite Things,” and “The Lonely Goatherd” are adorable on their own and as a group are a smile stretched to the very breaking point. But The Sound of Music has Julie Andrews, whose singing is merely flawless, and it has Christopher Plummer, who has a look in his eye that might be mischievous twinkling or sardonic glaring. Anyone’s voice but Andrews’ would be swallowed alive by “Doorbells and sleigh bells and schnitzel with noodles.” (Julie Andrews’ singing is Gene Kelly’s dancing, Jack Nicholson’s expressions, Audrey Hepburn’s smile, Clark Gable’s mustache. It is a superlative in cinema that can change the quality of a movie just from its presence.) Few actors can be as dangerous or as fatherly in a single movie as Plummer. The Sound of Music is the Swedish Fish of movie musicals: no one thinks it’s good for them and I should really have something else but look at that I just finished the bag in one sitting. I judge myself for liking Titanic as much as I do. But I don’t feel bad about my affection for The Sound of Music, because the line between wholesome and cloying is perhaps too difficult for anyone to walk well. There really are some good moviemaking moments in The Sound of Music. It is deuced difficult to film a song in an entertaining way without a dance going with it, but The Sound of Music manages to accomplish that over and over again. Aside from that swirling green hillside made quite alive with the sound of music, Wise makes the Salzburg setting his ally by simply placing his actors within it. A set of steps becomes a place for Andrews to showcase her command of three octaves. A gazebo becomes a place to escape from the rain and carry on a duet too rich and enticing to set down. The offices of the Mother Superior, complete with a single lit window, are a surprisingly meet place to belt about rainbows and mountains and streams. And when the setting is elided a little bit, Wise coaxes warmth out of his performers. Now that I’m no longer a child who refuses to listen to a song under 120 beats per minute, I’m struck by the intimacy of “Something Good” and “Edelweiss” alike, although what Plummer shares with Andrews is entirely different than what he effuses with Charmian Carr.

I’ve spent a not insignificant amount of time wondering if Doctor Zhivago is a better movie than The Sound of Music, and after rewatching Zhivago my gut answer (“Probably not”) held up, even though I wanted to answer it differently. The trouble with Zhivago is that aside from its length, which I honestly can’t get behind given some of the Guinness-related excesses, it’s just as wholesome as The Sound of Music. For as many bad things happen to Yuri and Lara and Pasha Antipov and everyone else in post-Revolution Russia, the movie prods a little too much at those bad things to show they’re bad. The dragoons attacking protesting unarmed citizens is frightening and wrong; Lara’s terrible encounters with Komarovsky are too obviously sordid and terrible; Yuri’s impressment as an army doctor is quite sad and separates him from his family for good; Yuri’s sacrifice to send Lara away for her own safety, even if it is with Komarovsky, is so noble. Only Antipov-become-Strelnikov manages to pour a little acid on the film,  but he can only do so much with his bloody face and his sinister train hiding in the forest. My only hot take is that the soundtrack for Doctor Zhivago is better than the music from The Sound of Music.

 

43) The Lost Weekend, 18th Academy Awards, directed by Billy Wilder

What should have won: Mildred Pierce

Worth noting: Let’s make it a party of great American directors who weren’t born in the United States and say Spellbound.

If it ended five minutes sooner, The Lost Weekend would be my pick for Best Picture this year as well as in the top twenty Best Picture winners. Unfortunately, it has those last five minutes, it’s merely in the top half of Best Picture winners, and it’s not even as good in the aggregate as Mildred Pierce. The Lost Weekend is, by the end, maybe a little scared of what it’s accomplished. An alcoholic hankering for a drink before he’s supposed to go to the countryside with his fiancee and his brother has gone through bottles of the stuff by the end of that weekend, paying for his drinks primarily with the money he’s thieved or, in one case, out-and-out shoplifting at a liquor store. Attempts to pay for the booze honestly, as when the writer tries to pawn his typewriter, somehow go even worse: at the very edge of his resilience after hoofing it block after block to find an open pawn shop, he finds out that they’re all closed because it’s Yom Kippur. The Lost Weekend is a slog at times, and I mean that as high praise. A movie about a man’s most self-destructive bender in a dipsomaniac adulthood should not be quippy or funny or pleasurable. The Lost Weekend finds the point to hammer in its wedge and then does so relentlessly for the better part of two hours. Don Birnam is not a particularly laudable man, and indeed the source of his deep-seated inadequacy is that he’s not a household name as a writer despite some professional success in his earlier years. He has also exhausted his brother and his fiancee, who have been about as good to him as they can be; even the local bartender, Nat, sees him as basically irredeemable. The movie leads up to one of two possibilities: either this bender is so ruinous that it alienates Don from his support systems for good, or he dies at the end. The Lost Weekend seems to choose the second (and less interesting) option, sending Don back to the pawn shop to pick up a gun he’d left there some time ago. Then the wheels fall off: he’s talked down from the ledge via a “You have so much to live for” speech, and the film ends on a understated but optimistic note. It’s the filmic equivalent of trying to put sugar in your iced tea, stirring it badly, and then having a sludge of sweetness at the bottom, and it’s every bit as unpalatable as it sounds.

Mildred Pierce has a much better ending than The Lost Weekend, as most movies do, and in the end that’s enough for me to believe that it’s the better movie overall. Joan Crawford’s performance as Mildred is every bit as memorable as Ray Milland’s as Don—both of them won individual awards on Oscar night for those parts—and the different notes she has to strike are more varied than what Milland needs to hit. For sheer pathos, I’d take Milland. But Crawford gives us the depiction of a woman constantly deferring. With Veda her deference is meek and abnegating. With Monty, it’s the deference of a woman trying to be sexy and feminine in a very ’40s way. With Wally, who she often fends off as she would a mugger, it’s typically an intellectual deference, for she knows that Wally knows the ins and outs (i.e., the barely legal framework) of business. Mildred constantly gives up ground to others even though she has more virtue than they do and more willpower to accomplish something valuable. Even when she knows that she is in the right, as she does with Veda at the end of (and beginning of, because noir influences) the picture, or with Monty when he insists that his dowry is a large fraction of her business equity, she still defers. She can be fed up with people, but she never really cuts them out of her life. Single motherhood and women in business are certainly less scorching issues than unfettered alcoholism, but all the same, behind Michael Curtiz’s direction and a great cast of B-list actors and Crawford, Mildred Pierce makes its social drama just as scintillating. Mildred Pierce is a great movie about women and the sacrifices we tend to expect from women, especially when they shouldn’t have to make them. In its own way, it’s aged about as well as a movie can hope to age.

 

42) Platoon, 59th Academy Awards, directed by Oliver Stone

What should have won: The Mission

Worth noting: Hannah and Her Sisters is, for my money, Woody Allen’s second-best movie. It’s probably better than Platoon, but that’s not the whole game.

Platoon is one Oliver Stone away from being a great movie, because it needs subtlety for just ten minutes and Oliver Stone has never been good at subtlety for any amount of time. I don’t mind a bit that the film sets up Barnes against Elias, or that the two of them have separate camps within the platoon which are demarcated by their own settings. Barnes’ acolytes tend to be seen outside or in barracks together, emphasizing their soldierly aspects. Elias’ buddies hang out together in the same little cabin, smoking weed and generally hating the war they’re fighting. When Barnes appears in that shack at one point in the film, it’s like watching a lion come into a split-level; he doesn’t belong there, and yet there he is. I even think that to some extent it makes sense for Barnes, who knows that he would be guilty like Calley was guilty if he ever had to face up to his methods, to try to murder Elias during a mission. The problem is that there’s some real “duality of man” jazz going on with the two of them which lowers the movie’s ceiling, much too much demons versus angels. For every scene like the one where Taylor and Francis hide out together, waiting to repel an assault which they’re sure will kill both of them, there’s one where Elias throws his hands up to heaven as if to scream, “I’m being martyred!” Platoon may not know it, or may not have its eye on it particularly, but it does an excellent job at expressing the sins and fears and confusion of privates. Taylor’s journey from idealistic rejecter of his own privilege to disenchanted druggie survivalist is given multiple foils to work with, from the sadistic Bunny to easygoing Big Harold to wise fool King. What Platoon is not terribly good at is trying to make the Vietnam War into something much larger than it is: a story of good against evil which forces the men involved to look deep into their own souls. I’m sure the latter sounds better, and a movie like Apocalypse Now manages to take on those themes. This movie would be better if it did its job and allowed the ideas to come to us a little bit more.

The Mission, as I’ve argued strenuously in the post I link to, is very far from a perfect movie. It gives up a great deal of its ability to move us from a religious point of view when the religious point of view becomes so broad as to not mean very much anymore. But The Mission has transcendent moments, the sort of moments which bring tears to your eyes because they’ve earned the tears and not because you saw footage from Vietnam on the news. The premise of the movie, which is that we hope for the Guarani to be spared from the avarice of Spanish land barons, is historically foolish. We hope that Jeremy Irons and Robert de Niro will be enough to make justice done, to give these people a haven when we know that South America, like North America, was ruthlessly colonized. Obviously our hopes fall through. The metaphor of Rodrigo’s penance, in which he drags his armor through half of the Amazon for the killing he has done, is powerful; so too is the release of that muddy, stained bundle into the river below. But the film’s truly transcendent element is in its theme, “Gabriel’s Oboe,” which is two minutes of music that Mozart would have been proud to write. Repeated a few times throughout the film and first introduced when Father Gabriel makes his initial contact with the Guarani above the waterfall, it’s nothing less than the most beautiful melody ever written for the screen. In my opinion that’s worth something, even if the movie’s denouement is a little too much action caper at the expense of its faith.

 

41) Mutiny on the Bounty, 8th Academy Awards, directed by Frank Lloyd

What should have won: Chalk, despite a last act that makes Return of the King look succinct.

Worth noting: The Informer really is a good movie, and there’s some great proto-noir filmmaking involved; I don’t disagree with the notion that Picture and Director ought to have been split that year.

Mutiny on the Bounty has the boat, and it has Catalina or wherever they filmed what’s supposed to be Tahiti, and it has shirtless ’30s beefcake almost in excess. Its three key characters—Bligh, Christian, and Byam—are each decent men guilty of a single type of personality flaw. Bligh is fractious, ruled entirely by his bad temper, and in a sea captain this is no small flaw. But Bligh is also a great navigator and seems to have a true affection for his job. Christian is rash, given to romantic ideas about the nobility of men and what the navy ought to stand for. The most telling moment for Christian is not even that he calls for a mutiny when the sailors express their dissatisfaction with Bligh; it’s that he tells a Tahitian woman he intends to come back for her and marry her. Byam is amazed, even offended at this promise, and it’s a fair point given the time period and Christian’s responsibilities. All the same Christian tells Byam a little wrathfully that he means what he says. Byam, for his part, is lukewarm, unable to choose whose side he’s on when it turns out that being on someone’s side is the most important thing he can do. He refuses to ever give up his loyalty to the Navy and thus to Bligh, but he also indulges his personal friendship with Christian even after the mutiny has happened. When he’s put on trial for mutiny, he is aghast, and he is the only person who could possibly be surprised that his choices have led him to the very steps of the gibbet. It’s those three performances, each of them nominated for Best Actor in a time before Best Supporting Actor was a category, that make Mutiny on the Bounty work. It’s an enormously watchable movie, and I suppose it would be even without three iconic actors in those roles. But the reason it’s a strong choice for Best Picture is those men and how well they play their roles.

The Informer is an awfully close second, though, and what dooms The Informer is an inflated sense of its own importance. Like Platoon, it aims a little too high thematically. It’s all too willing to make Gypo, the halfwit giant at its center, into a Judas Iscariot for the IRA. This would be a far better movie without the Biblical overtones, for the story of a desperate man without judgment betraying a dear friend for money is plenty compelling without the whole “thirty pieces of silver” bit. On hearing an offhand remark from his girlfriend, a woman resorting to prostitution, that they could go to America and start over if they just had some money, Gypo decides to make a fateful choice. He will turn in his friend, a leader in the IRA, to the British for the sum of money it would take to send them both to a land of opportunity. It goes badly, as one would expect, for on one hand Gypo has never been flush before, nor has he felt at the center of other people’s affection. Money makes him even more foolish than he was when he was destitute, and it’s not long before the money evaporates. On the other, Gypo has already been kicked out of his band of revolutionaries for refusing to obey an order to kill someone, and he rapidly becomes the primary suspect for the crime he has committed. Ford shoots this movie, which takes place over a few hours, in the shadowy darkness, lit primarily with shop windows and dim interior lighting. Smoke is absolutely everywhere. It is one of his most self-consciously atmospheric movies, and it works wonders. It’s hard to believe that a movie like The Informer wasn’t on the mind of noir directors ten years later. If The Informer were a little more businesslike and a little less highfalutin—in other words, if it cut the fat like the great noirs of the ’40s did—it may even have deserved Best Picture.

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