Better than the Oscars: 25-21

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!

 

25) A Man for All Seasons, 39th Academy Awards

What should have won: This is probably a controversial judgment, but they picked the right one.

Worth noting: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? doesn’t get nearly enough criticism for writing itself into a corner and choosing the weirdest way possible to get itself out. A Man for All Seasons doesn’t have that problem.

Paul Scofield ought to be remembered, if we want to bisect his career this way, as a stage actor first and a screen actor second. This is a loss for the screen, which at least knew what to do with him when it had him: as a man of consequence the mere thought of whom turns others to deference, he is mostly unmatched. Scofield’s performance anchors A Man for All Seasons, and it is a proof that one does not have to play someone with a sick mind or a sick heart to put forth something truly remarkable. Thomas More is a less obviously meaty role than George (or Martha, for that matter), but self-destruction is not merely about the flaws of the individual. A Man for All Seasons knows that a person can self-destruct just fine without committing a single sin, and Thomas More—a saint in the Catholic church and something more like a demigod in the film—relies on the vices of other men to self-destruct. More refuses Norfolk’s offers for help (which are noble but suicidal) and thus saves him by provoking an easily incensed man. More reminds Cromwell that a man can in fact be motivated by something other than self-interest, which only reminds Cromwell of his venality; Wolsey doesn’t live long enough to fight with More on that same front. More believes that God is an ever-seeing audience, which Rich perversely denies when he wishes to pretend God is blind. And More contradicts Henry VIII, who can stand to be parried (as More’s daughter, Meg, parries him) but not thwarted. Scofield is surrounded by a tremendously gifted cast of fellow actors, which is an embarrassment of riches down to minor roles like those played by the young Redgraves, Corin and Vanessa. But Robert Bolt’s very fine screenplay never loses focus on the man at the center of the drama, and Scofield is never forced to do more than share his spotlight.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a very good movie, and certainly showcases its director more than A Man for All Seasons. Unlike Fred Zinnemann, who as far as I can tell never directed for the theater, Mike Nichols was as much a theater director as a movie director. By the time he directed Virginia Woolf, he had already won two Tony Awards for directing, and after returning to the theater after Virginia Woolf and The Graduate, won another in 1968. Nichols’ direction in his first feature is active, never shy to move in ways that accentuate the movement of his characters, throwing his audience into Elizabeth Taylor’s ugly scowl or Sandy Dennis’ wide-eyed revolving or Richard Burton’s bleak bespectacled eyes. It’s more interesting direction than Fred Zinnemann’s more or less stately (though hardly dull) work, and it takes Virginia Woolf off the stage more than A Man for All Seasons is willing to go. The choice of black-and-white is absolutely proper in Virginia Woolf just as A Man for All Seasons works better in color, but for power one chooses the former’s cinematography. There’s something very unlike a movie set about the yard with its tree and its swing, or the cluttered kitchen that inspires Martha to get into character as Bette Davis. These are all fine and good, but Virginia Woolf has two weaknesses compared to A Man for All Seasons. First, Scofield simply had the best performance of anyone in either movie. Second, and much more importantly, A Man for All Seasons has the advantage of the historical record to tell it how to end. More must die, and so the film moves in that direction insuperably, despite the forbearance of More or the wailing of his family. Virginia Woolf has a weak ending, one which snaps like a twig rather than falling like a centuries-old tree trunk. That snap has been presaged by the sounds of chainsaws and construction crews in such a way that makes us wonder at the anticlimax of it all. Though I’m sure it works better on stage, the revelation of George and Martha’s son feels so slight in a movie.

 

24) The Deer Hunter, 51st Academy Awards

What should have won: Coming Home

Worth noting: Heaven Can Wait is at least a slightly less corny version of Here Comes Mr. Jordan, and that’s something we can all get behind.

There may not be a pair of Best Picture competitors linked as tightly at the hip as The Deer Hunter and Coming Home. (At this point I have written about Coming Home in two places on this blog and The Deer Hunter in one, and only once have I failed to connect the two. Maybe I’m overstating the point, but there’s a reason Vanity Fair published Peter Biskind’s lengthy behind-the-scenes article about the lead-up to the 51st Academy Awards, “The Vietnam Oscars.”) Perhaps they are better understood as different sides of the same coin. Call heads, and The Deer Hunter asks what the fighting in the Vietnam War has done to Americans. Call tails, and Coming Home asks what Americans can learn from the failure of the Vietnam War. The Deer Hunter is, between the two, certainly the more myopic. The portrayal of the Vietnamese like a destruction of hornets, sadistic and swarming and willing to strike far from the nest. Writer Deric Washburn and director Michael Cimino—I’m talking about both because there ain’t much agreement on who’s more responsible for it—take a leaf out of the book that writer John Huston and director Frank Capra printed in Know Your Enemy: Japan. Perhaps it was more meaningful while people knew folks like Steven or Nick or Mike—or Linda, for that matter—and felt that something had been done to them. What the movie never adequately gets its head around is that Steven and Nick and Mike and those like them gave back what they got. The Deer Hunter is a more beautifully made movie, more cinematic, than Coming Home, and in that sense Cimino and Hal Ashby live up to their directorial reputations. But Coming Home is more focused on what’s meaningful. The Deer Hunter, when it’s in Pennsylvania, is about as formidable as Coming Home is in California. The obvious issue is that The Deer Hunter leaves Pennsylvania and works very hard to make us react to scenes in Vietnam with horror. Forty years later, we do, but I don’t think it’s in the way that the filmmakers intended.

The romance of community is far stronger in The Deer Hunter as well, which uses an Orthodox wedding followed by a low-budget reception in conjunction with a familiar bar, the sight of men getting off work at the steel mill, and so on. Coming Home has its beach and its hospital, but these don’t fire the imagination half so much. Michael and Linda are a far more interesting couple than Luke and Sally. There’s more hurt in Michael and Linda, more tenderness. When Michael is alone with his deer, or Linda is alone with her shanty, they inspire more pathos than Sally in her cozy apartment or even Luke chained to a gate. Their love betrays a sympathetic Nick more than Luke and Sally’s affair betrays the difficult Bob. (These are also two great performances by De Niro and Streep, which basically outweigh great performances by Voight and Fonda, for whatever that’s worth.) The reason why Coming Home is more effective, ultimately, is because it can see homecoming on two fronts. The Deer Hunter puts everything on Michael’s shoulders until he leaves for Vietnam one last time in an effort to bring Nick home. It’s an ineffective story choice, pulling us away from tendrils and shoots to scorch the earth as vehemently as possible. Coming Home doesn’t flinch from its story; it isn’t afraid that it lacks interest. While Luke is attempting to make peace with his disability by making war against the military establishment, Bob has no such outlet. He is a career Marine and he can hardly strike back against the military. Roped in by his conception of masculinity (the sort of conception which Luke, no longer able-bodied, has already been forced to confront), he shifts desultorily and impotently at his bonds. By finding purpose in Luke’s homecoming and aimlessness in Bob’s, Ashby flips his own coin and lands it on its side so we can see heads and tails alike.

 

23) Patton, 43rd Academy Awards, directed by Franklin J. Schaffner

What should have won: Five Easy Pieces

Worth noting: Maybe M*A*S*H, if you’re higher on that than I am, although I am very much on record favoring other Altman movies from the ’70s.

Patton and Five Easy Pieces make an interesting pair because George Patton and Bobby Dupea, played by George C. Scott and Jack Nicholson, respectively, at the top of their games, are not so different from one another. On same level there are obvious character differences Patton of Patton would never give up. Bobby of Five Easy Pieces would give up if it meant that he saved face. What matters is that both of them have the same flaw: they have a great skill for self-immolation. Patton’s story is about how one can live with third-degree burns over one’s entire body, while Bobby’s is about how one gives up and swallows the flames. Five Easy Pieces is a little more than half the length of Patton, and that’s part of its advantage over Patton. The epic scope of a man with epic vision living in an epic time takes nearly three hours to achieve because nothing is unimportant. His campaigns matter, because without those we cannot see Patton the general in his element; without seeing that, there’s no reason for the audience to think he shouldn’t be sent to Antarctica so he can stop driving the other generals mad. We must see, too, his personal failings, his vainglory, his arrogance, his inability to believe that someone else is right even while he’s following that man’s orders. Thus Patton’s leadership during the Battle of the Bulge matters as much as the time he slaps a soldier in Italy. Five Easy Pieces is not so constrained, given that Bobby is fictional, and honestly that movie could be much shorter if it wanted to be. Bobby is insignificant, and that puts no pressure on us as an audience to invest ourselves in him, nor do we need to see more than a couple indications of his difficult character to get a sense of him. (Amusingly, this is the opposite situation that A Man for All Seasons and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? have above.)

Bobby jumps onto a truck in heavy traffic to play piano and doesn’t even notice when that truck heads in the opposite direction from his ride; he sees his sister Partita, who he unexpectedly ares about a great deal. He fights with Rayette, unable to accept her stupidity and unwilling to give up his ticket to easy sex, and he is all too willing to fight with his fists against the people who pay his wages. All this can be done with some celerity, and in compressing that time frame there is more opportunity to see Bobby’s two sides struggle against each other in the presence of his family. His indecision is what makes him compelling, because Five Easy Pieces unravels in such a way that we can see him choosing the life of the biggest fish in the smallest pond, where we begin with him, or being an average fish at risk of perpetually disappointing his school. That journey hasn’t got the stakes of “fight the Nazis,” obviously, but what it does have is emotional resonance. Bobby is not a good person, but there’s a little bit of him in all of us. George C. Scott is playing a living statue with the baldest charisma, but there’s too much greatness in Patton for us to relate to. He is an edifying figure, or an important one. Patton falls short, simply on the face of its plot, of real emotional power. Five Easy Pieces has that, and that’s what would have made it the more worthy choice for Best Picture.

 

22) An American in Paris, 24th Academy Awards

What should have won: A Streetcar Named Desire

Worth noting: A Place in the Sun is far more uneven than An American in Paris, but it has acting high points that the musical can’t keep up with.

Vincente Minnelli’s track record from the 1950s simply does not get enough respect these days, and with apologies to The Bad and the Beautiful and The Band Wagon, none of his movies that decade are so wonderful as An American in Paris. The film is a fantasia, as in that final titular ballet, but it gets points from me for finding options for theatricality even within its own paper-thin plot. Towards the end of the movie, when Jerry happens to be at the same part as Henri and Lise, they don’t simply meet in formal wear or casual dress; they find each other in dramatic black-and-white costumes among others dressed just as dramatically, only to find that Jerry and Lise’s aspirations for each other are in a gray area. But the plot takes a back seat to musical numbers which emphasize, above all, dance. Every moment Gene Kelly is on screen and not dancing is a waste of Gene Kelly, and An American in Paris is pleasingly efficient. Leslie Caron’s Lise is introduced through a series of very different dances in very different costumes, giving us a glimpse into Caron’s versatility; it also makes the simplicity of Caron’s dance by the water with Kelly stand out all the more. And while Oscar Levant and Georges Guétary aren’t in this movie to dance—surely they had tattoos somewhere reading, respectively, “crack jokes” and “sing pretty”—they fulfill their roles to joyous perfection. An American in Paris is a delight (as long as you shut your eyes while Jerry comes dangerously near to harassing Lise into a date), and the difference in quality between this movie and the one what should have won is very slight indeed.

The thing is that, from where I’m sitting, a bauble like An American in Paris has to be basically flawless to top a movie like A Streetcar Named Desire, which has cracks in the facade here and there but which feels much more useful. (This is not a “grungy drama is just better than musical romance” argument, either. A Place in the Sun, which has far more to say about social class than An American in Paris, is an inferior movie to An American in Paris because its execution in bringing its discussion of social class is inferior to An American in Paris‘ execution as a blockbuster musical.) Streetcar has technical strengths which, in terms of effectiveness within the film as opposed to total gonzo explosions, match well with An American in Paris. Both movies are lit excellently, but where An American in Paris uses lighting primarily for aesthetics, Streetcar uses its lighting for symbolism (the Chinese lantern), for character development (Blanche’s shadowy preference for self-preservation) and to move the plot (when Mitch uses the full blast of a bulb to see just how old Blanche is). There may not be much dancing in Streetcar, but Marlon Brando’s irrepressible force is used just as efficiently as Gene Kelly’s irresistible dancing. “STELLA” may be iconic, but Stanley is as much in your living room when he’s drinking and perspiring and playing cards and rifling through suitcases as he is in his own apartment. An American in Paris is designed to be more or less wafer-thin; A Streetcar Named Desire is more difficult to swallow.

 

21) Rocky, 49th Academy Awards, directed by John G. Avildsen

What should have won: Taxi Driver

Worth noting: Network would have been an excellent backup to Taxi Driver.

Before Rocky had become a shorthand for formulaic mushy machismo, there was an opening credits scene in which Rocky Balboa (Stallone) wandered around the dark, cold streets of Philadelphia. He waves at some puppies, who wake up to come bark at this big guy coming to pay attention to them. He greets a bunch of young people huddled around a fiery trash can; the number of people in Kensington who don’t know Rocky is apparently much lower than the number who do. He’s at Pat’s; he hangs out at seedy and lonely little bars; he manages to keep an ice skating rink open for another ten minutes. The best parts of this movie have very little to do with Rocky the boxer, the underdog, and above all Rocky the lover. (Yich, yich, yich.) What works about Rocky is an affectionate if unencumbered picture of working-class Philadelphia in neighborhoods populated mostly by people like Rocky and Adrian and Paulie and run by people like Tony Gazzo. (A significant part of what doesn’t work in the movie is that said picture is so unencumbered by African-Americans who don’t fit some sort of stereotype. In its own way, it accidentally reinforces a very Mid-Atlantic sort of animus.) The movie emphasizes as soon as Rocky gets his chance to fight against Apollo Creed that winning is more or less out of the question, which makes the boxing match itself more or less anticlimactic. I’m sure that like, Stallone and an army of Rocky fans don’t think that’s anticlimactic, but whatever happened once Rocky had gotten himself into shape was more or less gift-wrapped. To me, it’s not that Rocky wakes up well before dawn and starts pounding down eggs that’s moving, but that crummy little apartment that looks like it should have fallen in on our guy years ago; it’s not that he punches sides of beef to get into training, but that the local news comes to find him doing so. There really is a good movie in here which deserves very much to be removed from the context of its many sequels.

As fine a movie as Rocky is, it ain’t Taxi Driver. Both movies create intimately seedy portraits of northeastern cities which I’ve always found intimate and which were absolutely seedy at the time. This isn’t a question so much of “Philadelphia vs. New York,” thank goodness, but Taxi Driver, with some hindsight, was made at the peak of Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro’s powers. Even if Rocky can say the same about Avildsen and Stallone, that’s not at all comparable. De Niro brings a liquidity to Travis Bickle that freezes instantly. That’s where the strength of the “You talkin’ to me?” scene is, in De Niro’s muscles and their instant change from flaccid to tense to limp and so on in a cycle that may go on for hours so far as we know. Rocky rarely lets us into his apartment during daylight, preferring to give its protagonist a chance to run and jump in the dawn; Taxi Driver is content to let us see Travis’ apartment laid bare by daylight and fades him accordingly into the night as he ventures out in the taxi. Scorsese sees the dingy lighting of a dirty movie theater, the painful fluorescence of a diner, and the soft imprints of neon on puddles and cabs and transmits each of them to us. Taxi Driver is a movie in oils. Backed by Bernard Herrmann’s final score, which is melancholy and anxious at once, Scorsese achieves an uneasiness without threat which is very rare not just in his own oeuvre, but in film generally.

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