Better than the Oscars: 20-16

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!

 

20) Rebecca, 13th Academy Awards, directed by Alfred Hitchcock

What should have won: The Grapes of Wrath

Worth noting: The Philadelphia Story is probably the most even of the bunch outside of The Grapes of Wrath, although I know some folks who would clamor for The Great Dictator here.

The great irony of the 13th Academy Awards, as far as I can tell, is that Rebecca became the only Best Picture winner directed by Alfred Hitchcock while John Ford deservingly won Best Director. Hitchcock, arguably the greatest director of all time, never did win the Oscar for Best Director. John Ford, probably the greatest unambiguously American director of all time (sorry, Hitch and Kubrick), won four; the only one of his nine movies nominated for Best Picture won the big prize. (A weird trivia fact about the 13th Academy Awards, just while we’re here: six of the ten Best Picture nominees at the ceremony were directed by just three men: Hitchcock, Ford, and Sam Wood.) All this to say that Hitchcock’s sole winner shouldn’t have won Best Picture and that John Ford really ought to have another Best Picture winner in his stable.

Rebecca is still a very good psychosexual thriller after all these years, although the interpretations of the movie have doubtless changed since 1940. The new Mrs. de Winter is continually battered by the household she’s married into, although it’s hard to think of a moment when she isn’t being dominated by some stronger personage. The lady she is working for as a companion cannot let her go off to be married without browbeating her about her unsuitability to be the lady of Manderley; heck, even the proposition of marriage she gets from Maxim is completely without romance and which barely gets her assent. (What, do you want to keep working for women like that? he asks her, and of course if it’s a choice between those two things one chooses marriage.) When the film is more concerned with throwing the second Mrs. de Winter into absurd situations—underwear, desk drawers, costumes—it has an awful lot to say about the repressive power marshaled against women by women (like Mrs. Danvers) and through women (like the late Mrs. de Winter), a subject which is endlessly intriguing. Solving the mystery of the first Mrs. de Winter’s death is handled with expertise if not with rapture, and though the film ends with fire and fury, what made it impossible to look away in the early going is basically disposed of at the end.

The Grapes of Wrath doesn’t have that problem, for the stakes are raised and made more personal the further the movie goes; even though it really isn’t much like the book, the film chooses a pair of characters to follow with such sympathy that one doesn’t mind the choice. Tom Joad and Ma Joad, played by Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell at their best, carry the emotional weight of the movie with occasional nods to John Carradine as Casy and John Qualen as Muley Graves. Tom, despite the fact that he’s on parole for killing a guy, does not believe the system is evil just because he’s been in jail; he knows killing a man in self-defense is still killing. It takes interviews with Muley and Casy and a long line of government toughs sold out to the wealthy to convince him that the system shows unmistakable signs of rot. Any fool in Tom’s situation can recognize that the deck is stacked against him and his fellow Okies; what sets Tom apart from his fellow fools, like the men of his family, is that it rouses the counterpuncher in his nature. Ma Joad is a counterpuncher as well, although as a woman in her time she has been groomed as one. There are two seismic moments where Ma makes profound decisions. The first is back at home, where she separates the keepsakes from the fuel; you can count the number of scenes more powerful in Ford on one hand. The second is when she announces to the family that she’s going to begin making decisions given the malaise of the men who “outrank” her and the need for the family to have someone to lean on. When she says “We’re the people,” she is describing a world in which many more like her and Tom rise up and counterattack en masse. God defend the right.

 

19) The Last Emperor, 60th Academy Awards, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci

What should have won: Broadcast News

Worth noting: Can you imagine if Cher and Nicolas Cage headlined a Best Picture winner? Moonstruck is as weird as ever, and it’s standing the test of time surprisingly well.

I’m still workshopping this take which I don’t really believe in, but there’s a good case to be made that of all the Best Picture winners The Last Emperor is the most beautiful of the bunch. The Conformist, where Bernardo Bertolucci and Vittorio Storaro first collaborated, is one of those movies that is just made the right way by people who absolutely know what they’re doing. The Last Emperor for the most part lacks the energy of The Conformist, but not every movie can have Jean-Louis Trintignant. John Lone may not be Tringtignant’s equal, but all the same, with assists from Ying Ruocheng and Joan Chen, is very good as the adult Puyi. The fabulous arrogance of a person who has been raised to be God on Earth shines through in his portrayal in his young adulthood, when he thrills to the good time of ’20s excesses and what looks to him like the appropriate deference for the Emperor from the Japanese. Bertolucci gives the starkness of the throne of Manchukuo special attention; Puyi looks for all the world like an early medieval king arraying himself in the wilderness, although at this point it is the early 1930s and such kings decomposed centuries ago. Lone is even stronger as the man who is treated as less than a man, not even allowed the indignity of suicide in a bathroom. And in the last scenes of the movie, as he wanders the palace which is now regaining some of the rich golds of his early childhood, we recognize the peace in his face that has been absent for the entirety of the film.

That Broadcast News was shut out of the acting awards (in order, from most unconscionable winner to least unconscionable: Cher in Moonstruck, Sean Connery in The Untouchables, Michael Douglas in Wall Street, although that’s also probably in order from best performance to worst performance, too) is more unconscionable than the fact it lost Best Picture to The Last Emperor. Broadcast News is not built to go toe-to-toe with The Last Emperor, because The Last Emperor values Bertolucci’s direction and Storaro’s photography more than Lone’s acting; Broadcast News values the performances of Holly Hunter, Albert Brooks, and William Hurt more than The Last Emperor values any of its actors, not excepting Peter O’Toole. In the aggregate, this means that even if Broadcast News, with its meaningfully realistic cinematography via Michael Ballhaus, is less awe-inspiring than Storaro’s, it doesn’t make it “worse.” Broadcast News is an emotional, brainy movie filmed in offices with fluorescent lights and dingy behind-the-scenes grays, and the fact that it does have a multitude of beating hearts makes it a superior film. The Last Emperor, for all the technical perfection it holds, is personally interesting but hardly spellbinding. It is more stately than affecting, and from where I’m sitting that is enough to cut it down.

 

18) All About Eve, 23rd Academy Awards, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz

What should have won: Sunset Boulevard

Worth noting: In the last entry in this series, I noted Vincente Minnelli’s underrated 1950s: thus, Father of the Bride can be a very distant third.

Like Coming Home and The Deer Hunter, or The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind, All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard will always be tied at the hip because they have such similar premises and were both up for Best Picture in the same year. (I can hear some people in the back wondering what The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind have in common, and I’d like to sum up both as being about women engaging with an entirely mythologized region of America.) Famously, All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard both feature aging actresses coming to terms badly with their encroaching obsolescence—and incredibly, Bette Davis and Gloria Swanson were both jobbed out of Best Actress at the ceremony—although one of those stories is simply more fascinating than the other. Where All About Eve sees a fairly straightforward plot ahead of it, telling the tale of Margo Channing and Eve Harrington as a hurricane and a typhoon in conflict with one another, Sunset Boulevard gets much more to the hearts of its central characters. For all the extensive window dressing that Davis and Anne Baxter and Celeste Holm give their characters, they are more or less who they show themselves to be. Margo has a fragile ego; Eve is obviously not the angel she pretends to be; Karen is too secure to understand what insecurity does to people.

On the other hand, Norma Desmond is the caricature of a prima donna. Aren’t the great lines of the film spoken by a woman addled by her former stardom? “I am big: it’s the pictures that got small!” and “Because they want to see me, me, Norma Desmond!” and “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my closeup.” But if that’s so then how do we explain Joe’s birthday present of a brand new wardrobe, or that brilliant Charlie Chaplin impression, or the mourning of a chimpanzee? There’s the woman who watches her own pictures with rapture, and she inhabits the same body as the woman who is scared to death of a wrinkle. It’s Joe, the writer, who can best assess her condition: she is a sleepwalker, for whom the dream has overtaken reality, and for whom the waking might be more dangerous than the sleeping. “You don’t yell at a sleepwalker,” Joe says, and for a time he takes his own advice perfectly.

The simmering competition between All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard isn’t Davis against Swanson, but between two of the great writer-directors to ever work in Hollywood. The fact is that Mankiewicz is outdone by Billy Wilder and his frequent writing partner Charles Brackett. Sunset Boulevard has no hitch equivalent to the awkward Connecticut plot fixes; Sunset Boulevard gets a second wind at its equivalent point, where Joe and Betty can no longer resist one another while Joe is forced to carry on an empty romance with Norma to earn his keep. And look, as much as you enjoy gems like “Fasten your seatbelts: it’s going to be a bumpy night” and that wonderful comment about how men look thirty-two for most of their adult lives, Sunset Boulevard has a strong case for being the most quotable American movie this side of Casablanca.

 

17) The English Patient, 69th Academy Awards, directed by Anthony Minghella

What should have won: Fargo

Worth noting: Secrets and Lies is a masterpiece in its own right and would have been a better pick for Best Picture than The English Patient.

Elaine Benes can go pound sand. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way…

The English Patient is a very good movie that absolutely should not have won Best Picture at the nicest Academy Awards not because of some flaw within itself but because its competition is just staggeringly good. What works about The English Patient is atmospheric, built up with its shots of the deserts, of being trapped in caves or in buried trucks. Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas are both handsome, but the atmosphere is what makes them both so alluring in this movie; they are carrying around that especially British facility of sensual repression that’s just dying to have a chance to break loose. I always return to the campfire talent show where everyone in the desert exploring business comes together one night to share some sketch or act, and not just because Colin Firth sings and dances to “Yes, We Have No Bananas.” The ancient story of Gyges and Candaules, as told by the married Katharine almost exclusively to the piercing eyes of the unmarried Almasy, is the darkest kind of sexy:

She said, either you must submit to death for gazing on that which you should not. Or else kill my husband who has shamed me and become king in his place. So Gyges kills the king, marries the Queen and becomes ruler of Lydia for 28 years. The End.

It’s not subtle! Someone else in the party tells Geoffrey that he ought to watch his back! But the staring contest continues until it becomes a contest of “How many of our pores have to stick together until we’re the same human being?” The English Patient leaves no stone unturned to find the most humid lust of Katharine and Almasy’s affair. Unfortunately, what it leaves aside is the rest of the movie, which is no small element. Hana and Kip and Caravaggio are all spoken for in the picture as well, which, as I’ve written previously, is part of the reason the movie is not as good as the book; it isn’t four and a half hours with long sequences about the sins of imperialism. Watch it twice and the movie is as clear as it’s going to be.

Fargo isn’t like that in the least; that movie has gotten better and better since it was just a “really good movie” in the mid-’90s because it is endlessly rewatchable. It has never yet devolved into “Say it all together!” territory the way that, say, Airplane! has, but each time I watch it I am just amazed at some aspect of the film I had never thought about before. The last time I wrote about the movie, I found myself fixating on Mike Yanagita. The time before I homed in on masculine vulnerability. If I were to write a regular-length post about it presently, I feel like I’d have more to say about the quiet menace of the quietly unnatural: Jerry’s son goes to McDonald’s immediately after dinner comes to mind. To Wade, the fact that Scotty has abandoned the most sacred daily ritual of the family unit is unthinkable not because they young are fickle but because his parents ought to know better; Jerry will sacrifice Jean in what Wade, if he ever found out all the details, would see as the hidden genesis of Scotty’s waywardness. The frightening Paul Bunyan statue, and what happens within bored people when the television goes on the fritz stand out to me as well in this frame. If I watch it again in the near future, no doubt something else will pop to mind. It does what most good movies dream of doing and then executes at the highest level: Fargo is fabulous entertainment with Marianas depth.

 

16) Marty, 28th Academy Awards, directed by Delbert Mann

What should have won: Unless someone goes back in time and gets The Night of the Hunter or All That Heaven Allows on the ballot, this is a slam dunk.

Worth noting: There’s more going on in Mister Roberts than Picnic, not just in terms of soap-related catastrophes but also in social critique. It’s not an inspiring runner-up, but it’ll do.

Going into Marty for the first time, I confess that I did not have high hopes. Ernest Borgnine, romantic hero? A movie directly influenced by the techniques of Golden Age TV and, indeed, based on a made-for-television movie? (Not for nothing, Marty is the shortest movie to ever win Best Picture.) How wrong I was. Marty is wonderful, real to the touch and completely unpretentious. Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay is unadorned with the magical turns-of-phrase he’d become a screenwriting legend for, but it’s also down-to-earth and recognizable. Joseph LaShelle works wonders with nighttime and dark apartments and that species of sports bar that died when everyone got a TV in their own home. Marty is susceptible to the bad advice of his pals and even his mother, who desperately wants her eldest to get married but definitely not to that girl he’s wandered upon. I hate the word “everyman,” but there is something about Marty and his bald flaws which calls to mind in the audience all of our flaws as well. Only in Hollywood do two beautiful people with illimitable futures find each other and marry. Everywhere else, “a coupla dogs” are as likely to find each other as anyone else, and to see each other warts and all, and decide they’ll manage. “Settle,” never, but they know what’s right for them. Marty is chubby and his hair doesn’t look like it’ll make it to the Moon landing. Clara looks older than she says she is (though she’s still five years Marty’s junior) and her features don’t look like they were all that even when she was twenty-one. Both of them still live with their parents. The most exciting professional thing that could happen to Marty is that he could buy the butcher shop where he works; Clara might teach high school chemistry until she’s seventy. But, as Marty so eloquently puts it, he and Clara had a good time together, and if they keep having a good time together he will get down on his knees and beg her to marry him. Everyone dreams of love which requires anguish and struggle and pays off with dizzying pleasure until the bill comes due; in short, see above. What everyone hopes their parents will have is what Marty and Clara shoot for. Someday, people will even be as old—and wise—as their folks, and in that way Marty is as charming a romance as one can hope to enjoy.

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