Better than the Oscars: 5-2

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!

 

5) The Godfather Part II, 47th Academy Awards, directed by Francis Ford Coppola

Worth noting: Chinatown and The Conversation are both hanging around in the wings, but I don’t think I have the guts to put them over Part II.

Say a movie genie shows up one night, just pops right out of the desk lamp across the room from your bed. After you’ve cleaned yourself up a minute, the genie (who looks like Sydney Greenstreet) says he’s going to give you the power to go back in time and experience an actor’s performance in a film for the first time. He means it, too. Your memory is wiped of the movie and he takes you to opening night of whatever picture you choose. My gut reaction is Robert De Niro in The Godfather Part II. Not only do I experience that movie for the first time as a person in his twenties rather than his late teens, but it’s 1974 and I get to watch his performance in that movie like it’s new and I get to see the audience react. Maybe they saw him in Mean Streets, although they probably saw him in Bang the Drum Slowly first, but neither performance can adequately prepare them (or me in this scenario) for how perfectly De Niro plays a young Brando and a young Vito Corleone simultaneously. I don’t know that one can say it’s his greatest acting performance, not when Raging Bull is on the table, but it’s certainly my favorite. In Marlon Brando’s hands, Vito is old as much as he’s anything else, a great color commentator who can predict every play before it happens but who couldn’t execute a single one of them anymore. The Godfather gives no real clues as to how Vito became “the Godfather.” The Godfather Part II shows that he became the Godfather because he was totally unflappable. Everything that happens to Vito, from the time he’s shipped off to go live in America to the time he returns to Sicily to get the vengeance he so richly deserves, is like the next step in a staircase. De Niro is the linchpin of the movie, and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Part II really would fall apart without his performance. So much of Part II is a less successful rehash of The Godfather with slightly different characters; the expansion of Michael’s character is less than riveting, and boy howdy is a lot of that movie about Michael. Watching that movie, lit like a sleepy fall afternoon, is often a question of waiting until De Niro or John Cazale show up onscreen again.

So should Chinatown have won? Probably not, because both movies share a similar dragging problem that I might call “deliberate pace” if I were feeling more generous. I will say that the children of Chinatown are utterly fascinating: Fargo, Mulholland Drive, There Will Be Blood. Noah Cross and Daniel Plainview are not men much inclined towards seeking friendship, although one can see in both of them the same sociopathic drive. “The future, Mr. Gittes, the future!” and “I have a competition inside me – I want no one else to succeed” are much the same idea: total dominance is the only victory. Cross’ water dynasty and Plainview’s oil empire, both Californian and on the precipice of true unstoppable sprawl, are like siblings. In Fargo one sees a similarly convoluted path to the answer, for what Jake Gittes and Marge Gunderson are after is hidden under layer after layer of opaque and strange coverings. Mulholland Drive is either the purest spiritual descendant of Chinatown or a very distant cousin, but in either case both movies reject answers in favor of a deeply unsettling feeling in the pit of one’s stomach. That Mulholland Drive rejects simple explanations goes without saying at this point, but that blue key and the revelations (“revelations”…revelations?…revelations) about Diane really does share something with the immortal final line of Chinatown: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” For influence, give me Chinatown; for an entire movie, I’d take The Godfather Part II. 

 

4) The Apartment, 33rd Academy Awards, directed by Billy Wilder

Worth noting: The Apartment doesn’t have any serious competition from the other four nominees, although I’m an easy mark for anything Burt Lancaster (Elmer Gantry) or Deborah Kerr (The Sundowners).

The Apartment is one of the darkest movies I have ever seen, far darker than the performative angst of what passes for “dark” among Nolan fanboys and people who think Fight Club is inspiring. The protagonist is a midlevel schlub whose bosses have translated his apartment into that forbidden space where they can cheat on their wives with total impunity. His respectable neighbors think he’s a reckless womanizer for obvious reasons, but in making loans to his bosses he has fundamentally hampered his ability to start any kind of romance of his own. He returns to his apartment after a really important boss has had it. The woman he’s had a long-running crush on is on his bed, full of his sleeping pills. (He doesn’t know this, but in lieu of a Christmas gift the boss has given the young woman cash in a scene that just makes me physically ill.) In that moment—or maybe it’s after that moment a piece, when it becomes clear that she’s not going to die in his apartment—it all crashes down on Bud Baxter. He is a victim of his bosses’ bad behavior, but he bears real responsibility for what Fran has done to herself. Bud is trapped. Over Christmas it appears that there is no scenario through which Bud can attain happiness. Keep the benefits at work at his exploitative workplace, and he reinforces the system which pushed Fran to suicide. Give it up and he’s a man in his thirties forced to start from nothing. And as for his dreams with Fran, there can be no way for Bud to woo her, not honestly, and not after that Christmas. The Apartment is incredibly dark, a movie which has all of the cynicism that Wilder pumped into movies like Sunset Boulevard and Ace in the Hole and most of the faint hope from The Lost Weekend or Sabrina. Jack Lemmon, who secretly worked best just on that line between silliness and earnestness, was never better. It’s Wilder’s last great movie, his twelfth movie in thirteen years, and in hindsight it almost seems like he just didn’t have more left in the tank. If that’s the case, it would have happened to a lesser writer-director than Wilder many years before.

Wilder’s interiors are some of my favorites. Watching his movies you can see that he understood how everything, from limbs to furniture to words, would fit and move and fill a space. Nothing compares to Norma Desmond’s rotting palace on Sunset Boulevard, but what The Apartment lacks in finery it makes up for in finesse. In the first half of the movie, the insurance company’s floor in its skyscraper is where most of the intrigue takes place. It is two rectangles: an inner rectangle made up of three columns of desks stretching as far as the eye can see, and an outer rectangle of offices belonging to people with better job titles and looser moral codes. The light in that central area is somehow blinding and dingy at the same time; it is the nightmare of the White-Collar Office brought to life. Bud’s apartment, on the other hand, is like a museum. It looks like someone’s apartment, and it has the stuff that apartments have—shaving cream, miniature Christmas trees, a couch, a coffee pot, records, a tennis racket doubling as a colander—but it looks like it hasn’t been lived in for years. Part of it is the thin light that comes in through too-small windows and lights that never adequately fill the place. Part of it is the fact that Bud really doesn’t live in the place at all. And most important of all, we cannot ascribe any warmth to the apartment. Multicam sitcoms look more lived in and inviting than Bud’s place, and the practically Siberian elements of The Apartment oughtn’t to be undervalued.

 

3) The Godfather, 45th Academy Awards, directed by Francis Ford Coppola

Worth noting: For almost ten years now, I’ve been making the case that Cabaret is a heck of a lot closer to The Godfather than anyone is willing to admit, and The Emigrants is an absolute masterpiece. The Godfather may have only won three Academy Awards, but ’72 was a great year.

The 45th Academy Awards were weird, and before you read about The Godfather for the zillionth time in your life, I want to get to some of these:

  • Marlon Brando declines Best Actor, making him the second man in three years to decline that award. Sacheen Littlefeather got her fifteen minutes of fame, and in a tremendous case of life imitating art, she avers that John Wayne, who was backstage, had to be physically restrained from trying to pull her offstage.
  • The movies up for Best Cinematography that year were 1776, Butterflies Are Free, Cabaret, The Poseidon Adventure, and Travels with My Aunt. Gordon Willis’ work for The Godfather wasn’t even nominated, and Geoffrey Unsworth won for Cabaret.
  • Charlie Chaplin won a competitive Oscar: Best Original Score for Limelight. “Wait a second,” I can hear a few of you saying. “Wasn’t Limelight released in 1952?” You’re right. Limelight got its first wide release in the United States in ’72 and its first run in Los Angeles, and somehow that made it eligible for the Academy Awards.
  • While we’re on the subject of scores, Cabaret the original musical and Cabaret the original film are famously quite different, and since the film was released subsequent stage productions have adopted songs written for the movie like “Money, Money” and “Mein Herr.” None of the new songs for Cabaret were nominated for Best Original Song.
  • Liza Minnelli is to this day the only person who has won an Oscar whose parents both won them, and she picked up her award for Cabaret. (Judy Garland won an Honorary Oscar for The Wizard of Oz; Vincente Minnelli won Best Director for Gigi.)
  • The Emigrants was nominated for Best Picture that year, and bully, but it had already been nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 44th Academy Awards the year before. The New Land, the ostensible sequel to The Emigrants, although in practice it’s more a continuation than a sequel, was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 45th Oscars. I haven’t fact-checked this, but I have a hard time believing that there can be another case where a movie and its sequel were nominated for Oscars at the same ceremony. (Both of them lost Foreign Language Film, by the way. I’d rather have them than The Garden of the Finzi-Continis and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, but maybe I’m peculiar.)
  • Here’s the transition: Cabaret still holds the record for the most Oscars won of any movie that did not win Best Picture. Cabaret won eight Oscars to three for The Godfather; two of them were Best Director and Best Supporting Actor, which sort of pulled the rug out from under (deep breath) Francis Ford Coppola, Al Pacino, James Caan, and Robert Duvall.

Trivia! Woo! Seriously, the only way this ceremony could have been weirder is if Robert Opel had decided to streak this year instead of the year after. (Did you know that Robert Opel was murdered in 1979? I didn’t either!)

I’m starting to come to terms with the fact that I’m going to die before a live-action movie musical with the quality of Cabaret comes around again, because the best one of my lifetime is…Moulin Rouge? Once? Sweeney Todd? Maybe it’s Mamma Mia!, which no one could mistake for a good movie but which has the energy and fun that one associates with the classic MGM sort. Cabaret is of course a thumb in the eye to the old MGM musical (and all the more so because the daughter of their great director is slinking around in this picture) and a thumb in the eye to all those cheerful, safe pictures which won Academy Awards in the 1960s. “Wilkommen” sets a tone from the very beginning, lingering on skimpy costumes and inch-thick makeup of a lineup of dancing cadavers. The scenes in the cabaret belong to Geoffrey Unsworth’s moody and sleazy photography, Joel Grey’s effervescently frightening performance as the Emcee, and Bob Fosse’s direction and choreography. Fosse knows that one can achieve technical precision as much with the hips or the hands as one can with feet, and the cabaret girls and the Emcee use their entire bodies to perform. They slither on their backs on chairs, slowly squeeze their forearms into their hands to wave, and occasionally, yes, do some very light-footed steps. The great innovation of Cabaret, one which my darling Nashville must have taken notice of, is that no one sings outside a scenario where it is at least plausible for people to sing. The only place where that gets tested is in a beer garden where a young man—a member of the Hitlerjugend—sings a pleasant little tune called “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” which very rapidly becomes the anthem of virtually everyone in the garden. (The scene is edited to perfection; surely it must have weighed on the minds of Oscar voters who gave David Bretherton a statuette for it.) Admittedly, and this is why I can never quite push myself over the top to say that Cabaret is better than The Godfather, the scenes outside the cabaret are more disappointing than not. Brian’s English lessons are gold; Max is a mostly ineffective face to disrupt the torrid and doomed from the first Sally-Brian romance.

Richard Brody has a deliciously disdainful piece (from I know not when) about how The Godfather has stamped prestige drama with a specific set of indicators for the worse. From the article:

Of course, “The Godfather” isn’t about ordinary people but about potentates of crime, modern-day Borgias, whose psychology and tactics are boiled down to a visual and textual language and a performance style that renders them transparent to ordinary viewers. The pair of movies strips away mystery and wrenches the characters from their web of context.

It’s a little early in my life to burn those bridges (though I think Brody’s ultimate contention that John Cassavetes is the most innovative American director of the 1970s might actually be the right answer), so I’m in the personally unusual position of defending The Godfather. Where I think Brody is most convincing is that The Godfather is a fairly “transparent” movie, though I think he means condescendingly and I think of it as a sort of strength. The Godfather is as important to the history of the modern blockbuster as The Exorcist, Jaws, and Star Wars and was made at Paramount Studios behind the collateral of the name “Brando, Icon of Yesteryear.” It ain’t arthouse or experimental or independent; like Gone with the Wind thirty-some years before, The Godfather is the apotheosis of its contemporary studio system. Transparency is built into that recipe; inscrutability is not synonymous with quality.

There are an awful lot of lessons for future filmmakers to take from The Godfather. Take a chance on young unknown actors with stage backgrounds who look right for the part. Take a chance on giant actors of the past who everyone believes to be washed. Opt for bold technical choices, but choose a single style for those choices to work within. Your screenplay should stick to the ears of everyone who sees the movie. And if you’re really audacious, believe that you can slowly submerge your audience into the film. The Godfather is entirely episodic for an hour or so, taking its time and (transparently) showing us what it’s like to be a high-ranking member of the Corleone family. It means making time during your daughter’s wedding reception to hear an undertaker request the execution of the young men who beat and raped his daughter. It means heading off anyone with a camera or a notepad and pencil using your patented crazy man routine, complete with “flipping out bills for the camera you threw on the pavement.” It means telling your girlfriend that your prosperous father is extraordinarily dangerous. It means ordering the decapitation of a racehorse and leaving its head in a guy’s bed because he wouldn’t cast Frank Sinatra. The rest of the movie uses those tonal and character subtitles to set up Michael’s moral collapse, and without that investment in the first hour we’d miss out on that all-important context.

 

2) Casablanca, 16th Academy Awards, directed by Michael Curtiz

Worth noting: There are some strong pictures in this field obviously below the quality of Casablanca, but two stand out. The first is The More the Merrier, a sly, funny, and final comedy from George Stevens; the other is The Ox-Bow Incident, which is an exceptional and forward-thinking western by William A. Wellman.

Casablanca is an institution now, but there’s nothing inevitable about the picture. Per Roger Ebert, Casablanca was an A-list picture but not necessarily one for the studio to pin its hopes on. Much of the legend of Bogart and Bergman has been written because of or after this film; at the time, both were solid talents but very new ones. Humphrey Bogart’s first major screen success was in Angels with Dirty Faces in 1938, and that gave him the jump on Ingrid Bergman, who came to Hollywood to reprise her role in the American remake of Intermezzo in 1939. Casablanca was made quickly and inexpensively. Somehow Michael Curtiz never gets enough credit for it. The film won Best Picture, of course, but won just three Oscars out of eight nominations; by the numbers, The Song of Bernadette went 4-12 and was probably the greater favorite at the time. Casablanca is the reason that I sometimes find myself approaching a good movie I’ve never seen before by asking, “What if this is the best movie I’ve ever seen?” It sounds ridiculous, but it’s happened to me before when I was a high school sophomore watching Casablanca on VHS: it was the best movie I had ever seen, and it’s made me hopeful about the pictures I watch. If a basically anonymous romantic drama from the early ’40s can do it, basically a Vichy Mrs. Miniver, why couldn’t some Tuesday afternoon Filmstruck movie do the same? (The short answer is that Casablanca is a miracle, but I repress that as much as I can.)

At an hour and forty minutes or so, Casablanca is only ten minutes longer than the shortest Best Picture winner, Marty. Among American films Casablanca might be uniquely efficient even with its lengthy flashbacks and long scenes in shadowy upstairs apartments and extraordinarily varied cast of characters. I always come back to that Bulgarian girl and her husband, who are so desperate and whose youth makes them particularly tragic. Earlier in the film, before Ilsa returned, Rick would have shrugged her off. But Ilsa—and Victor, too, who Rick grudgingly admires from the first—came to Casablanca, and they have changed him from a man working entirely from interior lines to a man on the counteroffensive. It isn’t the girl he’s saving, either, and there’s a good case to be made that no one with her eyes as wide open as her needs saving. It’s the boy, the hopeless one at the roulette table who would never recover if his wife broke their trust even for the noblest reasons. Rick’s silent rescue does not need much of a soundtrack beyond Marcel Dalio shouting “Vingt-deux!” If you listen closely, though, you can almost hear a little voice saying, “We are what they grow beyond.”

In the past few months I have watched an awful lot of World War II movies from the ’40s and early ’50s. No surprises here, but a lot of those were nominated for Best Picture. Out of that awful lot, some of them just don’t work particularly well when you’re not wearing a “fate of the nation is at stake” IV. Any documentary with fictional characters, like The Lion Has Wings, falls into this category. So do treacly homefront movies like the aforementioned and unfairly maligned Mrs. Miniver. So do movies which work just a little too hard to bring out the tragedy of war, like In Which We Serve. But the ones that have persevered are the ones that realize that the message at hand isn’t really about Nazism or patriotism or blood, but responsibility. The Best Years of Our Lives is immortal for that reason. They Were Expendable, which can be pretty choppy, works when it leans most heavily on the idea of soldierly responsibility. The airport scene in Casablanca is about responsibility too. It’s about how the problems of two little people aren’t worth a hill of beans, about Rick’s recognition that Victor and his leadership are far more important than squeezing out time with the woman he loves, about believing that Victor will be more effective if his wife is with him instead of an expat saloonkeeper. They Were Expendable likens this unglamorous, painful role to a sacrifice bunt; Rick and Ilsa lay it down together. Casablanca endures because it exemplifies the struggle between responsibility and passion that a billion moviegoers have felt and pretends that there’s room for both.

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