Archive | March, 2012

Score!

26 Mar

^ Gary Ross made the leap from Oscar winning screenwriter to director with 1998's Pleasantville, in which two contemporary teenagers leave behind their miserable lives and take refuge in a nostalgic TV show; in The Hunger Games, several teenagers fight to save their miserable lives by participating in a reality TV show. Besides The Hunger Games and Pleasantville, Ross also directed 2003 Best Picture nominee Seabiscuit. His screenwriting nominations are for Big (1988), and 1993's marvelous, Dave.

Well, to the surprise of almost no one, I guess, The Hunger Games dominated the box office last weekend (03/23/2012 – 03/25/2012), easily becoming the biggest smash of the new year, thus far. Funny thing about that. Ever since November/December/January, when so many of us were clucking about which movies would be vying for Oscars, other media outlets were buzzing about the most anticipated movies of 2012, and most everyone seemed to agree that The Hunger Games was at the top of the heap–and why not?  Writer Suzanne Collins’s  dystopian adventure series, about teenagers fighting for their lives as part of a  government sponsored TV show, has sold millions upon millions of copies in both print and online editions, and now that Harry Potter is played out, and Twilight is set to wrap-up by the end of the year, there’s an opening for a new young adult franchise.  Also, let’s face it: the numbers are impressive. The Hunger Games was made for about 78 million (per Box Office Mojo), and it collected a staggering 152 million dollars in ticket sales during its opening weekend (including Thursday-to-Friday midnight showings).  That makes it the third biggest opening ever, right behind Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (169 million) and The Dark Knight (158 million).  Wow. Speaking of The Dark Knight, I can still remember when Tim Burton’s Batman (1989 model) made news by raking in 100 million dollars in a mere 10 days. These days, a gross of a hundred million or more is fairly commonplace.

Of course, I’m inclined to root for any movie which spotlights a strong young woman–who presumably does not take off her clothes–and makes millions and millions of dollars though there is something troubling here. After all, what does it mean when the year’s most anticipated movie comes out in March?  I mean, what else is there to look forward to the rest of the year? Right? Also, I was frankly taken aback by the enormous publicity campaign. I dare say I have not been able to turn on my television for the past three weeks or so without being bombarded by The Hunger Games commercials: any channel, any time of day. Is all that really necessary? Again, haven’t prognosticators been telling us for months now that this is the most anticipated movie of the year?  If so, why keep running those commercials over and over again, especially since buzz spreads faster on the Internet anyway, and there’s always a website for any movie opening these days. Of course, it comes down to one word: greed. The Hunger Games would have no doubt prevailed as the number one box office champ for the weekend even with a campaign only half as grand–and half as expensive. Oh, it might have taken a little longer to earn that 152 mil, but it would have earned it–easily–soon enough.  Plus, keep in mind, that the 78 million in production costs does not include any of the marketing, so the movie still has to earn a lot more to turn a profit that justifies all the expense in the first place. Suddenly, that 152 million is not looking quite as impressive.

The Hunger Games is coming to use from Lionsgate, and is now reportedly this outfit’s biggest ever picture, but even though Lionsgate promotes itself as an indie-friendly company, its handling of The Hunger Games is no different from the major studios’ approach, and that approach has always surprised me. (By the way: I checked, and this is how Lionsgate is spelled.)  Allow me to elaborate. About once a quarter or so, the big studios will collaborate with the various theater chains on something called a “project picture,” a joint venture in which management and staff of individual theaters are encouraged to be creative and help promote selected films by building elaborate lobby displays, holding drawings and other contests in addition to developing bounce back offers with local businesses (a ticket stub from X movie will result in a nominal discount at  a nearby yogurt store or something like that; meanwhile, the theater promotes the yogurt store; the yogurt store displays a poster with the theater’s info, etc.). Other ways to “create awareness” for such films are to seek the participation of schools and non-profit agencies.  The studios often offer cash prizes and other goodies as incentives to theater managers and employees for going all-out for these project pictures, and there’s nothing wrong with that, not really. In my 22 years in the business, I dreamed up a lot of award winning promotional campaigns, and I generally reaped a fair amount of recognition (and/or swag) for my efforts. Ask anybody. The problem to me was that the studios were often bullish about promoting the movies that really did not need any extra promotion–such as The Hunger Games–whereas the greater challenge for me was always to help turn a more modest offering into a special event, but that’s not the way Hollywood thinks. Big pictures get promoted, and movies that need the extra push often get lost in the shuffle. It’s an oddly discriminating strand of greed.

Quick! What's your favorite Stanley Tucci performance? Seen here as Caesar Flickerman in The Hunger Games, Tucci's sole Oscar nomination is for 2009's The Lovely Bones, but he should have also been nominated for 2006's The Devil Wears Prada. I also love his work as a loving dad in Easy A, one of the relatively few teen movies to not portray parents as utter dolts. He is currently up for a Saturn award for his supporting performance in Captain America: The First Avenger.

I actually plan to see The Hunger Games–and soon.  When I first read about the books, I wasn’t especially thrilled; however, once I found out that Jennifer Lawrence had been cast as protagonist Katniss Everdeen, I confess that I was mildly intrigued. I had recently become something of a Lawrence fan thanks to her swell work in the Oscar nominated sleeper The Winter’s Bone (2010). I still didn’t read Collins’s books right away, but once I did, it was clear that the film’s producers–including Collins herself–and director Gary Ross made the ideal choice when they hired Lawrence.  Some of the character’s particulars are superficially similar to Lawrence’s character in The Winter’s Bone, true enough, so casting the actress might not have been the most imaginative choice,  but it was, at the very least, savvy by Hollywood standards. Katniss is in good hands.

I only took the time to read the first book in the series once I started finding out who had been cast in the supporting roles, including Woody Harrelson, Wes Bentley, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, of all people, and Stanley Tucci. Full confession: Tucci  actually clinched the deal for me.  This versatile actor has been turning out one inspired performance after another for a few decades now, so I could not imagine that he would just phone one in for a hefty paycheck. With that in mind, I made it a goal to read the book by the time the movie opened. I’m normally a slow reader, and reading for pleasure is something I almost never have time for anymore, but I managed to plow right through the book over the week long spring break.

I was surprised by what a fast, easy read The Hunger Games is/ was at 370+ pages no less. I actually enjoyed it quite a bit. The story itself comes across as awfully derivative: a little Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” with a bit of George Orwell’s 1984, Stephen King/Richard Bachman’s The Running Man,  William Golding’s  Lord of the Flies, and, of course, just a dash of The Wizard of Oz (more MGM than Frank L. Baum).  Of course, it definitely plays on our culture’s current fascination with reality TV (especially shows such as Survivor and The Amazing Race), in a way that is less shocking than King’s The Running Man from the 1980s.  Again, it’s certainly not the most original thing I’ve ever read, but Collins knows how to spin a tale.  The story moves at a clip–like a vintage Warner Brother’s genre picture. Plus, Collins has a knack for adding a sassy twist or two to make familiar material seem fresh. I especially like the way she plays with gender norms–I mean, the thing is practically transgendered in a metaphorical rather than literal sense. Plus, I think there’s something interesting about the way Collins provides sly commentary about young people and the way their sexuality is monitored by the government.

Of course, some skeptics are understandably alarmed at what they see as a casual disregard of children killing other children, and no doubt the movie’s power to make visual, and more palpably real, what was only written about in standard prose is something to consider. On the other hand, I found the book to be rather bloodless–and that’s not a bad thing for me. I could never even bring myself to read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo because I heard it was just too dark. (I was fine with the movie, eventually, but the book wasn’t something I wanted to visit based on what I’d read in reviews or discussed with people who had read the book for themselves.) In other words, without giving too much way, in The Hunger Games, the so-called good guys generally only kill for the “right” reasons: self-defense, revenge, mercy–and, heavens, on accident (and, again, bloodlessly in the case of the latter). Is Collins guilty of cheating or moral relativism? Absolutely. I have a feeling that in a real life “Hunger Games” situation, people would kill first and ask questions later, and I also bet it would all be over relatively quickly.  Feel free to debate the finer points of that one if you choose.

Of course, anyone who’s ever spent anytime in the movie business knows that huge opening weekends are often misleading. The real tick is to keep audiences coming back for more during week two. Let’s see if word of mouth helps or hurts the picture when the grosses start rolling in on Sunday. Of course, there’s bound to be a drop of some kind, but how big will it be? The rule of thumb is that over 50% (especially 60% or more) is a disaster, so we’ll see. Speaking of disasters, Disney recently announced that it expected to lose about, oh, say, 200 million or so on the recent adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s sci-fi extravaganza John Carter.  I could have told them that the movie was doomed to fail: the title lacks punch, and to a teenager in 2012, it sounds too much like the name of an old white former U.S. President. Plus, does the name of star Taylor Kitsch mean anything to you? No, I didn’t think so. Disney has been chasing the 14-18 year-old boy demographic for years, and the results have not always been pretty. Treasure Planet, anyone? The 2002 animated fiasco cost 140 million and only pulled in 38 million over a two month period. Furthermore, it was only two years ago that the company suffered a high profile misfire with big screen version of videogame The Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time starring Jake Gyllenhaal. That movie cost a reported 200 million, but it only grossed 90 million domestically. It fared better internationally, but that still doesn’t take into account the expense of a lavish, wall-to-wall marketing campaign, distribution costs, etc., which most likely means that a lot of money was spent for what was probably a slim, if any, profit.

Of course, as I wrote about last time regarding Casablanca, studio heads once had a better understanding of how their particular product fit into the marketplace, thereby circumventing the need for absolute domination. For years, Disney was known for–and quite successful at–animated films, lighthearted family comedies, the occasional sentimental offering (Old Yeller, anyone?), and beautiful nature documentaries. Of course, those theme parks are now a staple of the company’s identity.  In the early-to-mid 1980s, the studio created Touchstone, a specialty division for more topical and/or sophisticated , such as Splash, Country, and TV’s The Golden Girls, and that didn’t seem like such a bad idea at the time. These days, Disney is just another greedy conglomerate with its fingers in all kinds of enterprises, which brings me back to John Carter. The movie reportedly cost well over 300 million to make and to market, but its grosses have been anemic. After almost a month in release in this country, it has only pulled in a lousy 65 million or so.  What’s horrifying to me is to read that even with a 200 million dollar loss, this catastrophe has been described as barely more than a “ding” in the “$80 billion” Disney empire.  I can’t imagine that I’d ever be so jaded that I could be calm about losing 200 million dollars–not when there are better things to do with money than use it only for the purpose of generating more money: merchandising tie-ins, theme park rides, etc. Where does it stop? When do greedy corporations have enough? This is nothing new, of course, yet this mindset still perplexes me.

Of course, The Hunger Games does not get its title from nothing. It takes place in a country known as “Panem,” which basically rises from the ashes of what we now know as North America–aka, The United States of America. I don’t remember if Collins explains the fall of North America, but I assume it has something to do with greed. At any rate, one of the most compelling things about the book is the attention that Collins gives to food because the people who are not privileged enough to live in “The Capitol” are often desperate to find/hunt or barter food for basic survival. Just imagine how many mouths could be fed for 200 million dollars in today’s wretched economy, but I digress.  Now, let’s see if Lionsgate builds a theme park or resort vacation package around The Hunger Games. Talk about cannibalism.

Thanks for your consideration…

Chmielewski, Dawn C. “Disney expects $200-million loss on ‘John Carter.’” Los Angeles TImes. 20 March 2012. http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/movies/la-fi-ct-disney-write-down-20120320,0,4808255.story

Harmetz, Aljean. “‘Batman Sets Sales Record: $100 Million in 10 Days.” New York Times. 04 July 1989.

http://www.nytimes.com/1989/07/04/movies/batman-sets-sales-record-100-million-in-10-days.html

To find out more about the grosses of the movies mentioned in this article, please refer to Box Office Mojo:

http://www.boxofficemojo.com/

70 Years of Looking at You, Kid

19 Mar

On a morning from a Bogart movie/In a country where they turn back time/You go strolling through the crowd like Peter Lorre/Contemplating a crime…

Al Stewart (from “The Year of the Cat”)

Humphrey Bogart (l) as Rick, and Ingrid Bergman (r) as Ilsa in Casablanca: “…it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Begging your pardon, Rick, but generations of moviegoers respectfully disagree.

On Wednesday, March 21, Turner Classic Movies will sponsor screenings of 1942 Warner Bros’ classic Casablanca in theaters all across the nation to help celebrate the movie’s 70th anniversary and to promote the launch of the Blu-Ray edition–along with a newly spruced up DVD version–the following week [1].  Of course,  Casablanca won’t officially turn 70 until November.  Interesting story, that. Casablanca opened in New York, but apparently not California, in November of 1942. If it had opened in LA at or about the same time, it would have competed for the 1942 Oscars. Instead, its wide release, which presumably included the West Coast, was delayed until early 1943, and that is how a 1942 release won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1943–at a ceremony held in 1944.

For the uninitiated, and surely that is almost no one who would take the time to read a blog such as this, Casablanca is a WWII era story of romance and intrigue that takes place in the French governed Moroccan port city which gives the movie its name.  A voiceover during an opening montage explains that people fleeing the war  in Europe–and/or the threat of Nazi concentration camps–look to Casablanca for safe passage; meanwhile, a weary  American expatriate and cafe owner (Rick Blaine, played by Humphrey Bogart) experiences conflicting emotions when an old flame (Ilsa Lund, played by Ingrid Bergman) wanders into  Rick’s place. She brings with her a courageous hero of the resistance movement (Victor Laszlo, played by Paul Henreid).  Of course, outwardly it might seem like a routine love triangle, but the tension of war, and what it means–its costs to the three principles–gives it extra heft. Plus, the picture moves at an exhilarating pace that keeps building suspense right up until the very end.

Oh sure, the age difference between Bogie and Bergman is a little disconcerting. He was in his early 40s at the time; Bergman was not quite yet 30, but chemistry works because Bergman was womanly or worldly in a way that today’s actresses are not often allowed to portray. Instead, they are often encouraged to play everything on a much more girlish level (not always, but often), which doesn’t do any of us a favor.  God forbid a woman should want to appear as a grown-up rather than a nymphet. Furthermore, the age difference between Rick and Ilsa is mentioned throughout the script, so it’s not as if the filmmakers back away from it or try to normalize it. Plus, as Ilsa’s story unfolds, it makes sense that she would look to an older man for comfort, but maybe that’s a little too easy.  Finally, that discrepancy is somewhat balanced by the fact that Bergman and Henreid are much closer in age–a difference of about 7 years. Of course, he’s still older.

There are many myths and legends about the making of the Casablanca, including an oft-reported story that it was to star Ronald Reagan and Ann Sheridan (the so-called “Oomph Girl”). There is another report that neither the writers nor the actors knew how the movie was going to end until the last day of shooting. I’ll leave the accuracy of those stories for scholars and other enthusiasts to debate. Here are some of the particulars that are not up for debate.  Besides Bogart, Bergman, and Henreid, the cast is chockful of marvelously memorable character actors, most notably Claude Rains as the slippery Captain Louis Renault, Peter Lorre, natch, as scheming Ugarte, ever reliable Sydney Greenstreet as the shady Signor Ferrari, S.Z. Sakall as Carl, Rick’s head waiter,  Conrad Veidt as the imposing Nazi, Major Strasser, and Dooley Wilson as Bogart’s piano playing sidekick, Sam. Of course, modern audiences will no doubt wince when Bergman’s Ilsa refers to Sam as a “boy,” so consider yourself warned. The film was directed by Michael Curtiz, whose many other credits include Captain Blood, Four Daughters, Angels with Dirty Faces. and Yankee Doodle Dandy.  Per the internet Movie Database, Curtiz was a write-in candidate for Best Director the year of Captain Blood (and came in second); he was officially Oscar nominated for the other three pictures–and that doesn’t even include the likes of  The Charge of the Light Brigade, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, Mildred Pierce, and White Christmas.  Hal B. Wallis is credited as the film’s producer. Like Curtiz, he has an impressive filmography: Yankee Doodle DandyNow, Voyager, Watch on the Rhine, Rhapsody in Blue, and Come Back Little Sheba.  The official screenwriters of Casablanca are Howard Koch, Julius Epstein, and Philip Epstein though, again, there are conflicting reports about who wrote what, exactly. Plus, there is reason to believe that a number of uncredited writers contributed to the film. It was actually based on an unproduced play entitled Everybody Comes to Rick’s by Murray Burnett and Joan Allison.

Can you believe that at the time of the 1943 Oscars, Casablanca was not the favorite? The year’s most nominated film was The Song of Bernadette, which went into the final stretch with 12 nods though its only win in the major categories was for Jennifer Jones’s leading performance.  Even For Whom the Bell Tolls, which also starred Ingrid Bergman (and for which she was nominated rather than Casablanca) scored 9 nominations to Casablanca’s 8.  Of course, it bears repeating that back in the early 1940s, major studios  such as Warner Bros., MGM, Paramount, 20th Century Fox, and RKO were in the business of releasing movies on the average of one per week (per studio).  Good pictures produced on a budget and featuring top stars were the order of the day. Of course, the studios were always in the business of making money, but the insatiable appetite to produce blockbuster after blockbuster for one target audience wasn’t the same as it is today; after all, if one picture didn’t hit, there would be another one in the marketplace the very next week–and while tie-ins were great, there was no need to produce a movie that could be translated into a video game and a theme park ride. Furthermore, each studio had its own identity, its own stars, and was often better at delivering films of one genre rather than another. Casablanca was a hit, reportedly one of the year’s 10 biggest, but not in the top 2 0r 3 and hardly a blockbuster [2]. This was also an era in which it made sense to have ten Best Picture nominees due to the sheer number of films in competition [3]; after all, the above list of studios doesn’t even include the likes of Columbia, Universal, or United Artists.  Today, the Academy has as many as 10 nominees in the hopes that a blockbuster aimed at boys ages 14 through 18 will luck into a slot in the race and potentially boost the ratings of the awards telecast.

Casablanca actually won 3 Oscars out of 8 nominations:

  • Best Picture  w
  • Best Director (Michael Curtiz) w
  • Best Original Screenplay  (Koch, Epstein, & Epstein) w [4]
  • Best Actor (Humphrey Bogart)
  • Best Supporting Actor (Claude Rains)
  • Best Cinematography  (Arthur Edeson)
  • Best Film Editing (Owen Marks)
  • Best Original Score (Max Steiner)
Not all the intrigue of the 1943 Oscars is onscreen in Casablanca. For example,  even though Hal. B. Wallis is credited as the producer of Casablanca, he did not take home the Oscar for Best Picture because in those days, the heads of studios–in this case, Jack L. Warner–were awarded the trophies for Best Picture winners. Luckily, that same year Wallis was the recipient of the Academy’s Irving G. Thalberg award for “creative producers whose bodies of work reflect a consistently high quality of motion picture production.”  His filmography includes another 1943 Best Picture nominee about the Nazi resistance, Watch on the Rhine, not to mention such patriotic movies as Air Force and This is the Army from the same year.  Good call.  Wallis would later score nominations for producing such Best Picture contenders as The Rose Tattoo, Becket, and Anne of the Thousand Days.  Bogart lost in his category to Paul Lukas (Watch on the Rhine); Rains lost to Charles Coburn (The More the Merrier). Furthermore, even though famed composer Max Steiner earned a nod for his work, Herman Hupfeld’s “As Time Goes By,” the song most associated with Casablanca, was ineligible for awards consideration that year since it had been around since the 1930s.

Don’t take this the wrong way, but only an idiot would fail to see the influence that Casablanca had on Steve Soderbergh’s 2006 film, The Good German.

Casablanca‘s impact can be felt in a number of ways; after all,  grosses only show what moviegoers were flocking to at a given time, but not whether people actually liked what they saw. On the other hand, Oscars often reflect an industry bias and are really only as good as the movies being made at the time. To clarify, in his book Alternate Oscars, Danny Peary asserts that there was not a single movie in release during 1963 that was worthy of the prestige, the standard of excellence, that comes with the Academy award for Best Picture [5]. At other times, Peary only lists one or two finalists rather than the typical Academy slate of five nominees in the major categories. The Academy does not actually have that luxury: there will be a winner for Best Picture and all the other major categories each and every year regardless of how strong or weak. After all, the Academy isn’t always crowning the next Casablanca for the purposes of a time capsule. The point is to simply acknowledge what stood out the best, or the most, in a given year.  Even so, Casablanca has more than withstood the test of time:

  • In 1989, more than 40 years after it was released, it was included among the first 25 films selected for the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. Of course, the list included all the usual suspects: Citizen Kane, Gone with the Wind, High Noon, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Searchers, Singin’ in the RainSome Like It Hot, Star Wars, The Wizard of Oz, etc. [6]
  • In its first retrospective of 100 Years…100 Movies, the American Film Institute lauded Casablanca just under No. 1 pick Citizen Kane on its list of the greatest American movies made during the first century of filmmaking. To clarify, the AFI selections were made by  “more than 1,500 leaders from across the American film community — screenwriters, directors, actors, producers, cinematographers, editors, executives, film historians and critics” [7].
  • In the 2002 AFI retrospective, 100 Years…100 Thrills, Casablanca placed 37th.
  • A year later, Casablanca topped the AFI’s list of 100 Years…100 Passions (Gone with the Wind‘s Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler had to settle for second place, so let the bickering begin.)
  • 2003′s 100 Years…100 Heroes and Villains saw Bogart’s Rick Blaine at number 4 on the list of good guys.  (Bogie and Bergman also came in at 1 and 4, respectively, on the AFI list of the greatest 100 stars–50 male/50 female–in 1999.)
  • Naturally, “As Time Goes by” came in at number 2, right behind The Wizard of Oz‘s “Over the Rainbow,” on the AFI roster of 100 Years..100 Songs
  • Not surprisingly, when the AFI spotlighted the 100 most quotable lines of dialogue, Casablanca had more entries–six–than any other film; the highest of those was “Here’s looking at you, kid,” which came in a number 5.
  • Casablanca came in at number 37 on the AFI list of most inspirational movies in 2006.
  • A full 10 years after the initial AFI retrospective, an updated version of the original list appeared, and Casablanca had dropped only from number 2 to number 3, being replaced by The Godfather. I respectfully disagree, but then I disagree with Citizen Kane as the number 1 choice, so there.

Still again, while being included on so many lists is noteworthy, a work of art makes a long lasting impression in other ways. Casablanca, like Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, and, okay, maybe Citizen Kane and The Godfather, is so ingrained in the public consciousness that even millions of Americans who have never seen the movie have no doubt felt its influence. Who of us haven’t at one time or another said “Here’s looking at you kid,” or something about “the usual suspects” (as I just did in a previous bullet point), or, of course, “Play it again, Sam” even though the original line has often been misquoted.  Right? Look at the 1995 winner for Best Original Screenplay, The Usual Suspects by Christopher McQuarrie, or Woody Allen’s Play It Again, Sam for further proof. In 1972′s What’s Up, Doc?, Barbra Streisand serves her best Bogie impersonation to Ryan O’Neal (“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world…”) before serenading him with “As Time Goes By.” Go to the Casablanca page on the Internet Movie Database, click on the subheading for “Movie Connections,” and you will find dozens upon dozens, maybe hundreds, of instances in which other movies and TV shows allude to Casablanca, including multiple episodes of The Simpsons, a Warner’s cartoon short entitled Carrotblanca (with Bugs Bunny as Rick, Daffy Duck as Sam,  and Tweety Bird right on target  as Lorre’s Ugarte), the Marx Brothers’ A  Night in Casablanca, the James Bond movie Diamonds are Forever, Breaking Bad, Castle, General Hospital, The Gilmore Girls, The Good German, Gossip Girl, House M.D.,  Jeopardy, The Lion King, Lost in Translation, Modern Family, NCIS, The O.C., Saturday Night LiveSeinfeld, That ’70s Show, Two and a Half Men, Veronica Mars, The West Wing, White Collar, Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, Will and Grace, and many, many, more.

The American Film Institute got it right when it spotlighted so much of Casablanca‘s dialogue. As many of the shows mentioned in the previous paragraph attest, the movie is probably as frequently quoted as anything ever written by Shakespeare, including Hamlet, so here we go (in no particular order)…

  • Captain Renault:  In 1935, you ran guns to Ethiopia. In 1936, you fought in Spain, on the Loyalist side.
    Rick: I got well paid for it on both occasions.
    Captain Renault: The winning side would have paid you much better.
  • Ilsa: I wasn’t sure you were the same. Let’s see, the last time we met…
    Rick: Was La Belle Aurore.
    Ilsa: How nice, you remembered. But of course, that was the day the Germans marched into Paris.
    Rick: Not an easy day to forget.
    Ilsa: No.
    Rick: I remember every detail. The Germans wore gray, you wore blue.
  • Senor Ferrari: As the leader of all illegal activities in Casablanca, I am an influential and respected man.
  • Ugarte: You despise me, don’t you?
    Rick: If I gave you any thought I probably would.
  • Ugarte: Rick, think of all the poor devils who can’t meet Renault’s price. I get it for them for half. Is that so… parasitic?
    Rick: I don’t mind a parasite. I object to a cut-rate one.
  • Yvonne: Where were you last night?
    Rick: That’s so long ago, I don’t remember.
    Yvonne: Will I see you tonight?
    Rick: I never make plans that far ahead.
  • Captain Renault: What in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?
    Rick: My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.
    Captain Renault: The waters? What waters? We’re in the desert.
    Rick: I was misinformed.
  • Rick: I stick my neck out for nobody!
  • Major Strasser: What is your nationality?
    Rick: I’m a drunkard.
  • Ilsa: Play it, Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By.’ (AFI No. 28)
  • Rick: You know what I want to hear.
    Sam: [lying] No, I don’t.
    Rick: You played it for her, you can play it for me!
    Sam: [lying] Well, I don’t think I can remember…
    Rick: If she can stand it, I can! Play it!
  • Rick: Who are you really, and what were you before? What did you do and what did you think, huh?
    Ilsa: We said no questions.
    Rick: …Here’s looking at you, kid. (AFI No. 5)
  • Rick: Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine. (AFI No. 67)
  • Rick: And remember, this gun is pointed right at your heart.
    Captain Renault: That is my least vulnerable spot.
  • Rick: Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.
  • Rick: Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship. (AFI No. 20)
  • Rick: I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.
  • Captain Renault: Round up the usual suspects. (AFI No. 32)
  • Rick: We’ll always have Paris. (AFI No. 43) [8]

I doubt I’ll see Casablanca on the big screen this week. Oh, sure, I’d love it, but the timing just isn’t right. Plus, I’m lucky because I’ve already seen it on the big screen, more than once I’m sure.  The last time was during the 50th anniversary re-release  in 1992. Yep, those were the days. I was on good terms with the manager and/or assistant manager of the Inwood theater at the time, and my friend and I were whisked inside the theater without having to stand in a very long line on a Saturday night. Good times. If you’re a film aficionado, especially classic films, you should check out the link at the end of this article and make the effort to see the movie at least once on a big screen.  Remember, this was a film that was made in an era in which close-ups–in glorious black and white–were designed to be seen on a big screen rather than a laptop computer or some other compact, smaller than life, device.

I also doubt that I’ll rush out to buy the Blu-Ray, but, of course, I’ll always have my DVD, right? Oh sure, the new DVD has all kinds of extra features, and that most definitely appeals to me, but I simply can’t buy every new edition that comes along. Actually, I’m just holding out for the 75th anniversary edition, right? The DVD that I own doesn’t have a lot of features though there is an interesting “making of” featurette introduced and narrated by Bogie’s widow and sometime co-star, Lauren Bacall.  One fun thing I learned from the documentary is that during the climactic airport scene, a forced-perspective mock-up of a plane was used for background effect, but in order for the illusion to be successful and read properly, “little people” actors had to be hired to portray the crew working on the plane (of course, the person on the DVD doesn’t use the term “little people,” but, once again, I digress).
     Since I began writing this, I’ve learned–as have we all–about the death of John Demjanjuk, the Ukrainian man who was convicted of war crimes and accused of being known as “Ivan the Terrible,” a sadistic Nazi guard at the Treblinka death camp. The passing of this man reminds me, as if I need to be, what playwright Murray Bennett saw and felt when he visited Europe in the late 1930s (before the United States’ involvement in the war), as well as the state the world was in when Casablanca was released, and why it resonated with moviegoers back in the day–and why it should matter 70 years later when people in power–or trying to win power–don’t always understand notions of dignity and human rights.  Who can forget the powerful scene in which Henreid’s Laszlo leads Rick’s house band in “La Marseillaise” to counter–to drown out–the German officers’ anthem?  The rousing scene gives me chills every time, especially the way Ilsa looks at Laszlo across the crowded room.  Ah yes, here’s looking at you, indeed.
Thanks for your consideration…

[1] More details on the TCM Casablanca event and the Blu-Ray release:

http://tinyurl.com/72xvozx

[2] Tracking the grosses of movies in the 1940s is not as easy as tracking the grosses of movies from the past 10-20 years. Part of the problem is that simple box office grosses were not the norm back in the day. In the so-called Golden era of Hollywood, the method of reporting was based on studio rentals, that is, the portion of ticket sales that were paid to the studios by the exhibitors; however, trying to extrapolate a gross based on studio rentals is complicated as well, and who knows what records–from 70 years ago–can be trusted. That noted, various, and not entirely reliable, Internet sources put Casablanca in the 1943 top 10; however, Cobbett Feinberg’s Reel Facts: The Movie Book of Records (Vintage Books, 1978) lists Casablanca, alphabetically, as one  of 1943′s top 24 hits (page 342) without further explanation.

[3] Even so, the 1943/44 race was the last time, until the 2009/10 race, that the Academy allowed 10 nominees for Best Picture. Besides Casablanca, The Song of Bernadette, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and Watch on the Rhine, the rest of the race included Heaven Can Wait (not to be confused with the 1978 Warren Beatty film of the same name, which was also a Best Picture nominee), The Human Comedy, In Which We Serve, Madame Curie, The More the Merrier, and The Ox-Bow Incident. It’s interesting to me that three of the films, Casablanca, In Which We Serve, and Watch on the Rhine, deal with WWII  and the fight against fascism while For Whom the Bell Tolls is set during WWI; meanwhile, The Ox-Bow Incident, starring Henry Fonda, is a fact-based account of vigilante justice gone wrong and is included, along with Casablanca, in the National Film Registry.

[4] Koch was also nominated for 1941′s Sergeant York; Philip Epstein died at the age of 42 in 1952. His other credits include Mr. Skeffington, Arsenic and Old Lace, Romance on the High Seas, and The Last Time I Saw Paris, all of which he co-wrote with his brother. His only Oscar nomination is for Casablanca. On the other hand, twin brother Julius Epstein continued writing through the early 1980s; earning an Oscar nomination for 1984′s  Reuben, Reuben (he was approximately 75 at the time); he was also nominated for 1972′s Pete ‘n’ Tillie. He died in 2000 at the age of 91. Also, composer Max Steiner had just won the year before for his classic Now, Voyager score (which you might not be able to recall presently but would probably remember if you were to hear it).  Of course, Steiner also famously composed the familiar score to Gone with the Wind–he lost that one to The Wizard of Oz, natch.  Steiner actually boasts 3 Oscar wins out of 24 nominations though some of those nominations were courtesies afforded to him as the head of the music department at a particular studio, which was the norm from the 1930s until the 1950s.

[5] Peary, Danny. Alternate Oscars. New York: Delta, 1993.  1963: p. 168; btw: Of course, Peary has no quibble with Casablanca as the Academy’s choice for Best Picture of 1943.  He also takes away Lukas’s Oscar and gives it to Bogie (pgs 69 – 72).

[6] Official National Film Registry site: http://www.loc.gov/film/filmnfr.html

Also: National Film Registry inductees by year at the Internet Movie Database:

http://www.imdb.com/event/ev0000468/

[7] A complete and official  look at all the AFI “100 Years…” lists:

http://www.afi.com/100years/

[8] Memorable quotes from Casablanca at the Internet Movie Database:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0034583/quotes

Takin’ It to the Streep!

15 Mar
84th Annual Academy Awards - Press Room

29 years after winning her second Oscar, for Sophie’s Choice, Meryl Streep (above) claimed the 2011 Best Actress prize for portraying former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, an uneven film that only works as well as it does, when it does, thanks to Streep’s no holds barred performance. I’m not sure she deserved the Oscar this go ’round, but it’s hard to deny her due as the most accomplished actress of her generation–or almost any other generation.

Between December 1978, when the The Deer Hunter was released for its Oscar qualifying run, and April 1983, when the Oscars for the 1982 film year were awarded, Meryl Streep earned 4 Academy Award nominations and actually won 2 of the coveted trophies. Perhaps more importantly, in doing so, Streep performed the never before achieved feat of moving from Oscar winning supporting actress (Kramer vs. Kramer, 1979) to Oscar winning leading lady (Sophie’s Choice, 1982). The only other actress to have made a similar leap is Jessica Lange, who, coincidentally, won her Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Tootsie the same year that Streep won for Sophie’s Choice. [1]

With two Oscars in such rapid succession, and at such an early age (a mere 33), Streep seemed poised for nothing but no end of better roles in bigger movies and more and more awards; to a degree, that is exactly what happened as evidenced by her record breaking 17 acting nominations, and, now, her 3 Oscars. The question is, what took so long? How could it take almost 30 years for this incredibly gifted actress to win her third Oscar when her first two came so quickly? Maybe the answer is in the question. Maybe not. Let’s take a look and unpack 12 of the 13 Oscar races Streep has competed in since winning for Sophie’s Choice. Are you ready? Here we go!

Silkwood (1983) -  A year after winning her second Oscar, and her first as a leading player, Streep was back in the race with a powerful performance as the real-life 70′s era Oklahoma nuclear industry whistle blower who died under mysterious circumstances. Blue collar Karen Silkwood  was worlds removed from the haunted Holocaust survivor Streep played in Sophie’s Choice, and  proved, if Sophie had left any doubts, that Streep was an actress of seemingly boundless range. The truth is, I’ve always found this performance to be more relaxed and emotionally accessible than the more ostentatiously bravura turn in Sophie’s Choice, and that’s my privilege. I would have easily given Streep the Oscar for this one, but, wait a second, consecutive Oscars are a rare bird–and third Oscars for performers are also rare.  Plus, Streep was competing against 4-time Academy bridesmaid Shirley MacLaine, savoring the role of a lifetime as domineering matron Aurora Greenway in the smash Best Picture frontrunner, Terms of Endearment.

Out of Africa (1985) – Here was Streep in an adaptation of a sweeping, real-life period love story opposite one of Hollywood’s most exquisite leading men, Robert Redford. The movie was up for 11 Oscars and ultimately claimed 7 of those awards including Best Picture and Best Director (Sydney Pollack). Streep was seemingly in the right picture at the time right time, with the right accent (Danish), so what gives? Not only was Streep competing against Geraldine Page (The Trip to Bountiful), an acting legend who’d never won in 7 previous go-rounds, she was also in the running against Whoopi Goldberg, an exciting newcomer who’d landed an Oscar nomination for her motion picture debut, director Steven Spielberg’s highly anticipated adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer winner, The Color Purple. Compared to Goldberg, Streep was old hat; compared to Page, she needed to share the wealth.

Ironweed (1987) – Streep has some exceptional moments in the adaptation of William Kennedy’s Pulitzer winning novel about a pair of alcoholic Depression era  drifters. The movie is unrelentingly bleak and, as such, a hard sell for most moviegoers. In other words, it was far from a hit. Additionally, as good as Streep is, her role is clearly subordinate to the one played by Best Actor nominee Jack Nicholson, whose character (and/or his back story) serves as the catalyst for much of what happens as the film unfolds. All in all, there were simply better received performances by leading actresses that year, starting with Cher, who not only starred in the popular romantic comedy Moonstruck but also appeared in two other high profile pics: the star studded adaptation of John Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick (along with Jack Nicholson), and the legal thriller Suspect; meanwhile, Holly Hunter won raves in the seriocomic Broadcast News, and Glenn Close’s box office blockbuster, Fatal Attraction,  courted controversy and sparked a media frenzy with its steamy cautionary of adultery in the big city. Streep’s film seemed like a curiosity piece compared to the trio of actresses in popular Best Picture contenders; meanwhile, the fifth nominee, Sally Kirkland orchestrated a much publicized campaign for her well reviewed character study Anna, which might have become a cult classic if anyone had ever seen it.

Besides being Oscar nominated for A Cry in the Dark, Meryl Streep was also up for the Golden Globe in the Best Actress in a Drama category. In one of the strangest Golden Globe twists ever, there was a three way tie for the Globe award between Jodie Foster (The Accused), Shirley MacLaine (Madame Madame Sousatzka), and Sigourney Weaver (Gorillas in the Mist). Streep and Christine Lahti (Running on Empty) were co-losers. Ultimately, Foster won the Oscar and competed for it against Streep, Weaver, Glenn Close (Dangerous Liaisons), and Melanie Griffith, who won that year’s Golden Globe for Comedy per her comeback vehicle, Working Girl (for which Sigourney Weaver also earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination). Good times.

A Cry in the Dark (1988) – For many years, this was my #1 favorite Streep performance: she just disappears inside the emotionally charged, fact-based story of an Australian woman, the wife of a Seventh Day Adventist minister, on trial for the murder of her infant daughter; however, the movie has long been regarded as bit of a pop-culture joke in some circles. Maybe it’s because Streep wears one (or more) of the most unflattering wigs in the history of movies, however accurate; maybe it spotlights one foreign accent too many (Danish in Out of Africa, and British in Plenty and The French Lieutenant’s Woman). Perhaps it was all those “A Dingo Ate My Baby!” jokes, or maybe it was the film’s connection to the Cannon Group. Though defunct now, Cannon was a 1980s industry juggernaut, famous for turning out dozens upon dozens of hugely promoted action/exploitation films and/or cheesy comedies, along with the occasional artsy prestige pic,  for worldwide audiences.  The studio heads, Menahem Golan and his cousin Yoram Globus (also known as the Go-Go Boys) were like the Bob and Harvey Weinstein of their day though they were, incredibly, even more crass. At any rate, A Cry in the Dark was not especially well-liked by the Academy, earning only a single nod (Streep)  even though its director was/is the great Fred Schepisi, and the male lead was played by the ever popular Aussie actor Sam Neil [2]. Instead, there was much ado about winner Jodie Foster, playing a much more obviously sympathetic character–a rape victim–in The Accused, a heavily fictionalized version of a story drawn from the headlines, along with Glenn Close in the well regarded, multi-nominated Best Picture contender Dangerous Liaisons, and Melanie Griffith enjoying an exhaustively fawned over comeback in Mike Nichols’s Working Girl, another Best Picture nominee.  Even so, A Cry in the Dark (filmed–and released overseas–as Evil Angels) actually fared better with audiences outside the U.S. Streep not only won the 1989 Cannes Best Actress prize, she also earned an Australian Film Institute (AFI) award; the movie won a total of  5 AFI prizes including Best Picture, Best Actor,  and Best Director.

Postcards from the Edge (1990) – After traveling all across the globe for most of the 1980s, Streep settled down for awhile in California, so she could work regularly and still spend time with the family. What followed was a series of films much lighter in nature than the period dramas for which she had become famous.  As she explained it, her motive wasn’t necessarily to start making comedies, but to take the jobs that were available and could be shot in one place.  Postcards from the Edge is a mild Hollywood satire inspired by actress-writer Carrie Fisher’s account of growing up as a second-generation showbiz brat and trying to lick a drug habit under the ever watchful, ever disapproving eye of a mother who’s a faded film star as well as a potential lush herself (Shirley MacLaine in a role clearly modeled on Fisher’s own mom, the one and only Debbie Reynolds).  Although the movie hits a few raw nerves as it mines prickly material, much of it is actually played for laughs.  In many ways, Streep was her own undoing in this particular Oscar race because as good as Postcards from the Edge is–and as fresh as it appeared at the time–it simply pales in comparison to all the earnest, high-minded work that precedes it. Plus, Academy voters were excited to see  Kathy Bates sink her teeth into the great big juicy role of Misery‘s  seriously deluded Annie Wilkes in the popular Stephen King adaptation. The reliable character actress had long been relegated to secondary roles onscreen while watching her stage triumphs (Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, and ‘night Mother) go to more conventional movie star types, such as Michelle Pfeiffer and Sissy Spacek, respectively.

The Bridges of Madison County (1995) – Streep is perfectly engaging as middle aged farm-wife and mother who has a a brief but profound affair with a National Geographic photographer (played by actor-director Clint Eastwood) during the early 1960s. At times, she’s more than engaging; she’s transcendent–and she gets to try out a new accent: Italian. The downside is that even though the movie version of Robert James Waller’s phenomenally best selling novel is a definite improvement over the slipshod source material, it’s still more sow’s ear than silk purse. Indeed, the film was shut-out of every other category–including Eastwood’s marvelous performance–which seems to indicate that Streep’s nomination was little more than an Academy knee-jerk reaction; meanwhile, Susan Sarandon (Dead Man Walking) was in her fifth Best Actress race–and, more specifically, her fourth in five years. Her film, which earned four nods (including one for Sarandon’s then longtime love Tim Robbins as Best Director), is a hard-hitting look at the ongoing debate over the death penalty with Sarandon bringing passion and nuance to the role of anti-death penalty advocate Sister Helen Prejean. It was the perfect role at the perfect time for the famously liberal leaning actress-activist.

One True Thing (1998) – Let the skeptics sneer if they must. I actually enjoyed this modern tearjerker, based on the novel by Ann Quindlen, about a young New York career gal (Renee Zellweger) who journeys back to the college town where she was raised in order to help take care of her dying mother (Streep). The latter works wonders in the role of a stay-at-home wife and mom who has always been undervalued by her daughter. Even so, Streep, Fernanda Montenegro (Central Station), and Emily Watson (Hilary and Jackie) were simply along for the ride that year as all eyes were on the two  fresh-faced stars of dueling Elizabethan costume pictures: Gwyneth Paltrow, as William Shakespeare’s muse in the fictionalized Shakespeare in Love, and Cate Blanchett as the young “virgin” queen in Elizabeth. Paltrow won–probably by virtue of the Miramax publicity machine as well as the fact that hers was at times a female to male (to female) cross-dressing role.

Music of the Heart (1999) – This is one of three Streep nominations that strike me as being overly generous on the part of the Academy.  Onscreen, Streep plays Roberta Guaspari, a real-life violin teacher who, against incredible odds, launched a phenomenally successful music program at a public school in Harlem. Okay, good enough, but the the real key to the film’s success–and Streep’s nomination–is found in the backstory, which goes like this: the project was originally intended as a vehicle for Madonna, a follow-up to her well reviewed turn in Evita, but Madonna left the project over creative differences with director Wes Craven, best known for such horror fare as The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, A Nightmare of Elm Street, and Scream.  When Madonna left, Streep agreed to take the role in a pinch and learned to play violin in a mere two months [3], so the Academy rewarded her with an Oscar nomination for her dedication and professionalism during difficult circumstances. The truth is, the story of Guaspari had already been told in a 1995 Oscar nominated documentary, Small Wonders, so a feature film version so quickly on the heels of the original seems redundant. The real race was between brilliant newcomer Hilary Swank, as transgendered hate crime victim Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry, and Annette Bening, chewing her way through Best Picture frontrunner American Beauty; Swank won. She and Bening would duke it out again a few years later–and Swank would win that round as well, but I digress.

During the same season that saw Streep (left) earn an Oscar nod for her supporting role in Adaptation, she also  shared the screen with Julianne Moore (center) and Nicole Kidman (right) in The Hours, which garnered 9 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actress (Kidman), and Best Supporting Actress (Moore). Kidman, in the role of Virginia Woolf, the suicidal writer whose novel Mrs. Dalloway inspired Michael Cunningham to pen The Hours, triumphed in her category.

Adaptation (2002) – Streep was nominated for playing the supporting role of journalist Susan Orlean in the adaptation of Orlean’s non-fiction book, The Orchid Thief.  In the hands of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze, the ensuing film has little to do with Orlean’s original text as it focuses on Kaufman’s struggle to create a workable screenplay based on the source material. Are you following me? Kaufman is played by Best Actor nominee Nicolas Cage, who also plays Kaufman’s twin brother Donald–even though Kaufman does not actually have a twin brother in real life. Yep, the movie is as bad as it sounds, save for Chris Cooper’s Oscar winning supporting turn as the titular orchid poacher John Laroche that Orlean wrote about in her book.  Oh sure, Streep shows that she’s as game as any actress in this wildly uneven film, but the nomination, again, is just a tad generous. There was no way Streep was ever going to win this Oscar: the film was simply not important enough to warrant giving her a third Oscar, a supporting one at that, when she was still capable of better work. Not only that, she was competing against vivacious scene stealer Catherine Zeta Jones in a star making performance in Chicago, the ginormously successful big screen version of the classic Broadway musical that, with 13 nominations, was poised to sweep the awards.

Some samples of The Devil Wears Prada’s quotable dialogue: “Tell Simone I’m not going to approve that girl that she sent me for the Brazilian layout. I asked for clean, athletic, smiling. She sent me dirty, tired and paunchy.”…”Tell Richard I saw the pictures that he sent for that feature on the female paratroopers and they’re all so deeply unattractive. Is it impossible to find a lovely, slender, female paratrooper? Am I reaching for the stars here? Not really.”…”Florals? For spring? Ground breaking.”…”By all means move at a glacial pace. You know how that thrills me.”…”That’s all.”  -  4

The Devil Wears Prada (2006) -  Streep has never been more overtly glamorous than she is as “Miranda Priestly,” the dynamic, charismatic fashion magazine editor who frustrates and fascinates a fresh from college underling (Anne Hathaway) who fancies herself a serious journalist and can’t quite figure out how to fit in at her  “frivolous” new job.  Taken from Lauren Weisberger’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, The Devil Wears Prada is by all reports a not-so-thinly veiled account of Weisberger’s stint at Vogue with Streep’s character allegedly based on the magazine’s extremely influential, if, how to say, icy and/or fickle, editor, Anna Wintour.  Whereas Priestly is pretty much a beast in the book, the filmmakers, bolstered largely by Streep’s persuasive performance, try to soften the portrayal in order to make the story something akin to an emotional tug-of war between Hathaway’s integrity/idealism and Streep’s alluring world of glitter and privilege.  Clearly, the audience is supposed to view Streep’s Priestly as the boss from hell–because her demands are often cruel if not downright impossible–but Streep is too smart of an actress to fall for all of that. Instead, her Miranda is always velvety smooth in her delivery and generally one-step ahead of everyone else, which makes her the most exciting character in the whole production (though we’re still supposed to be rooting for Hathaway’s whiny Andrea Sachs). The movie was a huge hit, and Streep earned the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy, but the Oscar went to Helen Mirren–her third Oscar race–for playing Queen Elizabeth II, during the difficult aftermath of Princess Diana’s death, in The Queen.  Mirren’s victory seemed certain almost from the moment her movie was released. Don’t ask me why because I much preferred the work of Streep, Judi Dench (Notes on a Scandal), and Kate Winslet (Little Children), all of whom were nominated, as well as Annette Bening (Running with Scissors), Toni Collete (Little Miss Sunshine), and even Beyoncé (Dreamgirls)  who were not nominated.  (I liked, but did not love, Penelope Cruz, nominated for Pedro Almodovar’s Volver, but I digress.) To me, Mirren’s work was perfunctory: nothing about it took me by surprise or made me want to watch her film again. On the other hand, The Queen, which was also up for Best Picture, obviously struck the right note with the Academy. Plus, as previously noted, Mirren was in her third Oscar race–and her first as a leading actress. My guess is that even with the considerable shading Streep brought to her role in The Devil Wears Prada, the character just didn’t seem sympathetic enough, or substantial enough, when compared to Mirren’s work, which, incredibly, turned out to be a solid box office hit despite its downbeat subject matter and seemingly limited appeal.

Doubt (2008) – In 2008, Streep scored in two completely different kinds of movies: over the summer, she enjoyed phenomenal success as a bohemian single mom–and former pop-star–in Mamma Mia!, the sunny big screen version of the hit Broadway show that pays tribute to the insanely catchy tunes of 70s era Swedish music titans, ABBA. During the holidays, she commanded the screen as the none-too-easily deterred Sister Aloysius in the adaptation of John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer and Tony winning play, Doubt.  Again, Streep is simply magnificent as the iron-willed Mother Superior who sets out to outfox a potential pedophile at the school where she serves as principal while protecting the identity of a student who might have been violated–and without overstepping her bounds as a female in a male dominated hierarchy, circa 1964.  Streep was probably so close to victory with this one that she could taste it, so what happened?  Well, for starters, Streep was not the only nominated actress having an awfully good year.  British actress Kate Winslet delivered two astonishing performances in year end releases: a frustrated 50s era American housewife in Revolutionary Road, which reunited her with Titanic co-star Leonardo DiCaprio (directed by Winslet’s then husband, American Beauty Oscar winner Sam Mendes; adapted from the novel by Richard Yates), and The Reader, with the actress in a complicated role as a former Auschwitz guard on trial for war crimes (directed by The Hours‘s Stephen Daldry; taken from the book by Bernhard Schlink). Winslet had been honored for both performances throughout the entire awards season, and there was an undeniable feeling that she was having her moment. Officially, she was nominated for her work in The Reader rather than Revolutionary Road, yet, perhaps more tellingly, she was actually in her sixth Oscar race in thirteen years. She was only 33 years old at the time, and no other individual (or at least no other performer) had ever earned as many Oscar nominations at the same age [5]–not even Meryl Streep–besides having already starred in the biggest box office hit of all time (1997′s aforementioned Titanic [6]). People just wanted to see her with an Oscar, and, as Streep well knows from her own experience with Sophie’s Choice, trying on different accents in movies about the Holocaust is particularly resonant with Oscar voters.

Julie and Julia (2009) – The last of the Academy’s overly generous nominations. Streep plays famed American born “French” chef  Julia Child in this tricky film based on Child’s own autobiography and the adventures of blogger Julie Powell (Streep’s Doubt co-star Amy Adams), who found fame by writing about what is was like to cook all of Child’s recipes in the span of a year. Something like that.  The movie cuts back and forth between the 1950s and modern times as Child and Powell deal with the various obstacles of learning to cook while navigating the ups and downs of everyday life. Child, of course, once starred on her own TV cooking show, and had a distinctively enthusiastic and robust vocal delivery that made her ripe for parody, most notably in an early Saturday Night Live skit with Dan Aykroyd, of all people, taking on the role with considerable relish. In contrast, many critics praised Streep’s characterization for transcending mere impersonation while others couldn’t see past the impersonation. In short: the performance might have been admired enough to warrant a nomination, but it was probably too divisive, and the film itself too lightweight (earning only a nomination for Streep), to garner a trophy; meanwhile, Sandra Bullock was earning rave reviews–easily the best of her career–for her performance in the fact-based The Blind Side, a movie which inspired audiences and quickly became not only a true blockbuster but also the highest grossing movie to ever feature an actress with unshared over-the-title billing [7].  People loved The Blind Side, and they loved Sandra Bullock’s richly shaded yet unfussy performance in it; at that point it was almost as if the Academy needed Bullock more than Bullock needed the Academy if that makes any sense.

With The Iron Lady, Streep not only had a meaty role, she was also fortunate to be affiliated with the Weisnteins,  studio personnel who still believe in old fashioned Hollywood ballyhoo when it comes to promoting their films and their stars for awards consideration.  Even so, many prognsticators were certain that this year’s Best Actress Oscar would go to Viola Davis in The Help. Of course, Davis’s film was extremely commercial, much more so than Streep’s, and it was a Best Picture nominee, but in the weeks since the Oscars, word has begun spreading that as much as voters loved Davis, they didn’t see that she dominated her film the same way that Streep dominated hers.  Plus, Streep was playing a real person, which often helps (though Streep has lost her share of Oscars for playing real-life roles); moreover, she aged significantly over the course of the film (even slipping into a state of confusion not unlike dementia), and she demonstrated yet again her skill with accents.

It’s also possible that many voters thought Streep might not ever be lucky enough again to play such a fascinatingly complex role. Additionally, maybe they thought,  as was the case with Streep for almost three decades, that Viola Davis would certainly have other chances. Of course, Streep will likely have another chance since it has just been announced that she’ll be playing the family matriarch in the big screen version of Tracey Letts’s  Tony and Pulitzer winner, August: Osage County.  Actress Deanna Dunagan won the Tony for Best Actress during the play’s original Broadway run–and Estelle Parsons [8] earned even greater reviews when she took over the role after Dunagan left to open the play in London.  It’s hard to imagine that Streep won’t soar in the role as well. Who knows what’s next for Viola Davis. The scuttlebutt is that she’s  considering developing a movie based on the life of Texas’s own barrier breaking congresswoman Barbara Jordan [9], and I will  pay good money to see that if it happens, believe me.

Maybe all this second guessing is unnecessary. Oh sure, there’s always that. Likewise, it’s entirely possible that people voted for other actresses all those other times because they just liked those actresses’ performances more than they liked Streep’s. Oh, absolutely. I always believe that Academy members vote for what they like, that they are not strategic in their thinking, but I also believe people’s likes and dislikes are informed by all kinds of factors, and that’s the part that interests me, and that’s why I’ve been writing about the Oscars for almost 30 years–which is about the same amount of time Streep waited for Oscar no. 3.

Thanks for your consideration…

[1] Actually, the same year that Lange won for Tootsie, she was also competing against Streep in the Best Actress race; Lange was up for Best Actress for her performance in the harrowing Frances. Btw: Jack Lemmon, Robert De Niro and Denzel Washington have likewise made the switch from Oscar winning supporting players to Best Actor winners. Furthermore, Jack Nicholson went from Best Actor to Best Supporting Actor and back to Best Actor. Lucky.

[2] Before A Cry in the Dark, Streep had worked with both Schepisi and Neill on 1985′s Plenty, taken from the play by David Hare.

[3] Read more about the casting of Streep in Music of the Heart in this Entertainment Weekly article:

http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,84757,00.html

[4] Quotes for Miranda Priestly at the Internet Movie Database:

http://www.imdb.com/character/ch0009660/quotes

[5] Kate Winslet’s stats as reported by People magazine:

http://www.people.com/people/kate_winslet/0,,,00.html

[6] Of course, in 2009, Titanic director James Cameron released Avatar, which soon displaced Titanic as the top grossing movie of all time.

[7] Per Variety, “Sandra Bullock makes history”:

http://www.variety.com/article/VR1118013301

[8] Parsons won the 1967 Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her work in Bonnie and Clyde.

[9] Variety article about Davis’s plans to play Barbara Jordan:

http://www.variety.com/article/VR1118051235

How Saturn’s Rings Roll

9 Mar

All the TV commentators said the same thing: “It’s time to roll up the red carpet because awards season is over for another year.” Hardly.  The nominees for the annual Saturn Awards, presented by the non-profit Academy of Science Fiction,  Fantasy, and Horror Films, were announced last week, on the 29th of February–just a few days after the Oscars.  It seems odd that the winners will not actually be revealed until June, but that’s the way it rolls on planet Saturn, I guess.  Before then, we’ll be treated to the spectacle of the Cannes Film Festival in May. Don’t forget that this year’s current Oscar champ, The Artist,  made its first splash last year at Cannes, so, no, awards season is not over until next year. Thank gawd.

The Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films was launched in 1972, and its first awards presentation was in 1973. There were only two winners: Slaughterhouse Five (Best Science Fiction Film), and Best Horror Film (Blacula). Nice. I’ve always gotten a kick out of the Saturn Awards because they’re a way to recognize superlative work in genre films that are often overlooked by the Academy, such as…

  • Ben Affleck (Hollywoodland, 2006)
  • Amy Adams (Enchanted, 2007)
  • Karen Allen (Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981)
  • David Bowie (The Man Who Fell to Earth, 1976)
  • Coral Browne (Dreamchild, 1985)
  • Ellen DeGeneres (Finding Nemo, 2003)
  • Angie Dickinson (Dressed to Kill, 1980)
  • Harrison Ford (Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981)
  • Michael J. Fox (Back to the Future, 1985)
  • Jeff Goldblum (The Fly, 1986)
  • Linda Hamilton (Terminator 2: Judgment Day, 1991)
  • Nicole Kidman (The Others, 2001)
  • Tobey Maguire (Spider-Man 2, 2004)
  • Roddy McDowell (Fright Night, 1985)
  • Frances Sternhagen (Outland, 1981) [1]
  • Uma Thurman (Kill Bill, Volume 1, 2003)

Of course, there have been a handful of instances in which both Oscar and Saturn have drawn the same conclusion(s). For example, last year Natalie Portman was the belle of both balls for her work in the noirish psychological thriller, Black Swan, and in the early 1990′s Anthony Hopkins was unbeatable in the role of The Silence of the Lamb‘s gruesome Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Additionally, there are a select few, such as Jeff Bridges (Starman, 1984) and  Sigourney Weaver (Aliens, 1986), who were at least nominated for Oscars but found ultimate success at the Saturns.

Here are the nominees in the major categories and a few of the not-so-major ones…

BEST SCIENCE FICTION FILM:

  • The Adjustment Bureau
  • Captain America: The First Avenger
  • Limitless
  • Rise of the Planet of the Apes
  • Super 8
  • X-Men: First Class

BEST FANTASY FILM:

  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
  • Hugo
  • Immortals
  • Midnight in Paris
  • The Muppets
  • Thor

BEST HORROR/THRILLER:

  • Contagion
  • The Devil’s Double
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
  • The Grey
  • Take Shelter
  • The Thing

BEST ACTION/ADVENTURE FILM:

  • Fast Five
  • The Lincoln Lawyer
  • Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol
  • Red Tails
  • Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows
  • War Horse

BEST ACTRESS

  • Jessica Chastain (Take Shelter)
  • Kirsten Dunst (Melancholia)
  • Keira Knightley (A Dangerous Method)
  • Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)
  • Brit Marling (Another Earth)
  • Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene)

In the thriller The Devil's Double, English born Saturn nominee Dominic Cooper plays two roles: Uday Hussein, the son of Iraq's notorious Saddam Hussein, and Latif Yahia, the younger Hussein's "political decoy." Cooper earned raves for his performance, but the film did a quick fade from theaters when it was released last summer, so the Saturn nomination is a nice touch.

BEST ACTOR:

  • Antonio Banderas (The Skin I Live In)
  • Dominic Cooper (The Devil’s Double)
  • Tom Cruise (Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol)
  • Chris Evans (Captain America: The First Avenger)
  • Ben Kingsley (Hugo)
  • Michael Shannon (Take Shelter)

BEST DIRECTOR:

  • J.J. Abrams (Super 8)
  • Brad Bird (Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol)
  • Martin Scorsese (Hugo)
  • Steven Spielberg (The Adventures of Tintin)
  • Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes)
  • David Yates (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2)

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS:

  • Elena Anaya (The Skin I Live In)
  • Emily Blunt (The Adjustment Bureau)
  • Charlotte Gainsborough (Melancholia)
  • Paula Patton (Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol)
  • Lin Shaye (Insidious)
  • Emma Watson (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2)

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR:

  • Ralph Fiennes (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2)
  • Harrison Ford (Cowboys and Aliens)
  • Tom Hiddleston (Thor)
  • Alan Rickman (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2)
  • Andy Serkis (Rise of the Planet of the Apes)
  • Stanley Tucci (Captain America: The First Avenger)

BEST PERFORMANCE BY A YOUNGER ACTRESS/ACTOR:

  • Asa Butterfield (Hugo)
  • Joel Courtney (Super 8)
  • Elle Fanning (Super 8)
  • Dakota Goyo (Real Steel)
  • Chloe Grace Moretz (Hugo)
  • Saoirse Ronan (Hanna)

BEST WRITING:

Not only does Brit Marling star in Another Earth, she co-wrote it as well, earning Saturn nominations in two categories for her efforts.

  • J.J. Abrams (Super 8)
  • Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris)
  • Mike Cahill & Britt Marling (Another Earth)
  • Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (Rise of the Planet of the Apes)
  • John Logan (Hugo)
  • Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter)

BEST MAKEUP: 

  • Conan the Barbarian
  • Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
  • Immortals
  • The Skin I Live In
  • The Thing
  • X-Men: First Class

BEST SPECIAL EFFECTS:

  • The Adventures of Tintin
  • Captain America: The First Avenger
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows:  Part 2
  • Rise of the Planet of the Apes
  • Super 8
  • Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon

BEST ANIMATED FILM:

  • The Adventures of Tintin
  • Cars 2
  • Kung Fu Panda 2
  • Puss in Boots
  • Rango
  • Rio

Mirelle Enos (l) was Emmy nominated last year for her role as police detective and single mom Sarah Linden in the rain soaked serialized procedural drama The Killing; her partner, played by Swedish born Joel Kinnaman (r), was equally compelling, but he did not find favor among Emmy voters. Now, both performers are in the running for Saturn Awards. Kinnaman also appears, however briefly, in the recent American adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

What? No Twilight? I’m not actually a fan, but  I was surprised to not see the stars of the popular vampire series among the nominees. I was also surprised that there was no valedictory mention of Harry Potter‘s Daniel Radcliffe among the Best Actor nominees. Other notable omissions among the leading actors are Bradley Cooper (Limitless) and Ryan Gosling (Drive).  Matt Damon (The Adjustment Bureau), and Jake Gyllenhaal (Source Code) certainly have their champions as well. On the other hand, who in his/her right mind would complain about the nods for, say,  Dominic Cooper (The Devil’s Double), Tom Cruise (Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol), and/or Michael Shannon (Take Shelter)? Meanwhile, Antonio Banderas (The Skin I Live In) is nominated for the film that reunites him with Pedro Almodóvar, the director who launched the Spanish actor’s career with 1982′s Labyrinth of Passion (and others); the two last worked together in 1990′s Time Me Up! Time Me Down!.

In the Best Actress race, surely the real heat is between Kirsten Dunst (Melancholia) and Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), but I’m more interested in the TV equivalent, which features such faves as Mirelle Enos (The Killing), Jessica Lange (American Horror Story), and Kyra Sedgwick (The Closer) along with Lean Headey (Game of Thrones), Eve Myles (Torchwood: Miracle Day). and Anna Torv (Fringe). I’m also glad to see The Killing‘s Joel Kinnaman in the race for the TV Best Supporting Actor award. I was certain that Kinnaman was Emmy bound last year for his role as Enos’s shifty new partner; when he wasn’t even nominated, I was agog. Hopefully, he’ll walk away with this one.  I predict an easy win for Andy Serkis (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) in the movie supporting actor category; he  previously won for his performance-capture/voiceover work as Gollum in 2002′s The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. On the other hand, I’m a little stunned that critics’ darling and fan fave Corey Stoll was once again shut-out for his droll portrayal of Ernest Hemingway in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. What gives?

Oh, and look at that: Zack Quinto, that sexy new bundle of talent, is up for his guest role on American Horror Story, and the word is that he and Lange will be appearing in the next installment of said FX’s fall sensation. Yay!  Well, whatever happens at the Saturn Awards, I’m sure we can all be glad that Bob and Harvey Weinstein weren’t able to convince the nominating committee that The Artist and My Week with Marilyn were eligible and deserving candidates.

Thanks for your consideration…

[1] Please note: Sternhagen, Affleck, and McDowell were all supporting, rather than leading, category winners.

To read more about the Saturn Awards:

http://www.saturnawards.org/index.html

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