Archive | July, 2011

The Ghost Writer, or The Riddle of “How Many Best Picture Nominees Does it Take..?” Part One

25 Jul

In 1939 Vivien Leigh (l) won Best Actress for Gone with the Wind while her future husband Laurence Olivier (r) was a nominee for Wuthering Heights; both films were up for Best Picture though GWTW was the big winner.

Part I – Quick: how many Best Picture nominees does it take to please the members of the Academy, the moviegoing public, the at-home viewing audience, and the ABC network executroids (who, don’t forget, are essentially employees of the Disney empire)?

Hmmmm…..back in 1939, the year that many film enthusiasts often swear is Hollywood’s greatest ever, the answer was ten: Gone with the Wind (natch),  and The Wizard of Oz (of course), but also Dark Victory, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Love Affair, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Of Mice and Men, Stagecoach, and Wuthering Heights. Actually a slate of ten nominees was not unheard of during the 1930s, but there were some years in which there were only three or four. The roster of five Best Picture nominees became the standard for 60+ years beginning in 1944, and for most of that time the Hollywood dream factories, moviegoers, and the Academy were quite often in sync, but by the mid-eighties a disconnect had begun to set in such that  the mindset of the big studios was to appeal to young people while the Academy gravitated toward prestigious literary fare with limited mass appeal. For example, in 1984, the five  Best Picture nominees, Amadeus (the big winner), The Killing Fields, A Passage to India, Places in the Heart, and A Soldier’s Story, were all famously only middling hits whereas only two years earlier, the Academy saw fit to nominate such blockbusters as E.T. and Tootsie. (The two biggest hits of 1984, btw, were Beverly Hills Cop and Ghostbusters, both of which were all but neglected by the Academy.) From that point, the Oscars developed something akin to a split personality and were no longer the surefire TV draw they had once been though the numbers were impressive for the 1997/98 Titanic sweep.

Fast-forward a few more years when a funny thing happened on the way to the 2007/2008 Oscars, and that funny thing was that The Dark Knight and Wall-E, two well reviewed wildly commercial summertime films with excellent Best Picture potential, failed to make the cut. In light of slipping ratings for the annual Oscar telecast, and a decade of tinkering with the format as a result, the cries of outrage  over these omissions were loud enough for the Academy to implement drastic changes. The idea seemed to be that if the Academy returned to a menu of ten nominees, there would be room at the table for not only the likes of specialized indie fare but also escapist “popcorn” fare that wows the masses.  As such, so called teen fanboys–who have no need for the Oscars in the digital age–would be more likely to tune in, thereby ensuring high ratings and increased ad revenue.

Even knowing that ten Best Picture nominees was once customary, enacting such a change always seemed like a bad idea to me because it was too transparently a ploy to entice viewers rather than a serious artistic consideration. I mean, no one really believes that movies are actually getting better. Do they?  Seriously. Worse, such a move only seemed to dilute the power and meaning of the award. Furthermore, since the Academy elected to not increase the slate of Best Director nominees from five to ten, the contest seemed somehow rigged. After all, wouldn’t the five movies with nominated directors seem more assured of winning than those without a nominated director? Really?

Two-fisted victory: Kathryn Bigelow made Oscar history when she became the first woman to win Best Director; she also won for co-producing the 2009 Best Picture winner, The Hurt Locker.

In 2009/2010, the Academy saw a spike in the ratings thanks to a Best Picture lineup that included smash hits such as Avatar, Up, and The Blind Side (starring Best Actress winner Sandra Bullock); meanwhile, the winning entry was the powerful–if barely seen–The Hurt Locker.  So far, so good.  It’s also likely that the Coens’  A Serious Man, which seemed to barely make a dent in the public’s conscious, might not have scored a Best Picture nomination without an expanded field. (To clarify, A Serious Man should not be confused with the same year’s A Single Man, directed by Tom Ford and starring Best Actor nominee Colin Firth.)

The ratings for the most recent Oscar telecast did not meet the expectations set by the previous year’s ceremony even though the Best Picture lineup included a pair of behemoth hits, Inception and Toy Story 3, not to mention unlikely smashes like The King’s Speech, True Grit, and The Black Swan, all of which is why the Academy has now re-reconsidered what it just reconsidered a few years ago. As such, beginning with the awards for the current year, the slate of nominees will be no less than five and no more than ten. This means we should just as easily expect  six-seven nominees as either five or ten, depending on how many movies appear as #1 picks on members’ ballots and whether those films secure a minimum number of votes altogether. Something like that.  The Academy’s voting process has always been a tad convoluted, and now it is likely more so, but I’m actually excited about this change though I have a feeling we’ll be seeing the return of the standard regular five nominees sooner rather than later.

Entertainment Weekly

Meanwhile, in a recent issue of Entertainment Weekly (pictured to the left), Dave Karger actually blamed the whole rejuggling on The Blind Side, arguing that while a box office “phenom,” the movie was “lukewarmly reviewed” and a potential embarrassment to the Academy. Karger added A Serious Man, The Kids are All Right, and The Winter’s Bone to the list of Best Picture nominees that have possibly brought shame to the Academy over the past two years, but he should have added District 9 if he was in a name calling mood.  Karger is entitled to his opinion, but I happen to love The Blind Side. It was my third favorite film of 2009, right behind A Single Man and Invictus, so whatev, Dave.


More, More, More…

19 Jul

Okay, so last time I shared  a few of a few of my favorite movies in five categories, including Favorite Alfred Hitchcock Film, Favorite Animated Film, Favorite Musical, and Favorite Guilty Pleasure from the 1980s. Now, let’s add five more categories and call it a day.

6. Favorite Black and White Film: Of course, I grew up watching a black and white TV, so I was in high school–or at least junior high–before I realized that most of The Wizard of Oz is in color.   My point is that I’ve seen a lot of black and white movies in my day, many of which I later found out were in color.  I actually love black and white films, so this is tough, but I’ll just go with Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), a Max Opuls movie starring Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan. I plan to write about this movie extensively in the future, so I’ll get back to you on that. Runner-up: Oh what the hell–it’s hard for me to resist Manhattan (1979).

Moira Shearer: Lovely to look at in The Red Shoes

7. Favorite Trippy Color Film (pre-1960): I suppose that both Fantasia and The Wizard of Oz qualify, but my eyes are most captivated by The Red Shoes (1948). Why? Well, for starters, I love the color red, and the multiple reds in this update on the old Hans Christian Andersen tale, about a young woman who literally dances herself to death while wearing the titular shoes, do not disappoint. Everything about this convoluted triangle set against the competitive world of ballet (well before The Black Swan), is amped to an intense–operatic?–level that some viewers might find dated, sexist,  and/or way too over the top, but I actually find exhilarating. After all, film is a visual medium, and leading lady Moira Shearer, with her blazing red hair and deep blue eyes, was definitely made for Technicolor. Incredibly, The Red Shoes was not nominated by the Academy for its color cinematography (Jack Cardiff); however, it did win for “Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Color” for the team of Hein Heckworth and Arthur Lawson, as well as a Best Score for a Musical or Comedy (Brian Easdale). Additionally, the film, which was co-directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, was nominated for Best Picture, Best Editing, etc. If you haven’t seen it lately, or if you haven’t seen it at all, you should put it on your list. Honorable Mentions: Blood and Sand (1941), a movie about bullfighters in which even the name evokes sensational color; Leave Her to Heaven (1945), a little piece of film noir heaven painted in bold Technicolor, and The Quiet Man (1952), director John Ford’s deliriously romantic Irish romp. All three won Oscars for Best Color Cinematography, but I also want to recognize  1955’s This Island Earth, a piece of mid-century candy colored science fiction hokum about aliens and flying saucers that never ceases to delight. It might take some work to find a copy, but if you do, you’ll be lucky indeed!

Promenade Sentimentale

8. Favorite French Film: It’s Diva, the 1981 Jean-Jacques Beineix caper–for lack of a better word–about a sweet-faced messenger (Frédéric Andréi) who stalks a lovely opera singer (Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez), to the point of making illegal recordings of her concerts and stealing her gown. Of course, this young man’s indiscretions seem relatively harmless once ruthless Asian pirates begin threatening him. Plus, there’s a whole other crisscrossing subplot about narcotics, prostitution, and dirty cops. This is simply one of the most exciting movies I’ve ever seen with smashing visuals, a cool chase scene, and a top notch score by Vladimir Cosma. It was a huge hit back in the day, and it won plenty of awards in France as well as in the U.S, but for some reason it fell through the cracks with the Academy. The cinematographer Philippe Rousselot went on to further glory with Hope an Glory (1987), Dangerous Liaisons (1988), and Sherlock Holmes (2009), among others; he won an Oscar for 1992’s A River Runs through It. Runner up: Does Cousins (1989), the American remake–filmed in scenic British Columbia–of Cousin Cousine (1975) count? I saw both versions, by the way.

Witherspoon (l) and Phoenix (r) walk the line

9. Favorite Love Story (Hetero): Of course, Casablanca (1942) and Gone with the Wind (1939) are among–wait for it–the usual suspects. On the other hand, Gone with the Wind is tricky material best left for another day; meanwhile, Casablanca shows Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman at their absolute best: he’s touchingly vulnerable, and she’s so much worldlier at 27 than many of today’s actresses are at the same age (because they’ve been coached that prolonged girlhood is the way to go) that the 15 year age gap between the two doesn’t seem like such a big deal. Plus, the ending is complicated in the way that true love often is. I also dig the way the way that the forces of nature seem to erupt almost every time John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara come within inches of each other in The Quiet Man (1952).  I don’t think Hollywood is as interested in real love stories these days unless they’re more like romantic comedies–and don’t get me started on The English Patient (1996)–but The Notebook (2004), starring Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling, seems to have garnered quite a following, and it is beautifully done. No complaints there. Here’s two more among the top of a considerable heap: Walk the Line (2005) and The Year of Living Dangerously (1983). The former tells the true story of the messy relationship between country singers Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) and June Carter (Reese Witherspoon). What these two people go through before they find happiness is heartbreaking–hurtful, destructive even, to their own friends, families, and loved ones–but, once again, that’s how true love often is. Cash was plagued by demons, and Carter, while not a saint, was forthright and well grounded in a way that Cash craved. By now, we all know how their story ended: after years of unsteady courtship, Cash proposed to Carter onstage; the two married shortly afterward. Despite numerous ups and downs, the two stayed together until the ends of their lives, both of them passing away in 2003. Witherspoon won an Oscar, and Phoenix should have as well though he was, indeed, nominated; both won Golden Globes.  Finally, when Mel Gibson was far from a household name in the states (for better or worse), he teamed up with the then arguably better known Sigourney Weaver in Peter Weir’s The Year of Living Dangerously. There is a lot of intrigue going on in this one, so it’s not necessarily a love story in the strictest sense; moreover, it is perhaps best remembered for Linda Hunt’s triumphant Oscar winning performance as “Billy Kwan,” but it deserves to be watched just to see Weaver and Gibson in a pairing that is practically combustible. I don’t remember if The Year of Living Dangerously even has an “explicit” love scene, but I don’t think that matters so much when two good looking performers have such undeniable chemistry.

Imagine Headey (l) and Perabo (r) in their own sentimental walk because that's what lovers in romantic films do

10. Favorite Love Story (LGBT): A few years ago a young friend of mine turned me on to the British film Imagine Me & You (2005), starring Dallas born Piper Perabo (now on the hot TV show, Covert Affairs) as a young bride who becomes fantastically smitten with her  florist (Lena Headey) on the very day she is set to marry the dishy Matthew Goode. Oh, my! How will it all end? Imagine Me & You doesn’t linger on the issue of sexual orientation, but it does make a great case for the part of romantic love that is unknowable, and, I would say, unstoppable. The women and the men in this movie are for the most part easy on the eyes, and it generously mixes heartbreak with humor. The encounter in the park is a nifty comic gem. Runner-up: Adam & Steve (2005), which I like because it shows two well adjusted, if slightly damaged men (played by Malcolm Gets and Craig Chester), trying to figure out how to engage in a relationship that fits the way they want to be rather than a mere imitation of a traditional hetero relationship, and I respect that. Plus, it’s funny as hell. Chester wrote and directed, btw.  Runner up #2: Trick (1999).

Well, that’s all for this week. Thanks for your consideration…

“These Are a Few of My….”

11 Jul

Because I am so passionate about movies, and because I spent such a long time in the movie business, I am often asked to name my all-time favorite movie, but the truth is, I think I have seen waaayyy tooo many movies in the course of a lifetime to limit myself to one absolute favorite; moreover, I love a lot of movies for a great many reasons. I don’t even think I could limit myself to a list of 10 or 20 all-time favorites, but what I can do as a way of introducing myself is make a list of my favorite movies in a variety of categories, so here goes:

  1. As noted, if I had to name a single, absolute, all-time favorite movie, I would be hard-pressed to be that specific; however, I could likely narrow my focus to a select list of finalists that would include The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Days of Heaven (1978) near the top of the heap along with Harold and Maude (1971). I can state with absolute confidence that the latter actually changed my life.  I could also add  The Piano (1993) and Tootsie (1982) to the slate.  If you had asked me in 1978 what my favorite movie was, I would have said Julia (1977). Beyond that, I can only think to rank movies by category.
  2. Favorite Hitchcock movie:Truth be told, Alfred Hitchcock is probably my favorite

    Grace Kelly and James Stewart in Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window

    director, and of his many films that I love, none gives me greater pleasure than Rear Window (1954).  This is a great late-night offering, with real star wattage in the form of Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly, not to mention wisecracking–if slightly morbid–Thelma Ritter, and the spine tinglingly creepy Raymond Burr; meanwhile, don’t forget about poor Miss Lonelyhearts, played by Judith Evelyn. Hitchcock was nominated for Best Director for this one, but, oddly, members of the Academy forgot to nominate the Art Direction/Set Decorating team of  Sam Comer, J. McMillan Johnson, Ray Moyer, and Hal Pereia, who create a realistic, lived-in, multi-dimensional world within a rather confined space. Runner-up: Notorious

  3. Favorite animated film:  Of course, “Disney” is pretty much synonymous with animation, and on that account  One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961) and The Little Mermaid (1989) immediately come to mind.  I love the “sketchy elegance” of the former, and the lushness and the rich score of the latter. I was awestruck  on multiple levels by the sheer ingenuity of “Under the Sea” and the swoony romanticism of  “Kiss the Girl” upon first viewing of The Little Mermaid, so much so that I don’t even mind the way the Disney version tinkers with Hans Christian Andersen’s more meditative ending.  My non-Disney pick would have to be the arguably little known Gay Purr-ee, a 1962 production released by Warner Bros. that tells the saga of a charming, if naive, female cat on the prowl in Paris of the Gay Nineties. The movie is as notable for its vocal talent (Judy Garland, Robert Goulet, Red Buttons, Hermione Gingold, Paul Frees, Morey Amsterdam, and Mel Blanc) as it is the music of Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, who famously collaborated on The Wizard of Oz; Arlen also co-wrote Garland’s “The Man that Got Away” with Ira Gershwin for the 1954 remake of A Star is Born.  Finally, Gay Purr-ee stands out for the way that it apes the styles of such painters as Degas, Modigliani, and Seurat.
  4. Favorite Musical: Where to begin? Technically, The Wizard of Oz is a musical as is The Little Mermaid, and even Mary Poppins, all of which I love, but perhaps no musical fills me with more delight than The Music Man.  This one has got it all, beginning with Meredith Wilson’s glorious score, to stellar performances from the likes of Robert Preston, Shirley Jones, Buddy Hackett, Hermione Gingold, and an irresistible little

    Shirley Jones and Robert Preston lead a parade of "Seventy Six Trombones," and more, in 1962's The Music Man.

    cuddlebug named Ron Howard, along with Oona White’s intricately energetic choreography.  Oh sure, it’s corny as hell, but it’s also sincere, and it benefits from top of the line, studio production values (in this case, Warner Bros). Of course, credit must be given to director Morton DaCosta, who scored a Directors Guild nomination though he and Preston–who won a Tony for originating the role of Harold Hill on Broadway–were overlooked by members of the Academy. On the other hand, the movie was nominated for a total of  6 Oscars, including Best Picture. Runner-up (among stiff competition): The Sound of Music. I love this movie because even though it is based on a pretty incredible true story, it seems to have nothing to do with real life. No, it’s so much better, so much cleaner, than the real life, and that’s quite a feat. I ask you, has fake rain against the panes of glass in a Hollywood soundstage  gazebo ever looked more dazzling? No? I rest my case. Meanwhile, has it really been almost a decade since I was floored by Chicago? (We’ll “unpack” Singin’ in the Rain and a few others at a later time.)

  5. Favorite Guilty Pleasure from the 80s: American Dreamer (1984) stars JoBeth Williams as an amateur novelist who wins a trip to Paris, gets bumped on the head, assumes the identity of her favorite character, and finds herself in the middle of a nefarious plot! She also parades around in spectacular 1980s designer fashions and is joined in her escapades by dishy Tom Conti, at once dashing and befuddled. I recall that the reviewer in Cosmopolitan (Guy Flatley, if not Liz Smith) wrote something to the effect that if Oscars were awarded to actresses sheerly for having a good time onscreen, JoBeth would be well deserving for her work in American Dreamer.  As much fun as the movie is, I’ve always believed that it didn’t perform better at the box office because the somewhat thematically similar Romancing the Stone, starring Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas, opened earlier the same year and was such a huge hit that American Dreamer simply could not compete against the audience goodwill generated by  Turner and company. Too bad, but I prefer this one: guilty. (Dis)Honorable Mentions: The Man with One Red Shoe (1985), Burglar (1987), and Troop Beverly Hills (1989).
Well, these are a few of a few of my favorite things. Next time, I’ll add a list of five more categories, and that will have to suffice for a list of my 1o favorites for the time being. Of course, looking at the above list, one might think that I haven’t seen a movie in awhile, or maybe I just don’t appreciate more recent offerings. Nothing could be further from the truth, I assure you, but every new movie I see is constantly competing for space in my memory against dozens, hundreds, of other movies that are as fresh in mind as the day I saw them. That noted, going back to Days of Heaven, I’m blown away by director Terrence Malick’s latest, The Tree of Life.
Thanks for your consideration…