The National Film Registry Honors 25 American Classics

28 Dec

Today, the Library of Congress announced 25 new inductees into the National Film Registry. Each year since 1989, 25 films (all of them at least 10 years old) have been so honored for their cultural, historical or aesthetic impact. Generally, the honorees are not necessarily feature films that are much beloved by moviegoers though, of course, there are plenty of those: All About Eve (1950), Casablanca (1942), Chinatown (1974), Citizen Kane (1941), E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), The Godfather (1972), Gone with the Wind (1939), Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), The Sound of Music (1965), Star Wars (1977), The Wizard of Oz (1939) etc. On the other hand, the registry also includes such relatively obscure and/or infamous selections as Why We Fight (a Korean War era propaganda film), Gertie the Dinosaur (an animated short from 1914),  and even Dallas garment manufacturer Abraham Zapruder’s home movie of the Kennedy assassination.  The choices are always fascinating and can provide hours of reading pleasure on the National Film Registry’s official website.

Here are all 25 of this year’s picks with select passages quoted from Susan King writing  in  the Los Angeles Times‘s awards blog, “The Envelope,” no doubt lifted directly from the Library of Congress’s official press release:

  1. Allures (1961):  “Director Jordan Belson was dubbed the master of “cosmic cinema” who created abstract imagery with color, light and moving patterns and objects”.
  2. Bambi (1942)
  3. The Big Heat (1953)
  4. A Computer Animated Hand (1972):  “Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios, created a program nearly 40 years ago to digitally animate a human hand. This one-minute film displays the animated hand.”
  5. Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (1963): “Filmmaker Robert Drew and several other documentary directors including D.A. Pennebaker and Richard Leacock chronicled Alabama Gov. George Wallace’s attempts to stop two African American students from enrolling at the University of Alabama and President John F. Kennedy’s response.”
  6. The Cry of Children (1912): “This silent drama about child labor helped instigate labor reform.”
  7. A Cure for Pokeritis (1912): “Rotund comic John Bunny, who died in 1915, was one of the biggest comedy stars between 1910 and 1915. In this farce, he plays a henpecked husband.”
  8. El Mariachi (1992): “Robert Rodriguez’s first feature, which he made for $7,000 while a film student at the University of Texas.”
  9. Faces (1968): ” John Cassavetes’ masterwork offers a razor-sharp critique of middle-class America. Gena Rowlands, John Marley, Lynn Carlin and Seymour Cassel star.” [Note: Cassavetes earned an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay while Carlin was nominated as Best Supporting Actress and Cassel was up for Best Supporting Actor.]
  10. Fruit Cake Factory (1985): “Chick Strand’s documentary on young Mexican women who make ornamental papier-mache fruits and vegetables.”
  11. Forrest Gump (1994)
  12. Growing Up Female (1971):  “Ohio college students Julia Reichart and Jim Klein follow six girls and women from the ages of 4 to 34 at home, work and school.”
  13. Hester Street (1975):  “Director Joan Micklin Silver’s feature, which was financed by her husband, looks at Eastern European Jewish life in American in the early 1900s. Carol Kane earned an Oscar nomination as an immigrant who arrives in New York to marry.”
  14. I, an Actress (1977):  “The late underground filmmaker George Kuchar’s comedy about his directing techniques.”
  15. The Iron Horse (1924) John Ford’s seminal western focuses on how the country was united after the Civil War with the building of the transcontinental railroad.
  16. The Kid (1921)
  17. The Lost Weekend (1945)
  18. The Negro Soldier (1944):  “Frank Capra’s World War II U.S. Army filming unit produced this film that looked at the contributions of African Americans in society as well as their heroic contributions in the war. The film was produced as a response to discrimination against African Americans who were stationed in the South during the war.”
  19. Nicholas Brothers Family Home Movies (1930s-1940s): “Legendary tap dancing brothers Fayard and Harold Nicholas, who graced such films as 1948’s “The Pirate,” also shot home movies that feature one-of-a-kind footage of Broadway, Harlem and Hollywood.”
  20. Norma Rae (1979)
  21. Porgy and Bess (1959)
  22. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
  23. Stand and Deliver (1988) “Edward James Olmos earned an Oscar nomination in the inspiring true story of an East Los Angeles high school teacher, Jaime Escalante.” [Note: Escalante passed away in March of 2010.]
  24. Twentieth Century (1934)
  25. War of the Worlds (1953)

Jodie Foster with her Best Actress Oscar for The Silence of the Lambs. Only three films have won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Screenplay: It Happened One Night (1934), One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and The Silence of the Lambs. All three films are now also represented in the National Film Registry.

Of course, some of these films, including Bambi, Forrest Gump, The KidThe Lost Weekend, Norma Rae, The Silence of the Lambs, and War of the Worlds need no introduction. I’ve never been such a huge fan of Forrest Gump, the newest film to be inducted. [To clarify, I believe 1996’s Fargo, a 2006 inductee,  is the most recent film included in the registry.] My misigivings about Forrest Gump aside, I certainly have no problems with Tom Hanks’s Oscar winning performance because he is burdened with the nearly next to impossible feat of carrying the film and making something likeable out of something unlikeable. I’ve always given him props for that as I have given Gary Sinise his due in the tricky role of Lt. Dan.

On the other hand, I’ve always been a huge fan of The Silence of the Lambs. I can’t praise it enough. Not only is it a model book-to-film adaptation, it also presents one of the greatest movie heroes/heroines in Jodie Foster’s resourceful, determined Clarice Starling, offers commentary on the sexist nature of detective work (at least circa 1991) and spotlights not one but two villains: Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins as coldly calculating Dr. Hannibal Lecter and Ted Levine as stark raving mad Jame Gumb, aka Buffalo Bill.  The fact that Silence of the Lambs not only won 5 Academy Awards, including the rare Best Picture/Actress/Actor/Director (Jonathan Demme)/Best Adapted Screenplay (Ted Tally) sweep (more than a year after it premiered, no less), but has also been enshrined by the American Film Institute as one of the 100 greatest features from the first century of moviemaking, in addition to being one of the scariest movies with one of the greatest heroes as well as one of the greatest villains,  shows that this is a popular film that not only hit a nerve with the moviegoing public but also made an impact on the people who work in the business. Would we have even had as many police procedural dramas on TV over the past two decades had it not been  for the success of The Silence of the Lambs?  Yep, twenty years after its release The Silence of the Lambs endures as an American classic, so kudos to the National Film Registry for making it official for future generations of film preservationists.

Carol Kane and I share a birthday though she is actually 8 years older than I am. She was a mere 23 years old when she earned a Best Actress nomination for playing a much put upon immigrant wife who takes control of her own life in 1975's Hester Street.

Of all these films, the one that I am happiest to see recognized is Hester Street directed by Joan Micklin Silver.  Well, what can I say? I’ve always been a Carol Kane fan. I remember when this movie came out back in 1975. I read just about every review of it that I could find. I’d been fascinated by Carol Kane ever since I’d first read about her in a Canadian movie entitled Wedding in White a few years earlier. I liked her quirky looks; she reminded me of a young Bette Davis. Plus, we have the same birthday. Also, back in 1975 there weren’t a whole lot of movies directed by women, let alone movies directed by women that were earning Oscar nods. Think about it: in 1972, Elaine May’s The Heartbreak Kid scored Best Supporting Actress and Best Supporting Actor nominations for Jeanne Berlin (Maye’s daughter it must be noted) and Eddie Albert, respectively. In 1973, Julia Phillips became the first woman to win an Oscar for co-producing a Best Picture winner (The Sting). Lina Wertmuller would not break the masculine stronghold on the Best Director race until 1976’s Seven Beauties, and Randa Haines has the distinction of being the first woman to direct a Best Picture nominee (Children of a Lesser God) though Haines was not so honored by her peers in the directors’ branch, and that wasn’t until 1986, so, yeah, Kane scoring a nod for Hester Street was a huge big deal–most likely the first time a nominated performer of either sex in a leading acting category was directed by a woman, and writer-director Joan Micklin Silver, though not recognized by the  Academy, did in fact earn a nomination for the Writers Guild Award. Not bad. By the way, I’ve only done some cursory research on this and while I’m sure my claim at least holds for movies released in the 60s and 70s, I welcome feedback from anyone who can prove that a leading actor or actress received an Oscar nomination for a film directed by a woman prior to 1975.

Truthfully, I don’t remember if Hester Street actually opened in Dallas in ’75, or if it didn’t open until closer to the Oscars in 1976. I can’t  remember which theater it played at exactly either, but I think it was probably the UA Cine, maybe the Park Forest. Definitely not General Cinema Northpark or ABC Interstate’s Medallion. What I do remember is that I wasn’t able to persuade my mother to take me. Oh sure, we talked about it, but like a lot of movies from that era, I missed it because such things were a luxury for us at that time though we were sometimes treated to a drive-in or a cheapie film series at Richland where my mother worked back in the day (which is how I first saw The Magic Christian, but I digress). At any rate, Hester Street was the movie I wanted to see, and I was probably the only teenager in suburban Garland who had a hankering to see a black and white film, in English and Yiddish, about Jewish immigrants living in New York City during the late 1800s, but it wasn’t for nothing during those days that I scoured the likes of The New Yorker, New York, the New York Times, and the Village Voice, among others, whenever I could in order to read about movies, movies, and movies. Eventually, I caught up with Hester Street on VHS, and I’m glad I did. Not only is Kane wonderful, in an authentic, non-actressy kind of way, the movie provides a fascinating look at another culture during a transitional period in American history. Also, guess what? It features a surprising supporting performance by none other than Emmy winner Doris Roberts, well before she became a household name with the likes of Remington Steele and Everybody Loves Raymond.

Do you want to know what else I remember about Hester Street? I remember watching Kane being interviewed by top Hollywood gossip maven Rona Barrett on a pre-Oscar special–I guess it aired the weekend before the Oscars, which were held on Mondays at the time–and hearing the actress say, “All I’ve got pulling for me are two Jews from Cleveland,” presumably her parents since she was born in Cleveland. For years, I thought I’d imagined Kane saying those words, but there they are on page 515 of Inside Oscar by Mason Wiley and Damien Bona. I’m sure Kane had more support than she realized; after all, she got the nod, didn’t she? Still again, almost every film critic and devoted Oscar fan who is old enough to recall the 1975/76 race no doubt remembers that the lineup for Best Actress is widely considered one of the weakest in Academy history–not because the nominated performances themselves were weak but because the big Hollywood studios were not especially interested in making high quality (that’s the key term) movies with grown women as leading characters, and not just appendages of big name male actors, at that point. Much has been written about how winner Louise Fletcher (as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest adversarial Nurse Ratched) would have likely been nominated as Best Supporting Actress had the competition that year been stiffer; indeed, she was originally named the year’s best in the secondary category by the New York Film Critics Circle. Furthermore, legend has it that such top actresses as Anne Bancroft, Ellen Burstyn, and Jane Fonda actually turned down the role because they found it mean spirited and misogynistic. Elsewhere, the Academy rightfully nominated Ann-Margret for her flashy turn as the brazen mother of the title character in Ken Russell’s outrageous big screen treatment of The Who’s rock opera Tommy. I’ve always thought that Ann-Margret deserved any and all accolades for giving such a committed, impassioned performance in an extremely  colorful and unpredictable role so far removed from the mainstream, but it was no doubt much too weird to really go the distance with older, arguably more conservative, Academy voters even though the actress, unlike Fletcher, was very much an Hollywood insider [1]. Plus, while the sultry star damn near dominates ever frame of footage in which she appears, the movie is still entitled Tommy, not Mommy. At any rate, Fetcher and Ann-Margret were the only actresses nominated for films with any connections to the major outfits: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was released through United Artists while Tommy was produced by Columbia Pictures in conjunction with the Robert Stigwood Organization. Kane’s film, on the other hand, was an independent in an era in which such films received limited distribution at best. Beyond that, Isabelle Adjani (only 19 a the time) was up for Francois Truffuat’s French language The Story of Adele H., and Glenda Jackson, already a two-time champ [2], was in the running for a film adaptation of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabbler (retitled Hedda), courtesy of the Royal Shakespeare Company and Brut Productions; therefore, Kane’s comments have to be taken in context. Not only was her film not widely seen by audiences outside of New York and Los Angeles, it also did not have the advantage of a big corporation funding an elaborate Oscar campaign. Nonetheless, her nomination speaks volumes about a time when voters could have done the easy thing by nominating Barbra Streisand for reprising her Oscar winning role as Fanny Brice in Funny Lady, Diana Ross in the critically reviled if moderately successful Mahogany, or Candice Bergen for playing a kidnapping victim who falls for her captor (no less than Sean Connery) in the would-be epic The Wind and the Lion.  That aside, I’m still a little puzzled that either Karen Black as a starlet on the fringes of Hollywood in The Day of the Locust or Marilyn Hassett as injured Olympic aspirant in The Other Side of the Mountain did not score knee-jerk nominations. Both were nominated for the Golden Globe award, and both their films received Oscar nods in other categories [3].

At any rate, the fact that Kane was Oscar nominated, and that Joan Micklin Silver warranted a nod from the WGA, if not the Academy, is just more proof that Hester Street‘s inclusion in the National Film Registry is a good thing. Yes, the official notes make the case that the film is to be celebrated for depicting a certain way of life in America at a certain time, but it is also a statement about the state of motion pictures, and women’s roles both in front and behind the camera, at the time of its release.  Kane never became a major movie star; however, she’s rarely lacked for work, especially in TV. She won two Emmys for her work in the classic sitcom Taxi. I also loved her as a supporting player in the Bess Armstrong sitcom All is Forgiven, in which she portrayed a ditsy soap opera writer from the South.  Some of her more celebrated movies include Dog Day Afternoon (also 1975), Annie Hall (1977), When a Stranger Calls (1979), The Princess Bride (1987), Scrooged (1988), Addams Family Values (1993), and Four Christmases (2008). If you ever get the chance, check out The Lemon Sisters (1989) with Diane Keaton and Kathryn Grody. Kane’s rendition of the Rawhide theme song is a howl, a genuine delight. See it, and you’ll know why she’s always in demand. On the other hand, Joan Micklin Silver’s career has been much more lowkey. Her follow up to Hester Street, Between the Lines (1977), was famous for its then fresh faced cast that included Stephen Collins, Lindsay Crouse, Jill Eikenberry, Jeff Goldblum, John Heard, Marilu Henner, and Bruno Kirby. She pretty much disappeared after 1979’s Chilly Scenes of Winter, which was originally entitled Head Over Heels. She later rebounded with 1988’s Crossing Delancey starring Amy Irving, of which I am also a huge, huge, fan. This one is in many ways a perfect companion piece to Hester Street as it shows a modern young Jewish woman trying to navigate a career and romance on her own terms while her bubbe decides to jump-start a serious courtship the old fashioned way: through a marriage broker, a matchmaker if you will. This is Irving’s most appealing role–she earned a Globe nomination–and, of course, the soundtrack is  full of tunes by my favorite trio of musical sisters from New Jersey, The Roches, one of whom–Suzzy–also has a supporting role. Thanks, Joan!

Backing up just a bit: as problematic as the 1975/76 Best Actress Oscar race was made out to be, the Best Actor race was equally shaky considering that two of the nominees were in movies that were essentially filmed plays, including a one man show, produced outside the auspices of the studio system, but that’s the makings of another blog post I guess.

Thanks for your consideration…

[1] Ann-Margret’s first Oscar nomination was for 1971’s Carnal Knowledge, in which the frequent star of escapist musicals and light romantic comedies was cast against type in the supporting role of blowzy, neurotic Bobbie Templeton; the movie also featured Carol Kane in a smallish part; however, long before her first Oscar nod, Margret had already won a Photoplay award, a Golden Globe (and another nomination besides), and was a frequent finalist for the Motion Picture Exhibitor Laurel award.

[2] Jackson first won Best Actress for 1970’s Women in Love (directed by Ken Russell, who, again, directed Ann-Margret’s Tommy); she triumphed again for 1973’s A Touch of Class.

[3] Longtime Hollywood vet Burgess Meredith, best known to baby boomers for playing The Penguin on Batman, earned his first Oscar nomination for his supporting role in Day of the Locust; “Richard’s Window,” composed Charles Fox and Norman Gimble and performed by Olivia Newton John on The Other Side of the Mountain soundtrack, was  a 1975/76 Oscar nominee for Best Song.

Sources and stuff:

Wiley, Mason and Damien Bona. Inside Oscar. New York: Ballantine, 1996.

Link to Susan King’s article for “The Envelope: The Awards Insider” @ The Los Angeles Times:

http://tinyurl.com/6tuvd5m

Link to the National Film Registry @ the Library of Congress website:

http://www.loc.gov/film/filmnfr.html

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2 Responses to “The National Film Registry Honors 25 American Classics”

  1. musea 29 December 2011 at 9:38 am #

    I remember that when I saw Hester Street I was impressed by the film very much, and wondered why it didn’t get more recognition. It is the best film on the experience of American immigrants that I have seen.

    • listen2uraunt 29 December 2011 at 11:01 am #

      Yes. That this little film made on a shoestring of something like a half a million, and barely seen by middle America at the time of its release, is today being held in such esteem is something akin to a miracle to me. I’m glad that Joan Micklin Silver, Carol Kane and everyone else associated with Hester Street had the foresight and gumption to make their movie in spite of the odds against them. That’s what art is all about. Wow. what a beautiful thing this is. Well, as Dr. Lecter tells Clarice: “All good things to those who wait.”

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