Archive | May, 2012

What the L Makes Samuel Run?

28 May

Happy Memorial Day, y’all! It’s been a busy weekend at the box-office with the latest installment of the Men in Black franchise poised to dethrone Marvel’s The Avengers from the #1 spot on the charts.  Well, I guess that’s good news for someone. I liked the original Men in Black well enough back in 1997, but not, I confess, so much that I was willing to sit through the 2002 sequel. I probably won’t sit through–yes, sit through–MIB III though I have to admit I am curious about whether Josh Brolin’s take on the younger version of the character played by Tommy Lee Jones in the other films is as fun and effective as it seems to be in the trailer. (The cynical part of me thinks there’s a plan afoot soon to turn 66 year old Jones loose from the whole thing and replace him entirely with someone younger such as Brolin, but I digress.) Maybe I’ll catch up with it on DVD. In the meantime, how about those Avengers? The latest live-action 3-D comic book extravaganza brings together Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man, Chris Evans’s Captain America and Chris Hensworth’s Thor along with Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, previously seen in, among others, Iron Man 2, Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow, and Mark Ruffalo, the third actor in recent memory–and reportedly the best–to play the Incredible Hulk on the big screen. The Avengers opened overseas before it reached American screens, and in only four weeks in domestic release, it has earned over 400 million dollars, now ranking as the fourth biggest grossing movie of all time. Yep, that’s right. It has obliterated at least two high profile challengers, including Tim Burton’s ill-advised revamp–uh, so to speak–of TV’s first gothic soap opera, Dark Shadows, as well as the questionable big screen version of the classic board game, Battleship, which managed to exist for years without aliens from another planet and a pop-music hottie named Rhianna.  Well, I really have no interest in seeing Avengers either–or Battleship for that matter, even though I have heard wonderfully positive things about both films from many of my most devout moviegoing friends; the reviews have also been encouraging.  I can only take so much comic book excitement, and, to clarify, I’m not a snob about these things. I’ve enjoyed many comic book transfers over the years, but lately they’ve come so fast and furious(ly) that they’re starting to blur together.

Now that Samuel L. Jackson has conquered the world of movies, he’s on to the wonderful world of TV commercials.

On the other hand, the success of Marvel’s The Avengers has cemented Samuel L. Jackson’s status as the hardest working actor in the movies. That’s actually an understatement: per a recent article in Entertainment Weekly, this actor has 111 movies to his credit, which means that the combined grosses of all those flicks equal something like 10 billion dollars, which makes him the undisputed box office king though that claim is a bit misleading because it does not take into account that Jackson has appeared in a number of high profile misfires as he has movies that have actually turned a profit.  It’s tricky.  Yes, his total output is impressive, but I don’t know that he’s a consistent box office draw though, of course, no one doubts his talents.  Don’t forget, for example, that despite all the hype that preceded the release of 2006’s high-concept “disaster” epic, Snakes on a Plane, in which Jackson memorably spews the oft-quoted line, “Enough is enough! I have had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane,” the film was pretty much a bust, earning a paltry 33 million in this country–and only another 28 million in foreign markets. Granted, this seems like a lot of money–and it is–but it’s well below industry expectations for a movie that was so massively, zealously, promoted. Similarly, even though a Samuel Jackson reboot of blaxploitation classic Shaft seemed like a good idea at the time–that would be 2000–it was only a middling performer. Besides, even though Jackson is cool, he just can’t match that Richard Roundtree swagger. Then of course there are such oddities as Black Snake Moan, which, even with the added appeal of Christina Ricci and Justin Timberlake, couldn’t break into the mainstream.

Of course, Jackson has been fortunate and/or savvy enough to be attached to some high profile franchises. For example, The Avengers is the fourth or fifth time he has appeared in a picture drawn from the Marvel pool of super heroes. He’s also been in a Die Hard movie, the XXX series (which was rebooted when the first one underperformed: goodbye Vin Diesel; hello Ice Cube), Pixar’s marvelous The Incredibles, and George Lucas’s second Star Wars trilogy–but even Jackson hasn’t been fooled by some of these offerings. According to the Internet Movie Database, when he was questioned about his role in Star Wars, Jackson simply replied, “He’s black.”

I certainly don’t mean to imply that Jackson is always attached only to mindless entertainment and/or outright junk, and I don’t want to knock anybody who’s managed to carve a successful career in a business that is competitive to the point of being cutthroat; after all, as he has said, he’s been married to the same woman for decades, has never been arrested (despite trouble with addiction that was well in his past before he ever hit the big time), and he’s been able to support his family. Good for him. This is America, after all. Land of the free, home of the–oh, skip it.

Still, with his propensity to go from serious and subtle to audience pleasing hammy theatrics in the wink of an eye, which is a talent of sorts, it’s sometimes easy to forget that before Jackson was a “brand,” he was doing extraordinary work in films that were taken seriously for something other than their body counts and mind blowing effects:

Here are a few essentials:

  1. Before his career changing role in Jungle Fever, Samuel L. Jackson (l), seen here with Ruby Dee (r) had appeared in dozens of films and TV shows, including Ragtime, Coming to America, Goodfellas, The A-Team, and, of course, Law and Order.

    Jungle Fever (1991) – This interracial romance between Wesley Snipes and Annabelle Sciorra marked the fourth time that Jackson had appeared in a Spike Lee film, following School Daze (1988), Do the Right Thing (1989), and The Mo Better Blues (1990–a personal favorite, but I digress). Jackson’s role in this uneven film is that of Snipe’s crackhead brother. Jackson’s mate, btw, is played by none other than future Oscar winner Halle Berry.  Jackson’s performance is, in a word, genius. In another word, it’s blistering in its power. That’s more than one word, isn’t it? The judges at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival were so impressed that they honored Jackson with a one-time only Best Supporting Actor award. At that point, Jackson seemed like a shoo-in for the next year’s Oscar in the same category, especially once Anthony Hopkins persuaded the folks handling the Silence of the Lambs Oscar campaign to promote him as a leading rather than supporting player for his widely hailed performance as Dr. Hannibal Lecter; there had been some confusion in the early critics’ voting regarding the scope of the role. At any rate, Hopkins’s move should have left the door wide open for Jackson to claim the Oscar, but the nomination never materialized.  If I were to guess why, it would be because the Academy has never really been enthralled with Lee, which is not to say that his movies are never nominated though they do seem under-represented in the Academy’s memory book. Instead of honoring Jackson, the Academy chose to pay tribute to Jack Palance in City Slickers, which was fine by me considering that Jackson didn’t make the cut. Palance’s turn as an old cowboy with an almost mythological swagger elevated what was just a better than average fish out of water comedy, and I guess that’s what a good supporting actor does; still, Jackson should have been in the race. That he wasn’t was and is a travesty. He was robbed.

  2. So far, Samuel Jackson’s only Oscar nomination is for 1994’s Pulp Fiction. He competed for the Best Supporting Actor trophy against Martin Landau, a strong sentimental favorite in the well reviewed Ed Wood, Chazz Palmenteri in Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway, Paul Scofield, 1965’s Best Actor winner (A Man for All Seasons) in Best Picture nominee, Quiz Show, and, finally, Gary Sinise as Lt. Dan in the popular Best Picture frontrunner Forrest Gump.

    Pulp Fiction (1994) – Certainly, the publicity generated by Jackson’s smashing turn in Jungle Fever helped him gain a lot of traction within the industry, and out of all that came his role as hitman Jules Winnfield in Quentin Tarantino’s modern masterpiece, a movie that–for better or worse–forever changed the public perception of independent filmmaking, inspiring dozens of lesser imitations in the process. Winnfield is a true standout in a large cast of interesting characters: he begins as a heartless, Bible quoting SOB who can kill a man as easily as he can discuss the vagaries of pop-culture with his associates, but midway through the film he experiences a spiritual awakening and decides to walk away from a life of crime, avoiding one final scrape and living to see another day. This film represents Jackson’s sole Oscar nomination–and it’s hard to believe that it came out 18 years ago. Really? At any rate, at the time of the Oscars, there was some controversy surrounding the placement of the actors. Jackson’s co-star John Travolta, hot on the comeback trail–yet again–was positioned as  a leading player while Jackson was campaigned for as a supporting player. My thoughts about that are rather complex. First, it’s important to understand that studios that play the Oscar game play to win–especially the people at Miramax. How performers get positioned in Oscar campaigns is often simply a matter of numbers. Pulp Fiction was nominated for 7 Oscars. If Travolta and Jackson had competed in the same category, the film could have won at most 6 Oscars because a win for one of the actors would be a certain loss for another–ties are unlikely. There’s also a fear that two actors from the same film in the same category will split votes, jeopardizing the chances for either to win. Even so, studios have been known in the past to throw caution to the wind and campaign without as much behind the scenes strategizing. Right off the top of my head, I can use as an example Robert De Niro, who won his first Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for Godfather II in a year in which two of his co-stars, Michael V. Gazzo and the legendary Lee Strasberg were nominated in the same category. Also, please understand that Oscar campaigns are sometimes in actors’ contracts–yes, before a single frame has ever been shot–and at the time of Pulp Fiction, Travolta and his agent likely had better bargaining power than Jackson and company, but that’s just a guess.  To me, it’s obvious that in any scene in which Jackson and Travolta appear together, Jackson clearly dominates. His character is more interesting than Travolta’s goofy hoodlum, which helps, and Jackson’s got that great big booming voice. He delivers his lines with full force, eyes ablaze.  In that regard, Jackson trumps. Easily. The problem is that I’m pretty sure Travolta has more screentime than Jackson has: whereas Jackson is rarely onscreen without Travolta, the reverse is not always true. Travolta’s Vincent Vega has that whole extended sequence with Uma Thurman in the Jack Rabbit Slim’s 1950s theme diner, and Vincent also appears, however briefly, in the sequence with Bruce Willis and Ving Rhames. In that regard, Travolta’s Vega trumps. Myself, I would have never nominated Travolta in either category. I think his nomination was all about his own personal narrative and less about what was actually onscreen. I thought he was good–but not great. I also believe Jackson was rightfully placed among the supporting players. He lost to Martin Landau who made the most of his role as real life actor Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood.  It was Landau’s third nomination in six years, and the role of the Hungarian movie star turned junkie  was truly transformative for the sexagenarian Landau. No harm, no foul though it does seem a little odd that Jackson hasn’t been able to translate the success of Pulp Fiction into more Oscar caliber roles rather than an unending stream of bigger paycheck roles. He has subsequently appeared in Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, Kill Bill Volume 2, besides narrating Inglourius Basterds.

  3. A Time to Kill (1996)- In this adaptation of an early John Grisham effort, Jackson plays a man on trial for murdering the men who raped his daughter.  It’s a great role for Jackson, but the movie, which was a huge hit, isn’t as good as it ought to be. At the time, Warner Bros., the studio that released the film, was extremely preoccupied with hyping the the relatively unknown Matthew McConaughey as the heir apparent to Paul Newman while Sandra Bullock, still reaping the rewards of Speed and While You Were Sleeping, was given star billing for a role that was relatively slim in the original text, so the movie is kind of a mishmash, and Jackson’s good work gets overwhelmed in all that studio machinery.
  4. The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) –  This is the movie that has set the pace for much of Jackson’s career in the years since its release. The Long Kiss Goodnight stars Geena Davis as a government assassin who was once attacked and left for dead. When she regains consciousness, she has no idea who she is and ends up settling down to an uneventful life in small town America. Years go by and eventually she starts putting back the pieces of her life just as she’s sucked into a great big conspiracy. What does any of this have to do with Jackson?  He plays a sleazy investigator hired to help Davis find out about her past. Of course, he has no idea just complicated his assignment is until he’s running from the bad guys with his client.  The Long Kiss Goodnight is too violent for its own good–and it’s probably 20-30 minutes too long as well. It can be fun at times,  but I’ve never loved it the same way that some of my friends do.  Still, this is the template for a lot of what Jackson has done countless times: a lot of wisecrackin’, a lot of cursin’, along with a tendency to speak louder and louder as the film progresses, and, of course, an ever increasing reliance on weaponry.  The Long Kiss Goodnight, for which once hot hot hot screenwriter Shane Black was paid a considerable fortune, reportedly four million, was box-office failure, pretty much wrecking the big screen careers of both director Renny Harlin and actress Davis. The two were married at the time, and this project was supposed to be a comeback for both of them on the heels of another big budget disaster, Cutthroat Island, on which they collaborated in 2005.  After their second bomb, Davis was pretty much relegated playing the sweet yet firm mommy in the Stuart Little movies–and working on TV; however, Jackson simply went on making one movie after another.
  5. Look closely: Roger Ebert famously proclaimed Eve’s Bayou, “The Best Film of 1997.”

    Eve’s Bayou (1997) – The big screen debut of writer-director Kasi Lemmons is a film so good, so rich and powerful, that it deserves its own blog entry. Jackson is listed as a producer, and it seems unlikely that the movie would have been made without his participation. He plays a doctor in the film, which is set in Louisiana in the early 1960s. Though Jackson is the draw, the movie is a showcase for a host of wonderful actresses, including Jurnee Smollett, in the role of Eve (from whose viewpoint the coming of age story is told), Lynn Whitfield, as Eve’s mother/Jackson’s wife, Diahann Carroll, as a voodoo priestess, and, especially the amazing Debbi Morgan, as Eve’s aunt, a woman both blessed and curse by “second sight.”  Eve’s Bayou is beautifully filmed, and it was greeted with great enthusiasm by the critics when it first released. Roger Ebert famously put it at the top of his “10 Best” list; it even made a little money.  Lemmons was honored as a first time director not only by the National Board of Review but by the voting in that season’s Independent Spirit Awards. Morgan was similarly honored with a Spirit Award for her supporting role. There was a smattering of other accolades as well; however, the Academy wasn’t interested, which is puzzling indeed.  Morgan would have easily been my pick for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar while Lemmons should have at least been nominated for Best Original Screenplay, that is, given the Academy’s reluctance to recognize women directors. Four short years later, Lemmons and Jackson teamed up again for The Caveman’s Valentine, but that film disappeared quickly, which means it might be awhile before we see any more movies directed by Lemmons; meanwhile, Jackson perseveres. This guy’s like Teflon.

  6. The Red Violin (1998) – A movie that depicts the history of a single musical instrument, from its construction in the 1600s all the way to a highly contentious auction in 1997, might seem like a real snoozer but it’s wicked fun as the action switches from Canada to Italy to Vienna, then to England, China, and, finally, back to Canada, complete with subtitles. The movie begins with the auction and uses it as a framing device for the remainder of the film; the last act is a well plotted game of one upmanship with Jackson in control. Like Eve’s Bayou, this is a film that you should spend some time tracking if you have not already seen it. Directed and co-written by Quebec based François Girard, it won 8 of Canada’s Genie Awards, the Oscar equivalent, including Best Picture and Best Director. It was released in this country in 1999 and was subsequently honored with the Oscar for Best Original Score, awarded to John Corigliano. In a year in which the Academy went gaga over a faux piece of cutting edge art called American Beauty, it was good to see that there was room at the ball for The Red Violin and Mike Leigh’s Topsy Turvy, which won statuettes for Best Costume and Best Makeup, but I digress. Jackson is great casting in this instance because he’s not only a good actor, he’s getting to do something a little different, and he gives this truly international production an American star that audiences can root for all around the world. Nicely played.

I have a friend who used to work for Paramount Pictures. Too many posters like this one for Changing Lanes, starring Ben Affleck (l) and Samuel Jackson (r), prompted him to call the place, “the big head studio.”

If you want more Jackson, you might consider The Negotiator, co-starring Kevin Spacey, Changing Lanes, with Ben Affleck, and Coach Carter, the fact based story about a high school basketball coach who benches his whole winning team until they improve their grades. The movie was a modest hit, and Jackson earned an NAACP Image award for his portrayal of the title character, but he’s still waiting for his second Oscar nomination; meanwhile, how about those Avengers?

Thanks for your consideration…

Jackson in Entertainment Weekly:

http://popwatch.ew.com/2011/10/27/samuel-l-jackson-highest-grossing-actor/

Jackson by the Numbers at EW:

http://m.ew.com/news-detail.rbml?guid=0,,20594237,00

Jackson at the Internet Movie Database:

http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000168/

From Cannes avec Amour

27 May

Austrian director Michael Haneke holds the coveted Golden Palm award at the closing ceremonies of the 65th Cannes Film Festival.

Here are the winners of the just concluded Cannes Film Festival:

  • Palme d’Or (Golden Palm) –  Amour, directed by Austrian Michael Haneke, whose beautifully rendered The White Ribbon won the same award at Cannes in 2009; the film subsequently garnered Oscar nominations for Best Cinematography (black and white, actually) and Best Foreign Language film. It lost the former to Avatar and the latter to Argentina’s The Secret in Their Eyes.

Trivia: what is the only movie to win the top prize at Cannes as well as the Oscar for Best Picture? Answer: 1955’s Marty, which also won the Best Actor Oscar for Ernest Borgnine. Last year’s Golden Palm winner, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life eeked out three Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, ultimately going home empty-handed.

  • Best Actress – Shared between two actresses playing nuns in the Rumanian film, Beyond the Hills: Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur

Trivia: the last actress to win at Cannes and at the Oscars is Holly Hunter for 1993’s The Piano, which also tied for the Golden Palm with Farewell My Concubine. Shared acting awards are not new to Cannes. In 2006, Penelope Cruz, Carmen Maura, Lola Dueñas, Chus Lampreave, Blanca Portillo, and Yohana Cobo collectively won Best Actress for their performances in Pedro Almodóvar’s tantalizing Volver; Cruz was later Oscar nominated.  Another notable shared Best Actress prize is the one claimed by Barbara Hershey, Jodhi May, and Linda Mvusi for 1988’s A World Apart; May was all of thirteen at the time.  This is also an noteworthy win as it made Hershey the only actor/actress to win back-to-back honors at Cannes. In 1987, she was singled out for her work in Shy People. The latter was a dreary pic about Cajuns. but the former, set during apartheid in South Africa, was one of 1988’s most acclaimed films though you would never know that by looking through that year’s list of Oscar nominees. (PS: Beyond the Hills also earned screenwriting honors for director Chris Mungiu.)

  • Best Actor – Mads Mikkelson for the Danish offering, The Hunt

Of course, the most recent Oscar winner for Best Actor, Jean Dujardin (The Artist), took last year’s Cannes prize as well; however, Dujardin starred in a a bittersweet comedy about Hollywood that was easy to market to Academy members, so much so that it also took Best Picture and a passel of other prizes.  Don’t look for a repeat at next year’s Oscars since Mikkelson’s film is reportedly about an innocent man undone by charges of pedophilia.

  • Best Director – Carlos Reygadas for Post Tenebras Lux (from Mexico)

Trivia: the first, and I believe only, film to win the Golden Palm, Best Director, and an acting prize at Cannes was 1991’s Barton Fink from Amerians Joel and Ethan Coen, starring John Turturro as the title character. At Oscar time, Turturro and the Coens were out though the movie received a smattering of nominations, including Best Supporting Actor (Michael Lerner).

  • Grand Prix (aka second place) – Reality, directed by Italy’s Matteo Garrone
  • Special Jury Prize –  Ken Loach’s The Angels Share

75 year old Loach, from England, is a frequent Cannes honoree, most recently for 2006’s The Wind that Shakes the Barley.

Okay, that’s a wrap.

Thanks for your consideration…

Coverage of Cannes in the Wall Street Journal:

http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2012/05/27/cannes-film-festival-shows-love-for-amour/

Long Live Summer…

17 May

R.I.P.:  Donna Summer (1948-2012)

Donna Summer on the cover of her 1977 lp, Once Upon a Time.

Donna Summer had reinvented herself a few times before she struck gold as the singer of such dance floor hits as “Love to Love You Baby” and “I Feel Love.”  She was hardly ever a real movie star though she was the  “draw” in a film that would not be remembered today were it not for her engaging vocals on the Oscar winning track, “Last Dance”–from 1978’s Thank God It’s Friday, a movie that celebrated the short-lived disco culture, and is often overshadowed by a bigger movie from the same era. How’s that?

Backstory: in 1977, the musical powerhouse known as the Bee Gees (the Brothers Gibb: Barry, Maurice and Robin) collaborated with producer Robert Stigwood on the soundtrack for the disco-inspired Saturday Night Fever. The film starred John Travolta in an Oscar nominated performance as a young man from Brooklyn who cuts through all the b.s. in his life and finds escape on the dance floor of a local disco.  The Christmas of ’77 release was a smash hit and made Travolta, then best known for his work on the TV sitcom Welcome Back Kotter, a bona fide movie star. The movie also took disco music to new levels of popularity. No, the Bee Gees didn’t invent disco music, hardly, but they liberated it by giving it a pop-spin and making it attractive–and oh-so-saleable-to mass audiences. Simply, disco music was no longer just for discos.

The Saturday Night Fever soundtrack produced what seemed like an unending parade of hit singles, starting with the inescapable “Stayin’ Alive,” and on through the likes of “How Deep Is Your Love,” “Night Fever,” “More than a Woman,” and “If I Can’t Have You” (the latter recorded by Yvonne Elliman).  For whatever reason, the music branch of the Academy was not the least bit impressed, and the Bee Gees and their batch of mega-sellers were completely overlooked during the 1977/78 Oscars. (The same music branch, btw, also snubbed the now anthemic “New York, New York” from the revisionist Martin Scorsese musical of the same name, starring Liza Minnelli and Robert de Niro, but I digress.) The Oscar for Best Song that year went to the even more overwhelmingly popular title tune from You Light Up My Life, an inspirational bit of treacle that turned Debby Boone from “daughter of crooner Pat Boone” into a star in her own right.  Without the heat that the Bee Gees could have provided, the outcome for the Best Song Oscar seemed inevitable. Of course, Boone’s song (written by one-time commercial jingle guy-turned media mogul, Joseph Brooks) was the clear winner in a race that included “Nobody Does It Better” (from the James Bond film, The Spy Who Loved Me), “Candle on the Water” (from Disney’s Pete’s Dragon), “Someone’s Waiting for You” (from Disney’s The Rescuers), and “The Slipper and the Rose Waltz” (from The Slipper and the Rose, natch, a non-Disney Cinderella inspired musical starring Richard Chamberlain, of all people, as the Prince.) Anyway, the point is that without the Bee Gees, in addition to  a surplus of songs from family friendly fare and/or kiddie flicks, the music branch of the Academy suddenly looked old, stodgy, and out-of-touch, being soundly criticized as a result. (It does seem odd from this perspective that a bunch of disco songs would have ever seemed cutting edge, but hindsight is a curious thing.)

A year later, when disco was still very much in vogue,  the race for Best Song was a fight to the finish between Summer’s “Last Dance” (composed by Paul Jabara) and “Hopelessly Devoted to You” performed by Olivia Newton John–a new song penned especially for her by  John Farrar (who’d written and produced many of the singer’s top hits) for the big screen version of the long running Broadway musical, Grease. This time, the Academy was unequivocal: “Last Dance” won the trophy, meaning the Academy had, for better or worse, given disco music its official seal of approval. To further sweeten the deal, the Best Original Score trophy went to Midnight Express‘s Girogio Moroder, the composer-producer who helped launch Summer’s career as a disco diva and who had in fact co-produced the “Last Dance” track. His pulsating score for Midnight Express  had plenty of dance floor appeal in spite of the film’s grim subject matter: the fact based story of an American student imprisoned in Turkey for smuggling hashish; the movie was, in fact, a huge hit and a Best Picture contender. (Meanwhile, the other Best Song nominees that year were a pretty average lot: “The Last Time I Felt Like This, from Same Time, Next Year; “Ready to Take a Chance Again, from Foul Play, and “When You’re Loved” from The Magic of Lassie.)

(^ Donna Summer performs the Oscar winning song “Last Dance,” from Thank God It’s Friday, on the 1978/79 Academy Awards telecast.)

Well, I don’t think anyone will ever argue that Thank God It’s Friday is a forgotten masterpiece, and I freely admit that I’ve never seen it in its entirety–just random bits and pieces on TV; however, I’ve always loved Summer’s song, from the first time I heard it, in fact.  It has a real sense of time and place that appeals to me, reminds me of my own youth;  plus, beneath the thump-thump-thump of its disco beat, Summer provides real longing, depth even, which makes it something other than a mindless dance track.  To clarify, the purpose of this piece is not to debate the pros and cons of disco on the music industry. It’s just an appreciation of one song, one Oscar winning song, performed by a woman who’s just passed from this life. On the other hand, I guess because I enjoy the song so much, I’ve always taken exception to the critics who’ve written TGIF off as a rip-off of Saturday Night Fever, mainly because the timing of the two movies makes the charge near impossible.  Saturday Night Fever was released in December of ’77; TGIF was released in May of ’78. With that in mind, there’s really no way that the movie was developed, put through production, and prepped for distribution in a scant five months. No way. So that’s that.  The movie also includes an appearance by The Commodores and then relative unknowns Jeff Goldblum and Debra Winger, not to mention Terri Nunn, who would go on to front the band Berlin, which recorded “Take My Breath Away” for 1986’s Top Gun. The song netted yet another Oscar for Giorgio Moroder, who’d won a second statuette for 1983’s “Flashdance…What a Feeling” since first winning for Midnight Express.

As noted, Summer never became a movie star, and as disco’s popularity declined, so did her record sales though she enjoyed one last huge hit with 1983’s “She Works Hard for the Money”; however, her melancholy “On the Radio” was featured on another hit soundtrack: 1980’s Foxes, starring Jodie Foster and directed by Adrian Lyne. Furthermore, her 1979 smash, “Hot Stuff’ was featured in the trailer–and a key sequence–in 1997 Best Picture nominee The Full Monty, a British sleeper about amateur male strippers that took America by storm–and was eventually turned into a popular Broadway musical. Hot stuff, indeed.

(^ The trailer for 1997’s The Full Monty)

Thanks, Donna….

Sudden Joan

16 May

May 10 marked thirty-five years since Hollywood’s legendary Joan Crawford passed away, which means it’s time to reflect…

To paraphrase the character Joan Crawford plays in Humoresque, the world is divided into two camps: those who are Bette Davis fans and those who are Joan Crawford fans. Oh sure, it’s possible to admire–and even love–individual performances and films of both actresses, but I have a hunch that if any of us fans of old Hollywood were faced with the possibility of having to choose a favorite between the two, we wouldn’t hesitate. Myself, I’m more of a Bette fan, and I have been ever since I first saw her in The Bride Came C.O.D., co-starring James Cagney, with my grandma on the old Dialing for Dollars afternoon movie back in the day. This many years later, I’d be hard-pressed to list an absolute favorite among Davis’s films, but All About Eve (1950), The Letter (1940), and The Little Foxes (1941) are certainly worthy picks. (Btw: I’m not a die-hard fan of the actresses’ celebrated 1962 ghoulish-campfest, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?)

Everything came together just right for Joan Crawford with 1945’s Mildred Pierce, one of the quintessential, indelible performances in the history of American cinema. According to Anthony Holden, author of Behind the Oscar: The Secret History of the Academy Awards, Crawford set an Oscar precedent by hiring her own press agent during awards season. and before it was all over, the film’s producer, Jerry Wald, was working the campaign as well [1].

Even though my heart belongs to Bette, I know that Joan is more than capable of delivering the goods. Of course, she won a well earned Oscar for 1945’s Mildred Pierce, a dazzler that one. I don’t necessarily know if it is/was an honest-to-goodness great feat of acting that rivals, say, Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind, but there is something singular about it. Maybe the role of the enterprising, but long-suffering, woman with a hateful minx of a daughter was simply the right part for Joan at just the right time, but whatever it is, it works, so much so that I can’t imagine watching Kate Winslet’s made for TV remake.  Mildred Pierce was a particular triumph for Crawford, an unimpeachable comeback, carrying the Warner Bros. banner after more or less being dismissed as “box-office poison” at MGM just a few years earlier. Also, Crawford reportedly set a new precedent by hiring her own Oscar season publicist that year, but I think her performance in Michael Curtiz’s impeccably directed production is so perfectly realized that she could have won with half as much self-promotion.

By all accounts, Crawford desperately wanted to win the Best Actress Oscar for 1945’s Mildred Pierce, but nerves got the best of her, and she missed the ceremony due to “the flu.” Her director, the esteemed Michael Curtiz, showed up with the trophy afterwards, the press in tow, and the resulting pix legendarily made Joan the focus of the morning-after newspaper coverage.

Again, I’m not a Joan Crawford expert, but I’ll also give her props for making a favorably strong impression as the lively stenographer in Grand Hotel, 1932’s Best Picture winner. I also especially enjoy watching her play the heck out of gold-digging Crystal Allen in the star-studded original screen adaptation of Clare Booth Luce’s  The Women (1939).  Of course, the script is engineered for the audience to root for Norma Shearer’s jilted, morally sacrosanct Mary (aka Mrs. Stephen Haines), who loses her husband to Crawford,  but Shearer seems so concerned with evincing goodness that she forgets to shape the character or make her interesting. Shearer’s performance is full–too full–of sweetness and light, all  “Our Great and Virtuous Lady of the Manor Born” affectations–and a woefully unflattering hairdo on top of  all that. Well, that’s how I see it. Crawford, on the other hand, is fully alert and percolating in every scene. One particularly righteous bit occurs when Crawford’s Crystal tries to softsoap her latest romantic conquest over the phone while tying up some loose ends and dodging the catty banter of her co-workers in the stock room of the department store perfume counter where she works. It’s a nifty scene, and  Crawford plays it like a master, switching gears with split-second timing. Look closely at her eyes–all that fire–during this scene the next time you happen to be watching The Women. Beautiful. She’s just as effective throughout the rest of the film though, of course, there was no Oscar for her that year–not even a nomination.

Well, 1939 was a tough one. Almost no actress would have been able to pry a victory from the grasp of Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara, though the competition was considerable:  Bette Davis (Dark Victory), Irene Dunne (Love Affair),  Greta Garbo (Ninotchka), and newcomer Greer Gars0n (Goodbye Mr. Chips). Indeed, in a year that saw the releases of all these films, plus The Wizard of OzStagecoach, Of Mice and MenMr. Smith Goes to Washington, Wuthering Heights, and many, many, others. 1939 is regarded by many film scholars as the greatest year in Hollywood history. As such, there simply wasn’t any room at Oscar’s table for everyone.  The Women and Destry Rides Again are just two 1939 films that were shut out of that year’s race.

Madonna clearly borrowed from Joan Crawford’s classic walk along the beach in Humoresque for her 1998 “The Power of Goodbye” video. Rather than post videos for a side by side comparison, I found this cool collage on Photobucket. I don’t know who actually created it, but it was posted by “safy 20.”

Mildred Pierce was Crawford’s first nomination, but it wasn’t her last. She received a nod for 1947’s Possessed, but that one, with Joan desperately in love with the wrong man, has not aged as well as other Crawford vehicles. Her final nomination was for 1952’s Sudden Fear, and we’ll get to that one shortly [2]. She’s beautiful in Humoresque, her followup to Mildred Pierce, but that arty little  bauble is more a vehicle for John Garfield’s talents than Crawford’s though Madonna clearly found inspiration in it for her “The Power of Goodbye” video (that and the original Steve McQueen/Faye Dunaway version of The Thomas Crown Affair), but I digress.

Crawford has many fans, and they all have their favorites, so I’ll let them make their own cases for the best of the best; however, there are two Crawford movies that are always a lot of fun, and I feel I must write about them: The Damned Don’t Cry (1950) and Sudden Fear (1952). The former is a Warner’s fast-paced, rat-a-tat-tat, diamond-hard gem loosely based on the exploits of Virginia Hill, the one-time Hollywood hopeful who caught the eye of gangster Bugsy Siegel. This one is like a great big Crawford party platter: in the beginning, she’s a long suffering mom, not unlike Mildred Pierce; a few short scenes later, she’s playing shopgirl, similar to the characters from her MGM days. By the end of the movie, she’s full-on glam, per Humoresque, but she’s also working the noir angle, operating as the two-timing moll of a powerful underworld businessman (played by David Brian, for whom a dear relative was named).  Boom, boom, boom. What a wild ride.  After a suitably intriguing intro, the movie jumps back in time to the Texas oil fields, then zooms straight ahead to New York, skips over to Europe and back, and then sends Ms. Crawford out west. All of this in 103 minutes. The movie isn’t full-on camp; Joan’s not chewing the scenery, exactly, though in one scene, she  chews gum, drinks water from a paper cup, and smokes a cigarette, all pretty much simultaneously–and all while wearing only a black slip and a smock. Well, let’s just say she’s committed, and though the movie might not be as widely remembered as some of her other vehicles, it was a hit in its own time. I happened upon it years ago and was hooked in about two scenes. If you get a chance, you should give it a look-see. If nothing else, the movie proves that in spite of her well-documented love of shoulder-pads, the dear girl was not lacking in the shoulder department. Look closely the first time she spins around for a potential buyer in the showroom scene.  I’ve seen drag queens and football players with less to prove.

Joan Crawford received her third and final Oscar nomination for 1952’s Sudden Fear. Look closely: can you tell she’s scared?

Even better  than The Damned Don’t Cry is the stylish and aforementioned Sudden Fear, for which Crawford earned her third and final Oscar nomination. In this one,  directed by David Miller [3], Joan plays an heiress-playwright—that’s right, an heiress and a fantastically successful playwright—who exercises a clause in her deal to have an actor fired from her latest production. That actor, btw, is played by Jack Palance. Crawford’s Myra Hudson doesn’t believe audiences will buy Palance as a romantic leading man. Oh sure, she sees that Palance’s Lester Blaine is a fine actor, but to Hudson’s dismay, Blaine just isn’t right physically. (Well, no one ever accused Palance of being a pretty boy, right?) Soon, Blaine will prove Miss Hudson wrong by showing her that he does have the goods necessary to attract a woman and make her fall in love with him instantly; he even uses her own words in the process. He’s also a better actor than Hudson can possibly imagine. Of course, he wants to kill her. Right? I mean the movie isn’t called Sudden Fear because Easter Parade and In the Good Ole Summertime were already taken.  On the other hand, Crawford is Crawford, and she has a thing or two up her sleeve as well. I must say that this is another Crawford vehicle that I came to appreciate rather late in my moviegoing career though it wasn’t for a lack of trying. (It isn’t always easy to find on DVD.) At any rate, I was surprised at just how darn suspenseful it was (is) when I first saw it. Of course, we all know that today’s films are much more graphic in their depictions of violence and/or terror, and I guess there’s a place for that, but there’s also something to be said for the power of suggestion. There’s also a kind of fiendish satisfaction and/or anticipation for the viewer as roles are repeatedly reversed all the way up to the nail biting finish. Sudden fear, indeed.

Of course, Crawford is front and center, and she acts at a fever pitch. Sometimes, she’s required to hold the screen and emote sans words, so she just goes for “big,”  mainly full-throttle, wide-eyed  panic and trem-trem-trembling lips. It’s perhaps not the most imaginative choice, but it’s pure Joan, and it’s hard not to get caught up in her bold abandon. She’s a star goddammit, and she’s going to bloody well deliver for her fans. All kidding aside, it’s quite effective. Furthermore, close your eyes during the talkie expository scenes, and you’ll swear this was the performance that Faye Dunaway must have been channeling during the bombast-free bits of 1981’s Crawford biopic, Mommie Dearest. Listen closely: the diction is a shade too cultivated; the tone a tad too self-possessed. Just because she’s a woman-in-jep, there’s no reason to not comport herself like mid-century Hollywood royalty.

Crawford competed for the 1952 Best Actress Oscar against her alleged nemesis, Bette Davis in The Star. Davis’s film, a fast-paced black and white yarn about an aging actress in decline, is famous for a scene in which the character takes her own Oscar on a drunken joyride. Rumors abound that the film’s writers based “Margaret Elliott” on Crawford while Davis often said her resulting performance was indeed Crawford inspired. Like Sudden Fear, The Star was independently produced though it was distributed by a major studio, 20th Century Fox.

I don’t have any real data about how much money Sudden Fear made when it was first released, but it must have been a solid performer, judging by its four Oscar nominations (along with its Laurel award for Crawford as well as her inclusion at the Golden Globes). Among the cast, Palance scored a nod for Best Supporting Actor [4], and good for him: he finesses the twists and turns with just the right amount of smirky sincerity. The movie also garnered nominations for its black and white cinematography (the great Charles Lang [5]) and black and white costume design (Sheila O’Brien) To clarify: this was back in the days when these two categories, along with Best Art Direction, were split into color and black and white races.  At any rate, kudos to cinematographer Lang for pulling out every trick in his arsenal: thrilling camera movement, in-your-face close-ups, unusual angles, and  intricate lighting effects, including deep, heavy shadows, and a couple of sequences in which practically the only things being illuminated are Crawford’s terror-filled eyes.

Furthermore, Gloria Grahame, who won that year’s Best Supporting Actress Oscar for The Bad and the Beautiful, also has a key role in Sudden Fear, so that’s something interesting to ponder.  You know what else is interesting?  Sudden Fear was and is actually considered an independent film. Yep, you read that correctly. It was produced by Joseph Kaufman through his own company and then distributed by RKO. Those of you who think that indie films began with Quentin Tarantino in the 90s, Steve Soderbergh in the 80s, or even John Cassavetes in the 70s, might be surprised to find that indie films were becoming more common in the 1950s, which was the beginning of the end of the big studio era.  1952 also saw the release of a handful of high profile award worthy films that were produced outside the mainstream Hollywood studio system, including High Noon, for which Gary Cooper won Best Actor, and The Quiet Man, which earned John Ford his  record breaking fourth Oscar for Best Director, behind those for The Informer (1935), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), and 1941’s How Green was My Valley.  Of course, the latter also won Best Picture, and many film aficionados believe it robbed top Oscars from Citizen Kane, but that’s a blog entry for another day. This one’s for Joan.

Thanks for your consideration…

[1] Holden, Anthony. Behind the Oscar: The Secret History of the Academy Awards. New York: Plume-Penguin, 1994 (172-177).

[2] Crawford lost the 1947 Oscar to Loretta Young (The Farmer’s Daughter); the 1952 Best Actress Oscar went to Shirley Booth (Come Back Little Sheba).

[3] The film was written by Lenore Coffee and Robert Smith, based on the novel by Edna Sherry; the thrilling score is by the celebrated Elmer Bernstein. Bonus trivia: Mike Connors, famous for playing TV’s Mannix in the 1960s and ’70s, shows up–credited as Touch Conners–for a few scenes in a minor role.

[4] Palance lost to Anthony Quinn (Viva Zapata!); the next year, Palance was nominated in the same category for Shane (again, as the bad guy). He lost to Frank Sinatra in From Here to Eternity. Palance waited thirty-eight years for his next Oscar nomination. He finally won for playing a gruff, withered cowboy in 1991’s good-natured fish-out-of-water comedy City Slickers, starring Billy Crystal.

[5] In his incredible career, Lang was Oscar nominated an astonishing 18 times, winning only for the 1932 version of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms starring Helen Hayes and Gary Cooper.  His nominated films include another Crawford collaborations (Queen Bee, 1955), as well as Sabrina (1954), Separate Tables (1958), Some Like It Hot (1959) and How the West was Won (1962). His non-Oscar nominated efforts include 1963’s Charade, starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn.

[6] The Bad and the Beautiful‘s 5 Oscars are a record of sort: the most Oscars ever won by a movie that was not also in the running for Best Picture.

safy20 collage @ photobucket:

http://s154.photobucket.com/albums/s244/safy20/bc/?action=view&current=6a00d8341c2ca253ef0105370c6b58970b-.jpg&currenttag=humoresque

The Heart in the Middle of the ‘Waitress’ Pie

9 May

The late David Foster Wallace’s incomplete novel The Pale King was one of three finalists for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The writer, perhaps best known for 1996’s Infinite Jest, struggled for decades to complete The Pale King before committing suicide in 2008. Even unfinished, The Pale King reportedly runs over 500 pages.

The Pulitzer prizes were announced last month, and in case you haven’t heard, the awards committee opted out of naming a winner in the category of fiction though there were some high profile finalists, such as Swamplandia! by Karen Russell. That’s the beauty, I guess, of the Pulitzers. If no work is considered distinguished enough to represent the standards and ideals of the honor, no award is given–and this isn’t the first time something like this has happened.  Without doing tons and tons of research, I can say with absolute authority that no award for drama was handed out in 1986 though there were reports of a campaign to consider Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters, which was hot, hot, hot at the time.  The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences rarely decides to not give an award because the movies and performances up for consideration are somehow not worthy of the Academy’s approval: something is either the best of a given year, or it’s not. Why quibble?

This brings to mind an interesting…quandary.  When the Pulitzer jurors are doing their thing, is their concern to pick only the best of what’s available in any given year, or are they looking to carry on some lofty ideal of what it means to carry the banner of “Pulitzer winner”? Let me give you an example. Back in the early 1990s, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast became the first ever animated film to score an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. I’ll be perfectly frank. I was thrilled that an animated film had finally, finally, been considered worthy of such an honor, but I was not entirely convinced that Beauty and the Beast was necessarily the best film to claim that distinction.  I had a real problem with the way that Disney pushed and pushed the film, courting the press in an extremely calculated p.r. campaign, which actually began several months before the film was ever released. I’m not saying Beauty and the Beast is a bad film, per se, but I do think its Best Picture nomination was as much a triumph of hype as anything else, and that it pales in comparison to, say, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and Sleeping Beauty (1959), neither of which, I’m willing to bet, was the focus of such a concerted effort to sway Academy members’ votes.

Of course, as a good friend of mine pointed out at the time, I needed to get a grip because Beauty and the Beast wasn’t competing against Snow White and the rest of the Disney canon; it was only competing against other 1991 releases–and what happened before 1991 didn’t really matter. Yeah, okay, I get it. (See below.) Meanwhile, what about the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction? Apparently none of the finalists won a clear majority of votes from the panel, so rather than go with the results, such as they were, or attempt another round of voting, the committee just threw in the towel and decided that nothing was worthy. This is a dilemma the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences rarely faces. Awards are handed out annually regardless: good, bad, whatever.  The Academy will name a Best Picture winner. Someone will win Best Actor, Best Actress, etc.  (The technical categories are occasionally revamped during leaner times, but not so the major awards.) Danny Peary, author of Alternate Oscars, does not operate like that; he’s more like the Pulitzers.  Throughout his book, he does not always include a winner and four finalists; sometimes he includes only one or two finalists; sometimes no finalist. He even opts out of naming a 1963 Best Picture winner because to his mind, nothing was truly good enough or inspired enough to warrant the industry’s top award (or, rather, his version of the industry’s top award).

All of this brings me to Keri Russell and her wonderful performance in Waitress.  In this 2007 offering, Russell plays Jenna Hunterson, a young woman living in a small town (presumably somewhere in the south), looking to bake her way out of a bad marriage.  Jenna is quite the creative soul; she makes pies the same way that other artists write, paint, sculpt, dance, and create music.  The trouble is that Jenna doesn’t really know her own self-worth. Her marriage is crap, to say the least, and her prospects for getting ahead are, uhm, meager, that is, unless she can win a pie-baking contest held a considerable distance away from home, but her plans are put on hold when she finds out she’s pregnant.  She doesn’t even want the baby, but she doesn’t want to harm it, either. To her, it’s just an inconvenience, an impediment, something that keeps her bound to her needy SOB of a husband. For awhile, Jenna finds escape, albeit unethical, in the arms of her handsome new doctor.

In a January 4 2008 USA Today article entitled “Hey, Oscar! Don’t forget about these actors in the big race,” movie critic Claudia Puig rhapsodized about Russell in Waitress, claiming, ““She is graceful even in her most curmudgeonly and disillusioned moments. She nails the deadpan humor and is believable in her unexpected embrace of passion. It’s such an engaging performance, it’s impossible not to like and empathize with her.” This near annual rite of USA Today to direct Academy voters’ attentions to smaller, less publicized fare doesn’t always do the trick, as in Russell’s case; however, Laura Linney, seen in 2007’s The Savages, was also included in the USA Today roll call, and she actually earned a slot among Oscar’s final five. I was also a little surprised when Russell was also overlooked as an Independent Spirit award nominee.

From this description, it would appear that Waitress is a bit of a downer, but, really, nothing could be farther from the truth. The film oh-so-delicately straddles that very fine line between quirky comedy and the sort of unfettered realism that is more and more only found in independent films rather than big budget studio releases. I think that’s what makes Russell’s performance so engaging: she can shift gears and go from comedy to drama and back again, per the script’s dictates, without sacrificing the heart of the character. In many ways, Jenna is quite certain of herself, but the thing that she is most certain about is that she is quite often uncertain of herself, and this is not an easy thing to play, but Russell adds the right amount of shading to even a seemingly throwaway line; moreover, she reveals a little bit of who Jenna is based on her interactions with other characters. For instance, Jenna and her cutie pie doctor (played by Castle‘s Nathan Fillion) frequently engage in a sort of rapid fire delivery reminiscent of, say, Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant in His Girl Friday. This clipped delivery is often at odds with the nature of their exchanges. On the other hand, Jenna’s voice gets a “tone” whenever she has to handle the town’s leading wealthy curmudgeon (TV icon Andy Griffith), but that tone is different from the tone that she uses when speaking to her boss at the diner (Lew Temple), and certainly different from the strain that creeps into her voice whenever she deals with her abusive husband (Suburbgatory‘s Jeremy Sisto); she knows she has to be reasonably convincing in order to keep him happy even when it hurts her to do so. Finally, she’s probably at her most relaxed whenever  she’s just chatting with her co-workers (Cheryl Hines, also of Suburbgatory, and the late Adrienne Shelley, the film’s writer-director).  Again, it’s not so much that Russell has to navigate a wealth of emotional changes–though she definitely does some of that; the beauty is that she navigates the script’s tonal changes without losing the essence of the character. That might not sound like much, but, believe me, I’ve seen performances in which it seemed like the actor was playing a different character in every scene.  Not Russell. She’s become one with Jenna, which is a good thing since she’s asked to perform the near-impossible feat of eliciting a modicum of audience sympathy while playing a character that goes against the grain of what “society” assumes of expectant mothers.  Again, Jenna doesn’t see her pregnancy as beautiful or wonderful, and she says so almost every chance she gets, yet if the audience doesn’t somehow root for Jenna, the movie doesn’t work. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Russell indeed has a face that the camera loves, and that’s not just about being pretty; it’s also about understanding the planes of the face and knowing how to use that and, of course, the eyes, to help portray what’s not in the script. The camera reads everything, so sometimes, it’s best to know when to just be present in the moment and not “act” so much. Done.

The 2007/08 Oscar for Best Actress went to France’s Marion Cotillard for her exceptional performance as that country’s legendary–and legendarily tragic–chanteuse Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose (the name of one of  Piaf’s most famous songs). To say that this great singer’s life was full of color and tumult is an understatement of epic proportions. Piaf said, sang, did, and lived it all: traumatic-impoverished childhood, one romantic heartbreak after another, a narrow escape–or two–from death, addiction to booze and other drugs, early demise from cancer–of the liver, no less. Still, through it all, Piaf lived and loved as fully as she possibly could. No regrets, indeed. Well, of course, any actress would jump at the chance to inhabit this woman’s psyche, and why not? It’s clearly the role of a lifetime, and Cotillard plays it to the hilt.  Plus, she gets to age on screen and undergo an awe-inspiring transformation thanks to the Oscar winning makeup by Didier Lavergne and Jan Archibald. This is the  very textbook definition of what the Academy often looks for in an Oscar caliber performance, something to live on through the ages. I won’t quibble with Cotillard’s Oscar too much. I admire her technique and her dedication to such a challenging task, but I could never get past the film’s disjointed style, which, somehow, seemed to keep me at a distance as though I were watching random snippets of an earnest, if arty, re-enactment of someone’s life rather than experiencing what it must have been like to live such a amazing life.

Russell’s performance in Waitress, on the other hand, lacks all of  that energy and fury, that sense of gravitas (self-importance, even) that inevitably draws attention to itself. Russell’s performance might not have that, “Here’s one for the ages” quality that spills forth from the likes of such past Oscar winners as Vivien Leigh (Gone with the Wind, 1939), Susan Hayward (I Want to Live!, 1958),  Maggie Smith (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, 1969), Meryl Streep (Sophie’s Choice, 1982), Holly Hunter (The Piano, 1993), and Charlize Theron (Monster, 2003), not to mention a few famous also-rans, such as Judy Garland (A Star is Born, 1954), and Jessica Lange (Frances, 1982), but, of course, Russell need not be better or even as good as some of those others because she wasn’t in a race with them. She only needed to be better than what else was available in 2007, and I absolutely believe she was. Her performance in Waitress was actually my favorite performance by a leading actress that year–and that includes Cotillard’s award winner as well as Julie Christie in Away from Her, which gave the perennial stunner–and previous Oscar winner–a chance to go through the motions of a woman with Alzheimer’s disease–and, trust me, I’m a huge Christie fan. [See below.] I also like Sarah Polley, the actress turned filmmaker who wrote and directed Away from Her, but the movie left me cold. For me, Russell’s performance just radiates something pure and honest. In spite of all of Jenna’s woes and missteps, I genuinely care about the character, and I enjoy spending time with her.  I think that’s a rare and beautiful thing.

Of course, in any year, there are always wonderful films, performances, scripts, etc., that get overlooked by the Academy. Indeed. 2007 also saw the release of Enchanted, starring Amy Adams in a colorful Disney musical fantasy that was marketed as the successor to Julie Andrews’s classic–and Oscar winning–Mary Poppins, as well as A Mighty Heart, with Angelina Jolie giving a mannered, if generally well-received, performance in the ripped-from-the-headline account of slain journalist Daniel Pearl (with Jolie enacting the role of Pearl’s widow, Mariane). So, okay, there’s that, but I also think that Russell fell victim to studio politics. Let me explain. First, there is the matter of the late writer-director-actress Adrienne Shelly. For those out of the loop, Shelly was brutally murdered by an intruder in her New York apartment in November 2006, apparently just weeks before Waitress was accepted as an entry in the 2007 Sundance Film Festival; its national release followed a few months later in the spring of ’07.  At the time, the spectre of Shelly’s untimely death almost overshadowed what was on the screen. In spite of enthusiastic reviews, Shelly’s murder became the story. By the end of the year, when the focus should have shifted back to Russell, per the USA Today article  (see the sidebar), another story had developed, and that was the story of Juno.  Here’s the scoop: Juno, directed by Jason Retiman and written by Diablo Cody (who would go on to win an Oscar for her screenplay), tells the story of a suburban high school girl who finds out, lo and behold, that she’s pregnant. While  serious in spots, much of Juno plays like a 21st century version of the snappy teen comedies that made the late writer-director John Hughes a household name back in the 1980s. Starring Ellen Page as the scrappy, wisecracking title character, the film opened at the end of 2007, after winning over audiences during the late summer/early fall film festival circuit. Coincidentally, both Waitress and Juno were released by Fox Searchlight, the allegedly “indie” distribution branch of 20th Century Fox, and that, I think, is part of the problem. Juno was still playing in theatres, making money hand over fist, during the awards season–teens, after all, related to it and loved it accordingly–and Fox took advantage of the movie’s overwhelming popularity by mounting a lavish campaign around not only the film, but also affable NEW star Page and the media-savvy Cody (who was already fringe-famous for being a stripper and a blogger). Even director Reitman had an easy hook as a second generation director; his father is Ivan Reitman (1984’s Ghostbusters, among many other comedy hits).  The public ate it up. (Sorry ’bout the preposition.) Russell and her film seemed old hat in comparison. (Also, a teen not wanting to be pregnant “reads” differently than a grown woman not wanting her baby–especially to teens.) By the time the Oscars came around, a year or so had passed since Waitress premiered at Sundance, and the movie had been on DVD for a few months, while Juno was still holding steady near the weekly box office  top ten. (See below.) Anyway, as I see it, Fox personnel were all too eager to sacrifice a full-out publicity blitz for Waitress in favor of the more highly marketable Juno, which earned four nods, including Best Picture and Best Actress. (The fifth Best Actress nominee was Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth: The Golden Age, reprising the 1998 role of Queen Elizabeth I, which helped her land her first nod though the second film was not nearly as popular with audiences and critics as the earlier one was.)

Have you heard about the Adrienne Shelly Foundation? Named after the late actor-writer-director (above), the non-profit was established to help up and coming female filmmakers realize their dreams. (See link below this article.)

Lest you, dear reader, think that Waitress is only worth recommending because of Russell, let me assure you that is not the case.  The movie is chockfull of wonderful supporting performances, starting with Andy Griffith, who might have snared a Best Supporting Actor nomination had things worked out differently. Jeremy Sisto must also be given credit–of a sort–for trying to find the wounded humanity in his deeply flawed character. It might not seem much of a compliment to say he stops just short of being a stereotype, but there it is.  The diner’s gruff manager played by Lew Temple is not a huge role, but Shelly gives him a short monologue that gives him a chance to shine and add a little color to a minor character. Also good for a few laughs is Eddie Jemison as the nerdy-accountant-turned-poet who woos Shelly’s quirky Dawn.  Shelly, by the way, who established herself as an actress in the films of Hal Hartley, a true independent filmmaker if there ever were one, is  adorable in the film, but, of course, it’s sometimes hard to watch her, knowing that her life was over all too abruptly.  I wished she’d also been given some Oscar level recognition, even posthumously, for her work here–at the very least for her screenplay. Still, the movie was not entirely ignored: Shelly earned a Spirit nomination for her screenplay, and the movie was honored at the Newport and Sarasota film festivals besides being nominated for a Humanitas prize, among a few others.

Before I sign-off, I also want to point out that Waitress looks pretty good for a low budget feature (per the Internet Movie Database, it was filmed for 2 million), with much of the credit going to cinematographer Matthew Irving, who works wonders with what appears to be natural lighting. There’s also a fun montage in which Russell sports a sort of stupefied grin in shot after shot. It never ceases to tickle me.  Also, of course, the movie would hardly be the same without all those yummy looking pies, often shot in close-ups. A woman named Laura Donnelly, a food editor and former pastry chef, is listed in the credits as the “Pie Mistress,” so there you have it.

Final thought? Academy members vote for what they like, but maybe they sometimes take themselves too seriously.  Of course, they’re just human as are we all–and we all know what we like as well; however, all too often I have heard people qualify their own admiration for one movie or another by adding something to the effect of “Well, of course, it’s no Oscar contender, but…” Well, the next time you hear someone say something like that, ask him/her what that means. After all, an Oscar contender doesn’t have to be one of the greatest movies ever made; it only has to be better than whatever else is out there at the time.  The same applies to the Pulitzer Prizes as well.

Thanks for your consideration…

List of 2012 Pulitzer Prize winners at the official Pulitzer Prize website:

http://www.pulitzer.org/awards/2012

Entertainment Weekly on the Pulitzer controversy regarding the absence of a fiction winner:

http://shelf-life.ew.com/2012/04/16/pulitzer-prize-no-fiction-award/

The Pale King, by David Foster Wallace, at Amazon:

http://www.amazon.com/Pale-King-David-Foster-Wallace/dp/0316074233

The 1991 Best Picture nominees in alphabetical order: Beauty and the Beast, Bugsy, J.F.K., The Prince of Tides, and The Silence of the Lambs (w).

Peary, Danny. Alternate Oscars. New York: Delta/Dell Publishing, 1993. Available on Amazon:

http://www.amazon.com/Alternate-Oscars-Danny-Peary/dp/0385303327/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1336618705&sr=1-4

Bowles, Scott. “Hey, Oscar! Don’t forget about these actors in the big race.” USA Today. 04 January 2008.

http://www.usatoday.com/life/movies/movieawards/oscars/2008-01-03-oscar-predictions_N.htm?csp=34Ch

  • Julie Christie won the 1965 Best Actress Oscar for Darling; her subsequent nominations were for McCabe & Mrs. Miller (the 1971 Robert Altman classic, a personal fave), and Afterglow (an exquisite 1997 offering from Alan Rudolph); her other credits include Doctor Zhivago (1965), Shampoo (1975), and Heaven Can Wait (1978), and many other choice offerings; Julie Christie at the Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001046/
  • Per the Internet Movie Database, Waitress cost two million and turned a tidy profit with a total of 19 million in ticket sales. According to Box Office Mojo, the film played in theatres from late spring until early fall though it’s run was limited to hundreds rather than thousands of screens; meanwhile, per Box Office Mojo, Juno cost 7.5 million to make but made a staggering 143 million at the box office, spending at least 10 weeks in the box office top ten and playing on as many as 2,000+ screens.

Waitress @ the IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0473308/

Waitress @ Box Office Mojo: http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?page=weekend&id=waitress.htm

Juno @ Box Office Mojo: http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=juno.htm

Visit the Adrienne Shelly Foundation’s website:

http://www.adrienneshellyfoundation.org/