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For Your Consideration: Best McActress

24 Feb

Fair warning. I’m pretty sure I’ll be utterly destroyed if Frances McDormand loses Best Actress for her whopper of a performance in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri.

As Mildred, the grieving mother who is out for justice first, then vengeance come what may, McDormand fully embraces the challenge of delving into the psyche of a damaged, if understandably so, character. Mildred wants something to hold onto, as we all do. Before the movie ever begins, she has suffered through her daughter’s horrific murder, so soon on the heels of a marriage gone sour. Bad to worse. Worse to terrible. And Ebbing Missouri’s law enforcement is either terminally stumped, disinterested, or lazy. Why isn’t more being done, meaning find the perp, make an arrest, make a case, and make it stick? Maybe she can shame the force by leasing titular billboards. But her rage–laden as it is with guilt–blinds her to some harsh truths. Oh, and that mouth of hers. Good gawd.

Since I began writing this piece, McDormand has triumphed over the likes of Hawkins, Ronan, and Robbie for top honors at the British Academy Awards. Could this portend accolades to come? IMAGE: http://thecabot.org/event/three-billboards-outside-ebbing-missouri-2

This is a full, rich characterization, and it marks a triumphant return to star status for one of this country’s most formidable actresses after years of sharply observed supporting roles, per nominated perfs in Almost Famous (2000) and North Country (2005). As an actress of “a certain age,” McDormand found greater opportunities in TV, per her Emmy winning Olive Kittridge, when top tier film roles turned sparse. Of course, she is most famously known for her Oscar winning spin as Fargo‘s Sheriff Marge Gunderson, the unfailingly polite but super-sharp sleuth trying to solve a grisly homicide. So iconic was McDormand as no-nonsense–and quite pregnant–Marge that the character was hailed by the American Film Institute (AFI) as one of the 50 Best Heroes in its 2003 Heroes and Villains retrospective. (To clarify, McDormand’s first Oscar nod, well before Fargo, was also for a supporting role, per 1988’s Mississippi Burning.)

Of course, naysayers point out that McDormand already has an Oscar, right? True, but Fargo was more than 20 years ago (1996), and her new character is worlds removed from Marge in multitudinous ways, but McDormand has audience goodwill on her side, not to mention incredible skill and/ or range, so moviegoers are willing to give her a chance even during Mildred’s darkest hours.

McDormand, by virtue of her SAG, Golden Globe, and Critics’ Choice awards, along with other high profile wins seems comfortably situated here; however, Sally Hawkins (The Shape of Water) and Saoirse Ronan (Lady Bird) loom as awfully close competitors. English born Hawkins, whose previous credits include such critical darlings as Happy-Go-Lucky, Made in Dangenham, and Maudie, is a previous Best Supporting Actress nominee for Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine (2013). In Allen’s update on Tennessee Williams’ legendary A Streetcar Named Desire, Hawkins effectively plays “Stella” to Cate Blanchett’s “Blanche,” with, of course, the latter actually snaring that year’s Best Actress Oscar. But I digress. Back in 2013, Hawkins could have hardly hoped to undo the momentum that had propelled Lupita Nyong’o to frontrunner status per her devastating portrayal of tortured slave in 12 Years a Slave. Now, Hawkins is a good position to capture the prize by virtue of appearing of in the year’s most nominated film. Simply, the odds are in her favor. Plus, she scores points for degree of difficulty in that her character is mute, meaning that Hawkins has to bring the character to life without the benefit of being understood via spoken dialogue. Historically, similar roles have scored well with Academy voters, per Holly Hunter’s universally acclaimed turn as the Victorian era mail order bride in The Piano, what was that, whoah, more than 20 years ago. Hawkins has a wonderfully expressive face, and that helps make her and her character endearing; moreover, while she did not nail some of the more recent high profile awards, she has hardly gone home empty handed the rest of the season, per the likes of the New York and Los Angeles critics’ voting.

Meanwhile, Lady Bird‘s Saorise Ronan thrives as a kind of acting genius. All of 23 years old, soon to be 24, she is enjoying her third Oscar race.  She clinched a Best Supporting Actress nod 10 years ago, yes, when she was 13 going on 14. The film was Atonement. In her first true attention grabbing role, she played Kiera Knightley’s horrid little sister. Okay, I get it, she was a child and did not, could not, have understood the consequences of her actions…but…shudders.  Atonement wasn’t the Irish lass’s first gig, but it was a game changer, for sure. Two years ago, Ronan was back, all grown up, as a young Irish woman trying to build a life for herself in 1950s New York, per Brooklyn. What a magnificent film. I don’t know a single person who saw it who didn’t love it. If only she had won. Now, a number of enthusiasts believe the Academy might, well, you know, atone for slighting Ronan previously and while this appears a tempting scenario, it’s not one that fully registers. First, it’s hardly as though Ronan was actually robbed two years ago. The trophy went to Brie Larson, the widely hailed and long acknowledged frontrunner, for Room, an extremely intense film about a young woman who’d been kidnapped, raped, and held hostage along with the resulting child for several years before emerging uneasily if heroically. Ronan’s film and Larson’s films were both Best Picture contenders, and almost no one thinks Larson wasn’t deserving even if we preferred Ronan. It wasn’t an injustice, so why would the Academy feel compelled to rectify? Plus, Ronan is still young. She has a great future and undoubtedly more opportunities. Sigh. Part of me just cannot grasp the idea that Lady Bird is  truly significant achievement, so an Oscar seems a bit of a stretch. Still, after years of seeing male coming of age stories, such as 2014’s acclaimed Boyhood, it is nice to finally see a young woman’s coming of age story being hailed as more than a mere “chick flick.” Plus, she definitely had to learn a convincing American accent as anyone who has ever heard her  Irish lilt can attest, moreover, she has fun and owns the role of the mouthy high school misfit even though, again, she’s nearing her mid 20s. But does she go to the same emotional places as McDormand, or even Hawkins? That might just be a matter of interpretation.

Next on the list is the fabulous, Aussie born Margot Robie, reinventing herself as disgraced former Olympic hopeful Tonya Harding in I, Tonya. Okay, I first noticed her in the short-lived but tremendously fun TV show, Pan-AM, a few years back. Soon, she began making a name for herself in the likes of Focus, The Legend of Tarzan, and, most especially Suicide Squad, 2016’s horribly reviewed comic book movie that survived all naysayers to earn a whopping 325 domestically (per Box Office mojo) with Robie’s Harley Quinn seemingly the only cast member to break from the pact, becoming an Internet and Halloween sensation  and earning a Saturn nod. Now, in I, Tonya she has once again performed the impossible, that is, humanizing a true-life tabloid perennial that many Americans, at least those old enough to remember Harding from her heyday in the late ’80s and up to the mind ’90s, had long written off as simple white trash. But Harding, for all her faults and/or bad decisions, is more than her might publicity might suggest, which is not to say that the filmmakers excuse anything she does. The objective is show another side to the story of two top competitive figure skaters and the “rivalry” that created an international furor when someone in Harding’s camp assaulted perceived “Golden Girl” Nancy Kerrigan with the intent not to kill but to render the latter unable to complete in the 1994 Olympics.  It’s an interesting take, and Robie nails it, including some, not all, of the skating sequences and trying on an American accent. For all that, my guess is fascination with the darkly comic I, Tonya has peaked already and ultra glam Robie will have to be content with her nomination and a Broadcast Critics Choice award for Best Actress in a Comedy. Likewise, I’m not sure the Academy wants its awards to effectively serve as Harding’s redemption ceremony.

The final nominee in this bunch is none other than the woman Sylvester Stallone once dubbed, “Marvelous Meryl Streep.”  In The Post, Steep plays Katherine Graham, the formidable publisher of the Washington Post; this, back in the days (late 60s early to mid 70s) when the paper’s coverage of such scandals as the Pentagon Papers and Watergate propelled it to the forefront of a new level of investigative journalism–in an era when newspapers were still considered integral to the daily landscape. Graham, of course, had much to prove at a time when women were, quite simply, not running empires.  She inherited hers in a curious fashion. Her father had been the publisher and on his death he left it, not to Mrs. Graham–but her husband, and it was his passing that ultimately put the paper in her control. The movie is as much about Ms. Graham adjusting to her role in as it is about D.C. skullduggery. Fascinating stuff, and Streep plays it to the hilt, but she is not enjoying the momentum of her co-nominees in this her 21st Oscar race, a stupendously colossal achievement that puts Streep in a league solely her own. At this point, with 21 nods and 3 wins, it seems almost no one will ever catch up with her in the record books. She won an early prize this season, from the National Board of Review, but excitement has cooled as has enthusiasm for the picture as a whole even though it is, yes, a Best Picture nominee.

Funny, that. Four of this year’s Best Actress nominees, Streep, McDormand, Hawkins, and Ronan, all appear in Best Picture nominees–a kind of rarity in that women are not always as well represented in the Best Picture category–or a film’s sole nomination might only go to its leading actress. The gig this year is so tight that there was no room for the likes of relative newcomer Vicky Krieps (a “wow” opposite Daniel Day Lewis in Best Picture nominee The Phantom Thread) in addition to Jessica Chastain (Molly’s Game), or Michelle Williams (especially laudable in All the Money in the World), along with Salma Hayek (Beatriz at Dinner) and even Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman). We all win. Moviegoers win. All of these vibrant actresses win.

Thanks for Your McConsideration…

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Best Director: The Vision is the Thing

11 Feb

I have not had any qualms expressing my view over the last several years regarding the Academy’s decision to expand the roster of potential Best Picture candidates to 10. I believe the official ruling is no less than 5, per decades of tradition, but no more than 10. I guess there is some predetermined rubric to measure what that means exactly, whether the cut-off is, 8, 9, or 10, for example. All I know is that doing so only makes the Best Picture race less, not more, exciting because the race becomes looser, not tighter.

That noted, the Academy has made some excellent choices this year, nominating a wide array of films, from flat-out commercial blockbusters, per Get Out and Dunkirk, to more idiosyncratic choices. Two of those being, say, Lady Bird and Call Me By Your Name. Of course, I remain miffed that with such leeway, Wonder Woman was still shut out. In every category. Stupid.

On the other hand, I think this is the most exciting Best Director race in some time. What I like is that every single nominated director is not a mere hired hand for a big studio offering, but a true visionary.

Guillermo del Toro, pictured here at the Shape of Water premiere, is a previous Oscar nominee for writing 2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth, which racked up 6 nods, including Best Foreign Language Film (Mexico), ultimately earning statuettes for its cinematography and art direction. IMAGE: https://www.hindustantimes.com/rf/image_size_960x540/HT/p2/2017/12/03/Pictures/premiere-the-shape-of-water-arrivals_b5c3637e-d810-11e7-8802-68a15924f886.jpg

Early buzz no doubt favors recent Directors Guild of America victor Guillermo del Toro for The Shape of Water, reworking the classic 1950s monster flick The Creature from the Black Lagoon as a Cold War era romantic fantasy, complete with undertones of that era’s politics and, sure, a nod to the perennially told tale, Beauty and the Beast, and a splash, so to speak, of self-gratification. For grins. Simply, even with Disney’s recent B & B rehash, The Shape of Water doesn’t look or feel like anything else. All of it, the stylized industrial production design, the sea-green palette, is clearly the realization of its director’s vision–made possible, of course, by a battery of artisans and technicians, but all in service to the overall conceit. Thirteen nominations isn’t a record–so far, only three films have earned as many as 14 (last year’s La La Land being the most recent)–but it is considerable and on par with the likes of Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Chicago, Forrest Gump, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Mary Poppins, From Here to Eternity, and Gone with the Wind (among scant few others). In the technical categories, The Shape of the Water will be hard to beat. But wait, there’s more. The film’s kudos also include three performance contenders: Sally Hawkins (Best Actress), Richard Jenkins (Best Supporting Actor), both previous nominees, along with prior winner Octavia Spencer (Best Supporting Actress). This isn’t nothing. This is a film with widespread support, and I think it makes Guillermo del Toro the favorite for now. To reiterate, the DGA prize serves as an often unbeatable indicator of Oscar glory.

With 8 nods, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is the second most nominated flick, a war saga presented on a massive scale and shot on actual wide screen film, old school style. Impressive, but I don’t necessarily see Nolan as del Toro’s nearest competitor.  My instincts tell me that Jordan Peele has a super-strong chance thanks to the overwhelming success of Get Out, a creepy social satire that skillfully walks a thin line between horror and uncomfortable laughs. The obvious antecedent would be The Stepford Wives, but in this case it isn’t the women in a suburban hamlet who are being repurposed to better serve the patriarchy. Instead, Get Out throws a mad light on the state of race relations in the USA, a time and place in which many people–white, mostly–would like to pretend that equality prevails for one and all in spite of racial differences when reality is murkier, witness no less than 2015’s headline grabbing Rachel Dolezal. Remember her? The white woman who misappropriated African-American culture, indeed, identity, for professional and political gain? That is, until she was exposed as a phony.

Peele brings a lot of lot of variables, a lot of oomph, to the final stretch of the Oscar sweepstakes. First, his movie, about a young black man whose visit to his white girlfriend’s affluent parents’ country estate goes diabolically wrong, was made for a relatively modest 4.5 million–and in what universe is 4.5 million dollars considered modest, relatively or no–and ultimately grossed 175 million (per Box Office Mojo) domestically, with another 75+ million internationally, an amazing return by any measure; moreover, Get Out became a genuine pop-culture sensation, immediately becoming the centerpiece of discussions just about anywhere and everywhere: Internet, TV talk shows, classrooms, etc. Make no mistake, no movie enthralled audiences during the waxing months of 2017 more than Peele’s celebrated offering. To clarify, this is not only Peele’s first Oscar race, Get Out is his feature film directorial debut. Previously, he was best known as a force in TV comedy, such the Key and Peele sketch show. Today, he now holds the distinction of being the first African-American to be nominated for writing, directing, and producing a Best Picture nominee.  This record breaking fact may prove irresistible to many Academy voters as a statement, but it won’t necessarily be the deal maker or the even the deal breaker. On the other hand, actors-turned-directors are a known Oscar quantity, per the likes of, say, Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, Kevin Costner, and Mel Gibson. Still again, Peele’s film only scored one performance nomination, for lead actor Daniel Kaluuya, and many Oscar analysts believe acting nods provide a window into the Best Director thought process. In other words, actors, the largest branch of the Academy, are likely to consider a director’s worthiness for the top prize based on how well a given director works with other actors. Makes sense, kind of, but it’s not full-proof. Just ask Rob Marshall. In his first outing as a feature film director, Chicago, he guided FOUR performers to nominee status–kind of a miracle–but he still went home without the trophy even though Chicago was the evening’s big winner.

Greta Gerwig has directed Lady Bird, which many prognosticators hail as the year’s most acclaimed, and, therefore, arguably “best” film.  She is only the fifth female nominated in this category, and there has only been one such winner. That would be Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker)–and that was a whopping 8 years ago, also the last time a female directed film landed in this category; Bigelow was perhaps not so inexplicably overlooked for 2012’s Best Picture nominee Zero Dark Thirty, but I digress. Back to Gerwig. The versatile actress-turned-director who began making a name for herself with buzzworthy roles in the likes of Frances Ha (2012), which she co-wrote, has nabbed honors this season from the likes of the National Board of Review as well as the National Society of Film Critics along with a steady stream of additional nods, such as the DGA. All fine and well. Plus, again, the Academy likes to honor performers who shift their talents behind the camera (see above), and, yes, Lady Bird boasts two performance nominees: Saorise Ronan (Best Actress) and Laurie Metcalfe (Best Supporting Actress). Still, Gerwig faces what could be a deal breaker though I don’t think we’re supposed to talk about it. See, Lady Bird, which follows a young woman through her last year of high school, and all the ups and downs as that entails (especially prepping for the next adventure, meaning college) plays suspiciously close to Gerwig’s own story. She grew up in Sacramento, attended an all-girl Catholic school, graduated in the early 2000s, and her mother worked as a nurse. This pretty much also describes Ronan’s character in Lady Bird, yet Gerwig scoffs at the notion that her film could be construed as autobiographical or semi-autobiographical. Yes, of course, she acknowledges some resemblance to real-life but also believes that too much emphasis on said resemblances detracts from her vision as a filmmaker and all the effort that went into the creation of Lady Bird, getting all on paper and then making it happen. Sounds good, but does it measure up to the sheer imagination of, say, del Toro? What do you think? It would be a mistake to rule Gerwig out completely because, again, a victory for her gives the Academy an opportunity to make a statement, that is, reaffirming, or maybe just affirming, that women have indeed come a long, long way in the Hollywood hierarchy. Still, for all her movie’s heart, with its two nominated performances, Lady Bird is not as technically accomplished as either The Shape of Water–with its three nominated perfs–or Dunkirk. Plus, Gerwig is still a novice compared to some of her competitors. Okay, Peele is also a novice, but his movie scores as a pop-culture phenom.

Dunkirk provides Christopher Nolan his first ever shot at the Best Director Oscar though he boasts previous noms for writing, or co-writing, screenplays for Memento and Inception, both of which he directed; of course, the latter was a big-time blockbuster that also scored a 2010 Best Picture nod, seizing 4 technical awards (from a pool of 8 noms), but, again, no nomination for Nolan as director? Really? How’s that? Nolan may very well be overdue here, and, certainly, Dunkirk works as a smashing testament to his talents. Again, a war film that shifts from land to sea to air with each unfolding scenario populated by its own unique cast of characters–until, of course, everything converges in a tense finale. No nominated performances, but that might not matter given the sheer number of actors that Nolan directs–everything from such stars as Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance (2015’s Best Supporting Actor), Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, and Harry Styles, to less familiar players in secondary roles, along with hoardes of bit players and extras. All this on top of the technical challenges of creating (or recreating) a war epic on film, widescreen no less. Oh, and Dunkirk performed impressively at the box-office, earning over 500 million worldwide (180+ million in the states). A bigger concern than the lack of performance nods, something that did not hinder the likes of, say, Bernardo Bertolucci (The Last Emperor, ’87), Mel Gibson (Braveheart, ’95), or Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, 2003), again, among precious few others, is the simple fact that Academy members have already honored directors for war films, three of the most famous being Oliver Stone (Platoon, ’86), Steven Spielberg (Saving Private Ryan, ’98), and the aforementioned Kathryn Bigelow (2009’s The Hurt Locker). This is not to say that Nolan can’t win; after all, his nomination definitely puts him in the game, but my thought is his skillful handling of Dunkirk‘s tricky narrative pales against del Toro’s creative vision. Unless, of course, the Academy feels Nolan is somehow overdue harking back to his body of work that also includes, besides the above titles, such behemoths as Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and Interstellar.

The final nominee is Paul Thomas Anderson for The Phantom Thread, perhaps this or any year’s drollest romantic comedy. Of course, the film originally generated scads of attention when lead actor Daniel Day-Lewis, already a three time Oscar victor, announced that he would be retiring from films upon completing this project which reunites him with his There Will Be Blood director (aka Oscar number 2). The story concerns a fastidious 1950s era London based fashion designer (Day-Lewis), managed by his dour-around-edges-sister (Best Supporting Actress nominee Lesley Manville), and the peculiarly obsessive relationship he develops with a waitress (knockout Vicky Krieps) whom he casts as one in a string of muses. But this one is different from the others. She has a mind and a will of her own, and that’s a game changer for the workaholic designer. This is a comedy but only in retrospect; the full-blown value of its joke is only apparent upon reflection. Thank goodness the trailer gives away almost nothing. The point is, while DDL’s Best Actor nod was almost a foregone conclusion once the reviews began, Mr. Anderson’s film has exceeded such expectations, corralling a total of 6 nods, including Best Picture and what I believe is a surprise nod for Manville. I, for one, do not recall much buzz around her performance as a possible finalist. The Academy really likes this movie, apparently, and Anderson boasts previous nods for directing (There Will Be Blood) and writing (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and There Will Be Blood), so that puts him on par with Nolan in the matter of possibly being ripe for “body of work” consideration. Furthermore, make no mistake, even with references to Hitchcock and Welles, of which there are plenty (subtle and not so subtle), this film is still the product of its enterprising director. Oh, and here’s another thing. When Anderson’s favored cinematographer, Robert Elswit (an Oscar winner for There Will Be Blood) proved unavailable, Anderson served as his own director of photography. Double duty. On the other hand, the film isn’t pulling in the numbers to elevate it to the level of a significant achievement, and that likely hurts given this year’s roster of strong competitors.

If I were voting, I’d vote for…wait for it…Martin McDonagh, the UNnomimated director of  Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, boasting 7 nods, including Best Picture and a trio of acting nominations for Frances McDormand (Best Actress), Woody Harrelson (Best Supporting Actor), and Sam Rockwell (the favored Best Supporting Actor champ). How McDonagh slipped through the first round of balloting is beyond me–but oversights like this happen frequently. To clarify: McDonagh, along with del Toro, Peele, Gerwig, and Nolan, was in the running for the DGA prize. Apparently, he was bested in the Oscar balloting by Anderson. So be it. I’m fine with any of the official nominees if slightly biased toward Peele or Anderson, but del Toro is the single candidate with a film that scores as a technical achievement as well as a showcase for performers in three categories.

Thanks for your consideration…

She Lives: Natalie Wood’s “Stranger” Star Wattage

4 Feb

“I’m going to have a baby.”

The line comes barely seven minutes into the movie. It might only be the character’s third line. At that point, the audience knows nothing about the woman. Nothing. With that in mind, why would we, or should we, even care? In the next breath, she asks the good looking man standing in front of her if he can help secure the services of a doctor who will help terminate the pregnancy. Of course, she doesn’t come right out and articulate her request directly, per 1963 mores, but her meaning is unmistakable: she wants an abortion, and she needs help. Presumably, the guy she corners in the middle of a bustling union hall is the father though his memory is, well, a little cloudy. The audience knows only slightly more about him than her. He’s a musician who hustles for gigs and has an eye for the ladies, so he needs a minute to collect his thoughts.

Interestingly, in spite of Love with the Proper Stranger‘s seemingly unconventional storyline, star Natalie Wood was not the only 1963 Best Actress nominee who portrayed an unwed expectant mother. French actress Lesley Caron, who had made a huge splash in American movie musicals, and Oscar winning Best Pictures, such as An American in Paris (1951) and Gigi (1958) scored a nod in the British made The L Shaped Room.  Both lost to veteran Patricia Neal in Martin Ritt’s Hud. Author Danny Peary snatches Neal’s Oscar and  awards it to Caron in his book, Alternate Oscars. He doesn’t give Wood so much as an Honorable Mention for Love with the Proper Stranger; however, he writes  glowingly of Wood elsewhere in the book, rhapsodizing about her 1961 Oscar contender, Splendor in the Grass. If there were ever a year in which a performer seemed particularly ripe for Academy honors, it was Wood in 1961. First, she pushed herself to extraordinary heights as a young woman suffering the crushing confusion of her first sexually charged romantic attachment (in the form of no less than studly Warren Beatty, his film debut) in William Inge’s Splendor, a hit with the public and critics alike. In one scene she tries so, so hard to maintain after being put on the spot in a high school English class, but nerves get the best of her, and the defeat is overwhelming. Another standout is when what should be a relaxing soak in a warm bath turns into a well meaning but awkward confrontation with her mother,  one that sends the frightened young woman into a furious panic that is impossible to dismiss. Brilliant. But that’s only half of what Wood accomplished in 1961. She was also star-billed in the year’s leading contender, the big screen adaptation of West Side Story,  Broadway’s landmark musical update on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, reimagined as a stylized tale of warring gangs on the streets of New York, marked by Jerome Robbins’ innovative choreography and Leonard Bernstein’s thrilling score (with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim). It scarcely mattered that Wood was cast as a Puerto Rican character, that she had a wobbly accent, or that her singing was dubbed by ever-reliable triller Marni Nixon (whom I love), because she brought emotional authenticity and a lilting presence to her character, and the public ate it up, resulting in  long runs in theatres (such as Dallas’ own Esquire), beaucoups soundtrack sales, and a whopping 11 Oscar nods, the most of any 1961 pic. By any measure, Wood had enjoyed phenomenal success in 1961, but she still went home empty-handed even though West Side Story cleaned-up, nabbing trophies in 10 categories, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Rita Moreno), and Best Supporting Actor (George Chakiris) while Splendor’s William Inge was likewise honored by the Academy. Wood lost in her category to Sophia Loren in Two Women, a history making win for a performer in a non-English language film.

I bring this up to make the point that in order to begin a film exactly as I have described, the director surely knows that if he (in this case, yes, he) expects the audience to stick with the story for its duration, said audience has to connect the speaker straightaway. It’s a matter of trust. Here is where being a great star is probably more important than being a great actress (or actor). In this case, the speaker is none other than Natalie Wood, a child actress (1947’s Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street, among others) who grew up to be one of the biggest stars of the late 50s–and beyond though her heyday was clearly the early-to-mid 1960s. Her male co-star in this scenario, btw, is no less than Steve McQueen, but, take note, the charismatic actor is/was second billed to Ms. Wood, a powerful testament to the actress’s uncontested stature in the Hollywood hierarchy [1]. The movie is Love with the Proper Stranger, directed by Robert Mulligan, this, a year after his instant classic, To Kill a Mockingbird.

I have plenty of reasons, good reasons, to rhapsodize about Love with the Proper Stranger. First, it’s relatively new to DVD. As far as I can tell, its September release, per Kino Lorber, is its first-ever in DVD format–oh yeah, and Blu-ray. This is a movie one of my best friends and I have been waiting to find on home video for a long, long, time. Both of us were certain that once the studios, most famously Warner, ventured into print-on-demand DVDs, it would only be a matter of time before Love with the Proper Stranger would be lifted from the vaults. Indeed, it was a matter of time, a long time.

I think, more importantly, Love with the Proper Stranger is noteworthy because it represents Wood’s third and final Oscar nomination, following a supporting nod for 1955’s Rebel without a Cause (at age 17) and a Best Actress bid for 1961’s Splendor in the Grass (age 23). Wood still had her share of hit films after Love with the Proper Stranger, including Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and the moderately successful The Last Married Couple in America, with George Segal, along TV triumphs such as fresh adaptations of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and From Here to Eternity along with The Cracker Factory, and others. To further clarify, a reminder of Wood’s third and final Oscar nod in her decades long career is worth noting because it re-emphasizes what a huge talent, and, yes, a huge star she was.

See, a few years ago, Debra Tate, the sister of the late Sharon Tate, wrote/published a magnificent coffee table book, Recollection, celebrating her exquisitely beautiful sister’s exciting life. Per the surviving Tate, the public’s fixation on Sharon’s savage murder has overwhelmed the reality of who she was as a person. For example, as much as I have read about Sharon, and for all the times I’ve watched her seemingly effortless performance as a doomed starlet in Valley of the Dolls, I didn’t know she was born in Dallas, at Methodist Hospital, until I read her sister’s book; likewise, a long time ago I wrote that Rock Hudson’s stature as a genuine movie idol has long been overshadowed by his unfortunate passing. Much the same cane be said for Wood. Every now and again, a source comes to light regarding Wood’s mysterious death in 1981, drowning after falling from a yacht–named Splendour–following a night of alleged revelry during a break from shooting a movie entitled Brainstorm. Briefly, the “mystery” is whether Wood, who had a long-avowed fear of water, actually fell from the yacht–or was she pushed? If so, who did it? The likely suspects, or persons of interest, include a famous co-star or her husband.

This ongoing circus of sensationalism, surrounding a tragedy that might never be resolved, unfortunately distracts from Wood’s breathtaking career, her talent, and, yes, even her dark eyed beauty. She had a face that could hold the camera, so to speak, and seemingly from any angle. Not to mention a knockout smile, a saucy voice, a hearty laugh, luxurious dark hair, and a heck of a figure.  Curvy but extra petite. Yet for all that,  Wood possessed a simmering talent, one that took awhile to emerge, but once it did, she knocked the socks off critics and audiences alike, and they rewarded her by buying tickets and propelling her toward the tops of the box-office charts.

So, Love with the Proper Stranger. Wood portrays Angie, a Macy’s sales clerk who can’t get away from her traditional Italian-American family’s cramped apartment soon enough, especially as that pertains to the ever-watchful eye of older brother (per Herschel Bernardi). Besides the tailing and snooping Angie endures, Angie’s fretful mother aligns with Bernardi, routinely, to fix the young woman up with a suitor–for her own good, of course. The unrelenting pressure on Angie pushes her to a breaking point, and she dodges the household just long enough to seek momentary comfort in the arms of a stranger, McQueen, again, if only for a night. To reiterate, their tryst occurs off-screen before the  film ever begins, and the audience can’t be certain how the lovers’ paths ever-crossed in the first place, given that Angie scarcely finds a moment’s privacy amid the day-to-day familial dynamics; nonetheless, Angie finds a way to escape the constant gaze, leading to the complication that prompts her to track down McQueen’s Rocky at the union hall. Clearly, they are not an item, with Angie holding no illusions about her value to the musician with his roving eye.

Make no mistake, Love with the Proper Stranger thrives on the star wattage generated by Wood and McQueen, not just because it opens with the announcement of an unwanted pregnancy, but because however well done, it’s an obviously uneven film. The first half concerns itself with the two leads working toward the goal of eliminating said pregnancy: first by securing the funds–there’s always a catch, right?–and then by eluding Bernardi and others, such as a second brother played by Harvey Lembeck [2], who have pieced together the complete picture of Angie and Rocky’s dilemma and want McQueen to pay, flesh and blood style, for his role in the deed. That this is the driving point of a major studio release–Paramount–in the early 1960s, staggers the imagination. The whole thing builds to a harrowing encounter that pushes Angie to emotional exhaustion. Afterward, Angie and Rocky begin learning more about each other and sorting whatever feelings they have developed in the process. Incredibly, after such a dramatic start, the second half is noticeably lighter, more comedic, in tone. Plus, the movie doesn’t seem to end as much as it just seems to stop–and rather abruptly. Uneven, right? Even so, the star players make a compelling, fascinating,  onscreen duo, bringing out the best in one another even, or especially, in the quiet moments.

Interestingly, it’s McQueen’s Rocky who pushes for a more committed relationship, including marriage, but Angie isn’t so sure. She knows she’s sexually attracted to McQueen–she has a pulse, after all–but she can’t determine if she genuinely likes him for who he is, nor is she certain his feelings for her or genuine. Plus, even though she has recoiled at some of her family’s well-meaning match-ups in the past, she entertains the advances of such a suitor, a timid–clumsy–restaurateur from an equally opinionated family. Angie is sure she doesn’t really love this “Anthony Columbo,” but it matters less to her than the idea that he’s devoted and has the potential to be a good provider; after all, McQueen’s Rocky is a musician without a steady paycheck, not to mention a sometime squeeze played by vivacious glamourpuss Edie Adams. To Angie’s mind, the trappings of romantic love–bells and banjos, she describes them–are not only unnecessary but messy and complicated. She makes a good argument, but, then, that’s one of Wood’s strengths as an actress: making sense of difficult emotions in order to foster audience empathy.

Btw, Angie’s mild mannered suitor, Anthony Columbo, is spectacularly played by no less than Tom Bosley, who would later become a TV staple, mostly through his beloved role as Mr. Cunningham on Happy Days in the 1970s; however, before settling into steady work on the small screen, Bosley had already conquered Broadway as a Tony award leading man in 1959’s hit musical Fiorello, based on legendary New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia (yes, of the same LaGuardia airport); that same show’s honors, btw, include multiple Tony wins and a Pulitzer, but I digress. Bosley’s Columbo looks too old for Angie–and that’s probably true. Bosley was in his early-to-mid thirties at the time, but only a year or two older than McQueen.

Love with the Proper Stranger opened to “brisk” business as described by Christopher Nickens in the book Natalie Wood: A Biography in Photographs (121); moreover, the movie scored in numerous other ways, earning a Writers Guild nod for scripter Arnold Schulman. Interestingly, Schulman was nominated in the category specifically for comedies though Wood and McQueen competed for Golden Globes among the entries for drama. Again, the movie is uneven, difficult, and difficult to categorize. The film as a whole earned 5 Oscars nods, including one for Schulman along with nominations for its black and white cinematography (Milton R. Krasner, All About Eve, Three Coins in a Fountain, etc.), art-direction, and costume design–no less than the redoubtable Edith Head. Nominations for Bosley and legendary composer Elmer Bernstein would not have been out of the question. Alas, no wins though Wood was likewise in the running for a Laurel Award, per trade mag Motion Picture Exhibitors.

So, here we have it. One of Natalie Wood’s most celebrated films is finally being released on home video, providing fans an opportunity to fall in love with her all over again and creating opportunities for the uninitiated to discover one of the brightest stars from a particular era in Hollywood’s history, but once again, the headlines are full of renewed investigations into her demise. Of course, justice must prevail, but I heard a morning TV show commentator say something to the effect that it was her death that made her legendary, and I firmly and fervently disagree. She’s a legend because she lived.

Thanks, Natalie…

[1] Regarding McQueen’s billing, please note that he was not the first choice for the role. By many accounts (including one of the DVD commentators), the first choice was no less than Paul Newman, a more firmly established star than McQueen at the time. Who knows if Wood could have retained top-billing if Newman had been cast. At any rate, McQueen quickly caught up with Newman in terms of box-office clout, and the two superstars enjoyed a kind of not-so-friendly professional rivalry that peaked with 1974’s The Towering Inferno, a box office blockbuster and major Oscar contender, their only joint-venture, that is, after failing to come to terms regarding 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and only after exacting contract negotiations on Inferno regarding star billing and even parsing the number of lines each spoke in the script.

[2] Coincidentally, Lembeck, known for his work on TV (The Phil Silvers Show) and the movies, playing biker Eric von Zipper in all those Beach Party flicks in the early 1960s, also worked as Tom Bosley’s understudy in Fiorello! on Broadway.

 

Don’t You Forget About Bea…

22 Dec

Dear Mr., Ms., or Otherwise Academy Member:

In my last post, I asked, and humbly I believe, for you not to forget Jeremy Renner’s taut performance in Wind River when marking your ballot for Best Actor. Are you listening? I hope you are. If so, no one else is, apparently. So far, save for a Golden Satellite nod (being the far less respected cousin of the Golden Globe), Renner has been glossed over the by the likes of the National Board of Review, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the New York Film Critics Circle, and the DFW Film Critics Association, not to mention the nominations pool for the likes of the Critics Choice awards (per the Broadcast Film Critics Association), the Screen Actors Guild awards, and the almighty Globe awards. Heck, Renner didn’t even make the cut for an Independent Spirit Award. Really? Is it because the film came out too early? If August can be considered “early.” Is it because the movie carries the unfortunate stench of being too closely associated with Harvey Weinstein? I hope not. Renner’s performance as a wildlife agent with a powerful motive to find a young Native American woman’s  murderer is the real deal.  So, what are you going to do about it?  As often as not, the year end awards bonanza doesn’t always foretell what Academy members like. Surprises frequently abound.

Right now, the various societies, associations, and guilds are gravitating toward the likes of Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour), natch, Timothee Chalamet (Call Me by Your Name), and Tom Hanks (The Post) for Best Actor—with Daniel Day Lewis (The Phantom Thread), James Franco (The Disaster Artist), Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out), and Denzel Washington (Roman J. Israel, Esq.) still in the game. For now. Kamail Nanjiani (The Big Sick) holds a slim chance for the semi-autobiographical flick he also co-wrote with wife Emily V. Gordon. Alas, not much traction for Renner or even Sam Elliott for The Hero, and I seriously wonder what Elliott will ever need to do in order to be considered Oscar-worthy.

The race for Best Supporting Actor appears to be led by Willem Dafoe (The Florida Project) though Armie Hammer (Call Me By Your Name) and Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) may have very well found their breakthrough roles for Academy consideration. Woody Harrelson, no stranger to the Academy (with a pair of nominations, one leading and one supporting), looks strong for a nod as well, also for Three Billboards etc. Oh, and then there’s Christopher Plummer, already a winner in this category for 2011’s The Beginners, who could emerge as a heavyweight in light of his speedy call to action to replace Kevin Spacey as J. Paul Getty in All the Money in the World. Stay tuned.

Best Supporting Actress may turn out to be a furious fight to the finish between (in no particular order) Laurie Metcalfe (Ladybird), Holly Hunter (The Big Sick),  Mary J. Blige (Mudbound), Alison Janney (I, Tonya),  and Octavia Spencer (The Shape of Water), all of them formidable candidates. Of course, Hunter and Spencer are Oscar veterans, each with a trophy of her own and additional nods as well. If nominated, Blige, Janney, and Metcalfe will be in their first ever Oscar race though they are awards derby newbies with prizes and/or nominations in multiple arenas: TV, film stage, and music; meanwhile, now that I have seen Darkest Hour, I’m a little perplexed that Lily James isn’t getting more buzz for a role that largely positions her as the audience surrogate.

Now, about Best Actress.  Saoirse Ronan (Lady Bird), Frances McDormand (Three Billboards…), and Sally Hawkins (The Shape of Water) are all well situated, and I don’t even want to try to guess who brings the most to the table, but of course, they only represent three of five possible nominees. With that in mind, how else might this go? The presence of Meryl Streep (The Post) can never be underestimated, and Jessica Chastain (Molly’s Game) has two Oscar runs to her credit; meanwhile buzz surrounding Margot Robbie’s turn in I, Tonya builds daily, what with her status as a contender confirmed by way of the SAG nominations.  And, as with Streep, Judi Dench (Victoria and Abdul) should never be dis-counted. Michelle Williams (All the Money in the World) is another frequent nominee looking for another shot. Last year’s winner Emma Stone perhaps holds a whisper of a chance for Battle of the Sexes, but not really. Also, I guess pretty much nobody can visualize a nod for Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman) though it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if it happens.

McDormand reminds me how important timing is in the Oscar race. Twenty-one years ago she won Best Actress for playing Fargo‘s straight-arrow police chief Marge Gunderson, well deserved at that. I know only a few people who objected at the time. Interestingly, McDormand’s victory runs counter to the well-known trend of studios releasing Oscar caliber films in the last 4 months of the year, more likely the last 1-2 months. For example, Fargo was a March release. Right off the top of my head I can add that Jodie Foster (Silence of the Lambs, 1991) and Julia Roberts (Erin Brockovich, 2000) also won Oscars for movies released in the first quarter of their respective years, but they–like McDormand–are exceptions. The more widely prevailing strategy is that movies released too early in the year tend to be forgotten during the crush of year-end releases.

With that in mind, I’d like to direct Mr. or Ms. Academy member to this past summer’s well reviewed Beatriz at Dinner, starring Salma Hayek. Of course, the actress made headlines recently with a blistering attack on Harvey Weinstein with whom she collaborated on Frida, the 2002 Miramax biopic of legendary Mexican-born artist Frida Kahlo for which Hayek ultimately earned a Best Actress nod.  The project was an obsession for Hayek, a point of national pride, and Weinstein–allegedly–used his power against the more vulnerable actress in a predatory way. Allegedly. Hayek’s account is devastating and raw though Weinstein, not surprisingly, offers a slightly different take, attempting to recontextualize certain charges as a savvy  businessman no doubt would.

Can a low-budget summer release challenge flashier year-end offerings in the race for Oscar glory? Salma Hayek (center) as the title character in Beatriz at Dinner is certainly worthy of such consideration. Btw, that’s Connie Britton on the left, and John Lithgow on the right. (IMAGE: IMDB)

I’m inclined to believe Hayek, mostly because I already know too much about Weinstein NOT to believe her. In the meantime, I’d like to praise Hayek for her particularly deft portrayal of title character Beatriz in the Mike White scripted comedy-of-manners, that is, a dark, particularly well-timed, comedy-of-manners, directed by Miguel Areta. Simply, Latina Beatriz, a  gifted, hard working massage therapist (“a healer”) with a hefty list of clients spread out all over Los Angeles, arrives for an appointment one afternoon at the opulent home of a frequent contact, Cathy (always affable Connie Britton), who shares a sad history with Beatriz. Previously, Beatriz had helped treat Cathy’s cancer-striken daughter. In so doing, at least Cathy believes, a familial bond developed, but the danger of that kind of bond in a one-sided relationship is that thinking of Beatriz as family effectively diminishes Beatriz’s agency; after all, she has her own family, her own concerns. She may very well love what she does and feels kindly toward the people she serves, but it’s still a business transaction and to characterize it as anything else is a dangerous mistake. It sets up a sense of entitlement on the part of the employer by blurring what should be a clear boundary. In this regard, Beatriz at Dinner partially resembles 2017’s breakout smash Get Out, but I digress.

That evening, after experiencing car trouble for the umpteenth time that day, Beatriz finds herself stranded in the client’s driveway. No problem, Britton enthuses, Beatriz can stay for dinner and even overnight if needed. Of course, the client’s husband (David Warshofsky) is celebrating an important business deal, and that means a small dinner party with likes of Chloe Sevigny, Jay Duplass, Amy Landecker, and John Lithgow–the latter whether intentional or not evokes the one and only current POTUS, Donald Trump. You know the type: a wealthy real-estate developer–hotels, especially–who confidently blurts whatever is on his mind, no matter how seriously misinformed, ignorant, or hurtful. That’s the character. I guess the rest is a coincidence, but the resemblance to a certain real-life someone is hard not to notice.

With the exception of Lithgow’s ever-pragmatic Doug and Cathy’s nitwit-ish hubby, Britton’s character and her friends believe themselves to be generous and open-minded–but that’s only because they fail to recognize the privileged point of view from which they operate, especially the imbalance of power in relation to Beatriz, but Beatriz is nobody’s fool. She’s canny enough to “know her place,” especially as a guest in a client’s domain, but she will not subjugate herself, blend into the background, and pretend not to have an opinion. She knows how to defend herself and her beliefs. White’s script hits all the right notes–if hitting all the right notes means keeping the audience in knots for most of the film’s running time.  I felt tense the whole time, but exquisitely so, given that the movie unfolds at what should be a simple dinner party. No zombies, no mass-murderers, but the unshakeable feeling that something awful will erupt. Again, the film approaches a dynamic similar to that of Get Out.

At first glance,  Hayek’s performance might seem to rely too heavily on Beatriz’s drabbed down appearance: what with her shapeless clothes, ponytail, and truly unflattering bangs; after all, Hayek ranks as one of the most glamorous women in all of moviedom. Seeing her as plain-faced Beatriz is a slight jolt,  but the performance is more than a cosmetic makeover (or makeunder, as the case may be). Beatriz’s strength is her ability to listen, to assess. It’s what makes her empathic, essential to being a healer; plus, again, she has acclimated herself to an employer-employee dynamic especially as that entails being a woman of color in white dominated society. She’s not going to rock the boat. Not easily, that is, and not at once. Until she does, and the effect is jarring, we see in Hayek’s face the constant processing of information, building and building, and we applaud the release as much as we are shocked by it.

I think Hayek’s performance is a winner, and I tried to imagine whether it could go the distance when I first saw it over the summer, early summer. Michael and I both loved it, and talked about it for days, both Hayek, White’s screenplay, and the movie itself.  Alas, the movie appears to be almost forgotten–not entirely, but close.  Yes,Ha the movie was one of the top indie picks, per the National Board of Review, and Hayek was nominated for an Imagen Foundation award (for promoting positive portrayals of Latino culture) though she actually lost to herself for How to be a Latin Lover. Director Arteta earned an Imagen award for Beatriz though the film lost the Best Picture trophy to the aforementioned How to be a Latin Lover. Currently, Hayek and White are in the running for “Spirit” awards, aka the Independent Spirit Awards, but Hayek is a contender in a category featuring the likes of the aforementioned McDormand, Robbie, and Ronan, so she faces an uphill challenge to overcome the competition, all of whom inhabit much showier roles, but maybe the interest of “Spirit” award voters will catch the attention of Academy members, thereby spreading word-of-mouth and renewed interest.  To clarify, I can’t imagine Hayek winning an Oscar for Beatriz at Dinner, but a nomination would be timely, all things considered, and well-deserved.

 

Thanks for your consideration…

Hayek’s New York Times article: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/12/13/opinion/contributors/salma-hayek-harvey-weinstein.html

 

For Academy Consideration: Wind River’s Renner

26 Nov

Dear Mr. or Ms. Academy Member:

I hate to interrupt you with another plea for Oscar consideration, but I feel that I must. I know everyone and his mama are trumpeting Gary Oldman as this season’s probable Best Actor victor, for playing no less than Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, and, really, I’m pretty sure that’s a good thing. I haven’t seen the film yet, but it’s high, high, high, on my list–right after Coco; we just saw Lady Bird and Three Billboards…, btw–and I know Oldman is a wonderful actor. I even lavished praise on him a few years ago after he earned a well-deserved Oscar nod for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, so, yes, I hope Darkest Hour is everything it is supposed to be, and, again, good for Oldman if it is.

In the meantime, with such an onslaught of year-end awards contenders, please, please, take one more look, if you have not done so already, at Jeremy Renner in Wind River, a late summer, relatively low-budget, release that garnered critical praise and even turned a tidy profit after a slow rollout. Written and directed by Taylor Sheridan, known most recently as the Oscar nominated screenwriter of  2016’s Hell or High Water, which also earned nods for Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor (Jeff Bridges), Wind River is a brutal suspense-filled whodunit set on a snowswept, icy-cold Native American reservation. Renner portrays a federal wildlife agent reluctantly paired with an FBI rookie (Elizabeth Olsen) to crack the case. Renner’s Cory Lambert has barely come to terms with the disappearance of his teenage daughter, in a scenario that resembles the latest crime, that is, a young woman’s lifeless body found in the snow–the victim of a horrific attack. The cast, btw, is rounded out by Graham Greene, fondly remembered for his Oscar nominated turn in 1990’s Best Picture winner Dances with Wolves, and whose credits also include The Green Mile (a 1999 Best Picture nominee), Transamerica, and even The Shack, also from 2017.

JRenner_WindRiver

Per the IMDb, Jeremy Renner had been acting professionally for more than a dozen years before he garnered wide spread critical attention and a Best Actor nod for 2009’s The Hurt Locker. also the year’s Best Picture winner. A year later, the actor cinched a Best Supporting Actor nod for The Town. Since then, he’s scored a flashy role in American Hustle, a 2013/14 Best Picture nominee, and has appeared in such high profile entries as Mission Impossible, The Avengers, a reboot of the Bourne franchise, and 2016’s Arrival, yet another Best Picture contender. The sense of immediacy that Renner brought to his Hurt Locker role as a soldier assigned to defuse or dispose of explosives in hostile environments serves him well in Wind River. He’s utterly believable–by word and gesture–in every situation  he faces. Audiences never have the opportunity to doubt him. (IMAGE: Photo by CANNES FILM FESTIVAL/HANDOUT. Jeremy Renner in “Wind River”; http://www.indiewire.com/2017/08/avengers-jeremy-renner-wind-river-career-watch-1201867129/ )

Renner’s film is now problematic for Oscar voters because, alas, it carries the Weinstein Company banner. Oh dear. By now, anyone who knows anything about the movie biz, and the Oscars specifically, knows, as well, about the heaps and heaps of allegations of sexual misconduct leveled against Harvey Weinstein, the more visible of the two Weinstein brothers who founded their self-named company after fleeing Miramax (their previous company) and ending their often contentious relationship with the Disney corporation (which purchased the then indie outfit in the early 1990s) amid a swirl of controversy, mostly due to lavish spending and questionable accounting. Never a good mix. Well before Weinstein’s behavior as a sexual predator–okay, alleged sexual predator–became headline news, he’d long been known as a bully and a braggart, as much of a sore loser whose temper-tantrums made the rounds of industry insiders as he was a sore winner seemingly hell-bent to take more credit than he was due, but that just made him annoying, and it never stopped the Academy from lavishing his company’s films, such as The English Patient, Shakespeare in Love, and Chicago (Miramax) or even The King’s Speech (Weinstein), and, ugh, The Artist (Weinstein), with honors even though his fervent campaigning often bordered on ludicrousness [1], to put it tamely.

Nonetheless, now that Harvey Weinstein has been booted from his company in disgrace over such charges of sexual harassment and other similar transgressions, the Academy might be less inclined to show any tolerance, any consideration, toward Weinstein product, and that is to be expected [2]. Even so, I still think Renner’s performance in Wind River is a stunningly accomplished piece of acting, mainly because it hardly seems like acting at all. Instead, Renner’s character just seems “lived-in” in  a way that doesn’t necessarily draw attention to itself, that is, to the technique involved. Instead, the actor makes unexpected choices that catch viewers off-guard.  In contrast, almost everything about Sheridan’s previous effort, the aforementioned Hell or High Water (which, to clarify, he did not direct), seems entirely too schematic, and much ballyhooed Jeff Bridges’s performance, as an ornery Texas Ranger on the trail of bankrobbers, is too showy by half, such that he seems more like “a character,” for the sake of being a character (or acting for the sake of acting), and less like a fully fleshed out human being. In Wind River, Renner keeps cutting to the truth, honing in on Browder’s heart and humanity. But no matter. Browder self-identifies as hunter, so he does his best to compartmentalize–and hunts. And it’s pretty exciting to watch. Another element Renner plays against is not just that he’s grieving his daughter’s demise but that his marriage has crumbled as a result of that tragedy; moreover, his ex-wife is Native American, and that is a source of tension among some members of  the reservation population.

Interestingly, Sheridan’s film while not based on a single specific incident, serves as an alarm for the growing number of young Native American women who are not only highly susceptible to rape but frequently vanish with little or no trace. Shockingly, as the film’s coda explains, there are no official statistics on the number of women missing from reservations, likely due to contradictory laws and crime reporting procedures [3]. Of course, reading this certainly reminds me of the mysterious 2014 death of Native-American movie actress Misty Upham (Frozen River and August: Osage County, among others). Still puzzling.

When I first saw Wind River months ago, I was sure that I was seeing what could be the next Best Actor winner, but that was then. An August release, especially for a middling hit, seems like a long time ago, especially when Hollywood publicity machines are getting cranked up for the year-end glut of prestige movies seemingly tailored made for Academy consideration. When you factor in a company tainted by misdeeds at the top level, suddenly the odds seem ever less in Renner’s favor, but the performance is the real-deal and deserves every possible consideration. Thanks in advance for that consideration.

 

[1] A partial rundown can be read via the following:

http://www.vulture.com/2014/01/miramax-oscar-campaigns-harvey-weinstein-timeline.html

https://www.forbes.com/sites/robcain/2017/10/12/weinstein-company-can-kiss-its-oscar-prospects-goodbye/

https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/race/oscars-harvey-weinsteins-days-as-an-awards-season-power-player-appear-1046684

[2] A “new” wrinkle in this story as the Tunica-Biloxi tribe backs Oscar campaign in light of Weinstein disgrace: http://ew.com/awards/2017/10/25/weinstein-co-exits-wind-river-oscar-campaign/

[3] Read more, per a 2016 Indian Country Today report: https://indiancountrymedianetwork.com/news/native-news/missing-and-murdered-no-one-knows-how-many-native-women-have-disappeared/

 

Three Cheers for Oscar

20 Nov

Dear Mr. or Ms. Academy Member:

I’m writing this with Thanksgiving just around the corner, and that means within weeks moviegoers will be treated to a few dozen–or more–so called “prestige” films, that is, lofty ambitious projects most likely with literary roots or based on/inspired by true stories. These are the year-end offerings that scads of writers, performers, directors, producers, and distributors, not to mention teams of artisans and engineers, hope will curry favor with folks such as you in the quest for Oscar gold. So far, Gary Oldman, starring as no less than late British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, in The Darkest Hour appears to be the actor to beat and may very well be in the picture poised to win big. Of course, these things can and often do change, as we saw last year when jubilant word of mouth for La-La-Land fizzled during the 11th hour, all the better for surprise Best Picture winner Moonlight.

Oldman’s pic is, to reiterate, only one of many potential Oscar contenders we can expect to see and hear about over the next few months. I look forward, as well, to Ladybird and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Despite the best plans of producing teams and marketing personnel, some of the late offerings will sink, maybe even before they expand from limited to national release; likewise, a few entries might catch on in ways that might surprise the cynics. Let’s wait and see. I guess we must.

In the meantime, I urge you, dear Mr. or Ms. Academy Voter, I mean, Member, to not forget that this year, widely reported as mostly underwhelming, per box-office receipts, has nonetheless already produced three mainstream hits that have done more than just rake-in big bucks. They have also permeated the culture, the public consciousness, generating all kinds of discussion while thrilling moviegoers like we expect of the best Oscar contenders. Oh sure, the films at the top of my list might seem a bit unconventional compared to, say, a Churchill biopic or even Christopher Nolan’s summertime hit Dunkirk, an amazing dissection of the cost of war, specifically for the British during World War II; however, for all its rave reviews and substantial ticket sales, Dunkirk pales as a pop-culture sensation. If Oscar voters want to restore the public’s faith in the Academy and amp those ratings toward the stratosphere as in days of old, please consider all of the following when marking your ballot for Best Picture (in order of release dates):

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Since I began writing this piece, Blumhouse, Get Out‘s production company, has ignited a controversy by submitting its film for consideration as comedy (or musical) per the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s Golden Globe awards, a move which many critics are dismissive of given the film’s cultural significance, and I see their point. Get Out most definitely qualifies as satire, but it’s also a tale of suspense in which the stakes are high. Of course, inconsistencies stemming from the Globes and their seemingly arbitrary divisions between comedies and dramas are nothing new. In the meantime, let’s pull for writer-director Peele, along with cast members Kaluuya, Williams, Keener, along with Lil Rel Howery, already an MTV winner for his performance as Kaluuya’s skeptical buddy, and Betty Gabriel, especially good as a housekeeper who is both more and less than what she originally appears. As well, my hunch is that the whole cast is well-poised to win the Best Ensemble award from the Screen Actors Guild.

Get Out: Jordan Peele, previously known for his work in TV comedy (MadTV, Bob’s Burgers, and Key and Peele), made his feature film directorial debut with this horror flick that also works as a Stepford Wives-esque social commentary. To clarify, Peele wrote and produced the movie as well though he does not appear onscreen. Instead, the male lead, that of an African-American photographer, is played by Daniel Kaluuya. His character is romantically involved with a young white woman (Allison Williams) who takes her new beau from the bustling city to meet her socially progressive parents at their lovely home in a secluded, scenic hamlet. Soon, Kaluuya’s Chris Washington senses that his girlfriend’s parents (played by Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford) might not be as open to their daughter’s new relationship as he, Washington, had been assured even though, yes, they claim to have voted for Obama.  HA! Washington is only partially right. The situation is actually much worse than he initially suspects. Peele’s movie might not be a film for the ages–time, of course, will tell–but it’s very much of the times as it tackles the dual dilemmas of white culture appropriating–exploiting–black culture while tossing aside the notion of “Black Lives Matter” and arguing that racism in America ended if not with the Civil War, then at least with the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States. Go figure. You need look no further than the scandal that erupts when Black athletes take to their knees during the national anthem, setting off the ire of white team owners, or when a known sexual predator such as Harvey Weinstein goes out of his way to deny that he ever made lewd advances to Oscar winning actress Lupita Nyong’o, she of Kenyan descent, while otherwise admitting he has a sexual addiction problem, more or less copping to a pattern of sexual misconduct with streams of young actresses, but not as that concerns Ms. Nyong’o. In a nation as polarized as this one currently is, Get Out, with its taut blend of satire and suspense, quickly emerged as the most talked about film during the early months of 2017 (per its February release) but also a box-office sensation, opening at the top of the charts, earning 33 million in its first three days against production costs of only 4.5 million, and then setting a record as the highest grossing debut by an African-American filmmaker, ultimately earning 175.5 million in theatres. [All figures per BoxOffice Mojo.] A discussion about the year’s best films is simply incomplete without including the one that tackled a timely, uncomfortable subject matter while making money hand over fist; moreover, please remember that while last year’s Best Picture winner,  the brilliant Moonlight, was helmed by an African-American (Barry Jenkins), we have to yet to see an African-American triumph in the Best Director category.

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Best Actress nod for Gal Gadot? Can I get an “Amen,” anyone?

Wonder Woman: Finally. Comic book movies have become so commonplace these days that it’s hard to fathom why it took so long to spotlight Charles Moulton’s ever-enduring mythical warrior-princess.  Why indeed? Batman this, Spiderman that, and all the other Superman(s), Captain Americas, Thors, Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Suicide Squads. After Warner’s disastrous attempt at a Catwoman franchise back in 2004, the rest of us wondered if  a female-centric comic book movie was just too much to hope for from mainstream Hollywood. Luckily, the wait was worth it. Maybe, just maybe, the delay had to happen in order to make sure the right personnel were involved, and that means director Patty Jenkins (previously best known for Charlize Theron’s Oscar winning Monster) and star Gal Gadot, the latter particularly strong at owning the character in her own right, quelling the doubts of Lynda Carter loyalists who still treasure–and rightly so–the latter’s portrayal of the character in the 1970s’ TV series. Between Gadot and Jenkins everything clicked, and the result is a film that almost everyone loved, or at least liked. A whole heck of a lot. Even no less than Lynda Carter graciously offers her vote of approval.  Oh sure, naysayers are gonna say nay, that’s why they’re naysayers, but, generally, this was the perfect summer blockbuster, and what a blockbuster it was during a season, don’t forget, when the hits were as notable as the mis-fires, but this one cleaned-up. It opened in early June and held the #1 spot at the box office for two weeks, remaining in the top 10 for two months before slipping to #13 during the first weekend in August, ultimately scoring a domestic box office haul of 412.5 million [as of this writing].  Kudos to Jenkins for her role in shattering the glass ceiling of the old-boys directing club. Let’s face it, female directors simply do not often get the same opportunities as men in Hollywood and when they do, the expectations are skewed. Jenkins helps level the playing field and paves the way for the next generation. And, yes, Wonder Woman gave–and still gives–girls and young women a fantastic role model and inspiration for a future less governed by sexist politics.  This Academy fan has not been a fan of the decision to open the field of Best Picture nominees to as many as 10 per year, thinking it complicates more than it helps, but remember, as well, that the Academy adopted this measure to help increase TV viewership–aka placating sponsors–after anticipated Best Picture nods for The Dark Knight and Wall-E failed to materialize after the 2008/09 awards. The thinking was that allowing for more finalists would make way for more big-budget, audience pleasing “popcorn” flicks, thereby eliciting increased viewership from the fanboys; however, that has not necessarily been the case. Since 2009, no film based on a comic book creation has cracked the Best Picture roster. Instead, the promise of an expanded slate has created opportunities for less commercial, more “artistic” entries into the fray, which has not paid off in the ratings.  A Best Picture nod for Wonder Woman might prove the case that justifies the Academy’s hopes.

It – Of the three movies in this post, It may very well be weakest link as an artistic triumph, but it still scores as a dazzling pop-culture phenom, easily the most buzzed about entry in the fall moviegoing sweepstakes, coming, again, off a mostly lackluster summer; moreover, It successfully pulls off the nervy trick of establishing a following even though the same material, Stephen King’s 1986 best seller of the same name, has already been used as the basis for a fondly remembered mini-series. Not an enviable task, but director Andy Muschietti (previously known for Mama)  takes a fearless leap in the hopes that movie audiences will eagerly revisit the story of a dastardly presence who resurfaces every few decades–often in the form of a sinister looking clown–to wreak havoc on the children of a small town in Maine. Fans of the original TV edition, memorably starring inimitable Tim Curry as Pennywise (the dancing clown), and they are legion, might not have switched allegiances, but no matter. With our without Curry, New Line Cinema successfully promoted the heck out of their property, not only earning top dollar at the box office ($326 million+, two weeks at #1, 8 weeks in the top 10) but also creating an Internet craze with the new and improved Pennywise, per heavily made up actor Bill Skarsgard. Suddenly, the creepy, red-headed clown was anywhere and everywhere, including Halloween get-ups; moreover, It arrives at the perfect time, considering that three of its juvenile stars also appear in Netflix’s hot, hot, hot Stranger Things, itself a throwback to 80s fave The Goonies, not to mention King’s own Stand by Me and even TV’s original IT. Let that soak in for a minute or two. The new It loses its mojo well before the final credits roll, but the early sequences highlight suspenseful filmmaking at its most superlative and that, coupled with the film’s massive popularity, might be enough to tempt Academy voters as they contemplate as roster of Best Picture contenders that bridge the expanse between art and commerce, thereby buoying the awards ceremony’s ratings. This is not necessarily a bad thing.

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Actor Bill Skarsgard endures a blood curdling transformation as the crazed clown, Pennywise, in IT, the fall moviegoing season’s buzziest and creepiest hit. The actor will be a longshot for Oscar consideration, but the makeup and costuming team could very well find themselves on the final ballot. Btw, Skarsgard is part of the same acting family that includes Stellan (dad) and Alex (brother), among others. IMAGE: https://www.express.co.uk/entertainment/films/855590/It-movie-Pennywise-actor-Bill-Skarsgard-interview-box-office-success-hit

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Big Masquerade: Stanwyck’s Hallowed “Eve”

21 Oct

In the early 1930s, let’s say 1932, Warner Bros, snatched up the rights to Edna Ferber’s Pulitzer winning novel, So Big! To clarify, this was the second silver screen treatment of Ferber’s high profile novel, but the first talkie version. Ferber, of course, extolled a particular genius for popular fiction, spinning hefty best sellers that blended multi-generational historical sagas with romance and social commentary. By the time So Big! arrived for its second cinematic incarnation, Ferber had enjoyed tremendous success with Showboat, as both a silent film and a game-changing Broadway musical by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein that, well before Rogers and Hammerstein’s sensational Oklahoma, set out to break the mold of fluffy, lighthearted, musicals with farcical plots of almost no consequence, save as a means for mounting show-stopping production numbers and romantic interludes. The musical version of Showboat, of course, would be, filmed twice, once in the 1930s and then again, in a noticeably altered form, in the 50s full of  vibrant color and pageantry. Ferber’s works also inspired such biggies as Cimmaron, 1931’s Best Picture winner, Come and Get It (1936), and, eventually, Giant (1956).

No, this column is not about rating the “Best of Ferber Big Screen Classics,” but a way of contextualizing Ferber’s outstanding relationship with Hollywood way back when, per the full-weight of her importance. To that end, please consider that Barbara Stanwyck, a known quantity but still a few years shy of 1937’s immortal weepie Stella Dallas and her first Oscar nomination, earned top billing in the Warner’s adaptation, a testament to her star power–that is, her box office clout. So big, indeed. Stanwyck was on top, and there, in the ingénue role, was fresh-faced Hollywood newcomer, Ruth Elizabeth Davis, playing princess, so to speak, to Stanwyck’s Queen Bee. Of course, Davis, better known as Bette Davis, soon eclipsed Stanwyck as one of Hollywood’s immortals. By 1934, Davis was scandalizing moviegoers everywhere with her intense portrayal of a seemingly soulless Cockney bar maid in Of Human Bondage. A year after that, and with more than a little controversy, Davis snagged her first Oscar (1935’s Dangerous), and then another (Jezebel, 1938), racking up a total of 10 Best Actress nods, a record in its time.

Oh, Stanwyck didn’t suddenly find herself a has-been in light of Davis’s emergence as a Hollywood heavyweight[1]. No, Ms. Stanwyck continued to work steadily, earning a total of four Oscar nominations and eventually transitioning to television as a woman “of a certain age” and enjoying adulation in such Emmy winners as The Big Valley (1965-69) and The Thorn Birds (1983), attracting generations of younger fans who might have missed out on some of her classic films. Already in her 70s by the time of  The Thorn Birds, she kept going with a featured role in lavish prime-time serial Dynasty and its short-lived spin-off The Colbys. And, later rather than sooner, Stanwyck cinched awards from both the Academy and the American Film Institute for her lifetime of excellent work. Good for her, but the point is that I’m not sure that Stanwyck has maintained the kind of aura, mystique, enjoyed by Davis and such contemporaries as, say, Katherine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, perhaps Ingrid Bergman, or even Garbo. Oh sure, every bit their equal regarding good ole acting chops, but has she burned her way into the public consciousness as have the others?

Of course, many of my peers and I first came to know Stanwyck as Victoria Barkley, white-haired matriarch of The Big Valley, a ranching family western that was not too far removed conceptually from ratings juggernaut Bonanza–the key difference being a generous dose of female empowerment that testosterone laden Bonanza lacked. While popular enough to hold onto to audiences long enough for a four year run, The Big Valley never challenged Bonanza in the numbers game, but that’s really beside the point. Stanwyck played a strong, gutsy woman at a time when such characters were far from the norm, and that, again, is how many of us learned to admire her.  But as a TV star. Not as a movie star, well, besides her role in Elvis Presley’s Roustabout.

By the time I hit the junior high years, I’d become familiar with vintage Stanwyck titles, such as Stella Dallas, Double Indemnity, Sorry, Wrong Number, and even Christmas in Connecticut but with the possibility of watching those last two with my grandma or on the late show, I didn’t actually catch up with the rest until I was grown though I might have seen her in an old black and white offering from her youth without even recognizing her.

So, no, my appreciation for Stanwyck didn’t develop until I was grown, probably about the time in my 20s when I read a Bette Davis book and learned more about So Big and both actresses’ respective roles in it. And here we are.

Again, Stanwyck never earned a competitive Oscar, and a lot of that is simply timing and/or luck, or lack thereof; moreover, she earned a relatively scant four nominations, that is, scant compared, again, to the likes of contemporaries Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Ingrid Bergman, and Greer Garson. That noted, Stanwyck’s quartet of nominated performances fascinate in the way they showcase her utter versatility: the mother of all self-sacrificing mothers in classic weepie Stella Dallas (1937), a wisecracking party-girl who mesmerizes befuddled Gary Cooper in Howard Hawks’ rambunctious Ball of Fire (1941), a platinum blonde femme fatale whose smoldering allure is matched only by her icy calculation in Double Indemnity (1944), and a frantic invalid trapped in a murderous plot in Sorry, Wrong Number (1948).  It’s hard to imagine anyone ever thinking that Stanwyck was ever merely playing Stanwyck, in contrast to some of the leading stars of the era who milked their personae in film after film. Allegedly.

Of all Stanwyck’s Oscar nominated performances, the one that would seem more typically award-friendly has to be Stella Dallas. Of course, Olivia Higgins Prouty’s novel about a working class woman who walks out of her daughter’s life so that said daughter will live the life that Stella cannot provide was already dated by the late 1930s, but Stanwyck, ever the trouper, made it work, aging several years over the course of the story, and delivering the emotional payoff during the film’s climax, but Stanwyck was in good company that year, what with Greta Garbo in Camille and Janet Gaynor in the first incarnation of A Star is Born, both of them watching from the sidelines with Stanwyck and Irene Dunne (The Awful Truth) while Luise Rainer made history as Oscar’s first back-to-back winner. A year previous, Rainer had captured a Best Actress trophy for a small yet significant role in The Great Ziegfeld. Her portrayal in the big screen version of Pearl S.Buck’s The Good Earth stunned just about everyone–even if the idea of a white woman playing a Chinese peasant woman now strikes a lot of us as problematic. a white-washing, if you will; however, at the time it seemed revelatory. Today, we wonder why Garbo and Stanwyck never won competitive Oscars.

In one sequence as visually inventive as anything ever devised by Hitchcock, director Preston Sturges shifts the audience’s point-of-view from looking at Stanwyck’s Jean to functioning as her second pair of eyes as she checks out the competition via her ever-handy compact. IMAGE: Turner Movie Classics (TCM), http://i.cdn.turner.com/v5cache/TCM/Images/Dynamic/i410/ladyeve_theyrenotgoodenough_FC_470x264_070820160636.jpg

On the other hand, 1941 belonged to Stanwyck, Oscar or no. Besides Ball of Fire, she and Gary Cooper also shared the screen in Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe, an uneven blend of populist fantasia and dark satire, not necessarily for everyone’s taste, but a hit nonetheless [2]. Additionally, in the same year Stanwyck cavorted among the leisure class with Henry Fonda, never more luscious, in Preston Sturges’ hilarious take on the battle of the sexes, The Lady Eve. This is my favorite Stanwyck performance [3A], and I think at least more deserving of an Oscar nod than Ball of Fire [3B], which is by no means a slur against the latter as Stanwyck and Cooper sparkle a-plenty for legendary director Howard Hawks, but I digress. [Given Stanwyck’s strong showing in a single year, it’s a wonder her three performances didn’t cancel out one another in the early voting.]

Back to The Lady Eve. After an opening credit sequence that brings to mind the story of Adam and, well, you know, Eve, the action begins in earnest as Fonda, in the role of a ophiologist (aka snake expert, dig it) prepares to head back to the USA after spending time exploring the Amazon. Fonda’s Charles Pike is also quickly established as heir to a fortune made in the brewing industry: “Pike’s Pale: The Ale that Won for Yale.” Something like that. He also travels with his lifelong valet, for lack of a better word, played with great curmudgeonly style, and more than a dash of genuine feeling for his charge, by ever-reliable William Demarest.

Eventually, Fonda finds himself aboard a luxury liner enroute to the States, and that’s where he takes a tumble–literally–for Stanwyck’s Jean Harrington, one half of a father-daughter confidence team, con artists, if you will. These two (dad played by Charles Coburn) maintain appearances by travelling with a third party, Melville Cooper, in the guise of a trusty butler. Their con is simple enough.  Jean presents herself as bait, mostly by pretending to be uninterested in Fonda’s wealth, then coaxes him into a friendly game of cards, only to lose on purpose, thereby setting up a rematch in which the objective is to cheat and take him for as much as possible. Because Fonda is so bookish and so instinctively attracted to Stanwyck, he never sees that he’s being played, but Demarest does, so he launches an investigation. In the meantime, Stanwyck develops genuine affection for Fonda. She realizes what a true gentleman he is, not a rich arrogant bore, and she appreciates his kindness, enough so that she turns the table on her Pop in order to thwart his scheme and keep her blossoming relationship legit by allowing nature to take its course, which she believes will result in matrimony. That way, everybody wins.

But everybody doesn’t win. Before Stanwyck can come clean about her background, Fonda learns about her past deeds as a swindler and drops her, unable to believe she might have changed or that such change is even possible. That’s when the fun begins as in true “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” fashion, Stanwyck plots a way to make Fonda pay for dropping her so coldly. “I need him,” she says, “like the axe needs the turkey.” This time, the game isn’t about money but toying with Fonda’s emotions for spite. To that end, she finesses her way to Fonda’s home turf in Connecticut, masquerading as a British noblewoman, Lady Eve Sidwich. And let the games begin.

1941: Barbara Stanwyck (1907 – 1990) as con artist Jean Harrington, posing as the wealthy Lady Eve Sidwich in the romantic comedy ‘The Lady Eve’, directed by Preston Sturges. [The Lady Eve marked the first collaboration between Stanwyck and prolific Paramount designer Edith Head. The two would reunite for both Ball of Fire, Double Indemnity and more. Head’s challenge when designing for Stanwyck was to create the illusion of curviness on the long-waisted actress.] (Photo via John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images)

What Stanwyck does here is play two roles, more or less, and that is why I think she eclipses her own sassy performance in Ball of Fire. First, we have Jean, the modern gal who can definitely handle herself in a pinch, and then aristocratic Eve, all fluttery sophistication and hoity-toity accent as she charms just about everyone in Fonda’s social circle.  Do the filmmakers in any way try to create a disguise for Stanwyck–prosthetics, glasses, or wigs–so that she will be not be recognized immediately by Fonda? Nope. That’s part of the gag. He’s hoplessly besotted and is in no mood to listen to reason. Stanwyck pulls off this masquerade by changing her body language and her attitude while affecting an accent, one that sounds just plausible enough. Designer Edith’s Head’s luxe costuming helps, of course, but Stanwyck provides the juice. Whether seducing Fonda in the early scenes or working the locals with her Eve shtick, Jean is always giving a performance–and having a grand time doing it. The trick is to keep the audience on her side. She has to show that underneath Jean’s schemes is a woman with heart.

Something else Jean/Eve is good at is sizing up people, always spotting a mark and plotting her next move, and this is when Stanwyck is at her most delightful–as improbable as that might sound. The first time I ever saw this movie was, really, just a random occurrence. One day, several, several years ago, back when the American Movie Classics channel still mostly showed old black and white movies without commercials, I turned on the TV one Saturday morning, just in time to see one of Stanwyck’s–and the film’s–best bits. In what is only her second scene, Stanwyck sits with her dad in the ship’s fancy dining room and uses her compact to scope out the competition–meaning any one of a seemingly endless parade of women willing to throw themselves at Fonda’s eligible bachelor. As Jean trains her mirror on the action, she provides breathlessly witty commentary on the likely contenders in all their earnest, yet doomed, optimism. Here shines the genius of not only Stanwyck but also Sturges because much of what unfolds is photographed from Jean’s view as she holds the mirror to scan the room. The audience sees what Jean sees and from the angle from which she sees it. What this means is that for the better of part of two minutes the audience sees Jean’s face only fleetingly. The connection is forged solely through the strength of Stanwyck’s voice and the inflections of her rapid delivery, and the effect is utterly captivating. In one bold directorial choice–keeping the performer’s face out of frame–we come to admire Jean’s moxie, and we’re right there with her when Fonda arrives as if on cue. Harking back to my own experience, I was so intrigued by this one sequence that both Michael and I stopped clicking through channels to watch all the way to the end. And we’ve been rewatching ever since.

Within minutes of meeting each other, Stanwyck and Fonda settle into a romantic clutch in the former’s stateroom. As Stanwyck invites Fonda to join her on a cozy chaise lounge, Sturges frames the actors in a tight two-shot, promptly parking the camera and not cutting away for right at 4 minutes: Stanwyck seductively running her fingers through Fonda’s luxuriously dark hair while the latter remains hopelessly transfixed, and good for him. The effect is both sublimely comic and swoonily romantic. The ability to sustain this sequence is another plus for Stanwyck.

As much as The Lady Eve is clearly weighted in Stanwyck’s favor, her schemes would be less engaging without Fonda’s game contributions. He does not underplay, exactly, but his role is not as flashy as his co-star’s. “Hopsie,” his nickname, btw [4], is steeped in confusion: nerdish, socially awkward (prone to tripping, which Sturges milks), but not entirely divorced from his sexuality, either, and part of the fun is watching him navigating his overwhelming primal attraction to Stanwyck in whatever guise she appears. It is, indeed, his sweetness and vulnerability that prompt Stanwyck’s hard edges to soften, and why his rash dismissal of her stings so deeply. Oh, and pay special attention to how tenderly he goes about the business of assisting her change shoes after an awkward accident. I melt at the thought of his touch every time. Of course, it certainly doesn’t hurt that dreamy-eyed Fonda is flat-out gorgeous. If there were ever any doubt about where his famous daughter Jane got her camera-ready good looks, search no further than her dad in his youthful prime.

How does it all end? Oh, I don’t want to spoil the full effect of Sturges’ mischief, but, rest assured, the conclusion is outrageous, a wee scandalous, on-point, and something that only the great comic director could invent. To clarify, Sturges receives a story credit on the film though the actual screenplay is drafted by Moncton Hoffe, who earned the film’s sole Oscar nomination; however, while the Academy might not have been enticed, this does not mean that the film did not boast plenty of admirers in its original run. For example, influential New York Times critic Bosley Crowther lavished Sturges and his movie with praise, heralding The Lady Eve has the best romantic comedy since 1934’s It Happened One Night [5]. Even better, at year’s end The Lady Eve reigned supreme at the top of the same newspaper’s 10 Best Films list, outpacing, yes, Orson Welles’ esteemed Citizen Kane [6]. That’s huge, but that’s not all. Stanwyck and Fonda’s pairing was also listed as one of 1941’s 10 Best by the National Board of Review, a distinction not earned by either of Stanwyck’s other ’41 releases including, just to be clear, the flick for which she was Academy nominated, Ball of Fire [7].

The Lady Eve continues to reap honors, such as the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry (inducted in 1994, [8]) and spots on two American Film Institute’s retrospectives, celebrating the first century of moviemaking: ranking as high as 26 among the most passionate love stories [9], and coming in at 55 among the funniest comedies [10].  The film has also been given the Criterion treatment with an expert digital transfer, a thoughtful introduction by triple threat, director-critic-historian Peter Bogdanovich, and a slide presentation spotlighting designer Edith Head’s costume sketches and notes.

Stanwyck herself was recognized on the AFI’s list of greatest stars, coming in at 11 among female players [11]. Just outside the top 10 and the likes of, you know, Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Ingrid Bergman, Greta Garbo, and Joan Crawford, but ranking higher than Grace Kelly, Ginger Rogers, Rita Hayworth, Lauren Bacall, and Ava Gardner (with no less than formidable Rosalind Russell absent from the roster). We’ll take it, Ms. Stanwyck, and Michael and I will keep watching The Lady Eve, all year ’round because, as Michael says, it’s always fresh and fun, year after year, no matter the season. Hallowed Eve, indeed.

Thanks for your consideration, y’all, and Happy Halloween!

 

[1] Indeed, according to  published reports, the IRS listed Stanwyck as the highest paid woman in America in 1944:  http://articles.latimes.com/1987-04-05/entertainment/ca-22_1_barbara-stanwyck/3

  • ^ Furthermore, regarding the matter of Stanwyck being the highest paid woman in America, my guess is that her good fortune, so to speak, was the result of being a “free agent” during the height of the old studio system. For example, The Lady Eve, Double Indemnity, and Sorry, Wrong Number are  Paramount; So Big and Meet John Doe are Warner Bros.; Stella Dallas and Ball of Fire are from Samuel Goldwyn. Working independently allowed Stanwyck to name her price, and if a given studio wanted her badly enough, she got what she asked. Again, notice that her three big 1941 films all came from different studios, during the same time that say, Bette Davis was under contract to Warners. Joan Crawford was still at MGM, barely, as were Judy Garland and Greer Garson, while Betty Grable reigned at 20th Century Fox, etc.

[2] Shades of both Stanwyck in Meet John Doe AND Rosalind Russell’s Hildy Johnson, per His Girl Friday, can be found in the reporter Jennifer Jason Leigh portrays in the Coens’ 1994 The Hudsucker Proxy.

[3A] Incredibly, my second favorite Stanwyck performance is in 1955’s There’s Always Tomorrow (a remake) in which Stanwyck, in the role of a top-flight fashion designer, is reunited with Fred MacMurray, her Double Indemnity co-star in a very adult tale of love, loss, consequences, and regret. From the same team (producer Ross Hunter and director Douglas Sirk) who wowed audiences in the 1950s with such soapy entertainments as Magnificent Obsession, All that Heaven Allows and the sublimely over-the-top remake of Imitation of Life, There’s Always Tomorrow differs from those better known titles in that it is a black and white release, a bit odd given the production team’s fondness for bold and exciting use of color; nonetheless, Stanwyck and MacMurray give it their all, and the ending still strikes a nerve.

[3B] I didn’t catch up with Ball of Fire until a years after I first watched The Lady Eve (which I had seen several times in the interim), and, perhaps, I would have preferred Ball of Fire if I had seen it first. It’s definitely an amusing romp. We own copies of both films, btw. The difference for me is that while Stanwyck clearly drives the plot of The Lady Eve, Ball of Fire plays more like an ensemble piece with the actress playing opposite not just Cooper but also a host of comic vets cast as Cooper’s colleagues (members of an encyclopedia editorial board), not mention to the likes of baddies Dana Andrews and Dan Duryea. That noted, Ball of Fire has been recognized by both the Library of Congress, per the National Film Registry, and the American Film Institute in its retrospective of America’s 100 funniest films.

[4] A reference to the hops found in ale.

[5] Crowther writing about The Lady Eve in the New York Times, originally published in February, 1941: http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9D07E2DD133DE33BBC4E51DFB466838A659EDE

[6] Please see: https://thestopbutton.com/lists/new-york-times-ten-best-films/#1941

[7] That noted, in his 1993 book Alternate Oscars, Danny Peary takes 1941’s Best Actress award from Joan Fontaine (Suspicion) and gives it to Stanwyck for Ball of Fire while acknowledging that the actress is also “flawless” in The Lady Eve and a near photo-finish worthy honorable mention (see pages 62-63). Also, as I do here, Peary describes Stanwyck in Ball of Fire as sassy. Furthermore, in the section devoted to the 1944 Oscars, Peary subs Stanwyck in Double Indemnity for actual winner Ingrid Bergman, per Gaslight (77-78). Finally, in 1941, the year in which Gary Cooper nabbed Best Actor accolades for Sergeant York, Peary makes a slight adjustment, awarding top honors to Cooper, sure, but in Ball of Fire opposite Stanwyck.

[8] See the complete list of National Film Registry inductees:

https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/

[9] See the American Film Institute’s 100 Years..100 Passions:

http://www.afi.com/100Years/passions.aspx

[10] See the American Film Institute’s 100 Years…100 Laughs:

http://www.afi.com/100Years/laughs.aspx

[11] http://www.afi.com/100Years/stars.aspx