Sunday, August 31, 2014

Best Supporting Actress 1989 Smackdown: My Ballot

Over at The Film Experience there's a monthly feature called The Best Supporting Actress Smackdown. It was originally started by Stinkylulu at their website and I strongly encourage you to visit past years there. But be prepared to be sucked in as you will literally spend hours of your life consumed with the Supporting Actress performances from various years. (Yes, Barbara Hershey shoulda won in 1996! Sorry, Juliette Binoche...)

The concept is simple: a year is chosen and a selected panel re-examinzes all 5 nominees with a grade of 1 to 5 hearts depending on how effective/good the performance is. Also for that month, there are even articles based on other films that year to give the nominated films context. August was 1989. I personally contributed two posts looking at that year: The 10 Hottest Hotties of 1989 and the final films of two Hollywood legends that happened to both be released that year. There's also a reader's write-in ballot for the Smackdown that is taken into consideration for the eventual outcome. This was the first month I was finally able to watch all 5 performances in time to contribute. Below is my ballot of the 5 women nominated for Best Supporting Actress in 1989:

* * *

Brenda Fricker My Left Foot
The Role: Mrs. Brown the real-life harried mother of Christy Brown (Daniel Day Lewis). A man with cerebal palsy that learned to use his left appendage to write and paint.

Playing one of those classic movie mom staples - no-nonsense, tough-loving - she's the rock that Christy stands on, steadfastly supporting him to "make his mark". Fricker is all steely eyes and determination with motherly affection buried beneath her strong demeanor. Her simplicity and worn-in realism are effective, but they get overshadowed by Day Lewis' astonishing physical commitment.  And she willingly hands scenes over to him instead of allowing her character to make her own mark. ♥♥

Anjelica Huston Enemies: A Love Story
The Role: Tamara Broder, the first wife of the film's hero (he already has a new wife and mistress) that seemingly comes back from the dead after having been believed to have died in the Holocaust.

Appearing like a ghost (and giving the film some much needed new energy), Huston limps her way into the story with an air of mystery. But the film doesn't really seem all that interested in letting us find out who she is. Relying heavily on Huston's own charisma and charm to do much of the work (there's always been something enigmatic about the star - as if she's holding a secret), she brings shades of color to fill in this outline of a character that's more writer's plot device than a fully formed creation. ♥♥

Lena Olin Enemies: A Love Story
The Role: Masha, The mistress of the main character. A surviver of the concentration camps, she now lives in New York with her mother and has some issues...

Masquerading as an actressexual showcase, the film seems to have based all the female roles on ideas or types of women instead of anything based in reality. While Huston must make something out of nothing, Olin is challenged with taking a tired male fantasy of what a constitues an interesting female character and making it seem plausible. Her Masha is damaged (so that the man can save her, naturally), sexual (she seems to be constantly horny), unpredictable (to make her wild in the sack), and, of course, drop-dead gorgeous. Olin delivers on all accounts, while somehow making this cliché seem fresh and interesting. Her commitment and strive for authenticity elevate the material she's given. But this nomination feels like a make-up nomination for her far superior work as a similar character in the previous year's The Unbearable Lightness of Being♥♥♥ 

Julia Roberts Steel Magnolias
The Role: Shelby Eatonton (married name Latcherie) a young Southern newlywed with diabetes that risks her health when she becomes pregnant.

How the Academy was able to single out Roberts among the stellar ensemble of great actressing (Sally Field is best in show, but I would've put Shirley MacLaine here in supporting) really comes down to two important factors: 1) she was a hot, young thing and the Academy never misses an opportunity to reward beauty and youth and 2) more importantly, her character dies, thus giving her the upper hand. It's fascinating watching early Julia Roberts performances while she's still finding her footing as a star. Her unsteady but watchable work as Shelby is like a diamond in the rough. ♥♥

Dianne Wiest Parenthood
The Role: Helen Buckman, a single mother of two trying to raise her troubled children.

Wiest makes it all seem so deceptively simple. She effortlessly drifts from tearjerking emotion to laugh out loud humor - often within the same scene - while grounding it in an identifiable and relatable reality. Unlike Fricker's saintly stoic of a mother, Wiest is messy, frazzled, and, like the rest of us, doesn't have all the answers. She's just trying to make do the best she can. Her reaction when she finds out about her daughter's pregnancy goes from shock, to confusion, to incredulous resentment at being too young to be a grandmother ("I was at Woodstock, for christ sake!"), exploring different levels of emotion within minutes while still being absolutely hilarious. How does she make it look so easy? ♥♥♥♥

* * *

The Oscar that year went to Brenda Fricker, but I would've given it to another mother: Dianne Wiest. And my personal ranking of the performances (since 3 ladies received the same score) would be Wiest, Olin, Fricker, Huston, then Roberts. Make sure you head on over to The Film Experience to read who topped the panel's list!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Lady in Red

Welcome back to the second half of our Hit Me With Your Best Shot 75th Anniversary Gone With the Wind celebration courtesy of Nathaniel at The Film Experience.

When last we caught up with Miss Scarlett she was shaking her fist in the air letting us know that as God is her witness, she'd never go hungry again. And as the rest of the film proves, she certainly keeps her promises. After the war has ended and after Scarlett finally marries Rhett, I've never really enjoyed the film as much as the first 3 hours. Once she's married to Rhett, the struggle for survival is pretty much over and the film takes on a more domestic melodramatic feel. When the film tries to make us care about Scarlett and Rhett as a couple, it loses its epic sweep, focusing on petty problems instead of the endurance of the human spirit. And I've never fully bought the romantic connection. Probably because I prefer when Scarlett is on her own defying convention - making everything about her. She's the only person she ever really cares about anyway.

Which is what leads me to my choice for Best Shot. It happens right after Scarlett has been caught in a nostalgic embrace with her beloved Ashley by his spiteful sister, India. Spreading the word about Scarlett's torrid love affair with Ashley, India tries to besmirch Scarlett's reputation and poison the relationship that Scarlett has with Melanie. Scarlett is due at Ashley's birthday party at his and Melanie's home, but she has chosen to stay away. Rhett, calling Scarlett out for her behavior (and not wanting to endanger the future of their daughter, Bonnie), forces her to attend. If nothing else for the satisfaction of Melanie ordering Scarlett to leave her home.

Rhett, wanting Scarlett to appear as the adulterous she is accused of, throws a scandalous burgundy velvet and feathered dress at Scarlett to wear as her scarlet letter:
"Wear that! Nothing modest or matronly will do for this occasion - Put on plenty of rouge. I want you to look your part tonight."
Rhett knows that nothing would ever happen between Ashley and Scarlett as he knows that Ashley is too "honorable" (too much of a coward to actually be unfaithful), but he wants to teach Scarlett a lesson as he "throws her to the lions" at Melanie's party as she makes her entrance in this:

But rather than shrinking from the shocked looks and disapproving eyes, Scarlett stands confidently and defiantly. It's the only way she knows how. Scarlett has always been her own woman, never afraid to make enemies (even of her loved ones) or stand out in a crowd. She welcomes the sneers as it only makes her stronger. Set against the simple, modestly decorated Wilkes' home, Scarlett seems even more out of place in her finery, as proud and haughty as the plumed peacock. It's one of the most iconic cinematic entrances of all-time and a memorable moment in a film filled with them. The burgundy dress has become a symbol of Scarlett O'Hara herself - bold, brassy, and singularly unique.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Scarlett's Strength

If someone were to ask me to name my favorite movie, I would quickly reply, unequivocally and unapologetically, Gone With the Wind. The 1939 epic classic is hardly a perfect film (the second half of the movie is not nearly as engaging as the first and let's not even start on the issues of race and the portrayal of most of the black characters), but I love the big bloated behemoth, faults and all. I've seen it countless times including 3 times on the big screen (and let me tell ya, it is the way the film was meant to be seen) including one screening with an introduction from actress Ann Rutherford who played youngest O'Hara daughter, Carreen. I never miss an opportunity to introduce it to new viewers and one summer I made the two little girls that I was babysitting watch it. When their parents came home with an hour left of the film, they joined us in the viewing and we all watched it together, mesmerized.

So I couldn't have been more excited when Nathaniel at The Film Experience chose the film, in honor of its 75th Anniversary year, as the subject for this week's Hit Me With Your Best Shot (I was also the one who happened to suggest it, so...) and to better accommodate all the grandeur of the film, this week will focus on the first half and next week on the second. That's right, a double dose of GWTW. Why, I'm just as giddy as Scarlett surrounded by men at the Twelve Oaks barbecue.

With so many memorable and iconic images that have seeped their way into our brains over the many years it has entertained audiences (and those are audiences are as big as the film itself. Adjusted for inflation, the film ranks far and away as the biggest all-time box office champ), filled with countless shots guaranteed to be included in every movie montage ever made, it seems overwhelming to pick just one. But I knew whatever shot I picked would have to include the reason I love the movie so much. It's the reason why it has endured the way it has to become the legend that it is. It is all thanks to the performance of a then relatively unknown British actress taking on one of the most legendary roles in film history: Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara.

Fiddle-dee-dee, why I'm only the greatest female character in all of film...

When Margaret Mitchell started writing the novel that would eventually become the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gone With the Wind (her working title was one of Scarlett's favorite phrases Tomorrow is Another Day), she was said to have based Scarlett on another popular heroine of literature, Becky Sharp in William Makepeace Thakery's Vanity Fair. The subtitle of Thakery's book is A Novel Without a Hero, with its anti-heroine Sharp at the core of the story. She is manipulative and unscrupulous, never afraid to use her feminine wiles to charm her way into getting what she wants. Mitchell used these qualities when creating her fiery lead character (who, by the way, was originally given the very pathetic-sounding name of Pansy. Mitchell soon realized that the strong-willed heroine of her story needed a name as bold as her personality) giving Scarlett Becky Sharp's sway over men and a steadfast determination. 

It's that determination that's most admirable in Scarlett. Spoiled, selfish, and not the best judge of her own well-being - that Scarlett could actually believe she's in love with the prissy Ashley Wilkes is one of her biggest flaws. So clearly wrong for her on every level, she has convinced herself that his unattainable love is the ultimate prize to win. In the hands of a lesser actress, Scarlett could easily become a heartless, one-note bitch. Luckily, with Vivien Leigh at the helm, Scarlett became a multifaceted creation. Full of nuance and prickly motivations, she never feels the need to win us over as Scarlett would with one of her beaus, knowing that complexity is much more fascinating than easy likability.

It helps that Leigh, herself, was just as determined as the character she portrayed. Fighting off thousands of young hopefuls to play the coveted part in the film (she once remarked that the body heat of the previous actress was still warm when she filmed her screen test), Leigh was telling people years before they even started work on the film that she would win the role - all without having set a foot in Hollywood. But when she finally did arrive, once filming had already begun on the film - without its main character - she made her presence known, perfectly calculating her arrival for maximum effect. The flames of Atlanta as her backdrop, Leigh was the phoenix from the ashes that Selznick needed to bring his story to life.

And that singleminded dedication to succeed is what also inspired my choice for Best Shot. After Scarlett has escaped Atlanta, with Melanie (Olivia de Havilland) and Melanie's newborn child with Ashley in tow, she believes her troubles will be over once she reaches her beloved home of Tara. Unfortunately that's hardly the case as Tara has been stripped of all its resources and depleted of its food supply, her mother has recently died, and her father has gone mad from the stress of it all. Aching and starving, Scarlett goes out to the garden and chokes down a bite of mealy carrot, only to have the foul taste come right back up. But instead of becoming defeated by it all, it only provides fuel to the fire that rages inside her. With clenched jaw and raised fist, Leigh delivers Scarlett's most famous (often parodied) and impassioned speeches:
As God is my witness, as God is my witness they're not going to beat me. I'm going to live through this and when it's all over, I'll never be hungry again. No, nor any of my folk. If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill. As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again!
Best Shot

Scarlett is not the same person she was in that first shot of her sitting on the porch, flirting with the Tarleton Twins, not a care in the world. That girl is gone, in her place is a woman of iron grit and strength. She has lived through hardship and knows that many more will follow. And with the swell of "Tara's Theme" playing as the camera pulls back to create its famous shot of Scarlett's silhouette against the blood-red sky, I always get chills. The power of that moment is what film is all about - inspiring us to muster the same resilience, shake our fist at the world, and stand as tall as Scarlett O'Hara.

Make sure to come back next Tuesday, August 26th, to see the second part of our GWTW celebration...

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Misfortune of Montgomery Clift

The men in Tennessee Williams' work never seem to elicit the same sort of fervor as his female characters. And with such indelible women as Blanche DuBois, Amanda Wingfield, and Maggie the Cat, among others, it's easy to see how their male counterparts tend to get overshadowed by such towering creations. Especially when they've been brought to life by such sublime actresses as Vivien Leigh, Cate Blanchett, Jessica Lange, Cherry Jones, Elizabeth Taylor, and Scarlett Johansson. There are exceptions, of course, Stanley Kowalski immediately comes to mind, but outside of Brando's performance do you ever hear him mentioned in quite the same way as that play's ladies? Even at the most recent production of The Glass Menagerie on Broadway in which Zachary Quinto's performance as Tennessee Williams stand-in, Tom, gained some of the play's best reviews, he still found himself as the odd man out when it came to Tony recognition. Once again upstaged by the Williams women.

For this week's edition of Hit Me With Your Best Shot from Nathaniel at The Film Experience we took on the film adaptation of a Tennessee Williams One-Act that became the gonzo Southern Gothic melodrama Suddenly, Last Summer. You name it, this movie's got it - cannibals, predatory gays, lobotomies, suggestive swimwear, and a couple of Oscar-nominated performances from two of Classic Hollywood's finest actresses (domineering Katharine Hepburn as the WASP-iest Southern Grand Dame ever to grace the screen and the buxom Elizabeth Taylor going off the deep end magnificently) that perpetuate the long-standing Williams womanly tradition. But as campy and delicious as those two turns were, I kept getting drawn into the sad eyes of Montgomery Clift as the observant Dr. Cukrowicz. Not necessarily for the performance he was giving (because those ladies were overpowering him) but because Monty himself suddenly seemed like one of Willimas' women - so lost and fragile. As delicate as Laura in Glass Menagerie, capable of breaking at any moment.

There had always been something softer about Montgomery Clift. Beneath the manly visage of the star, there was always a haunted quality and a femininity married to his masculinity. But after the car crash that almost left him for dead (saved only by kindred spirit Elizabeth Taylor - who certainly knew about suffering. Husband Mike Todd died just before filming of this movie, allowing her to access a well of emotions for her impassioned monologues), Clift seemed to become a shell of himself. Retreating into alcohol and drugs to numb the pain, it has been noted that his life after the accident was the longest suicide in Hollywood history.

He was such a liability that he couldn't even get insured for the film's production. He only appeared in it at the insistence of Taylor, who used her power as the biggest box office draw to secure Monty a job. And as the two actresses spend most of the film in elaborate soliloquies, Monty silently listens, taking in what they say but not completely registering entirely what is happening around him.

After he meets Hepburn's Violet Venable in her late son Sebastian's primitive jungle (complete with Venus Fly Trap, naturally), she goes on and on about her poet son and as she describes him, Monty begins to become the stand-in for him. We never once see Sebastian's face, even during Catherine's flashback as to what happened and perhaps because Monty was also gay in real-life, the connection seems natural. When the truth is learned and Violet suddenly seems to be the one to lose her own mind, she even mistakes Monty's doctor to be her dead son. Not to say that Monty was devoured by a pack of ravenous boys as Sebastian was, but he was devoured just the same.

Right before Monty leaves the house on his first visit, he and Violet stop in front of a statue of the Angel of Death, a macabre yet grotesquely beautiful winged skeleton. Violet looks out over the prehistoric plants that populate the setting,
"Millions of years ago, dinosaurs fed on the leaves of these trees. They were vegetarians. That's why they became extinct. They were just too gentle for their size. Then the carnivores, the ones that eat flesh - the killers - inherited the earth. But then they always do, don't they..."

Monty is left alone looking bewildered (but after a half an hour of Hepburn's rants on birds of death, fly-eating plants, and a mother/son relationship that seems a little too close for comfort, bewildered is probably putting it mildly). Even though her words are about her son and foreshadow the fate of Sebastian, it's hard not to read into it in regards to Monty's own life. Monty's own demons were carnivorous, chasing him the way the wild pack would Sebastian, and as the grinning skull looks down on the actor, foreshadowing his own untimely demise, it was not the character in the film that looked adrift, but the actor himself. He would only live another 7 years after this film was made, finally unable to outrun his own demons. Perhaps he never stood a chance to begin with. Like a Tennessee Williams heroine, he was too gentle for this world.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Twice a Best Actor Roundtable: The Complete Series

Today we reached the end of our summer roundtable organized by Fisti over at A Fistful of Films in which we spent each week reviewing the 9 actors that scored double Best Actor Oscars (well, DDL has 3, but we only looked at his first two). It's been so great to watch these films (some of them like Tracy's, Hoffman's, and March's I had never seen prior to this and some like Penn in Mystic River, I never want to see again) and debate their artistic merits with the other members of the panel. I might not have always agreed with everyone (it seems the only week we were all in agreement was with DDL, but he brings people together with his brilliance) and that's what made it so much fun. I really enjoyed getting to know the other bloggers over the weeks through their thoughts on the performances. So if you've missed any weeks, I've linked each below along with a snippet from my own review and the grade I assigned. Please click on them all and get lost in the Best Actor goodness. And, who knows, maybe next we'll tackle Twice a Best Actress...

Sean Penn:

Mystic River "With a Boston accent as authentic as a can of Campbell's clam chowder, he plays each moment one of two ways: explosive, screaming hissy fit or seething, incoherent Brando-like mumble..." D
Milk "In the years since, I've actually watched the stirring Oscar-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk and have since found that Penn's work isn't quite as convincing when compared to the real man..." C+

Gary Cooper:

Sergeant York "Cooper, at 40 and over a decade older than York was at the time of the film's setting, seems far too mature to be pursuing such a young man's journey." C-
High Noon "There's a lived-in weariness to Gary Cooper's performance in High Noon." B

Dustin Hoffman:

Kramer vs. Kramer "But what Hoffman claims as his most intimate performance comes off more self-indulgent..." C
Rain Man "Hoffman gives a masterclass in the craft of acting in a performance that is nothing but technique and showboating." D

Daniel Day-Lewis:

My Left Foot "His physical transformation and preparation would mean nothing if he hadn’t been able to develop a fully fleshed out character on screen." A
There Will Be Blood "Day-Lewis created an indelible portrait of this despicable man, drawing us into the sticky chambers of Plainview’s mind." A

Jack Nicholson:

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest "Nicholson's natural charisma makes him a believable subject of adoration by the other inmates..." B+
As Good As It Gets "He's never asked to be anything other than Jack Nicholson with the quirk dial turned up as far is it will go." D

Frederic March:

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde "March seemed to have missed seizing the opportunity to showcase his range in bringing to life two very different characters in the same film." C-
The Best Years of Our Lives "I only wish that Fredric March as Al Stephenson contributed more to the film's legacy." C

Marlon Brando:

On the Waterfront "Brando and his performance as Terry Malloy are every bit as astonishing as you've heard and he more than lives up to the hype." A
The Godfather "By all accounts the performance shouldn't work as well as it does." B+

Tom Hanks:

Philadelphia "His character is so non-descript that he almost becomes more of a symbol than an actual human being." C
Forrest Gump "Hanks’ Gump, while likable, is little more than a plot device to guide us through decades of American history." C

Spencer Tracy:

Captain Courageous "Tracy's Manuel is like a childhood memory - pleasant, sweet, but a bit muddled and not quite as good as we remember." C
Boys Town "All the rough edges that any actual human being would posses have been finely sanded down until we're left with the harmless wooden figurine that is Tracy in this film." C-

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Un(comfort)able Foods

Last time Nathaniel from The Film Experience picked a couple of short films for the wonderful series Hit Me With Your Best Shot, I started off by saying that short film is in many ways the red-headed stepchild of filmmaking. If only I had saved that observation for this week's edition concerning a trio of short films from Canadian director Jamie Travis! It would have fit perfectly with the three films in question (Why the Anderson Children Didn't Come to Dinner, The Saddest Boy in the World, and The Armoire - all available to view for free online here) which are referred to as Travis' Saddest Children Trilogy. And as a bonus one of the boys is a stepchild (how convenient!) and most of the young boys in it could be considered ginger-esque (okay, now I'm just pushing it). But the comparison of unwanted or unloved children seems to be in keeping with the overall mood of these melancholic, dry-humored shorts in which childhood is observed not with starry-eyed nostalgia but with a darkly sinister and slightly unnerving eye.

Often compared to the intricate, meticulously designed worlds of Wes Anderson, Travis' trilogy does seem to share an aesthetic sensibility to that of the director. Favoring an overall brown color palette (although that could be the late 80s/early 90s setting of the pieces. Man, the 80's loved a brown interior design) that is highlighted by pops of lime green (the same green and white gingham finds its way into all three of the films), each set, costume, and camera angle is carefully chosen to create the distinct world within which these characters live.

Even though each film stands separately and are only connected thematically, there do seem to be reoccurring motifs and images (a milk carton with a missing child's picture makes its way to two of the three, amongst others). Incidentally, the Best Shots I've selected from each film seem to also be connected as they all include an image of food. All three could be considered comfort food, foods we remember fondly as children, but each has a subversive twist to them - making them anything but comforting.

At the start of Travis' first short, Why the Anderson Children Didn't Come to Dinner, a mother (hooked up to an IV) is busily preparing a breakfast feast for her three children. There's huge stacks of french toast, massive piles of bacon, and as she continues to crack egg after egg, she briefly stops and observes this oddity:

Little do we know now, but this brown egg seems to pop up unexpectedly throughout the rest of the film and boy, does it set this mother on edge. As she contemplates the out-of-place egg, she places it under her heel and smashes it. This image perfectly sets up the seemingly normal premise (a mother making breakfast, lunch, and dinner) and with one of these things not like the others, it lets us know that things are slightly off and to expect the unexpected from here on out.

Similarly, another surprisingly warped addition makes it way into a childhood staple in The Saddest Boy in the World. After informing his mother about his unhappy status in the universe, she sends him to a therapist. Naturally the solution is antidepressants and as she "hides" them in his green jello we get this hilarious image:

I love how comically obvious the white and red pills are as they float at the top of the gelatinous mass. Normally a mother will try her best to get you to do what's good for you without letting you know. But the jello, all bright, colorful, and inviting is clearly showing that even a treat has its downside. And rather than masking the medicine, she's letting him observe it head on. No child-like innocence for this young boy - no wonder he's so sad!

And my final image from The Armoire is not as immediately twisted as the other two images but within the context of the story also gives a childhood favorite a darker edge:

Aaron's friend Tony has been missing for weeks. He was last seen at Aaron's house while they were playing a game of Hide and Seek, but Aaron was never able to find him. Later, while watching the news on the couch (you know, every little boy's favorite show), Aaron learns that the body of his young friend has been found. Aaron, instead of showing shock or even acknowledging the fact that a tragedy has occurred, silently sits - letting his ice cream melt down his hand. The drops roll down his fingers as if mimicking the flow of blood after an accident. His ice cream cone suddenly takes on a sinister foreboding and sense of unease as we begin to wonder what Aaron actually knows about all this. Even ice cream isn't safe in Travis' distorted creations.