Month: February 2012

Oscar Nominees

And now, the nominees! Oscars tomorrow. This is most definitely not a prediction, because I don’t want to attempt to judge current tastes. I do however, offer my opinions, as always.

Best Motion Picture of the Year
The Artist
The Descendants
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
The Help
Midnight in Paris
The Tree of Life
War Horse
If I have to pick a winner out of this group, it would be The Tree of Life. All artsy and nature-y and Stanley Kubrick-y, but choosing a film from this category is like when you’re playing Apples to Apples and you get stuck judging the hand when everyone puts in their throwaway cards. Moneyball? War Horse? These are not quality films.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role
Demián Bichir for A Better Life
George Clooney for The Descendants
Jean Dujardin for The Artist
Gary Oldman for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Brad Pitt for Moneyball
I did like Jean in The Artist. About the only thing I could stand about it. Gary Oldman is very good as well, but Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is such a “star-studded” piece, that he kind of gets lost in the shuffle.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role
Glenn Close for Albert Nobbs
Viola Davis for The Help
Rooney Mara for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Meryl Streep for The Iron Lady
Michelle Williams for My Week with Marilyn
As previously mentioned, Meryl Streep, genius. Rooney Mara? Not even in her league.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role
Kenneth Branagh for My Week with Marilyn
Jonah Hill for Moneyball
Nick Nolte for Warrior
Christopher Plummer for Beginners
Max von Sydow for Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
Christopher Plummer. And really, Jonah Hill? Is this belated praise for Superbad or something? Because that role is pretty much all he’s good at.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role
Bérénice Bejo for The Artist
Jessica Chastain for The Help
Melissa McCarthy for Bridesmaids
Janet McTeer for Albert Nobbs
Octavia Spencer for The Help
Jessica Chastain! She was so great in Tree of Life and The Debt and I haven’t seen Coriolanus yet, but she’s amazing in it. I know. Also, Melissa McCarthy already won an Emmy, ostensibly for “Mike and Molly,” but really for Bridesmaids. She did base her character on Guy Fieri, so that’s legit.

Best Achievement in Directing
Woody Allen for Midnight in Paris
Michel Hazanavicius for The Artist
Terrence Malick for The Tree of Life
Alexander Payne for The Descendants
Martin Scorsese for Hugo
Again, pick the best of the worst? Quality films, gentlemen! Oh look, no ladies. Such a shock. But, if this award is about achievement, then I would say Terrence Malick achieved the most with his film. If incoherent, Tree of Life is an achievement.

Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen
The Artist : Michel Hazanavicius
Bridesmaids: Kristen Wiig, Annie Mumolo
Margin Call: J.C. Chandor
Midnight in Paris: Woody Allen
A Separation: Asghar Farhadi
Hazanavicius should NOT be rewarded for all the stealing and destroying he did with that film. Kristin Wiig is a comic genius, and the only funny part of Midnight in Paris was Ernest Hemingway, and he probably really said all of that.

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published
The Descendants: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash
Hugo: John Logan
The Ides of March: George Clooney, Grant Heslov, Beau Willimon
Moneyball: Steven Zaillian, Aaron Sorkin, Stan Chervin
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: Bridget O’Connor, Peter Straughan
I think Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy represents the best achievement. Adapting a John Le Carre novel  well is actually difficult.

Best Achievement in Cinematography
The Artist: Guillaume Schiffman
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Jeff Cronenweth
Hugo: Robert Richardson
The Tree of Life: Emmanuel Lubezki
War Horse: Janusz Kaminski
Again, achievement-wise, Guillaume Schiffman demonstrated that he has indeed seen a classic film (unlike his boss) and has some respect for them (really unlike his boss), and while his shots were dead ringers for Citizen Kane and 1940’s noir and out of place in a 1920’s-era silent, he did do exactly as he was told. He should get an award for working with Hazanavicius and not coming out looking ignorant or rude.

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score
The Adventures of Tintin: John Williams
The Artist: Ludovic Bource
Hugo: Howard Shore
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: Alberto Iglesias
War Horse: John Williams
This is actually atrocious as well. John Williams is competing against himself for Tin Tin and War Horse? How can I put more emphasis on how ridiculous that is? Oh, by comparing him to Ludovic Bource, who stole the score for The Artist from Vertigo (Bernard Herrmann). Hazanavicius admitted it and apparently does not care. How is The Artist even in this category? Hazanvicius said he bought the rights to the music, but by virtue of doing so, it makes the score unoriginal. Right? Oh, just give it to Williams.

Golden Globes Predict the Oscars?

According to the Hollywood Reporter (the trade publication of Leonard Maltin and Robert Osbourne), the Golden Globes get a D- in fortune telling. In the past twenty years, the Golden Globes (held before the Oscars in January) have only picked the same Best Picture winner as the Academy 55% of the time. In the past seven years, only once (Slumdog Millionaire). Other categories stats tend to be slightly higher, except Best Supporting Actress. Below are the stats, from, and the Golden Globe results. With my comments of course. Next up- my jaded Oscar predictions…

Past 20 years, Academy and Golden Globes picked the same winners…

Picture: 55%

Director: 60%

Actor: 60%

Supporting Actor: 65%

Actress: 85%

Supporting Actress: 55%

Screenplay: 75%

Golden Globe Winners 2012…

The Descendants (Really? Listen to this interview with the director, Alexander Payne. He makes very obvious mistakes in his re-telling of cinema history and his inspirations. Clearing he does not actually know anything about filmmaking.)
The Help
The Ides of March
War Horse

The Artist (Obviously. This is just so disgusting to me. But, that’s another post.)
Midnight in Paris
My Week with Marilyn

Woody Allen, Midnight In Paris
George Clooney, The Ides of March
Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
Alexander Payne, The Descendants
Martin Scorsese, Hugo (Scorsese, interestingly, campaigned with Jimmy Stewart, Ginger Rogers, and Burt Lancaster before Congress to stop the colorizing of classic films. A-OK in my book.)

George Clooney, The Descendants (Honestly, it’s time that Ryan Gosling got recognized for his good looks with actual awards.)
Leonardo DiCaprio, J Edgar
Michael Fassbender, Shame
Ryan Gosling, The Ides of March
Brad Pitt, Moneyball

Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs
Viola Davis, The Help
Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady (Meryl Streep is a genius, simple as that.)
Tilda Swinton, We Need to Talk About Kevin

Jean Dujardin, The Artist (OK, this funny or die clip is kind of good.)
Brendan Gleeson, The Guard
Joseph Gordon Levitt, 50/50
Ryan Gosling, Crazy Stupid Love
Owen Wilson, Midnight in Paris

Jodie Foster, Carnage
Charlize Theron, Young Adult
Kristen Wiig, Bridesmaids
Michelle Williams, My Week With Marilyn (Apparently she captured Marilyn’s “essence,” if not her look, mannerisms, or good acting.)
Kate Winslet, Carnage

Kenneth Branagh, My Week with Marilyn
Albert Brooks, Drive
Jonah Hill, Moneyball
Viggo Mortensen, A Dangerous Method
Christopher Plummer, Beginners (Although Plummer was adorable, the terrier Cosmo who plays Arthur, the dog who will not leave Ewan MacGregor’s side, steals the movie.)

Berenice Bejo, The Artist
Jessica Chastain , The Help
Janet McTeer, Albert Nobbs
Octavia Spencer, The Help (Jessica Chastain’s work in the past year was ALL phenomenal.)
Shailene Woodley, The Descendants

Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen (I am so over Woody Allen. But, I did literally LOL when Ernest Hemingway spoke.)
The Ides of March, George Clooney, Grant Heslov, Beau Willimon
The Artist, Michel Hazanavicius
The Descendants, Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash
Moneyball, Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin

The Adventures of Tintin (…)
Arthur Christmas
Cars 2
Puss in Boots

The Flowers of War
In The Land of Blood and Honey
The Kid WIth The Bike
A Separation (…)
The Skin I Live In

W.E., Abel Korzeniowski
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross
Hugo, Howard Shore
War Horse, John Williams

“Lay Your Head Down,” Albert Nobbs
“Hello Hello,” Gnomeo and Juliet
“The Living Proof,” The Help
“The Keeper,” Machine Gun Preacher

”Masterpiece,” W.E. (…)


“Miss Loy, I presume?”

Manhattan Melodrama and the Second Greatest Hollywood Love Story

Myrna Loy was born Myrna Williams in Montana, moving to California with her mother as a child. She dreamed of becoming a dancer, and when Grauman spotted her dancing at his Egyptian Theater, he gave her a screen test. Myrna played background roles in silent films, as a chorus girl, commonly known as the “vamp.” She co-starred with the likes of Joan Crawford, whom became a lifelong friend. She played exotic, loose women mostly, but John Ford is quoted as saying, “Wouldn’t you know, the kid they pick to play tramps is the only good girl in Hollywood.” 1934’s Manhattan Melodrama co-starring Clark Gable was a landmark for Loy in that her character goes from gangster’s live-in girlfriend to respectable district attorney’s wife, and she slips into a cab with William Powell for the first time.

William Powell, affectionately called “Bill” by Loy, was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He discovered acting in a high school Shakespeare club and moved to New York after graduations to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. He was a star on Broadway before moving to pictures in 1922. He played mostly villains in silent films. Manhattan Melodrama was a landmark for Powell as well because, as he said, “the smartest thing I ever did was marry Myrna Loy onscreen.”

Manhattan Melodrama begins rather melodramatically, with a riverboat crash. A priest (who has just been telling a group of children about a boxing match), saves two young boys, Jim and Blackie, who are adopted by a Russian Jew who has just lost his son. Jim and Blackie lose their surrogate father in a riot soon after. Jim grows up to be a lawyer and straight man, while Blackie runs a crooked casino. Before the first glimpse of Jim and Blackie as adults, I assumed Powell was the gangster and Gable was the straight man. It’s the other way around. And when Blackie’s girl shows up at the club, it’s Loy’s silhouette! I’d known Powell and Loy from The Thin Man movies and a few of their other screen pairings (I Love You Again, Love Crazy, and Double Wedding), in which Loy is the rich, but witty socialite, and Powell is the loving schemer. This film is unique among their shared oeuvre in that it was the break in their respective typecast careers and their first on-screen moments together.

Loy previously played a seductress or a chorus girl. A kept woman. Eleanor, Blackie’s girlfriend, wants to have morals, but she gives in to the yacht-girlfriend-lifestyle when Blackie kisses her. After one night with Jim, Eleanor has morals. She has found someone who talks sense and someone with whom she connects. Jim opens doors for her, helps her out of cars, and doesn’t even try to kiss her at the end of the night! (Clark Gable reportedly tried to kiss Loy in real-life one night, and she shoved him off the stoop into the bushes.) Eleanor isn’t used to this from Blackie, who has ditched them to go collect some gambling debts (ie go break someone’s legs with Spud, his heavy, played by Nat Pendleton). She suddenly realizes she wants someone who treats her right, and she “goes straight,” so to speak: she marries Jim. “May I try with you?” she asks of him.

Jim is more the protagonist than Blackie, although ostensibly the story is about both of them. Jim has dimension as a character, and Jim is the one who struggles and changes. From their first adult meeting in the film, Blackie insists on Jim’s integrity. He, ironically, agrees to rat out another gangster, because he refuses to let Jim back down on an inditement. In every subsequent meeting, Blackie sings Jim’s praises, even as Eleanor is leaving him for Jim, even after Eleanor has married Jim, and even after Blackie is put on trial by Jim. He has only the highest regard for his friend. But, the constant praises are a red herring, of sorts. Jim is being put into difficult positions. He began his career with integrity and ideals, but he struggles between doing what is right and his loyalty to his oldest friend. He begins to doubt Blackie after the Manny Arnold murder, and when Richard Snow threatens Jim’s campaign for governor with accusations that Jim let Blackie off for the Manny Arnold murder, Jim considers loyalty over integrity. “Class,” Blackie says, as Jim makes his closing argument to send Blackie to the chair. He choose to stay on the straight and narrow, not allowing himself to be corrupted. He tries to take it back at the last minute, the struggle almost overcomes him, but through Blackie’s urging, Jim makes a different kind of sacrifice. He stands before the state senate and confesses his weakness, the moment when he offered Blackie commutation, and admits that he struggled to maintain his ideals.

The infamous meeting of Eleanor and Jim, as Eleanor bursts into Jim’s taxicab on election night, is the meeting of two great screen personalities who did not become whole until they met each other. Both Loy and Powell had been typecast previously, as villains and vamps, but for the first time, their characters had depth and goodness. They weren’t all good, Loy was the bad-girl-with-the-heart-of-gold trope and Powell faced temptation, but the famous Loy/Powell banter was born. That banter would be utilized by W.S. Van Dyke, nicknamed, unfortunately, One-Take Woody, for his speedy filmmaking, again later that year, in an adaptation of a Dashiell Hammett novel, The Thin Man. Nick and Nora Charles were a landmark. Up until then, movies ended with marriage, but The Thin Man (which spawned 5 more installments) began with its main characters already married. It was a marriage of fun and matched wits, that only Powell and Loy could play. (Did you ever see the Thin Man TV show? Peter Lawford is a great actor, but Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk are no dream team.) “Why I believe the little woman cares!” Nick Charles declares. “I don’t care!” Nora insists. “I’m just used to you that’s all,” and Nick plants a kiss on her forehead before going out to investigate with trusty terrier Asta by his side. Powell became funny, and Loy became the ideal wife. Of course, the two actors had it in them to play these parts all along, they just needed to find their other half. No one else could square off with Powell and his dry sense of humor quite like Loy. Kay Francis and Carole Lombard tried (Lombard in real-life too), but both pairings soon led to flops. There were a few rocky films with Loy, but as Powell said, “And it was the pleasantest, I might add. When we did a scene together, we forgot about technique, camera angels, and microphones. We weren’t acting. We were just two people in perfect harmony.” Perfect harmony, on screen. Off screen, there was no romance. Loy called Powell a “dear friend,” but the two were never romantically involved. Loy was divorced four times, and Powell had been engaged to Jean Harlow when she died suddenly in 1937. A documentary on Powell suggested that maybe that was the recipe to the perfect marriage: friendship and companionship, without the romance. It was for Powell and Loy’s character’s on screen, and as Loy said, “It wasn’t a concious thing. If you heard us talking in a room, you’d hear the same thing. He’d tease me a little and there was a sort of blending which seemed to please people. Bill is naturally a witty man. He doesn’t have to have lines.” Such chemistry is rare in screen teams (although TCM’s Leading Couples is an interesting profile of other famous on and off screen couples), and it was born in Manhattan Melodrama.

I began by declaring Powell and Loy the second greatest Hollywood love story for their undeniable chemistry and great companionship, but who is the first? That’s a story for another time.

Directors Named George: Stevens and Cukor

George Cukor and George Stevens are probably the most modest directors of the studio era: an era not known for modesty or restraint. At that time big, pushy producers and directors ruled the roost, and when a starlet tried to buck the system, she (or he) was promptly put on suspension. Men were masculine and women were divas. Stereotypes sold tickets, and the men ran the studios. Tensions rose higher as stars left for WWII, and in 1945, when they came back different men. The turmoil of the war years extended into the fifties with numerous HUAC investigations, blacklists, and genuine fear. Directors like Howard Hawks were notorious for being starlets themselves. Hawks, who “discovered” Lauren Bacall, was furious over her romance with Humphrey Bogart and would treat her rudely on set or even forbid her to see him, he was so jealous. But the Georges, Stevens and Cukor, were both quiet men, concerned with producing great work.

Their collective filmography spans more than fifty years and at least five genres. Their films created some of the great screen couples, from Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers to Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. Hepburn was a common link between them, and both directed Hepburn with Spencer Tracy, her greatest partner. You will see their names over and over again, in opening credits, and not remember that the same man named George directed Gunga Din and The Diary of Anne Frank, and another man, who also happened to be named George, directed both Gaslight and My Fair Lady.

Cukor was a retiring man, who enjoyed a good laugh, but usually not at someone else’s expense. Contrary to Hollywood at the time, he did not smoke and rarely drank. As a child he would entertain his mother’s dinner guests by dressing up in her clothes. He began working in Hollywoodas a dialogue director, a low-on-the-totem polw, often uncredited position. He began directing on his own in 1931 with Tarnished Lady. He worked on upwards of 65 films, credited and uncredited, finished and unfinished. He is best known as a “woman’s director,” but he can more accurately be called an “actor’s director.” He earned his title by coaxing the very best out of his female stars. Katharine Hepburn’s first picture, A Bill of Divorcement, was directed by Cukor, and she returned to working with him again and again. He was fired from Gone with the Wind because Clark Gable was jealous of the attention Vivien Leigh was getting from the director. His replacement, Victor Fleming, favored Gable over Leigh, and Leigh went to Cukor on the sly for more help. But, Cukor was an actor’s director because he got his male stars to deliver some of their best performances as well. Hepburn was “box office poison” before her pairing with Spencer Tracy. Sylvia Scarlett had not been a success, but she had done well with The Philadelphia Story. Cukor directed Tracy and Hepburn together in Adam’s Rib (1949), an early feminist manifesto, and a can’t-miss with the dynamic trio of Cukor-Tracy-Hepburn. Cukor’s later work included two musicals: A Star is Born with James Mason and Judy Garland and My Fair Lady with Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison. The distinguishing quality in all of his work is the superb performances. He was not a “typed” director, like Hitchcock for instance, but his “type,” was good acting.

The gaps in Katharine Hepburn’s career where she did not work with Cukor, she was most likely working with George Stevens. Stevens began as a cinematographer on shorts. Also a polite and retiring man, he is credited with the first Hepburn-Tracy film, Woman of the Year. He also directed a very early Cary Grant film: Gunga Din for RKO in 1939. He continued to work with Grant to moderate success, but fared far better with Hepburn. During WWII, Stevens went overseas with a team to film the war. He was present, camera in hand, when Allied troops entered Dachau. When Stevens returned to Hollywood, his style and his choice of pictures had changed drastically. Always a careful man, he worked at a slow pace; slow for a studio machine churning out a picture every two weeks. Pre-WWII and even during the war, his films were light-hearted, mostly romantic comedies. Even Gunga Din, which today is riddled with political and racial significance, was light for an adventure film. After the war, he spent much of his time creating documentaries from footage shot overseas. 1951 marked his successful return to features with A Place in the Sun. Montgomery Clift plays a poor boy given a job in his uncle’s factory. He takes up with a fellow factory worker, but by the time the young girl tells him she is pregnant, Clift is already chasing another girl, the wealthy and sophisticated Elizabeth Taylor. Clift contemplates killing his pregnant girlfriend rather than sacrifice his chance at social success. A dark exploration of a character’s mind, this was no romantic comedy. Montgomery Clift was relatively new at this point (debuting in 1948’s Red River with John Wayne), and his performance is astonishing for one so inexperienced. Stevens was an “actor’s director,” as well. Stevens other post-war work includes Shane and Giant, both set in the American West and chronically its decline and fall. He also directed The Diary of Anne Frank and The Greatest Story Ever Told before retiring.

Stevens and Cukor didn’t raise a huge fuss, but managed to quietly turn out some of the best pictures of the era. Biographers sometimes say that Stevens or Cukor didn’t have their own distinctive cinematic “style.” There is no marker to instantly identify it as one of their movies. Many directors of that era had a certain flair (Stanley Kubrick, for instance, directed a wide range of genres, but a picture can, visually, instantly be recognized as his), but Stevens and Cukor “just” made Hepburn-Tracy-Grant movies. Working with actors can be trying, especially in a system designed not to make art, but to make money, and directors who nurtured and took the time to allow actors to explore were rare. The Thin Man (while wonderful) was made in 12 days. Montgomery Clift, if given 12 days to make A Place in the Sun, could not have done it. Clift and his generation of actors, in the time when the Method became popular, wanted to get to know their characters, wanted to connect the words on the page to real feelings to real emotions on film. Masculinity wasn’t flexible. Images of men and (especially) their emotions on screen were not exploratory, character-driven pieces. Stevens and Cukor allowed their male and female actors to explore character identities and tap into previously unused talent. Their intertwining and impressive body of work, when taken together, stands out. Maybe less noticeably than Michael Curtiz’s (he’s so flashy), but brilliantly.




Actors Named Montgomery Clift

Surprisingly, there was more than one. Well, not exactly. But there were several classic movie actors with either Montgomery or Clift in their names…

Clifton Webb

Most notable role: Waldo Lydecker in Laura

Webb was a mama’s boy. He lived with his mother until she died, when he was 71. His masterful characters reflect this upbringing (and adult life) in what the New York Times calls “prissy, and well, downright fussy.” But think of Waldo Lydecker in Laura, the creepy older newspaperman who is (also) obsessed with Laura. He is fussy and precise and rich and all the more nuanced, real, and frightening for it. Webb also played opposite Myrna Loy in Cheaper by the Dozen, a decidedly lighter film, but still a fastidious, if comic, character. He began his career on Broadway pre-WWI, continuing with much success into the 1920’s. His most famous Broadway roles were originating a part in Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit and playing in The Importance of Being Earnest. He also starred in Meet the Wife, opposite a young and dashing Humphrey Bogart (possibly the production in which Bogart apparently sauntered on stage with a racket and said, “Tennis, anyone?” although never proven).

Montgomery Clift

Most notable role: Where to begin? A Place in the Sun, I Confess, From Here to Eternity, Red River, The Misfits, Judgment at Nuremberg, the list could go on and on

Montgomery Clift was born in Nebraska and raised in a wealthy family. He got his start in an Alfred Lunt/Lynn Fontanne Broadway show, and in 1948, stole the screen from John Wayne in Red River. Clift soon became the male sex symbol of the era, opposite Elizabeth Taylor, with whom he starred in A Place in the Sun. Clift was a noted Method actor and had a mutual admiration for Marlon Brando. He was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor several times, losing out to Brando and William Holden. He also turned down roles that made other stars’ careers, including the William Holden role in Sunset Boulevard and the James Dean role in East of Eden. In 1956, Clift was involved in a car accident that so badly damaged his face, plastic surgery could not restore it to its original good looks. Clift was self-conscious from then on, especially of his re-constructed face, and became dependent on alcohol and painkillers. After his accident, Clift had some of his most famous roles, although they differed drastically from his pre-accident characters. Judgment at Nuremberg, in which he plays a mentally challenged victim of Nazi sterilization, a largely improvised role. The Misfits, Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable’s last film, was a surprising choice for Clift because his character was emotionally close to his real life, a notorious reason he had for turning down parts. Clift played a young, but falling, rodeo star who has been kicked around one too many times. The Misfits was on TV the night Clift died, but he reportedly refused to watch it.

George Montgomery

Most notable role: The Lone Ranger

George Montgomery, king of B-movie westerns, is best known for his work in the 1930’s on The Long Ranger serial. He co-starred with Roy Rogers and Gene Autry frequently, as well as many famous leading ladies: Betty Grable, Gingre Rogers, Maureen O’Hara, and Gene Tierney. His first starring role (albeit in a B-movie) came in 1941, in Last of the Duanes. Like Hitchcock mastered suspense, George Montgomery mastered westerns. He rarely swerved outside of his genre, although he did occasionally, and he made quite a successful career out of the B’s.

Next up: Directors named George… (Did you see what I did there?)