Thursday, December 22, 2011

OLIVER! (1968)

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After acknowledging the civil rights movement still going on in the country at that time by awarding IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT in 1967, in 1968 the Academy went right back to what it did for most of the 60's, giving yet another Best Picture award to a film set entirely in Europe.  Which is not to say that OLIVER! is a poor choice; with it's lively, catchy score, energetic choreography and massive, gorgeous sets, it's a charming and delightful musical that never feels dull at two and half hours.
The 1838 novel by Charles Dickens was first adapted into a musical  in 1960 by Lionel Bart,  who wrote  the score and the book.  Premiering at London's West End theater, it came to Broadway to success and acclaim two years later.  Inevitably, film rights were bought by Romulus Films  and journeyman director Carol Reed was hired to direct; he would spend months rehearsing his cast of unknowns (thousands of boys were auditioned before Mark Lester was chosen for the title role) before even shooting.  The cavernous sets reportedly took up six sound stages, and weeks were spent shooting the bigger musical numbers.  The budget of ten million dollars was steep at the time, but the film returned over sixteen million in the US alone.
It tells the story of OLIVER TWIST, an orphaned boy who is thrown out of his work house/orphanage for asking for a second helping of gruel.  Eventually making his way to London, Oliver meets a slightly older boy named the Artful Dodger (Jack Wild), who introduces him to Fagin (Ron Moody), who provides food and shelter to boys who are willing to steal for him.  After a pick pocketing attempt goes wrong, Oliver is adopted by the wealthy Mr. Brownlow (Josephy O'Conor), who eventually realizes that Oliver is the son of his niece that disappeared years earlier, but not before Oliver is kidnapped by the evil Bill Sikes (Oliver Reed).  Eventually, Oliver is saved from the clutches of Sikes, who is killed in a rooftop chase, and goes to live with Mr. Brownlow. 

Jack Wild and Mark Lester

I find it interesting that Vernon Harris's script for the film  often has almost the bare minimum of spoken dialogue necessary to move the plot along, frequently using physical action to tell the story, while the musical numbers are practically piled up on top of each other. Just look at the way that the opening song, "Food Glorious Food" segues almost immediately into the next song, "Oliver". But, with its simple story (this film is a good introduction to musicals for kids) and terrific score, I don't think this is a bad thing, as it feels that this a film that almost bursts at the seams with music.
My favorite scene in the film is the unforgettable "Consider Yourself" number, which begins with the Artful Dodger singing to Oliver and just gets bigger and bigger, with street urchins, butchers, newsboys and many others  all joining in as the two boys make their way through the crowded London street.  As the song ends, Reed's camera pans up to show blocks of hundreds of people singing and dancing at the same time in a perfect moment of cinematic delight.  This formula is used again later in the film during "The Who Will Buy" number, which starts with Oliver singing alone and then grows until an entire  town square joins him; although it isn't quite as successful as the earlier scene, it still is impressive.  And even in the non musical scenes, Reed comes up with some excellent visuals: I love the way that he introduces Fagin from behind a cloud of steam, brandishing a tong like a devil's pitchfork, or the way that we see Bill Sikes's long shadow moving down a dark tunnel before we see him.

Ron Moody as Fagin

My favorite performance in the film is Ron Moody's as Fagin; Moody had already played the character in the London production,  and clearly had him down cold.  His Fagin is a greedy, unrepentant criminal who corrupts young boys, but somehow he is lovable, mainly because he clearly does care about the boys, and abhors violence.  And he is also very funny, especially when he sings the classic "Reviewing the Situation", in which he considers reforming, but can't quite bring himself to do it.  I also enjoy Oliver Reed as the evil Bill Sikes; he plays the role completely straight, and his intense, brooding presence keeps the film's tone from getting too light.  Interestingly, his character sang on stage, but not in the movie, and there are some reports that this was because of Reed's singing voice not being up to the standards of his costars.  I personally, I think this actually works for the character; the fact that Bill refuses to join in with the dancing and singing going on around him makes him more removed and darker, adding to his villainous nature.  
I do have one problem with the film's casting: I am genuinely surprised that after auditioning thousands of boys, Mark Lester was chosen.  Oh sure, he's a reasonably cute kid, but he often seems a bit stunned or bored on screen, and he just isn't all that interesting or likable as a child actor, unlike Jack Wild's charismatic Artful Dodger.  I also don't like Lester's singing voice (which, it was revealed years later, was dubbed by a girl named Kathe Green), and I find Oliver's one solo number, "Where is Love?" the only one in the film that completely fails.  Even worse is that, considering that he's the hero, Oliver  actually never does anything in the story that could be called heroic.  Most of the time, he has other characters help or hinder him, and he just passively stands by and accepts it. He's even too dim witted to run away from Bill Sikes when he has a clear chance to do so. And, of course, his happy ending arrives entirely out of sheer luck, without any energy expended on his part.  (I realize that my criticisms here apply as much to the original novel as they do to the film).  Thankfully, having such a dull lead character really doesn't hurt the film, because Oliver is constantly surrounded by far more colorful and interesting people who brighten up the film. So I still really enjoy it.


While I obviously have a real affection and warmth for OLIVER!, there was a colder, stranger film that came out that year that would prove to be extremely influential: Stanley Kubrick's 2001, which is perhaps the finest Science Fiction film ever made, and clearly is superior to the charms of OLIVER!, engaging as those charms may be.

Monday, December 12, 2011



In 1967, for the first time ever, the Academy acknowledged the civil rights movement in its best picture award, yes, after years of awarding escapist froth like 1964's MY FAIR LADY, the Academy finally awarded a film that dealt with racism in modern America.  Although prejudice was also the subject of 1947's GENTLEMEN'S AGREEMENT, IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT was the first best picture winner to deal with race and to feature an African American actor in the lead.  In fact, almost all of 1967's best picture nominations showed the creeping influence of the counter culture in Hollywood: clever sex comedy, THE GRADUATE, the stunningly violent BONNIE AND CLYDE, and even GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER, which showed Hollywood veteran stars Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn deal with their daughter's interracial marriage, (and which also starred Sidney Poitier) showed that something new was happening in American movies.  (Anyone interested in further information on these films can be directed to Mark Harris's excellent 2008 book "Pictures at a Revolution".)  Only the fifth nominee, the silly kiddie musical DOCTOR DOLITTLE, showed that old school Hollywood was still hanging in there.

IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT was first published as a novel in 1965, written by John Ball, one of the few African American authors to write in the crime fiction genre.  It's success led to producer Walter Mirish purchasing the rights for the United Artists company.  Veteran director Norman Jewison was hired to direct, and Rod Steiger  was cast as Southern sheriff Gillespie.  When it came to casting the film's hero, homicide detective Virgil Tibbs, there was little question of who to get: Sidney Poitier.  Although African Americans had been involved with American film making from almost the very beginning (director Oscar Micheaux, for example, directed over forty movies from the silent era to the 1940's), most films with African American casts and directors were made almost entirely for African American audiences.  Poitier, on the other hand, was the first African American movie star to become famous with all audiences, starring in hit films like THE DEFIANT ONES and TO SIR WITH LOVE.  In 1967 he was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, having become the first black actor to win a best actor Oscar for 1963's LILIES OF THE FIELD.  He accepted the role, but demanded the film not actually be shot in its Southern setting, understandably fearing that the local residents would be angry about the portrayal of their town.  (Another Southern based film about racism made that year, Oscar Preminger's HURRY SUNDOWN, had resulted in death threats from the KKK towards the cast and crew).  Suitable shooting locations were found in a small town in Illinois (except for a few brief shots of a cotton plantation that could only be found in Mississippi), and the shooting went smoothly.  It would quickly become a sizable hit, making almost eleven million dollars on a budget of around two.

Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier

Set in the fictional town of Sparta, Mississippi, the story begins with local police discovering the murdered body of wealthy industrialist Colbert.  Homicide detective Virgil Tibbs, who works in Philadelphia and was just in town to visit his mother, is first brought in as a suspect, and then winds up assisting local sheriff Gillespie in the investigation, while dealing with the racist attitudes (and even attacks) of the local townspeople.
The film's opening shots show a train running through a rural setting as Ray Charles sings the great title song and the credits role.  Eventually the train passes a welcoming sign for the state of Mississippi, and audiences of that time already could feel a sense of tension, knowing full well that Mississippi was the location of some of the worst violence of the civil rights era.   As the film continues,  Jewison keeps that tension going through nearly every scene; Virgil spends the whole movie forced to interact in situations  where he runs the risk of saying or doing something that could put his life in danger.  Therefore, Poitier's Virgil is a man of few words, and long, thoughtful looks as he sizes up the people around him before he makes his next move; he grimly accepts the casual racism of the people around him, but he can lash out when pushed too far.  This leads to one of the film's most memorable scenes:  while questioning wealthy plantation owner Endicott (Larry Gates), he lets it be known that he considers Endicott a prime suspect in the murder.  When Endicott angrily slaps him, Virgil slaps him right back, a moment that brought gasps from audiences in 1967.  It still plays well today, not just because of  Poitier's defiance, but also due to the stunned reaction the slap gets from Gillespie, who just can't believe what he's seeing!

The famous slap scene

Steiger, who won a best actor award for this role, has excellent chemistry with Poitier, as his loud and boisterous performance contrasts nicely with Poitier's taciturn Virgil.  I love the way that he sarcastically mocks the large amount of Virgil's salary, or the way that he gets Virgil to stay and  help with the case by playing up to Virgil's pride("You're just gonna stay here and show us all. You've got such a big head that you could never live with yourself unless you could put us all to shame".)  More importantly, Steiger effectively shows his character changing in his racial attitudes as the film progresses, as he goes from angrily spewing epithets at Virgil to respecting his obvious intelligence and ability.  The quiet, admiring way that he says goodbye to Virgil at the film's end shows that the film believes that people can change, even in Mississippi in 1967.
As good as the two leads are, the film is far from perfect; this is especially true of its confused (and confusing) murder plot that meanders before reaching a less than surprising finish.  But really, the murder plot is just an excuse to get the two main characters working together, and on that level, the film excels, clearly influencing later interracial cop buddy movies like the LETHAL WEAPON films.


As much as I enjoy Poitier and Steiger,  and admire the Academy for taking a stand on the civil rights movement,  I still don't think this film holds up nearly as well as Arthur Penn's outstanding BONNIE AND CLYDE, not to mention Mike Nichols's generation defining classic, THE GRADUATE.  Still, as usual, the Academy's choice was far from a terrible one.

Thursday, December 1, 2011



A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS was the second best picture winner for director Fred Zinnemann, the first being FROM HERE TO ETERNITY in 1953; it was a surprising success, considering that he hadn't had a hit in some time, and that the film lacked any big stars.  Interestingly, it's victory illustrates the continuing influence that the British invasion was having on the Academy: between 1962 and 1966, every best picture winner featured a European born star in the lead role, usually playing an English character.   In any event, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS is a well made costume drama that has good  performances and is pleasing to look at; unfortunately, it also drags at times, and its main character is, to me, not quite as heroic as he's supposed to be.
It began as radio play written by Robert Bolt that played on BBC radio in 1954, then on British television in 1957.  Then Bolt adapted it to the stage, and eventually it had a successful run on Broadway.  Eventually, it came to Columbia, who gave Zinnemann a relatively small two million dollar budget to make the film, and then mostly left him on his own, which allowed him to cast Paul Scofield in the lead role of Sir Thomas More, a role that he had performed on stage, even though Scofield was not a well known star.  Other good actors like Robert Shaw, a young John Heard, and Orson Welles (who steals his only scene as the cynical Cardinal Wolsley) were cast and the shoot for the film went without a hitch; it became a surprise hit, making over twenty eight million dollars at the box office.
Set in 16th. Century England, and based on the true story of Sir Thomas More, it reenacts a time of great political and religious tumult in England's history:  King Henry the eighth (Robert Shaw), in dire need of an heir, plans to divorce his current wife, Catherine, so that he can marry his mistress, Ann (an unbilled Vanessa Redgrave). When the pope will not sanction the divorce, the King breaks with the Catholic church; More, who was then high chancellor and a devoted catholic, resigns rather than accept the King's actions.  He hopes to retire quietly, but the King desires More's public approval, which he steadfastly refuses to give, eventually leading to his ruin.
Scofield won an Oscar for the role, and it interesting to see the award go to a performance that is so often   soft spoken and reserved; he only raises his voice once, at the end, when he is literally defending his life.  Still, his performance is forceful even without volume, giving the strong willed More a quiet dignity and strength.  The film's best scene comes when the King arrives to personally plead for More's approval; in stark contrast to Scofield, Shaw's acting is boisterous and full bodied; I love the way he shifts from cajoling to pleading to yelling in an attempt to move the taciturn More.  It is also interesting in that while More's determination in the face of royalty is admirable, we can't help but like the King, who feels he is only asking a reasonable favor, and who's desire for an heir is understandable. So the audience can see both sides of the argument, and we can also sense the warmth and respect the two men have for each other, even as they disagree.  It is disappointing that this is the only scene the two characters share in the movie (Shaw appears again only briefly later in the film), especially since for the rest of the movie More's main adversary is Leo McKern's villainous Cromwell, a far less interesting character than Shaw's.

Robert Shaw and Paul Scofield

Even worse though, is the fact that this confrontation between More and the King is the last great moment in the film, as the rest of the movie quickly becomes a series of predictable (but admittedly well acted) scenes.  Once it is established that More will never give in, the story becomes one long slog of him slowly losing one thing after another, from his position to his freedom to, inevitably, his life.  It is interesting to note that the original radio production was just one hour long, while the film lasts two, and I think the padding of the story shows.
Also, I often find it hard to sympathize with More's stubbornness; here is a man who is willing to lose everything in his life, despite the entreaties of his King, his friends and his family, all to prove a principle.    Early in the film, we see that he refuses to allow his daughter, Margret (Susannah York) to marry a Lutheran (calling him "a heretic"),  so the importance of religion to him is clearly established, and his deference to the Vatican is a logical move for him.  Still, by the end of the film, when he is imprisoned while his family lives in poverty, I just can't feel that he's doing the right thing, and I admire his wife for resolutely saying that she will never understand him.  Personally, I've always felt that it was perfectly reasonable for, say, Galileo,  to publicly admit that  he was wrong about the earth rotating around the sun when the Inquisition threatened to kill him because of it.  I understand how important principles can be to people, but I put human life before ideals, and because of that I can't say that I have  much sympathy for More.   He is also a bit of a fool, since he assumes that the King will allow him to retire peacefully, when it should have been obvious to him that that would never happen.

Paul Scofield


While writing about 1964's best picture winner, MY FAIR LADY, I criticized the Academy for picking that old fashioned musical while rejecting the far more dynamic A HARD DAY'S NIGHT, and I feel the same way about this choice; A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS is a well mounted and performed adaptation of a play, but it is far less exciting than another play turned into a movie that was released that year: Mike Nichols's adaptation of Edward Albee's WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA  WOOLF?.  With   it's great, raw performances by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, (featuring equally raw language!) that was really the best and most memorable movie of that year.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011



In 1966, for the second year in a row, the Academy decided to award a sweet, popular, musical as best picture; at a time when the country was still reeling from the assassination of president Kennedy and   was roiled by the civil rights movement, the escapism provided by both of these films resounded with both the Academy and the general public.  THE SOUND OF MUSIC is a film that tends to divide people, based on its bright, good natured tone that often sinks into sickly sweet territory.  And while I do agree that the film is almost too light hearted at times, it wins me over with it's fine Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstien score (those songs stick in your head, whether you want them to or not!), beautiful location shooting (a big improvement over the fake sets used in the previous year's winner, MY FAIR LADY), and, of course, it's sprightly, winning performance from Julie Andrews, in the role of Maria Von Trapp.
It's story began in 1949 when Maria Von Trapp published her autobiography, THE STORY OF THE TRAPP FAMILY SINGERS, which was turned into a popular German film (THE TRAPP FAMILY) in 1956. In 1959 Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse wrote a musical for the Broadway stage based on the book, with Mary Martin as Maria.  Originally, they planned to use songs the Trapp family actually sang for the score, but Martin asked Rogers and Hammerstein to write a song for her, and eventually they wound up doing the entire show.  The musical was enormously popular, and 20th. Century Fox quickly bought the rights  for a film version.  Robert Wise, who had directed WEST SIDE STORY so successfully in 1961, was slated to direct.  After watching advance footage of MARY POPPINS, he cast Andrews in the lead.  He also cast  Christopher Plummer as Captain Von Trapp,  thinking that Plummer could bring some darkness to the role to balance out Andrews's sunniness.  And, after auditioning literally dozens of children, five girls and two boys were chosen to play the Von Trapp children.  Most of the shooting was done on location in Salzberg Austria, and while it went over schedule and over budget (around eight million dollars), it would become the biggest hit film of the decade, grossing almost one hundred and sixty million dollars in the US alone; adjusted for inflation, it remains one of the top money making films of all time.  And the fact that a "singalong" version of the film is still being run at revival houses to this day shows what a lasting impact it has made.
Set in Salzberg, Austria in the 1930's, it tells the story of Maria, a young nun whose spirited ways cause he nunnery to  send her to take care of the children of Captain Von Trapp, a wealthy widower.  Although she has trouble at first, she wins the children over by teaching them how to sing.  Eventually she even warms the heart of the Captain, who ends his engagement with a Baroness (Eleanor Parker) and marries Maria.  As the Nazis come to power in Austria, the Captain, an outspoken opponent of them,  takes Maria and the children across the border into safety.

Julie Andrews

As he did with WEST SIDE STORY, director Stevens  showed that he had a real flair for opening up a Broadway show into a movie, and  nothing displays this better than the film's legendary opening shots, (taken in a helicopter), that pass over stunning, mountainous scenery for over two minutes, until the camera finds Maria, joyfully singing the title song in a field of flowers. I also enjoy the way he uses quick cuts to different locations when Maria takes the children out singing, or the way that he elegantly frames Maria and the Captain in their romantic moonlit stroll.  Stevens also makes sure to keep his simple story moving along briskly, so that the film never sags despite being almost three hours long, and he even pulls off some nice suspense scenes towards the end. (Although I wish he'd explained just how the Von Trapps managed to get from the theater to the nunnery without any of the Nazis seeing them!).
Interestingly, Andrews reportedly considered turning down the role of Maria because it was too similar to the one she played in MARY POPPINS, and in many ways those two films have become a millstone  around her neck, often limiting what other kinds of roles she could take, (she really tried to put that idea to rest in the 1981 film SOB).  Still, it's hard to imagine anyone else in the role, whether she's wonderfully singing  about "whiskers on kittens", or lovingly attending to the children and the Captain, Andrews's Maria simply radiates goodness.   If Andrews was reluctant to be in the film, Plummer has often said that he outright regretted it, but I think he does bring enough of an edge to the role, at least in the beginning, to keep the film's light tone from being overwhelming.  Plus the chemistry between him and Andrews is sweet, and he is believably brave when standing up to the Nazis.

Christopher Plummer

Speaking of that tone,  I do wish that the film had a little more darkness and conflict in it; it bothers me that the supposedly difficult Von Trapp children (who drove off their last governess in two hours!) take to Maria so quickly.  Or that the love triangle between Maria, the Captain and the Baroness is settled so easily, with the Baroness shrugging off her love for the Captain in a matter of seconds.  Also treated too lightly is the romance between eldest child Liesl (Charmain Carrof) and a young telegraph boy, with just a few encouraging words and a brief song from Maria curing Liesl's broken heart. (If only it were that simple!) Worst of all, I wish the film had made the Nazis more  genuinely scary instead of hardly mentioning them until the last forty five minutes of  the film; this is especially true of  Nazi leader Zeller (Ben Wright), who seems more like a buffoon than a real villain.  While I'm aware that this is supposed to be a feel good movie, I think a little more implied evil by the Nazis would have made the latter part of the film more exciting.  Interestingly, in the stage version of the story, the Baroness and the Captain break up mainly because of her acceptance of the Nazis, and I think that should have been left in the film to add some depth to both characters and the story.
Despite the problems I have with its sappiness,  which keeps this film low on my list of favorite musicals, I still find it irresistible and charming; hating on this film is like kicking a puppy.  But kick some people did and still do: legendary film critic Pauline Kael's scathing review of it probably got her fired from her job at MCALL'S magazine.  To argue my defense of the film to its detractors, I would like to compare it to another movie: in 1982, legendary director John Huston was given a huge budget to adapt a successful Broadway show that also featured much singing and dancing from children.  The result was ANNIE, a notorious critical and financial flop, which just shows how difficult it is to do this kind of story right, and what a great job Stevens and company did.


1965 was not a particularly good year for movies, with THE SOUND OF MUSIC'S biggest competition coming from David Lean's DR ZHIVAGO, which I find even more uneven.  And while I take a certain perverse pleasure in citing Roman Polanski's REPULSION as one of my favorites of that year (a film the Academy wouldn't have touched with a ten foot pole!), I won't argue with the treacly delights of THE SOUND OF MUSIC.

Friday, November 11, 2011


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The Academy's choice for best picture of 1963 was a safe and easy one: an enormously popular adaptation of a Broadway musical, directed by a Hollywood veteran (George Cukor) and featuring one of the biggest stars in the world, Audrey Hepburn.  And, while MY FAIR LADY has a mostly terrific batch of songs by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, and lovely costumes by Cecil Beaton (who won an Oscar), the film sags at two and half hours, and it often feels stage bound with it's painfully artificial sets. Compared to 1960's WEST SIDE STORY, which had dynamic dancing and beautiful location shooting, it seems stodgy and old fashioned.  Cukor's direction won him an Oscar, but I can't see why, it feels like all he tried to do is recreate the Broadway show on screen instead of making a real movie.  And Hepburn, for all her legendary loveliness and charm, was miscast and gives an uneven performance.
The film's story first began in 1914 as the play PYGMALION by Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, which was very popular and revived numerous times.  It tells the story of Henry Higgins, a wealthy English gentleman and bachelor, who bets that he can turn a lowly flower girl, Eliza Dolittle, into a proper English lady in six months.  A film version was made in 1938, with Leslie Howard as Henry Higgins and Wendy Hiller as Eliza Dolittle (Howard co directed the film with Anthony Asquith).  Personally, I find the earlier version of the story superior, with Hiller making a far more believable English flower girl than Hepburn.  What's surprising when watching both films back to back is how little Lerner and Lowe added to the story other than the songs: the plots are nearly identical, and whole chunks of dialogue (including the famous last line) are taken verbatim from the earlier film.

MY FAIR LADY the musical first opened on Broadway in 1956, with Julie Andrews as Eliza and Rex Harrison as Henry, and it played successfully for six years.  Film producer Jack Warner saw the premiere and immediately made plans to adapt it, paying a record five and half million dollars for the rights.  Harrison was cast to repeat his role, as was Stanley Holloway as Eliza's father Alfred.  But Andrews, not yet a proven star, was replaced by Hepburn ("I knew Hepburn had never made a financial flop" explained Warner).  Cukor was tapped to direct after Warner's original choice, Vincent Minnelli, wanted too much money.  (I think this is a shame, as I imagine Minnelli, who directed GIGI and AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, would have made the film in a more lively manner than Cukor did).  The film was a very big production, with large 1912 London period sets being created while Cecil Beaton made over a thousand costumes for the huge cast, pushing the budget to over sixteen million dollars. But, buoyed by its success on Broadway and Hepburn's star power, it was an almost sure fire hit, earning well over seventy million dollars at the box office.

Audrey Hepburn

Thirty years after her last starring role, and twenty seven years after her death, Audrey Hepburn remains one of the most popular movie stars ever, with posters of her iconic, chic, "look" from BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S hanging in bars and cafes while her famed movies like CHARADE  and SABRINA are shown at revival houses and on TV constantly.  Much of the attention she garners seems to be more for the way her sleek body could easily be draped in some of the most stylish clothes of her era than for the quality of her movies or her acting ability.  And, while I enjoy most of her films, and  can appreciate the way she wears a dress, I think the only movie she made that could be considered truly great is Willam Wyler's ROMAN HOLIDAY, for which she won a best actress Oscar.  There, her immediate charm and likability was used perfectly.  One problem I have with many of her movies is that she was often paired up romantically with male stars who were literally decades older than she was (in CHARADE, for example, she was 32 and Cary Grant was 64) while this was nothing new for Hollywood, Hepburn's waifish features and little girl voice made it all the more noticeable, and a bit creepy.  Returning to MY FAIR LADY, I've already mentioned that I think Hepburn was miscast in the film, with her poor flower girl's shrill Cockney accent that often sounds painful to listen to.  Also I find it disappointing that, although she trained to do her own singing, the vast majority of it is dubbed by Marni Nixon (who also dubbed Natalie Wood in WEST SIDE STORY and Deborah Kerr in THE KING AND I), and the transition from Hepburn's natural speaking voice to her singing voice is often jarring.  Still, once she loses the accent I find myself warming to her performance, even if I think that Julie Andrews would have been a better choice.   Andrews would have the last laugh though, as she wound up starring in MARY POPPINS instead of this film, and she won an Oscar for best actress for it, while Hepburn wasn't even nominated.

Rex Harrison

My favorite performance in the film is Stanley Holloway's as Eliza's ne'er do well father Stanley; he brings great energy and humor to the roll, and his two big songs ("With a little bit of Luck" and "Get me to the Church on Time") are the musical highlights of the film (and he does his own singing!).  And of course Rex Harrison, who won a best actor award, is also good, in a role that that he had literally portrayed thousands of times on Broadway.  With his beautiful voice and emphatic talk-singing style, not to mention his superior, English gentleman manner, it feels like the role was written for him, and he clearly delights in delivering Shaw's sharp, clever lines ("Yes, you squashed cabbage leaf, you disgrace to the noble architecture of these columns, you incarnate insult to the English language, I could pass you off as the Queen of Sheba!").  He's also good towards the end of the film, when he finally realizes he does have feelings for Eliza, thoughtfully singing "I've grown Accustomed to her face."  But this leads to a big problem I have with the end of the film: while I can totally believe that he would find himself missing her, I cannot for the life of me understand why she returns to him.  Higgins spends most of the story insulting and belittling her, pushing her harder and harder to learn her lessons, and then he doesn't give her a single word of praise after he wins his bet. He is a sexist, pompous, classist, egotist, and Eliza, who has a number of other options in her life, chooses to go to him of her own free will, presumably to marry him. And the fact that the last line of the film is an outright order to her ("Where the devil are my slippers?"), shows that he intends to continue to be condescending to her; honestly, I don't think he deserves her. Interestingly, I am not the only one who's ever felt this way; in the original 1914 production of PYGMALION, Eliza defiantly does not return to Henry at the end.  Clearly George Bernard Shaw, an ardent socialist, did not want a happy ending for a snob like Henry, but, sadly, stage directors starting changing the ending almost immediately, giving audiences a more conventional happy ending.  This enraged Shaw, who, even as late as the 1938 movie, was trying to make sure that his version of the ending got made.  Unfortunately, he lost that battle, and I think that this famous story is all the weaker because of it.


Clearly, I am not a big fan of this only middlingly pleasant trifle of a movie; really, if the Academy felt that they had to reward a musical, why couldn't they go with the far more original Richard Lester film  A HARD DAY'S NIGHT?  Along with the great Beatle music in that film, its clever style still has an influence on MTV to this day.  Perhaps even better is Stanley Kubrick's cold war comedy classic DR STRANGELOVE, OR HOW I STOPPED WORRYING AND LEARNED TO LOVE THE BOMB, which, unlike MY FAIR LADY, holds up wonderfully, and features a great triple performance by Peter Sellars.

Friday, October 21, 2011

TOM JONES (1963)


TOM JONES at first seems like an unlikely candidate for best picture: its cast were mostly unknowns, as was its director and eighteenth century source novel (in America anyway), not to mention the fact that it is an outright comedy, a true rarity for a best picture winner.  But the film definitely caught the zeitgeist of the time; with America's infatuation with all things English just starting  (beginning with 1962's DR NO, the James Bond films were proving to be very popular in the US, meanwhile The Beatles were just starting to hit the charts here) plus the onset of the sexual revolution, (the birth control pill was first introduced in 1960) the stage was set for a saucy and sexy romp from England to become a commercial and critical smash.  But, while the film does produce a few big laughs, its a little too light and silly to really be considered great, and its designation as the year's best movie appears far from correct to me.
The idea for the film came from  director Richardson (who also produced it), who, after years of making gritty English dramas, wanted to adapt Henry Fielding's comic novel for the screen.  After securing funding mainly though his own production company, Woodfall Films, he cast Albert Finney, then known mostly for British TV work, in the lead.  Filming was difficult, as Richardson demanded it be shot on location in various parts of England.  After assembling a rough cut, he was disappointed with the results, but he and editor Anthony Gibbs pulled out all the stops, using unusual cutting techniques (like numerous wipes, irises and freeze frames) and a jaunty harpsichord score by John Addison to brighten the film  (Addison would win an Oscar for it). Also some clever narration by Micheál Mac Liammóir ("We are all as god made us, and many of us much worse") was added. Still, Richardson expected a flop, but instead the film grew into an enormous hit on both sides of the Atlantic, bringing in around $50,000,000 world wide on a budget of around a million.
It tells the story of Tom (Finney), a baby abandoned at birth in the bed of Squire Allworthy(George Devine), who assumes him to be the offspring of one of his servants and his barber, both of whom he casts out.  He then raises Tom like he is own son.  Tom grows to be a good looking young man who enjoys drink and the company of women, but his true love is the pretty Sophie Weston (Susannah York), the daughter of Squire Weston (Hugh Griffith), but because he is a bastard, he is unable to wed her, and eventually his father is coerced into driving him out of the house.  After many adventures (some of a sexual nature), his true standing as Allworthy's nephew is revealed, and, after literally being saved from being hanged on false charges at the last possible second, he and Sophie are reunited.

Albert Finney and Susannah York

As Tom, Finney is full of charm, good looks and energy, and is well matched with York's lovely Sophie; importantly, he remains likable even when he is far from faithful to her.  Still, this is a pretty breezy roll, and I think Finney's best work lay ahead in films like SHOOT THE MOON and THE DRESSER.  The rest of the cast is just fine, except for Griffith as Sophie's father, who's constant screeching of his dialogue quickly grows tiresome (and whose drunken behavior in the film, by all accounts, was not just the result of acting).
The film has an odd style: on the one hand, the recreations of the 18th. century are shown realistically, as is the story and dialogue, but Richardson often adds surreal touches like speeding up the action or having characters suddenly directly address the camera.  He even opens the film like a silent movie, complete with title cards.  Also,  he tends  to fill his frame with people and animals in almost constant motion,  (running, fighting, rolling around).  The result is a 18th. century English period piece like no other; instead of the often staid and stentorian tone of such films it is playful and light.  It also avoids the self conscious prettiness that so many period pieces have, reminding the audience that this was a time of abundant mud and filth.

Joyce Redman in the famous "eating" scene

But there just isn't that compelling a story here, and at over two hours it goes on far too long, especially at the film's beginning, when a long deer hunt followed by romantic scenes between Tom and Sophie  bring the film to a crawl; the main plot doesn't really kick in until Tom is cast out by Squire Allworthy, which should have happened much sooner.   (Richardson apparently agreed with this assessment, assembling a director's cut in 1989 that is seven minutes shorter, and which does play a little better.)
The film's most famous scene comes when, after Tom saves a  woman in distress (Joyce Redman), the two of them go to an inn and share a seductive meal of lobster, oyster and fruit.  Redman and Finney mostly improvised this scene, and their ridiculous expressions as they chomp and slurp away provide the film's biggest laughs.  But this is the only scene in the film that I really find hilarious (although I also enjoy Liammóir's droll narration),  and too often I find the film's straining to be funny by speeding up the action or having the cast yell or perform pratfalls, tiresome.  Still, the film very much captured the tenor of its times by making the sexually liberated Tom the hero and portraying the so called guardians of morality as pompous killjoys.  So, as a time capsule precursor to the youth culture rebellion that was about to rock the 1960's, it's an interesting film, but as a movie, it's only a mild success.

Obviously, I am not that crazy about this film, and I think that AMERICA AMERICA,  THE HAUNTING, and especially THE GREAT ESCAPE are all better films that were released that year.  But, to be fair, TOM JONES is a fun movie, and its nice to see a rare win for a comedy.

Monday, October 10, 2011



With the choice of LAWRENCE OF ARABIA the Academy gave director David Lean his second best picture winner,  (his first being 1957's BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI) and helped cement his reputation for epics.  But LAWRENCE OF ARABIA is an unusual epic in that, even though it has the prerequisite cast of thousands and enormous battle scenes, it also has a complex and often half mad main character who stands in stark contrast to the one dimensional heroes of such films as THE TEN COMMANDMENTS or SPARTACUS.  It is this unusual hero (and the great lead performance by Peter O'Toole as that hero) that keeps the film from feeling dated and stilted like so many other epics from that era.  Today it is still seen as the one of the best epics ever made, an opinion I certainly concur with.
After the huge success of BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, director Lean and producer Sam Spiegel were looking for a follow up.  Lean had shown an interest in making a film about T. E.  Lawrence after reading Lawrence's autobiography THE SEVEN PILLARS OF WISDOM in the early 50's, but Spiegel didn't get the rights until 1960.  At first, Marlon Brando was considered for the title role, and then Albert Finney, before Lean convinced Spiegel to let him cast the then virtually unknown O'Toole, a decision that would certainly prove itself correct.  With a script by Micheal Wilson and (then uncredited) play write Robert Bolt,  Lean went to work on the mammoth production, spending two years on the preproduction alone, before shooting in Jordan, Spain and Morocco.  Although it wound up over budget, it became a smash hit, returning around $45,000,000 on a budget of 15.
The film tells the true story of Thomas Edward Lawrence, a young English military officer, who during World War I, is sent to Arabia to aid Arab prince Faisel (Alec Guinness) in his battle against the Turks.  For two years Lawrence leads successful raids against the Turkish military, most famously taking the city of Aqaba.  After a brief but brutal capture by the Turks embitters him, he later leads his men in the  slaughter of a retreating  Turkish army.  After this harsh experience, combined with his realization that the European powers have no desire to allow the Arabian people to run their own country, he leaves the Middleast entirely and becomes a common soldier.  Years later, he dies in a motorcycle crash (which opens the film).
Right from the start, it has to be said that this is one of the best looking films ever made; although all epics try to knock out the audience with their visual splendor, few succeed as impressively as this one. The incredible way that Lean cuts from Lawrence blowing out a lit match to the desert sands of Arabia is one of the most jarring and stunning edits in movie history.  More importantly,  Lean wrung not only beauty, but drama from the way he and cinematographer Freddie Young shot the pure white sands of the desert, which look not only beautiful but foreboding in the way that they almost swallow the often tiny looking people moving across them.  I love the way that Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) first appears through a mirage in the distance, or the way that the taking of Aqaba is filmed from high above in one long panning shot of the Arab army charging the city, that ends with the camera resting on a now worthless Turkish cannon pointed the wrong way.  (Not since GONE WITH THE WIND has a single shot summarized a battle so effectively!)

The Seige of Aqaba

Although he has had a long and varied career, O'Toole will always be know for his star making performance as Lawrence, and with good reason.  The movie is almost four hours long, and he's practically in every frame, easily carrying the film; along with his smoldering good looks and piercing blue eyes, he was able to  exude an instant charisma that marked him as both a movie star and as a credible military leader in the film.  He is likable in the early scenes, where we see him clumsy and uncomfortable in the British military, and when he resolves to live as much like an Arab as possible once he's in Arabia. (I also really enjoy the almost childish way that he parades about by himself after his men give him a new white robe and dagger). And he is clearly shaken and upset when he admits that he has come to enjoy killing.  But then he begins to lose the audience's sympathy as he begins to see himself as something more than human ("They can only kill me with a golden bullet!"), and he begins to compare himself to Moses and Jesus.  Finally, after his short but brutal imprisonment, he appears to have completely snapped, and he becomes truly frightening, especially when he charges forward to slaughter the retreating Turks with a huge smile on his face, (a chilling image if there ever was one!).  O'Toole perfectly shows his character changes over the course of the film without ever overplaying it.  (When he speaks of his messianic abilities he does it in a quiet and determined voice).  And even as he falls into madness, he is still compelling.
O'Toole is well matched by the rest of the cast: Shariff is excellent as the proud Sherif, who shifts from skeptic to believer to voice of reason over the course of the film.  And if Anthony Quin's Auda Abu Tayi is perhaps too loud and broad, his lovable bandit character is clearly supposed to be over the top, and he brings energy and humor to the film, so  I don't mind at all. Alec Guinness and Claude Raines also have  small but pivotal roles, and they both acquit themselves well.

Peter O'Toole and Omar Shariff

At almost four hours, the film has no real slow spots, and is never far away from a terrific image or well acted scene; the closest thing I can find as a flaw in the film is in the role of Arthur Kennedy as American reporter Jackson Bentley.  Although he is important to the plot in that his reporting makes Lawrence famous, there is little that he brings to the film; almost everything he says to Lawrence is obvious to the audience already, and it feels that his presence in the film is nothing more than a sop to American audiences.  Still, this is a minor point.


While other fine films like TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT came out the same year as LAWRENCE, clearly this impressive epic stands head and shoulders over the rest.   I must admit that for the third straight year I can't really argue with the Academy's choice.  That streak will end with my next entry...

Tuesday, October 4, 2011



The best picture win for WEST SIDE STORY would mark the fifth time that the academy awarded a musical, the first since 1958's GIGI.  But this was a musical unlike any of the other winners; a bittersweet story of doomed love mixed with a critical look at modern racism and the difficulties of urban life.  Although the film falters in some of its casting (Natalie Wood as a Puerto Rican?), it has dynamic dance scenes, terrific songs, and a moving love story; of all the musicals to win the best picture award over the years, I think its the best.
It genesis began in 1949 when writer Arthur Laurents and choreographer Jerome Robbins envisioned a musical update of Romeo and Juliet set in modern times.  Originally it was going to be about an Italian Catholic boy and a Jewish girl falling for each other, but a boom of Puerto Rican immigrants arriving in New York in 1954 caused them to change the characters to a Polish Catholic boy and a Puerto Rican girl.  With Laurents writing the book and Robbins directing, Leonard Bernstein wrote the music, and  future Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim did the lyrics.  The show opened in 1957, and, capitalizing on the popularity of "troubled youth" stories like 1955's REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE,  was an enormous hit, even if its dark subject matter and borderline profane lyrics ("when the spit hits the fan") were the cause of some controversy.  United Artists producer Walter Mirisch was a fan of the show and purchased the rights for the studio.  Robbins was originally hired to direct the musical and dance scenes, while veteran director Robert Wise was to handle the non musical parts of the film.  Trouble began quickly, as Robbins's exacting perfectionism caused the film to go over budget, and he was eventually fired after directing only four numbers. (He would still be credited with co direction of the film, for which he would eventually win a best director award with Wise).   Wise himself would also push the film over budget as he wanted to shoot as much of the film as possible on location in New York.  Despite all the difficulty, the film turned out to be a big hit, costing around $7,000,000 and bringing in around 50; it's soundtrack would also prove to be very popular.
Set in New York City, it tells the story of two rival teen gangs, the Caucasian Jets led by Riff (Russ Tamblyn) and the Puerto Rican Sharks led by Bernardo (George Chakaris), who are fighting over turf.  Meanwhile, former Jet Tony (Richard Beymer) and Bernardo's sister Maria (Wood) meet and fall in love at a dance.  When the two gangs plan a rumble, Tony goes to try and stop it, but when Bernardo kills Riff, Tony kills him.  Tony hides out with Maria, and the two of them plan to run away together, but Tony is shot and killed by one of the Sharks.

The Sharks and the Jets face off

One of the scenes Robbins directed is the terrific opening that shows the escalating tensions between the two gangs almost entirely through action without dialogue.  The use of New York locations, along with quick cutting and unusual camera angles, clearly shows that Robbins was determined to give audiences something more than a direct filming of the Broadway show.  I love the way that the macho strides of the boys almost naturally lead to dance moves, and the way that dance choreography and fight choreography seem to blend together (an idea used again during the rumble).
While I think that every musical scene in the film is a success, my personal favorite is the "America"sequence, performed on a rooftop by the Sharks and their girlfriends; along with being a great showcase for  the  lively dancing of Rita Moreno's character Anita (she won a best supporting actress award for the role),  the song plays as a clever debate between the boys and girls as to the wisdom of immigration, an unlikely subject for a Broadway song that Sondheim's clever lyrics illustrate beautifully.  Another Sondheim highlight are the hilarious lyrics to "Office Krupke", wonderfully performed by Tamblyn and the rest of the Jets. 
I've already mentioned that I consider Wood miscast as Maria, but I must admit that every time I time I see the film, her performance wins me over; she and Beymer certainly make an attractive couple, and it's hard not be charmed by the scene where the two of them act out a pretend wedding in a dress shop.  I also admire the way she played the tragic final scene, with her anger and sadness becoming almost palpable.  So, even if her Caucasian background makes her unbelievable, and her singing was dubbed by Marni Nixon (to be fair, all of the singers in the film were dubbed at some point by other people, except for Chakaris), it's hard to imagine the film without her.  As for the rest of the cast, I think they are all perfect, with Tamblyn's James Dean like tough guy Riff being a real standout (his acrobatic dancing is certainly impressive).

Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer
I'm always surprised by how dark this story is for a musical; really, the only really blameless characters in the film are Maria and Doc (Ned Glass), the drug store owner. (We like Tony, but he does kill Bernardo in anger). The cycle of violence between the gangs seems inevitable, while the police officers, usually the most moral characters in a story like this, are ineffectual, and downright racist.  And while it is clearly shown that the criminal behavior by the Jets is due in part to the poor environment of their families, nothing can excuse the way that they torment Anita towards the end of the film, hurling racial epithets at her and stopping just short of rape (apparently this was a very difficult scene for Moreno to shoot, and understandably so!).  Really, the film's only bright spot comes after Tony's death, when both the Jets and the Sharks sadly carry his body away, implying that they might finally stop their fighting.


I think it's obvious that I love this movie, and while THE HUSTLER and JUDGEMENT AT NUREMBERG, are also great, I can't argue with the Academy on this one.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011



In a distinct change of pace from the large scale bombast of the previous year's choice of BEN HUR, the Academy's pick for best picture of 1960 is a charming, low key, romantic comedy drama. It was the second best picture winner for writer-director Billy Wilder (the first was 1948's THE LOST WEEKEND), and while its subject matter is far less shocking today then it was back then, it still holds up as a bittersweet movie with wonderful performances from its entire cast.
Wilder first came up with the movie's idea while watching David Lean's 1944 film, BRIEF ENCOUNTER. At one point in that movie an unseen character allows two people to have an adulterous affair in his apartment, and Wilder was struck with the notion of telling a story from that character's point of view, "the guy who climbs into the warm bed left by two lovers."  (The theme of infidelity ran through many of Wilder's films, like THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH and AVANTI!).
After filing away that idea because the production code of the time would never allow it, Wilder pulled it out of mothballs in 1959, correctly believing that the code had finally eased enough for him to make it. Buoyed by the enormous success of SOME LIKE IT HOT, Wilder spent $400,000 on building modern, realistic office sets for the film, and eventually spent $3,000,000 on the film's budget; it would go on to make almost 15.
It tells the story of C.C. "Bud" Baxter (Jack Lemmon), a young bachelor who works at an insurance company in New York City.  To advance his career, he allows his superiors use of his apartment to engage in extra marital affairs.  Meanwhile, he pines for Fran (Shirley Maclaine), one of the elevator operators in his building.  When the company's main boss, Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), tells Bud that he knows about the apartment, Bud is worried, until Jeff himself asks to borrow the key! Eventually, Bud discovers that the woman Jeff is meeting with is Fran. Even worse, when a depressed Fran, sick of Jeff's lies about leaving his wife, tries to overdose on sleeping pills, Bud has to be the one to nurse her back to health.
Jack Lemmon first worked with Wilder in SOME LIKE IT HOT, and he gave a great comedic performance there; he would go on to work with the director seven times in all. Wilder says that he and co writer IAL Diamond wrote this film with Lemmon in mind for the lead, and it's easy to see why: this is a perfect role for Lemmon's put upon everyman persona, and he deftly juggles the comedy and the drama of the story.  His performance is full of charming physical touches, like the way he strains spaghetti with a tennis racket, dons a ridiculous "junior executive" hat, or gently tucks Fran into bed after stopping her suicide attempt. His character is always likable, and, even if what he is doing is aiding infidelity, his desire to move up the corporate ladder is understandable.  And he becomes truly heroic at the film's end, when he finally gives up his lucrative job because he is so sickened by the thought of helping Jeff lead Fran on again.

Jack Lemmon in his Junior Executive Hat

Maclaine is just as good as Lemmon; her Fran is such a sweet, sad person that we can see why Bud is so taken with her, and her chemistry with both Lemmon and MacMurray is excellent and believable.  She has many moving moments; I particularly like her wonderful speech about the pain of loving a married man.  She really shows us how much she wants to believe Jeff's lies, and how much it hurts her to discover the truth (the expression on her face when he hands her money in lieu of an actual Christmas present is heart breaking).
And as for MacMurray, he coolly and effectively plays one of the great movie scumbags!  Here is a powerful and wealthy man who sees his womanizing almost as a right of his privilege.  He can plead to Fran that he really cares for her one moment, and then dismiss her to Bud in the next ("you see a girl a couple of times a week, just for laughs, and right away they think you're gonna divorce your wife."). It's to MacMurray's credit that he does seem to find some humanity in this skunk of a man, (he does seem to have some feelings for Fran)but not enough humanity that we can't cheer at the end when Fran finally walks out on him for good.

Fred MacMurray and Jack Lemmon

According to Maclaine, the script for the film was not finished until well into the film's shooting, but what could have been a recipe for disaster worked wonderfully as it allowed Wilder and Diamond to build on the characters based on the performances of the actors, and the result is that Mclaine and Lemmon are one of the best romantic couples ever: always  good natured and kind to each other, even as they both feel taken advantage of (the moment where Lemmon admits that he too tried to commit suicide over a woman is crucial to their connection).  They are so right for each other that the film's conventional happy ending does not feel false or contrived in any way, with Maclaine's run across town becoming one of Hollywood's great romantic moments.
Wilder also put that expensive office set to good use, especially in the film's opening when Bud appears to be working in a sea of identical desks, illustrating his desire for a promotion more than words ever could.  Really, there really aren't any major flaws in this film(even the score by Charles Williams is perfect for the story); it is an expert blend of humor, sadness and romance without a bad performance or slow moment.
Overall, this is a classic, one of the best romances ever filmed, and it had an influence both direct (it was turned into a Broadway musical, PROMISES PROMISES, in 1968) and indirect (TV's terrific MAD MEN borrows a page or two). 


 This is a tough call, because while I obviously love this movie, another very different film was released that year that probably has had even more of an influence: Alfred Hitchcock's PYSCHO.  The difficulty of comparing these two films has me tied up in knots!  So I won't argue with the Academy's choice.