Saturday, February 26, 2011



After awarding two films in row that almost completely ignored the war, the Academy turned around in a big way, giving the award to what would be remembered as the ultimate story of postwar America, William Wyler's THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES.   "Every family in America is a part of this story!"  producer Samuel Goldwyn announced, and nearly all of them would see it, as it went on to be an enormous commercial success delivering  over ten million dollars in box office returns on a two million dollar budget.  And while it may have been about a very specific time and place, it has endured as a moving, powerful snapshot of American history, and also as a cinematic thank you note to the brave men who risked life and limb in the war, very much in the spirit of Tom Brokaw's book, THE GREATEST GENERATION.
Wyler was the perfect director for the material, given that, after directing MRS MINIVER, 1942's  best picture winner, he enlisted in the air force, where he shot documentary war films.   Right away, Wyler made the right decision in hiring cinematographer Gregg Toland to photograph the film, as he utilized the same excellent deep focus photography he used in CITIZEN KANE to make the film's simple small town settings (bars, stores, apartments) look beautiful.
The film opens with three GI's returning to the same (fictional) mid western town, Boone City, each clearly representing  an archetype of the kind of Soldiers that were then returning home.  They are Al Stephenson (Fredric March), a successful middle aged banker, Fred Derry(Dana Andrews), who was just a soda jerk before the war, and who is returning to the wife (Virginia Mayo) that he knew for less than a month before he left.  Finally there is Homer Parrish(Harold Russell, who really was handicapped), a young navy veteran who lost his arms in the war and uses prosthetic limbs now.  Each one of them has a big, moving homecoming scene, and it is to Wyler's credit that he finds a way to make each one different and play on different emotions (Homer, for example, is tentative in his arrival, nervous about how his new arms will appear to his family, while Al is far more excited).  There's also an amusing moment where Fred slowly walks towards his parents shabby home as a train rushes by behind him, and we realize that he literally is from the wrong side of the tracks.

Harold Russell, Fredric March, Dana Andrews

Inevitably the three men have trouble adjusting: Al is surprised to discover that his wife Milly (Myrna Loy) and two children Peggy and Rob (Teresa Wright and Micheal Hall) have become so independent without him.  And at his work, he butts heads with his boss (Ray Collins) when he demands that the bank make loans to poor GIs without collateral.  Meanwhile Fred is discovering that his pretty wife Marie barely made contact with his parents while he was gone, and that she expects to lead a high life that he can't possibly afford as he struggles to find work, his training as a bomber giving him no workable skills in the job market. He also finds himself drawn to Al's daughter Peggy, who resolves to break up his unhappy marriage.  And, finally, Homer feels his friends and family see him as some kind of freak because of his arms, so he avoids them, including his fiancee Wilma (Cathy O'Donnell) and he spends most of his time drinking at the bar owned by his uncle Butch (Hoagy Carmicheal).

Each one of these stories is well handled, and the entire cast is wonderful;  one can really sense that they all realized that this was a special and important movie.  It is also a tribute to Sherwood's script that the story of returning GIs also gives its female stars a chance to shine: Myrna Loy, best known today for starring opposite William Powell in the THIN MAN films, (and, being the best known performer in the cast, gets star billing here) is more than just a supportive and loving wife; she also brings a wry humor to the scenes where she has to deal with her husband's drunken behavior, and she gives a wonderful speech to her husband and daughter about the difficulties of a long term marriage ("How many times have you said you were sick and tired of me; that we were all washed up? How many times have we had to fall in love all over again?" ).   Teresa Wright, along with having excellent romantic chemistry with Dana Andrews, brings real intelligence and determination to her role as Peggy; she makes us see that her love for him is not just some silly infatuation, but that it is in the best interest for both of them.  And even Virginia Mayo, in the seemingly thankless role of the golddigging, unfaithful Marie has enough human moments to show that she's as disappointed in her quick decision to marry as her husband is. 
There are many great moments:  I love Al's speech about how his bank needs to do more about helping people, or when Fred walks through a line of decaying planes and flashes back to his days as a bomber.  But it is in the story of Harold Russell's Homer that the film really soars.  Originally, his character was going to suffer from shell shock and be prone to fits,  but when Wyler recalled seeing Russell in a documentary about handicapped soldiers, he hired him to, more or less, play himself in the film.  Although Russell's  acting is, at times,  a bit rough around the edges, it was an inspired choice by Wyler, as Homer becomes the heart and soul of the film.(And Russell would become the only actor to win two Oscars for the same role, one for Best Supporting Actor, and the other a special inspirational award)  The crucial moment for his character comes when Wilma confronts him and asks to know why he's avoiding her; he invites her to his bedroom so she can see for herself how hard it is for him to remove his arms every night and how helpless he is while lying down in bed.  This is a truly striking moment because it is the first (and only) time in the film when we see him without his arms, and, in showing Russell's real handicap and the difficulties it causes him, it becomes one of the few times in a fiction film where the wall between reality and made up story is shattered. It also ranks as one of the most romantic moments in movie history, as the sweet Wilma resolves to love him despite his handicap, saying, "All I know is, I was in love with you when you left and I'm in love with you now. Other things may have changed but that hasn't."

Cathy O'Donnell and Harold Russell

It is reported that Wyler originally intended to cut the film's running time, but when preview audiences responded so well to it, he just released it at its original three hours.   I think it was the right decision, as the film rarely lags, and the extended time reveals the real changes the characters go through, and let's us get to know them, so that we understand their motivations (Although I could have done without some of Al's drunken behavior).  Wyler also finds many moments of humor,  like a crowded dance scene in a night club, or Butch's cynical line about  the next war (" Then none of us have to worry because we'll all be blown to bits the first day. So cheer up, huh!".  )  All in all, this is a big, bold film clearly made with lots of heart and emotion, that, despite the main characters troubles,  looks forward to their future (and the future of America itself) with optimism and hope.  It's truly a classic.


This becomes a tough call to make; while it is obvious that I adore this film,  another film was released that year that has gone on to become one of the most popular holiday movies ever,(although it was a box office disappointment at the time)  Frank Capra's marvelous IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE.  Also, NOTORIOUS, Alfred Hitchcock's most romantic movie, came out that year,  and it is also excellent.  So I won't argue with the Academy's choice, but a three way tie might have been nice!

Sunday, February 6, 2011



Giving the best picture Oscar to Billy Wilder's THE LOST WEEKEND was probably one of the more surprising choices made by the Academy, seeing how it was seen as a daring film in 1945.  It was the first Hollywood film to really deal seriously with the problem of alcoholism (or addiction in general).  In its attempt to be as realistic as possible, it went into often nightmarish detail, and its powerful portrait of a man plunging into a suicidal addiction still holds up well today.

Wilder began his brilliant career in his homeland of Poland, where he became a writer and director; in 1933 he fled the Nazis to Paris, and eventually America.  After a crash course in English, he began working in Hollywood as a screenwriter.  He did excellent work in that capacity for directors Ernst Lubisch (1939, NINOTCHKA) and Howard Hawks (1941, BALL OF FIRE) among others.  Desiring more control over the final product of his scripts, (and taking a cue from fellow screen writer turned director Preston Sturges), Wilder made his move into the director's chair with 1942's fun comedy, THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR.  That was a big success, and his career was set.  As a writer and director, Wilder often gave his films a cynical streak, with corruption and/or infidelity often playing a large role (even the romantic comedy SABRINA, often looked at as his most charming film, opens up with the title character trying to commit suicide), and I feel that it is this cynical nature that has kept his films from feeling dated, unlike so many other films made at the same time. 
Wilder first became aware of the semi autobiographical novel THE LOST WEEKEND by Charles R Jackson when he grabbed the book before a train ride and couldn't put it down.  He immediately phoned his writing partner, Charles Brackett, and then got the Paramount Pictures studio to buy the rights for $50,000.  At first, the studio had misgivings about such a dark film, but it eventually became a hit, and the title is still used to this day to describe a wild drunken time (there's even a bar in San Francisco named after the movie!).
Wilder cast Ray Milland in the lead role as Don Birnam, a surprising decision given the Milland was seen at the time as a good looking, lightweight actor (Wilder had worked with him before on THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR), but it was an inspired choice that garnered the actor an Oscar.
Milland's good looks and charm are right for the character, as he uses them to get others to believe his promises to stop drinking time and time again, even while he is lying to them, and possibly himself.  And that charm also shines in an excellent speech he gives about how wonderful alcohol makes him feel ("I'm Michaelangelo, molding the beard of Moses").  To his credit, (and this is probably why he won the Oscar) he shows no vanity here, as he often allows himself to look haggard and torn, and his character becomes more and more unsympathetic as he literally begs borrows and steals to get money for another drink.

Ray Milland

As the movie opens, the camera zooms from a panoramic shot of New York City to the window of a single apartment, where we see a bottle of alcohol has been hidden outside the window.  Inside we see a sober Don, his brother Wick (Philip Terry) and Don's fiancee Helen (Jane Wyman) calmly talking about how Don and Wick are going up to the country for the weekend, and right away we know that Don is lying to the two of them about his drinking.  Sure enough, there will no weekend in the country for Don, as he soon finds himself on a bender that will see him spiral further and further downward, which Wilder shows by having the camera literally plunge into a glass of alcohol as his bender begins.  His descent is  shown in the bleakest manner possible (for 1945 anyway), as he goes from trying to sell his beloved typewriter (he's a frustrated writer) for alcohol money, to trying to steal a woman's purse.  At one point,  when it appears that he can't sink any lower, he begins to hallucinate, and imagines a rat climbing in through a hole in the wall of his brother's apartment and then being killed by a bat, a truly chilling image.  Amazingly, things get even worse when, after a tumble down the stairs,  he winds up at a hellish mental ward, where he hears other alcoholics scream in agony as the go through withdrawal.  Surprisingly, Wilder contrasts the truly nightmarish quality of this scene with the world weary humor of one of the orderlies named Bim(Frank Faylin), who informs Don that the alcoholics ward is "standing room only".  But the contrast works, as Bim's caustic dialogue keeps the scene from being too bleak, while also showing the inevitable disassociation that someone who works in a place like that would have to have.
Truly, Wilder seemed determined not to sugarcoat the horrors of addiction, and this determination, along with his demand that the film be shot mostly in real locations in New York(often with hidden cameras), give the film a powerful realism; as dark as Don's fall is, it is never unbelievable.  Although the film does have a happy ending, in which Don finally pledges to stop drinking and begins work on his novel, it is entirely possible that he is lying to himself yet again, and that more lost weekends await in his future.

Ray Milland and Jane Wyman

If the film has a weak spot, it's in the Jane Wyman character; Wyman does what she can with the role, but she is just too good to be true.  She remains steadfast and loyal to Don no matter how low he goes (his drunken behavior includes flirting with other women, something I'm sure she is aware of even if she doesn't actually see it).  She sticks with him even after his own brother (who has allowed Don to stay at his apartment for free) starts to give up on him.  Still, her character is important to Don's eventual redemption, and a flashback to how they first met provides the film's only really light scenes, which gives the audience some nice relief from the heaviness of the rest of the film.


Although THE LOST WEEKEND is not my favorite Wilder film, it was groundbreaking for its time, and it holds up very well, so I have no problem with the Academy's choice.  The only other film that year that I think compares is Elia Kazan's marvelous, sentimental A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, but that wasn't as original as Wilder's film.