Monthly Archives: December 2010

On Giving Up the Coen Brothers: True Grit Is the Last Straw

True Grit may be a technically competent picture, but that’s about it.  I couldn’t help but remember what James Agee wrote about Lost Weekend in 1945.  He said, “… I see nothing in it that is new, sharply individual, or strongly creative.  It is, rather, a skillful restatement, satisfying and easy to overrate in a time of general dereliction and fatuousness, of some sound commonplaces.”  Though I found True Grit relatively unsatisfying, I can see why audiences might disagree.  They’ve been fed so much crap that they are beginning to believe the Coen Brothers are master filmmakers.  Their style and sensibilities are recognizable to mass audiences, comforted by the delusion that they are watching entertaining and substantial cinema, and critics who enjoy singing the praises of a film non-movie geeks will embrace, thereby proving their value to a world increasingly unresponsive to critics.  In time though, True Grit and many of their more recent “successes”, like The Big Lebowski and No Country for Old Men, will creak under the weight of their pretentiously calculated unpretentious artistry, their watered-down Lynchian sensibilities, and their ugly and ultimately empty world views.  I’m afraid, if they keep going down this path, that we will begin to suspect that even their great movies (and there are some), will become suspect; that maybe we will discover the Coens didn’t have anything to say in the first place; it was all style and snark without those emotions and insights that so many of us walked away from Fargo with.

To be sure the Coen Brothers have made some great movies, but they have made many more duds and the recent years have been overpopulated by their misfires.  Their great movies (Fargo, Miller’s Crossing) and their good movies (Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Barton Fink) were all released between 1984 and 1996, a twelve year period that may, when their obituaries are finally written many years down the road, represent their golden age.  Their output since their 1996 triumph Fargo has been decidedly mediocre to awful (and I’m not even taking into account the terrible Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers).  The problem is their bad pictures have received as much praise and success as their good ones suggesting to them that something like True Grit is good enough.

Critics and audiences have fallen all over themselves to (over)praise much of what they have done since Fargo in 1996, but it seems to me much of that can be chalked up to diminished expectations.  Movies have been so weak over this period that audiences and critics have eagerly embraced any filmmaker who shows an ounce of creativity.  In all the praise for No Country, didn’t anyone stop and ask what the point of it all was?  (OK, Andrew Sarris did.)  It doesn’t work as an action picture as it plods along as a soulless, pointless litany of killing, and we should have thrown up our hands in exacerbation when Josh Brolin, clear of any chance of discovery, ventures back to the scene of the crime for a silly pang of conscience.  Don’t we divest ourselves of any emotional connection to a man too stupid to take the money and run?  For all the violence, all the crimes, all the sociopathic killing, we’re left with a nihilism that we would not have suspected from the men who made Fargo and Miller’s Crossing.  (No Country is essentially Fargo without the original characters, compelling story, or humor.)  It isn’t even chilling because Javier Bardem’s villain is ultimately a cartoon character, unrecognizable outside of video or comic book worlds, more akin to the robotic single-mindedness of Gort, than a truly chilling movie hit man like Max von Sydow’s practical minded Joubert in Three Days of the Condor.

While it’s disappointing to see so many intelligent people inexplicably embrace the empty-headed nihilism of No Country for Old Men, the Coen Brothers aren’t entirely to blame.  After all, No Country was only one in a long line of their movies to receive undue praise.  They have been rewarded, commercially and critically, for the intellectually nonsensical fluff they have been churning out.  Somehow The Big Lebowski, Burn after Reading, and A Serious Man actually say something about modern American life, when they are, in reality, lame, shallow comedies overburdened by the Coens’ off-kilter sensibilities.  They have nothing substantial to say except that things we revere, the things we take seriously, our social conventions and national mythologies are absurd.  Well, it doesn’t take a genius to come up with that.  These movies are as empty as the institutions and social mores they lampoon.  And that’s fine, they don’t have to say anything deep, but the Coens keep pretending they’re saying something and critics and viewers let them off the hook because, with all the oddities on screen, they feel these movies must be saying something.  What they don’t often consider is all the quirkiness and eccentricity aren’t the satirical devices they think they are.  They are, in fact, cheap gimmicks in place to cover up the gaping maw of intellectual inactivity under the surface of it all.

True Grit, like most of their movies of the past 15 years, buckles under the twin terrors of audience approval and artistic expectation.  It’s safe, never pushing the envelope, never asking us to re-examine to legends of the West as others have done so well, never asking us to consider the morality of vigilante justice, never utilizing their quirky sensibilities to reimagine the story or the characters of the novel or the 1969 film.  Girl’s father is murdered, girl hires bounty hunter to track killer, off they go, killer killed, the end.  There’s little to envelope our senses or grip our attention.  Never once are we caught up in the drama or the action; it’s all too perfunctory, too empty, and devoid of emotion.

True Grit isn’t as ambitious as No Country for Old Men, and that’s fine; in some ways that makes it a better movie.  It manages to avoid any faux profundity (though I’m sure plenty of people will look for it), but fails on a basic narrative level.  With the exception of Jeff Bridges’ fiendish and funny performance, no one else connects.  Even the widely admired Hailee Steinfeld performance left me cold.  It’s not that she’s bad.  It’s just that she doesn’t have much to do except spit out stoically cold dialogue and stare Rooster Cogburn down determinedly.  Just about everyone else in the picture suffers the same handicap though.

Everyone stumbles through the awkward dialogue that is, I assume, meant to invoke historical distance (and, I understand, is taken mostly from the novel).  I have never understood why filmmakers assume that the absence of contractions and perfect grammatical constructions invoke nineteenth century realities.  Speaking as an historian of the nineteenth century United States, I can guarantee you that the regular guy on the street would have had no problem inserting an occasional contraction into a sentence.  It might have made sense and been funny if Rooster, already a quirky guy, utilized this curious pattern of speech.  Once the Coens realized that Jeff Bridges was the only one who didn’t make it sound like Ben Stein reciting a grocery list, they should have rewritten, made the dialogue less formal.  But I suspect they had a perverse attachment to the unnatural dialogue and the actors squirming under their thumbs to do something – anything – with this dreck.  (I normally love Josh Brolin, but what the devil was he doing?  It was embarrassing.)  Here again we have an instance of the Coens mistaking pretense with art.

I don’t think Jeff Bridges’ success should be undercut by the movie’s failings, because he gives us something special.  Bridges’ Rooster Cogburn is at times funny and scary and heroic and crude and chivalrous.  He is able to meld these contradictions into a character that embodies everything we in the United States admire in a man – fearless and resolute, nominally on the right side of the law, but unafraid to bend it.  He is a man who has a past, has been on the wrong side of the law, and his moral compass is unclear.  Does he hunt criminals because of ethical or moral concerns?  Or does it just pay better?  Over the course of the picture his almost rigged morality does begin to glean through.  Cogburn is a vigilante, he may kill criminals with relish, but he believes he is on the right side.

I wish the joy that Mr. Bridges put into developing his character wasn’t wasted on a joylessly written and directed movie.  If half the energy Bridges invested in his role had been invested behind the camera, who knows what we could have had?  I am being especially hard on True Grit; it isn’t a terrible movie – maybe average – but, as I’ve talked about above, I hope audiences and critics stop accepting everything the Coens throw at them.  Demand something better, stop mistaking point of view with greatness, or reference with satire.  Just because the idea of the Dude makes you laugh, or he embodies everything you wish you were (God help us), doesn’t make the rest of the movie any good.  Just because there are lots of self-deprecating Jewish jokes in A Serious Man doesn’t make it insightful.  And just because there’s lots of violence gussied up with a pseudo-serious meditation on the nature of fate doesn’t make No Country for Old Men a great movie.  It’s time to demand more from the Coen Brothers because they have shown they have it in them.  If they want to make mass entertainment, that’s fine too, but let’s stop pretending it is anything great.

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Irene Dunne (The Awful Truth) – Best Actress of 1937

Other Noteworthy Performances:

Barbara Stanwyck (Stella Dallas)

Beaulah Bondi (Make Way for Tomorrow)

Jean Arthur (Easy Living)

Greta Garbo (Camille)

Carole Lombard (Nothing Sacred)

Bette Davis (Marked Woman)

Janet Gaynor (A Star is Born)

Ginger Rogers (Stage Door)

Sylvia Sidney (You Only Live Once)

Yang Bai (Crossroads)

Greta Garbo (Conquest)

It should be clear by now that I love The Awful Truth.  It’s my choice for the second best picture of 1937 and Cary Grant got the nod as best actor.  And now Irene Dunne edges out Barbara Stanwyck for her fantastic performance in the classic tear-jerker Stella Dallas.  The race between Dunne and Stanwyck was close in my mind and, if I didn’t shy away from shortcuts, I would declare a tie, but the best of the year is just that – the best.  Not the group or a pair of the best, but the best.  So I had to make the tough call and Irene Dunne comes out as my favorite, however slightly, of the two.

Maybe my preference for Dunne has something to do with the bias the Academy has always had against comedy, an issue I discussed in the Cary Grant essay.  Like Grant, some of Dunne’s best work has been in comedy – sometimes alongside him as in The Awful Truth.  As Lucy Warriner she is both airily sophisticated and madcap, the perfect foil for Cary Grant’s Jerry.

Irene Dunne had a talent for humor which she discovered in her first comedy role – Theodora Goes Wild – the year before.  Apparently she had been nervous about playing for laughs, but she did so well that Columbia Pictures immediately cast her in another comedy, The Awful Truth.  Her success came from her willingness to poke fun at her own well-mannered persona.  She was also a master at using non-verbal cues that subverted the meaning of her written line to great effect.  A slight giggle or a crinkle of the nose alerted the audience that she was dipping her toes in ironic waters.  At one point Lucy’s suitor Dan Leeson describes his ranch in Oklahoma and suggests Lucy come out and visit it.  Trying to gracefully decline, Lucy says, “Oh I don’t get out that way very …”  She trails off, as if deciding there’s really no use being polite, crinkles up her nose and quickly shakes her head.  It’s a remarkably funny and subtle moment.

One of her most glorious moments in The Awful Truth is also one of my favorite movie scenes of all time.  She is singing at a recital and Jerry makes an utter fool of himself as he falls and gets his legs tangled in a small table.  Through all the noise, Lucy continues to sing, watching her soon-to-be ex-husband dig himself into a deeper hole of humiliation with every move he makes.  Once he gives up, we cut back to Lucy.  She is ending the operatic aria and she tries to hold it together, to finish with dignity, but can’t suppress a devilish laugh between two notes.  Only someone with the talent and instincts of Irene Dunne could have pulled off such a moment of fiendish glee.

The movie soars when Ms. Dunne is on-screen.  Though it also soars when she is off-screen, suggesting she not only held her own with some great supporting actors like Cary Grant, but was also able to keep up with a demanding screenplay, something only actresses like Carole Lombard, Jean Arthur, or Katherine Hepburn were able to do at the time.  If the situation called for it, she could spit out her dialogue at machine gun pace without ever losing her sophisticated, easy-going charm.

Ms. Dunne handles Lucy’s flightiness, jealousy, and stubbornness with aplomb.  She isn’t thrown by Lucy’s contradictions; she feeds off of them.  Ms. Dunne was able to make sense out of Lucy and translate that interpretation to us.  So when we watch, Lucy makes sense in a screwy way.  We accept her in furs and diamonds, but we also accept her when she dresses up like a woman of questionable values and pretends to be Jerry’s loud, uncouth sister to break up his engagement.  She will do whatever it takes to get what she wants.

Irene Dunne's Lucy (center) comes between Jerry and his finacee

 

Ms. Dunne did not just turn in the best female performance of 1937, but one of the best comedic performances of all time and, alongside Cary Grant, helped put together one of the great classic movie comedies.  It’s an exceptional movie loaded with great performances.

 

 

 

 

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Movie Critics Still Matter … Unless Michele Willens Gets Her Wish

I try not to be a jerk when criticizing the work of other people, but sometimes I read things that are so silly, so obviously wrong-headed, they cry out for a dressing down.  Now that we are in this wonderful world of the World Wide Web, where any schmuck like me has a voice, I can vent against the pseudo-intellectual silliness that came from a post over at the Huffington Post several days ago.  Playwright Michele Willens has taken aim at movie critics daring to express opinions with which “normal” people (as she terms it) might not agree.

I’m not sure who anointed Ms. Willens the spokesperson of normal people, nor does she bother to explain who she means when using it.  Can a normal person have a college degree?  Postgrad?  Is there a salary cap?

In her piece “Face It: Critics Have Lost Their Movie Memory,” Willens attacks critics for not reflecting what she perceives as the average movie goers thoughts and expectations.

Those pernicious Top Ten lists are sprouting up and one can’t help feeling these faux intellectuals are trying to prove not only that they know what is really good, but that millions of people who felt otherwise must be wrong.

I’m sorry, but aren’t critics supposed to tell us what is really good.  I think that’s part of their job description.  But where does she get the idea that critics – any critics – aren’t aware that their judgments are purely subjective?  Even the most pretentious movie critics are expressing opinions.  No one is issuing ironclad legal edicts; they aren’t delivering their reviews, set in stone tablets, from Mount Sinai.

No one is wrong in liking or disliking a movie.  Why is it that so many ostensibly educated people have, since the dawn of cultural criticism, interpreted a critics disdain for something they love as an attack on their intellectual capacity?  When did educated people lose their intellectual courage and self-esteem?  Critics are here to open conversation, to suggest ways of interpreting, and opening up opportunities for lesser known movies (or books or theater or opera or any other art form).  Though there are probably plenty of film snobs, who takes them seriously except other snobs?  They aren’t writing for you or me anyway.

One strategy of her attack is to accuse critics of being inconsistent.  (Well who isn’t?)  She wonders why some movies she thinks should be on top ten lists aren’t:

Furthermore, don’t they read their own reviews? Remember when The Social Network opened long ago? As in six weeks ago? [It actually opened more than ten weeks ago, but what’s a month between friends.] Well, that is apparently a long time in Movie Critic memory and so far, I am seeing that 100%- positively reviewed film on few if any lists. This means what? That the critics themselves were wrong in their rapturous critiques, that it was before films could be be [sic] taken seriously, or that it was just too damn enjoyable to be deigned award-worthy?

First off, just because a critic writes a glowing review doesn’t mean it will automatically appear on a top ten list.  They see many more movies than Ms. Willens or myself.  If a critic liked or even loved The Social Network and it doesn’t appear on their year-end top ten list, why not chalk that up to the fact they saw at least ten better movies?  Why assume a plot against entertainment?

Willens, however, loses a boatload of credibility here because The Social Network is on tons of lists.  One look at Metacritic and we see they found it on at least 43 lists, including 12 who placed it in the top spot.  She complains about her perception that The Kids Are All Right and The King’s Speech, both, she says, received enthusiastic reviews on their release but are absent on top ten lists.  A little checking (and in this day of Google it seems strange that she wouldn’t bother to do so before writing something for the public to read) would have revealed The Kids Are All Right is on at least 17 lists and The King’s Speech shows up on seven.

The idea that smarter-than-thou-critics fiendishly shape their lists to make the rest of us feel inferior is tiresome.  Willens dusts off this old chestnut:

…reviewers also tend to show off their international leanings at this time, throwing out titles no one has heard of.

It almost makes you want to throw in the towel on the article, right?  Especially since just a few paragraphs later she completely contradicts herself by saying:

I subscribe to the idea that a critic can and should point us to original, less noticeable works.

Wait…what?  Critics are being show-offs if they add foreign titles few people have heard of, but they should highlight them at the same time?  How?  Isn’t a year end top ten list, a list that rightly or wrongly, gets more attention than a regular review, be the perfect place to point us to these original and less noticeable works?  But it gets worse:

Critics are often guilty of falling under the spell of a particular filmmaker,say Woody Allen in his heyday and now, Danny Boyle, who can seemingly do no wrong in their eyes. Hey, I love James Franco [don’t we all?], but you find someone who thought 127 Hours was either entertaining, (even omitting the cutting-off-his-arm segment) suspenseful, or anything but simultaneously jumpy and lazy.

Here we go.  Yes, there is a huge conspiracy of film critics to make people watch and like – and they have to like at all costs! – Woody Allen movies.  I wish Ms. Willens would do the community of critics she is maligning by pointing out particular cases.  “Often” means about as little as “sources say.”  (Judith Miller anyone?)  I can qualify any broad, unsubstantiated claim with “often.”  Tell me specifically who thinks Danny Boyle can do no wrong.

And I can point to several people, including myself, who thought 127 Hours was supremely entertaining.  I’ve seen it twice now and was riveted from beginning to end both times.  That doesn’t mean I’m a Danny Boyle sycophant.  I hated Slumdog Millionaire with a passion.   Not that I am one of the pernicious, anti-normal people critics she’s chiding for their audacity to put movies she never heard of on their lists.

Sure critics can fall into a groupthink mentality, but we all can.  Good ones avoid it.  That is why we can’t treat critics like interchangeable clogs whose opinions all carry the same value ready to be tallied up on Rotten Tomatoes.  Critics are people just like the rest of us and the challenge is to find critics whose opinions we value.  Maybe if Ms. Willens spent time actually reading the critics she is attacking (which I would venture to guess she doesn’t), instead of broad-brushing critics based on a limited number of top ten lists, she would recognize the value of a marketplace of ideas about movies.  Instead she wants critics to follow the example of the Academy, which opened up ten best picture nomination slots.

The motive is not so admirable: Academy folks — often influenced by these last minute year-end lists — are simply trying to get tuned out viewers to tune back in. Critics should get the same message.

If we want to talk about the dumbing down of America, here is a prime example of it.  I’m not afraid of the effects of Jersey Shore or Bridalplasty.  There always have been and always will be dumb people in the world and they need something to watch too.  I don’t think these shows make smart people any dumber (assuming they even bother to watch them).  I am afraid, however, of well-meaning, educated people like Ms. Willens who want smart people to tone it down so we don’t make all those “normal” people feel left out.  She’s ultimately advocating that a critic put aside his or her reaction to a movie because it might not gel with public opinion.  I can’t think of anything more pernicious, anti-intellectual, unfair to movies and those who love them, more deadly to the future of film criticism, or (not to be histrionic) fascistic than this cynical strategy.  We’ve settled for morally inoffensive politicians; I don’t want that in my critics too.

I wish I could say the “don’t trust the experts” movement was confined to the fringes, but it is here with us as strong as ever, seeping into movie criticism.  Ms. Willens’ unfortunate view is cousin to the wacky anti-Darwinists, corporate-bought climate change deniers, Texas textbook commissions who want to write multiculturalism out of history, and anti-vaccination loons.  I expect these things from uneducated and insecure wack jobs who feel experts, people who have studied a subject their entire lives, are so educated that they are out of touch.  They are simply elitist eggheads who have nothing of value to offer the rest of us.  That’s a dangerous path to go down.

Movies are here to entertain and enlighten, but we don’t all agree on which ones do them the best.  Nothing is more enjoyable to me than debating a movie with someone just as passionate as I am.  Reading reviews of people who are smarter and better writers than me, doesn’t make me feel inadequate.  It enlivens me.  Reading top-notch critics like Joe Morgenstern, Manohla Dargis, Bob Mondello, A.O. Scott, Roger Ebert, Stephanie Zacharek, David Denby, Molly Haskell, Anthony Lane, and Andrew O’Heheir reminds me that thought isn’t dead; that there are people out there buffering against the dumbing down of our already pretty dumb country.  Why is that a bad thing?  Only by celebrating divergent viewpoints from the smartest among us, even those sharper and more perceptive than us, will film criticism have a relevant future.

But in Ms. Willens’ perfect world critics would have finger-in-the-wind opinions, subject to the fickle fluctuations of box-office receipts.  She probably didn’t think the implications of this through before she hit the send button, but if critics followed her advice Jackass 3D would top many best of 2010 lists.

What’s worse is she is perpetuating (or trying to anyway) the same cultural blackmail she’s accusing critics of.  In her eyes they are a group of elitist snobs showing off their smarty-pants cred with top ten lists stocked with movies to shame regular folk for not being smart enough to understand Wild Grass.  But she’s doing exactly the opposite, showing off her populist anti-intellectual cred.  She’s practically crying, “I’m no snob!  I’m just like y’all!” though she undercuts this by showing love for the indie-comedy Tiny Furniture, a movie – gasp! – no normal person has heard of!  Nothing elitist there, Ms. Willens.

I suggest that Ms. Willens and anyone else who might agree with her stop feeling insecure and actually start reading the work of film critics.  They don’t have to agree with them or change their opinions, but at the end of the year, when their top ten lists come out, they will at least have heard of most of the movies and may even understand why a particular critic included an obscure foreign film.  This isn’t about elitist vs. populism.  This is about a country open to new ideas and perspectives.  I would expect the writers on Huffington Post to celebrate diversity of opinion, not to quash it.

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Cary Grant (The Awful Truth) – Best Actor of 1937

Other Noteworthy Performances:

Jean Gabin (Pépé le Moko)

Victor Moore (Make Way for Tomorrow)

Roland Young (The Man Who Could Work Miracles)

Claude Rains (They Won’t Forget)

Paul Muni (The Life of Emile Zola)

Spencer Tracey (Captains Courageous)

Dan Zhao (Crossroads)

Will Hay (Oh, Mr. Porter!)

Sacha Guitry (Désiré)

Humphrey Bogart (Black Legion)

Charles Boyer (Conquest)

Spencer Tracey would walk away with the first of two consecutive best actor Oscars as a colorful Portuguese fisherman mentoring a spoiled brat in Captains Courageous.  Though he was good in the movie, he wasn’t the best actor of the year.  Several other leading men delivered better performances, including Jean Gabin’s work as the conflicted fugitive in Pépé le Moko.  Victor Moore’s sympathetic portrait of an old man, now a burden on his family in Make Way for Tomorrow, also outshines Tracey’s work.  And this doesn’t even take into consideration other fine, lesser-known performances from Claude Raines in They Won’t Forget, Roland Young in The Man Who Could Work Miracles, Will Hay in Oh, Mr. Porter!, and Dan Zhao, the charismatic and handsome Chinese actor, in Crossroads.

For me, Cary Grant comes out on top.  He is an actor whose talent has often been underestimated.  Some came to believe, erroneously, that he wasn’t really acting, that he just showed up on set, got in front of the camera, and played himself.  This misconception has grown legs because his effortless acting was so consistently good.  (Can you name a bad Cary Grant performance?)  It’s ironic that his mastery of the craft of acting would lead many to assume he wasn’t actually acting at all, dismissing his talent, his abilities, his dedication and his hard work.  In his long career he was only nominated for two Academy Awards, both of which recognized dramatic work in Penny Serenade (1941) and None but the Lonely Heart (1944), rather than his masterful and nuanced comedic work.  Predictably the stuffy Academy, eager to prove that movies had artistic and social merit, privileged theatrical dramatic acting over low-brow comedic work, a trend which, sadly, continues to this day.  Cary Grant really shines in comedy but the Academy’s anti-comedy bias excluded those roles from awards consideration.  So some of the best performances of one of the best film actors of all time (if not the best) did not receive the acknowledgement they deserved.

A nomination, though, would not have been sufficient recognition for his fine work in The Awful Truth.  Nothing less than a win is appropriate for one of his first box office hits as a leading man, along with Topper also of 1937.  I’ve already written about The Awful Truth (which you can read about here), so I won’t go into detail about the plot.  Briefly, Cary Grant’s character, Jerry Warriner, is a man ill-suited for marriage.  Lucky for him he married Lucy (Irene Dunne), a woman who is almost a mirror-image of his connubial incompetence.  Both privilege fun over duty (it’s never clear how they earn their money) – even if their exploits may appear indiscreet.  When they catch each other in lies, all they can do — indeed all they know how to do – is to follow tradition and get divorced.  They spend the rest of the picture alternately trying to hurt and trying to win back the other before their divorce becomes final.

Jerry is inconsistent, contradictory, and impulsive.  Of course he still loves Lucy and doesn’t want a divorce.  And he knows she doesn’t want a divorce either.  He recognizes her absurd relationship with Dan Leeson as the jab at his vanity and jealousy that Lucy meant it to be rather than a profound expression of new love between them.  His impulsive nature suggests he should take her in his arms, proclaim his feelings, and call off the divorce.  Jerry’s struggles though, between his impulsiveness and his stubborn pride: he won’t admit he’s wrong until she does so first.

It’s great fun to watch Grant here because much of what he says and does is clearly ironic.  He goes through all the moves of pushing Lucy away, finding a new fiancée for himself, and advocating divorce while at the same time sabotaging Lucy’s new relationship with Dan and keeping her in his life through shared custody of their dog, Mr. Smith.  Surreptitiously, he does everything he can to keep Lucy single and in his life.

Cary Grant uses his natural charm to great effect here, convincing us that he loves Lucy utterly and completely, would never cheat on her, and longs to reverse the forward motion of the divorce.  But this isn’t something he can come out and say.  Almost all of his true emotions are expressed non-verbally, like his bemused face when his date performs her nightclub number or when Lucy crashes his fiancée’s party pretending to be his alcoholic, reprobate sister.  In both of these moments Jerry should be mortified, but there is a glint in his eye as he sees his humiliation pushing him closer to Lucy.  Grant communicated pages of dialogue with a simple smirk or a slightly exaggerated widening of his eyes.

He also shows off his talent for physical comedy, something he was never be too stuffy to indulge in and would become something of a hallmark of his work (probably another reason the Academy didn’t deem him serious enough for recognition).  Whether it’s when a jujitsu-trained butler sends him face first into the carpet, or he gets tangled up with a chair and table during a recital, Grant reminds us we’re all a little awkward.  After all, if things like that can happen to Cary Grant, they can happen to anyone.  He realized early on in his career that it’s funnier if someone as graceful and debonair as Cary Grant can has a piano top fall on his hand rather than any schmuck off the street.  Grant never took himself or his persona all that seriously and was more than willing to poke fun at himself.

In The Awful Truth, with his ironic lines readings, clumsy physical comedy, and charming demeanor, he proved that he was a fine actor and he would continue to consistently deliver inspired, funny, and truthful performances for the next 30 years.  It’s truly a treat to choose this performance as the best of 1937.

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Best Supporting Actress of 1937 – Dita Parlo (Grand Illusion)

Other Noteworthy Supporting Performances:

Mary Astor (The Hurricane)

Fay Bainter (Make Way for Tomorrow)

Andrea Leeds (Stage Door)

May Whitty (Night Must Fall)

Gail Patrick (Stage Door)

Mary Nash (Easy Living)

Gale Sondergaard (The Life of Emile Zola)

Constance Collier (Stage Door)

Alice Brady (In Old Chicago)

Since Dita Parlo’s Elsa appears on the screen so little in Jean Renoir’s masterpiece Grand Illusion, my choice may appear frivolous – a brazen attempt to shoehorn in an actor I admire.  While my overall admiration for Parlo’s skills may have influenced my decision, it did not determine it.  Yes, she has a relatively small role, but what she does in that limited time is so heartfelt and convincing that, for me, it’s an obvious choice.

In the last third of the picture, after the pair of French prisoners of war escape from the German POW camp, we meet a woman who has to bear the true cost of war on an intensely personal level.  Elsa’s husband and brothers have died leaving her to take care of the isolated family farm and raise her child alone.  When Maréchal and Rosenthal stumble into her life she has already mourned.  There is no more time for frivolous emotion and she has resigned herself to her fate without a word of complaint, as though complaint could change anything.  With this fact in mind, she quietly goes through the motions of life, resolved to raise her child as best as she can in her war-scarred home.

Maréchal, though, gives her a glimpse of happiness and Parlo does a wonderful job of gradually letting down Elsa’s guard as she allows the French officer into her life and her heart.  She knows his foreign language and uniform makes him the enemy, she knows his countrymen killed her men, but she doesn’t have the emotional energy to hate any more than she has the energy to mourn anymore.  Blind hatred won’t bring back her loved ones; it was, after all, blind hate that caused their deaths in the first place.  Just as she abandoned overt sentimentality for the dead, she also rejected unnecessary antipathy.  This pragmatic approach to human relationships grants her the ability to love again, something the nations of Europe were not able to translate diplomatically after the First World War leading to another disastrous war, exactly as Renoir feared.

Of course she knows it can’t last.  Maréchal has to leave her or he will be arrested.  This awareness tinges her rare smiles with a wary fatalism.  Yes, Maréchal promises to return after the war, but does she believe him?  Does he believe himself?  When he leaves her, alone on the farm with her child, she probably knows she will never see him again, but accepts the fleeting joy he brought her.  It is better to enjoy the spurts of good time life gives, than to dwell on that which is lost.

Dita Parlo is able to temper her natural vulnerability for a much stronger, weather-beaten woman.  Elsa may have been sweet-natured and sensitive at one time, but it would be safe to assume those traits were beaten down with each successive death notice along with the day-to-day burden of caring for a child and farm.  Elsa’s story is written on her face; there are no histrionics or award-obvious monologues.  It’s all Dita Parlo’s subtle performance which turned a small part into a major character, both narratively and thematically.  It’s the kind of performance that is easily overlooked, but deserves to be remembered and appreciated.

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Black Swan

Audiences either love or hate Darren Aronofsky’s new film Black Swan, an intriguing but flawed blend of The Red Shoes and Repulsion.  It has been characterized as everything from a modern classic to an exploitative wanna-be slasher pic.  There’s a good reason people are so split:  Aronofsky’s uneven and down-right terrible direction.

Aronofsky fails so completely that it is no wonder opinion is split.  The story isn’t as insightful or deep as he may want to pretend so something extraordinary was needed from him.  But his direction is as schizophrenically fractured as the movie’s lead character, troubled ballerina Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman).  The movie is meant to be a creepy, disturbing journey into madness and more often than not, it’s successful, but no thanks to Aronofsky’s perverse and juvenile sensibilities.  When we get into Nina’s mind and we are as confused about what is real and what isn’t as she is, when we get caught up in Nina’s psychological tension, the movie works.  Like when Nina struggles with picking at sores on her fingers (or does she?) or when she thinks she sees something in the bathtub.  But Aronofsky undermines those moments of psychological instability when he goes for one cheap thrill after another.  We can’t help but roll our eyes at so many hackish horror/thriller gimmicks used.  Every time Nina turns around to be shocked by someone standing behind her (or are they?), and Aronofsky blares discordant music at us, we might jump, but it isn’t earned.

Aronofsky's not-so subtle symbolism

There is a lot that is successful in the movie that I wonder why Aronofsky decided to load it with so much nonsense.  What I liked in the movie seems to have worked in spite of his instincts.  If he had restrained those instincts and focused on making an atmospheric descent into an artist’s nervous breakdown (or whatever was happening to her), rather than trying to transform Nina’s insanity into an actual thriller, this could have well been in the running for the best picture of the year.  All the elements are there, but Aronofsky bungled too many of them.  I suppose I should be grateful that he didn’t go the route of Abel Ferrara’s heroine in the mostly fun but trashy Ms. 45, another tale of a woman losing her grip, with a climatic Carrie-esque party massacre.  Still Aronofsky does neither the character nor her portrayer Natalie Portman any favors with his unsuitable sensibilities.

It’s as though Aronofsky remembered that scene from Roman Polanski’s Repulsion where Catherine Deneuve’s character, dealing with her own kind of crazy, catches a glimpse of a man in her mirror.  It made us all jump and it is that jolt that Aronofsky seems to be trying for – again and again, but Aronofsky doesn’t have the subtle hand that Polanski did in 1965.

Natalie Portman and Vincent Cassel

After reading the preceding few paragraphs it may be difficult to believe that I mostly liked the movie.  My admiration, though, has more to do with Natalie Portman’s incredible performance.  This movie lives or dies by her success and she is phenomenal, upstaging everything she has done in the past and (mostly) overshadowing Aronofsky’s failures.  Portman’s Nina Sayers is an ambitious, but reserved young dancer vying for the lead role in her company’s production of Swan Lake.  She struggles to play both the White Swan Princess and her evil doppelganger, the Black Swan (Odette and Odile).  The White Swan fits nicely with Nina’s naïve and meek personality so she nails her characterization, but the Black Swan is a challenge.  Trying to play the part forces her to overcome her natural timidity and her need to be perfect: the Black Swan is bold and reckless.  This struggle triggers a deeper conflict within herself between that which she has been repressing – her sexuality, her assertiveness – with that which dominates her personality – a crushing self-consciousness, an instinctive obsequiousness, and an almost obsessive-compulsive need for order.  Under normal circumstances she may have tempered this internal battle, but she has never faced the pressure of dancing the lead nor has she experienced the social and emotional challenges of another hungry (younger) dancer (Mila Kunis) who may or may not be gunning for her role.

Mila Kunis and Portman

We believe every stage of Portman’s transformation.  In the opening scenes she is quiet, non-assertive, always looking like she is on the verge of tears, and nearly whispers everything.  It gets to the point of almost being annoying.  “Speak up!” we want to shout.  “Don’t be such a push over!”  That she is so good in these early scenes makes her evolution into someone almost unrecognizable is remarkable.  She erratically swings between two versions of herself, a self-aware version of her meek self and the real-life manifestation of the Black Swan, neither of which is the Nina we started off with.  She has been changed forever no matter what happens; there is no going back for her.  And when she becomes the Black Swan, on stage and in life, her strength is undeniable.  We may not have had any hints that it was there before, but when it bursts forth we don’t second guess it for a minute.

The dynamic between her and her mother is crucial to her character.  Expertly played by Barbara Hershey (such an under-recognized actress who really deserved the Golden Globe nomination over Mila Kunis), we see the woman who constructed a safe cocoon for her talented daughter, through whom she could vicariously experience her own frustrated career in ballet.  Hershey creates someone who ironically shielded her daughter from the evils of the world while simultaneously thrusting her into one of the most vicious businesses.  She may not be a monster, but she is certainly unable to understand how her vise-like grip on Nina’s life stunted her emotional development, leaving her unable to cope with the stressful demands of dancing the lead in a major ballet company.

Barbara Hershey as the domineering mother

 

But again we have to return to Aronofsky.  Many people who dismiss the film point to the last reel as sensationalistic.  Much of what they dislike is undeniably bad.  There is a good ten minutes before the last five that is almost completely unnecessary.  We know where things are going and we don’t need it played out histrionically at every turn, including a completely superfluous second visit to Winona Ryder in her hospital room.  That was a distasteful scene, not because of the content, but because there was no reason for it.  It added nothing except shock.

That is what is disappointing about the movie.  Natalie Portman delivers a sensational performance, replacing Annette Bening in The Kids Are All Right as my favorite female lead of the year.  Barbara Hershey, Mila Kunis, and Vincent Cassel give fine supporting performances and the film is beautifully shot by Matthew Libatique.  So many elements work, but Aronofsky’s perverse vision and ham-fisted techniques exploited many of the delicate elements of this characters emotional disintegration and bashed us over the head with unsophisticated thematic visuals (fractured mirrors, really?).  I reservedly recommend seeing the movie if only for Natalie Portman’s extraordinary work.

Note:  Though the pop-psychology of the movie didn’t bother me too much, I take Marilyn Ferdinand point about its silliness.  I especially love what she writes about Black Swan over at Ferdy on Films:  “It seems an affliction of today’s vanguard film directors to look for the source of personality and creativity in the fertile fields of the unconscious that were successfully mined by such masters as Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman, Luis Buñuel, and Maya Deren and come out with episodes of Dr. Phil.” Ha!  Great point Marilyn, but in fairness directors have long failed here. Some of the directors she mentions have produced shallow nonsense from time to time.   

 

 

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Best Supporting Actor of 1937 – Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (The Prisoner of Zenda)

Other Noteworthy Supporting Performances of 1937:

Thomas  Mitchell (Make Way for Tomorrow)

Erich von Stroheim (Grand Illusion)

Lucas Gridoux (Pépé le Moko)

Thomas Mitchell (The Hurricane)

Ralph Bellamy (The Awful Truth)

Thomas Mitchell (Lost Horizon)

Edward Everett Horton (Shall We Dance?)

Joseph Schildkraut (The Life of Emile Zola)

Charles Winninger (Nothing Sacred)

Edward Arnold (Easy Living)

Edward Everett Horton (Lost Horizon)

My head tells me I should choose Thomas Mitchell in Make Way for Tomorrow as the lousy son who knows he’s lousy, doesn’t want to be lousy, but isn’t strong enough to do stand up to his wife and be decent.  He gives a subtle, conflicted performance that deserves recognition, especially considering the fine supporting performances he gave in John Ford’s underrated The Hurricane and Frank Capra’s overrated Lost Horizon.  But my heart wants Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. to get some recognition too.  In the end, Mitchell comes up a close second to Fairbanks’ devilish performance in an awkward movie.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as Rupert of Hentzau

The Prisoner of Zenda is, all things considered, a pretty goofy movie.  It’s one of those Victorian swashbucklers replete with kidnapped princesses, royal treachery, and a convenient double for the king.  Ronald Colman plays Rudolf Rassendyll, an Englishman visiting the fictional Central European kingdom of Ruritania.  As luck would have it (or as the author of the original novel needed it), he is a perfect double for the soon-to-be-coronated king, Prince Rudolf (also played by Colman).  As is always the case with these silly stories, he stumbles into a plot to incapacitate the prince with drugged wine, so his brother Duke Michael can declare his brother incompetent and have himself crowned king.  English Rudolf is asked to help thwart Michael’s plans by impersonating the unconscious prince and go through the coronation ceremony.  It’s a standard plot of a standard nineteenth-century action story.  It’s so bad that Raymond Massey, usually a good actor, gives an overbearing, melodramatic performance – a rare misstep.

Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. has some real fun with his part as Rupert, Duke Michael’s henchman.  He does all the dirty work, arranging the drugging of Prince Rudolf, later kidnapping him and killing (or at least trying to kill) those who get in the way.  Fairbanks uses his natural charisma, screen presence, and physical attractiveness to turn Rupert into the most dangerous sort of villain: a likeable one.  He’s charming; even when we know he’s lying, we still believe he could charm his way into our hearts.  Everyone wants to win his approval, knowing all the time that he wants something or else he wouldn’t bother to waste his time.  People like Fairbank’s Rupert depend on his marks to weigh the risk: how much are we willing to sacrifice to keep this person’s approval?  The dumb ones are willing to give up everything, like Lady Flavia (Mary Astor).

Fairbanks and Ronald Colman battle it out -- but don't we kind of root for Fairbanks' villain?

I’ve always felt that Douglas Fairbanks Jr. was underappreciated as an actor.  He had a natural, easy presence on the screen.  Like his father, he was a perfect leading man and he had range allowing him to play comedy, action, romance, and drama.  And this wasn’t the first time Fairbanks played a villain.  He was less successful as mentally unbalanced Tsar Peter in The Rise of Catherine the Great (1934), but he had nice moments, especially as he struggled with the delusions and paranoia his madness caused.  There is no such struggle here.  Rupert is simply out for himself and will work any angle to further his ambition.  He is a lout, ready to do anything, break any law, or betray any confidence.  At one point Michael sends Rupert to kill the royal imposter.  Instead of killing him, Rupert proposes a double-cross whereby they would kill both the real king in captivity and Michael and rule the kingdom together.  Only after Rudolf declines the sincerely sociopathic proposition does Rupert essentially shrug his shoulders (it was, after all, worth a try) and throw a knife at him.

Fairbanks plays Rupert with a joy not often seen in a fictional criminal (Tom Ripley in Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game or Wallace Beery’s 1934 portrayal of Long John Silver in Treasure Island both come to mind).  In the end, he wants the money and the women, but I think he would trade that all in to continue the game, the sport of intrigue and treachery.  At one point, Rudolf is cornered and he and Rupert get into a shoot out.  Rupert grins like the Cheshire Cat.  Sure his life is in danger, but what, for him, would be the point of life without the fun of danger.  The testament to Fairbanks’ skill in the role is that the Hayes Office did not demand his death or capture, as villains were routinely required to face some sort of retribution at the time.  He gets away in the end, with his characteristic aw-shucks grin.  He may have lost this particular game, but it was still fun to play.  Besides, for someone as enterprising and ruthless as Rupert, there will always be opportunities.  He knows he’ll be back.

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