No. 167 | September 27, 2010
It’s an honor just to be nominated, as the saying goes, and some actors wait all their lives for that honor to come. It’s no doubt a sweet moment to hear the news that the Motion Picture Academy has chosen your work to be among the year’s very best.
For many, including some of the best, the call never comes. For a rare few, it comes too late. A handful of times the Academy has nominated actors for Oscars, or presented them awards, after their death. We’ll look at five of them this week.
Our theme this week
Actors with posthumous nominations for Oscars
James Dean was a guy who changed everything. Not single-handedly, of course, but he was part of a small group that did.
In the history of film acting, there have been a few key developments: the introduction of a naturalistic style, under D.W. Griffith et al. in the early days of silents, the transition to sound in the late 1920s, and method acting, which first became popular in the decade after the war. Method actors of the ’50s are the dividing line between everything that was before and everything that has been since.
Dean was younger than others in that influential first generation of method actors (Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Marilyn Monroe), but in his short career he was one of its biggest stars. His iconic status as a film actor rests on just three performances. For director Elia Kazan, he played Cal Trask, the troubled twin brother in the adaptation of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Dean famously diverged from the script, improvising some scenes, and won great acclaim for the role. Also in 1955, he starred as Jim Stark, (once again) a troubled teenager, in Rebel Without a Cause. There was nothing like it before. “You’re tearing me apart!” was a primal scream for a new generation. It was a defining role and a defining film, and the age of teenage rebellion was born. His next and last film was Giant, costarring with Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson. Dean played Jett Rink, the guy who strikes oil, makes it big, and eventually pays the price for it. (More on Giant here.)
Dean is best known for his films, but his list of acting credits is considerably longer than those three roles. Dean performed in dozens of productions for television (for Studio One, Omnibus, Kraft Television Theater, et al.), and he did some notable stage work on and off Broadway.
On September 30, 1955, Dean died in a car accident in central California. It was a few months after the release of East of Eden, for which he was later nominated for Best Actor, and a few weeks before Rebel Without a Cause. For 1956, he was again nominated for Best Actor, for Giant.
No. 158 | September 14, 2010
Our theme this week
Notable films of 1957
Pierre Boulle published the novel on which the movie was based in 1952, and when Academy Awards were handed out in 1958, Boulle won for best adapted screenplay, one of seven awarded to the film, including Best Picture. What’s notable about Boulle’s Oscar is that he was a Frenchman who spoke French, not English. The screenplay was in fact written by two Americans, Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson, who were part of the Hollywood blacklist and not eligible to get screen credit during the time. In 1984, the Academy corrected the record, awarding Oscars properly, but posthumously, to Foreman and Wilson.
The film was a huge success, both at the box office and with critics. Director David Lean earned the first of two Academy Awards he won in his long and distinguished career. Lean had a special talent for making epic films that reeked of respectability, and were very good too. That’s not as easy as it sounds. (His earlier, shorter films were very good too, but his epics seem to have been a greater influence on later generations of directors, who could more easily emulate the length of his pictures than their quality.) I wasn’t around when The Bridge on the River Kwai came out, but as I remember hearing about it while growing up, it was about as esteemed as any film ever made, especially for the World War II generation. I saw it again not too long ago, and though it’s no doubt set in a time and place far different from our world today, the film stands up.
The largely fictionalized story centers around British soldiers at a prison camp in Southeast Asia. The Japanese commandant, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), orders them to work on construction of a bridge to help the Japanese war effort. The British leader, Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), objects to Saito’s treatment of his officers, citing the Geneva Conventions. Two parallel storylines follow. One is the interplay of Saito and Nicholson, and the effort to get the bridge built. The other involves an American, Shears (William Holden), who escapes from the camp but then is enlisted by Major Warden (Jack Hawkins) for a mission to blow up the bridge.
The film packs a lot into its 161-minute running time. We see Nicholson’s principled and admirable resistance, and also the madness of his obsession to build the bridge. We see Saito’s cool determination, and his private humiliation as he fights desperately with thoughts of suicide. We see Shears’s lack of concern about anyone but himself, and finally his selfless heroism. The characters are easy to peg as British, Japanese, and American, but they’re not painted with too broad a brush. Their treatment is very much as complicated individuals struggling to make the best of difficult circumstances.
The American star, Holden, got top billing, though the film was a British production. Yet in 1997 the movie was selected for the U.S. National Film Registry.
Anyone who sees the The Bridge on the River Kwai will never forget the tune whistled by the British soldiers, “The Colonel Bogey March.” It became a hit for Mitch Miller, but it was composed by a British bandmaster, F.J. Ricketts, during World War I and adapted various times in later years. One parody sung during WWII had the title “Hilter Has Only Got One Ball.” The tune, and film, had special resonance for British audiences who may have remembered that version.
No. 112 | June 7, 2010
“Drill, baby, drill!” is not an argument meant to win a debate. It’s a slogan mocking the idea that we should even have a debate. But like it or not, it’s been the de facto energy policy of the country for many decades. Presidents for as long as anyone can remember have been promising change. Nothing happens. Maybe now the time has come. We shall see.
I generally don’t aim to be topical with weekly themes, but the story that’s dominating the news is not going away. Oil gushes into the Gulf of Mexico today, and it will again tomorrow, and the day after. Based on the latest predictions, the gushing will continue until August, if not Christmas. This isn’t just a news story. It’s history as it happens.
Before we get to the five films of the week, you may want to look at a clip from the great Robert Flaherty, a filmmaker with a fondness for exotic locations and the people who live in them (Nanook of the North, Man of Aran). Near the end of his career he filmed Louisiana Story. A film about life on the bayou, it’s a relatively early depiction of the effects of oil. When a cajun family finds oil bubbling up in their swamp, they lease the land to an oil company, which erects a derrick to drill 14,000 feet into the earth. After a blowout, the rig is soon capped, but mostly the film portrays the harmony of industry and nature, and the promise of oil to bring prosperity to the people. The film won accolades at the time. It is arfully done, though today it seems somewhat naïve. There may be a reason for that. The film was funded by Standard Oil of New Jersey.
The film has value, in any case. It offers us a glimpse of Louisiana life that doesn’t exist anymore. There’s no oil derrick in the clip here, just a cajun boy with a lot of courage, and an alligator.
Louisiana Story (1948)
Robert Flaherty, director
Virgil Thomson, composer (the only film score to win a Pulitzer Prize for Music)
Our theme this week
Films about oil, and what it does to people
Don’t bother to watch the movie unless you have nothing else to do for three hours and twenty-one minutes. They don’t call it Giant for nothing.
In the last of his three great film performances, James Dean co-stars as Jett Rink, a worker on a ranch in Texas owned by the Benedict family. When Luz Benedict (Mercedes McCambridge) dies, she leaves a small plot of land to Jett. Before long, he strikes oil, and that changes everything. Tensions run high between Jett and the rest of the Benedicts, including Bick and Leslie (Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor), before Jett heads off to start an oil drilling company. Jett goes from rich to super-rich. During the war Jett persuades Bick to get into the oil business, and soon Bick and the Benedict family are wealthier than even before. They are all rolling in it, though not particularly happy, and feuding. Jett is worst off, ending up a pathetic drunk. Ain’t oil grand?
More than just a story about the bad fortunes of getting rich, Giant is also a reminder that poor treatment of Mexican Americans has a long history. The Benedicts are less than enlightened in their attitudes toward immigrants, but after some time—and children, intermarriage, and grandchildren—Bick, at least, has a change of heart.
Adapted from the Edna Ferber novel, the film garnered ten Oscar nominations, including a posthumous nod for Dean, who died before the film opened. George Stevens won the Best Director prize. The film did great box office, setting a record for Warner Bros., its top grosser until Superman in 1978.
One casting note, from the “please check that woman’s ID” department: Elizabeth Taylor played the mother of the late Dennis Hopper and Caroll Baker. Yet Taylor was only four years older than Hopper, and is a year younger than Baker.
No. 51 | March 12, 2010
Our theme this week (theme introduction)
Unforgettable film scores of the 1960s
Featured this week
Monday — Bernard Herrmann: “Psycho” (1960)
Tuesday — Elmer Bernstein: “The Magnificent Seven” (1960)
Wednesday — Ennio Morricone: “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (1966)
Thursday — Henry Mancini: “The Pink Panther” (1963)
About Maurice Jarre
Select list of film credits
Lawrence of Arabia
David Lean, director
Freddie Young, director of photography
No. 46 | March 5, 2010
Our theme this week (theme introduction)
Film titles with two Oscar nominations for Best Picture
Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
Director: Frank Lloyd
Writers: Talbot Jennings, Jules Furthman, Carey Wilson; based on the novel by Charles Nordhoff, James Norman Hall
Cast: Charles Laughton (William Bligh), Clark Gable (Fletcher Christian), Franchot Tone (Roger Byam), Movita (Tehani), Mamo Clark (Maimiti)
Oscar Summary: 8 nominations, including Picture, Director, Actor (Laughton, Gable, Tone), Adapted Screenplay; 1 win (Picture)
The math says 1962 is much closer to 1935 (27 years) than to 2010 (48 years), but the look of the later production feels closer to something from our era of moviemaking than it does to the earlier film. In part that’s a result of the widescreen color photography, the spare-no-expense budget, and the three-hour length. But the performances also make a difference, with a cast led by Marlon Brando offering a more naturalistic, less hammy, rendering of the story. That’s not to say the newer version is a better film; I rather enjoyed 1935 film. (These days, we’re not likely to see another Mutiny on the Bounty made. Now, they’d change the ship to a spaceship and those nature-loving Tahitians to the Na’vi; they wouldn’t film it in Panavision, but 3-D, and they’d shorten the title too. Avatar fans may want to note, for the record, the ship sent a year later to search for the missing Bounty was the HMS Pandora.)
The 1962 film took more liberties with the truth, though both films were based on the 1932 book Mutiny on the Bounty, which itself is a historical novel, not a history, of the real-life mutiny that took place in 1789. William Bligh was the commanding officer of the Bounty during its fateful voyage of the South Pacific. After a stop in Tahiti, a group led by Fletcher Christian took command in a bloodless mutiny, sending Bligh out to sea in a small boat with a few of his loyalists. Bligh lived to return to England. The mutineers settled in Tahiti and Pitcairn Island, where some of their descendents live today. The mutiny, and the cruelty of Bligh toward his crew that led to it, is the stuff of legend. The tale’s been told in poetry and prose (among the storytellers: Lord Byron, Mark Twain, and Jules Verne), and at least half a dozen films.
Beyond the final credits
Of the ten Best Picture nominees featured this week, the 1935 release of Mutiny of the Bounty was the only one to win the prize. The film was the first ever to have three acting nominations, and the only one to have three nominations for Best Actor—Laughton, a great actor here chewing the scenery, Gable, minus his mustache, and Tone, as the true hero of the story.