As the title of this post may indicate, this is the second edition of my quest to actually see all the Best Picture Winners. While Volume 1 helped to shatter some preconceived notions of the kinds of movies that win the Oscars, Volume 2 has only emphasized that there are very valid reasons why the term “Oscar-Bait” is a well known part of the English lexicon. Without further ado here is this week’s haul:
THE ENGLISH PATIENT (1996) dir. Anthony Minghella
Everything about this movie right down to the 162 minute length screams “Oscar Bait”. It is the kind of self-consciously serious project that uses every frame to convey just how prestigious and important the film is. It evokes a plethora of past Best Picture winners like Casablanca (minus the fun) or Lawrence in Arabia (but with more PG-13 sex). But it is in the actual storytelling that the film reveals its Oscar-laden ambitions most blatantly, and is ultimately let down by it. The film is told in two levels, the first being the story’s present where a wartime nurse (Juliette Binoche) takes care of a badly burned man (Ralph Fiennes) who can’t remember his name in an Italian monastery at the end of the Italian campaign in World War II. Though he cannot remember his name, after some persuasion he begins telling the story of his past in flashbacks, where he was a Hungarian count commissioned by the Royal Geographic Society to map out parts of North Africa and ultimately engages in a sumptuous love affair with Katherine (Kristin Scott Thomas), a married woman who joins his expedition. It is these flashbacks that are easily the best part of this movie and most classically evocative of films past in the best way. Unfortunately the lush melodramatic flashbacks are too frequently broken-up by lengthy returns to the movie’s present which is not nearly as compelling by comparison. The end result is a movie that paradoxically feels overly long and yet with storylines that feel rushed and under-baked. But boy, does it sure have the look of an Oscar-winner.
A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS (1966) dir. Fred Zinnemann
I will admit that it took me awhile to get into this movie because it looked so much like the Vincent Price-Roger Corman Poe collaborations that I was completely unprepared for a non-campy medieval tale. But having gotten past that mental hurdle, I was rewarded with a wonderful gem of royal court intrigue in the age of Henry V. Paul Scofield stars as Sir Thomas More, an uncompromising and devout member of Henry’s inner circle who finds himself the odd-one out when Henry (a highly entertaining Robert Shaw) decides he wants to divorce his current wife and remarry over and against the prohibitions of the Pope. The film is lushly produced and with masterful if understated cinematography, providing the perfect canvas for the pageantry of this Shakespeare-esque movie. In addition it is the rare movie that treats religion and religious conviction as neither an irrational aberration nor, as is the case with most Christian films, an unquestionably virtuous position. But ultimately this is Scofield’s film and in his masterful hands, he creates a wonderfully complex portrait of Thomas More during a fascinating portion of English history.
TOM JONES (1963) dir. Tony Richardson
This movie had me hooked the moment it opened with a sincerely absurd silent movie-style origin story detailing how the young (and illegitimate) baby Tom Jones ended up in the household of a squire. With this suitably farcical opening out of the way the proceedings quickly shift to the exploits of the “incorrigible hero” adult Tom Jones (Albert Finney) in what is certainly the strangest film to win best picture. A purely comic costume drama, everything from the narration to the soundtrack to the faux-aristocratic acting to the frequent breaking of the fourth wall indicates that this is a movie played entirely for laughs. Fortunately for us too, the laughs it seeks are well earned as this frantic and irreverent comedy details Jones’ exploits to win his love, earn his place in respected society, and generally galavants through the countryside bringing iconoclastic hijinks wherever he goes. It is so much playful fun that I just cannot believe it snuck away with the very reverent Best Picture award.
DRIVING MISS DAISY (1989) dir. Bruce Beresford
Driving Miss Daisy is a fine film, and by fine I mean passable as a film. Barely anything of note happens in this movie about a old Jewish woman (Jessica Tandy) and the twenty-five year friendship she develops with her African-American chauffeur (Morgan Freeman) during the middle half of the 20th century. Though there is an inherent racial undercurrent that runs throughout, the movie is completely uninterested in exploring the subject matter in favour of mildly pleasant and mildly acerbic conversations between the two. The filmmaking is static and conventional with a blaring and inoffensive 80’s pop soundtrack the only thing that raises the past beyond anything pedestrian. Thank goodness the performances of Tandy and Freeman are good because there is literally nothing else to drive this movie forward. But even with their fine performances, the movie can’t escape being an inoffensively forgettable tale that serves to be nothing more than a feature length extrapolation of the magical black man trope.
HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY (1941) dir. John Ford
This movie will always be defined as the one that beat out Citizen Kane for the Best Picture award and perhaps has suffered somewhat in its enduring reputation due to that egregious error (though not among the most egregious errors). Taken on its own terms however, the movie is a well-acted and well-directed drama that is a perfect example of the melodramatic style of classic Hollywood. Telling the story of the Morgan family, a Welsh mining family during the late 19th century, it is a sprawling tale told mostly through the perspective of Huw, the youngest Morgan. There are no subtle emotions on display in this movie as it flits between overt joyousness to deep sorrow, and John Ford lays it on thick with his sense of piety. It is a typically glossy Hollywood picture with little attention paid to what actual Welsh life might have been like. But for what it is, an unapologetically sentimental family drama, it is is pretty good.
CIMARRON (1931) dir. Wesley Ruggles
The opening credits of this movie feature all of the main characters being introduced one-by-one in repose. A cavalcade of white people dressed regally and acting as high members of society are paraded and then right at the end, we get a shot of Eugene Jackson as Isaiah, a grinning black man who is shown shining some shoes. So very early on, you get the sense that this might not age well. After that less than promising opening, we do get the one great shot of this movie as we see a cast of thousands rush through the open country on horseback in conjunction with the Oklahoma land rush of 1889. Of course the Oklahoma land rush is another sign of the evil doctrine of manifest destiny that unjustly persecuted Native Americans in the name of progress, so it’s hard not to get to enthused about the scene. And it does not get much better than that opening sequence as the movie quickly devolves into a string of questionable stereotypes, punctuated by actors who clearly were more well-versed in the silent movies than in the talkies, with a script that could be generously called stilted. Basically, I watched this so that you don’t have to.
THE LAST EMPEROR (1987) dir. Bernardo Bertolucci
The opulent and expensive epic about, as the title might suggest, the life of the last emperor of China who became the emperor as a toddler and was stripped of all power before becoming an adult is a strange tale that one can imagine would never be made today. It is a three hour epic in which the Emperor Pu Yi rarely is an active participant of his own faith, instead acted upon by a cavalcade of attendants and advisors when he is emperor and then manipulated by many others when he is effectively deposed. As a result it makes for a fatalistic viewing experience, inviting the viewer into passive and detached enjoyment of the proceedings. This is fine when the film is set – and actually shot – in the elegant and beautiful Forbidden City where director Bernardo Bertolucci sets what are essentially domestic scenes in as gorgeous a backdrop as one can imagine. However once the movie moves beyond these early scenes to his exile from the Forbidden City and the rise of the communist regime the movie becomes much less interesting from a narrative perspective mostly because Pu Yi remains passive throughout. The whiplash of cultural and political change that occurred in China in the 20th century should be more than enough to create a compelling narrative, but unfortunately without a charismatic character to latch onto we remain passively detached from the momentous proceedings. In addition, the use of English as the primary language in this movie was endlessly distracting and is a sign of the movie’s datedness. But despite these shortcomings, there is no doubt that this movie is impressive as pure spectacle in a way that no modern film can come close to matching. While it is a relief that the definition of “prestige filmmaking” has expanded to be much more diverse than it was in 1987, it is a shame that in the process we’ve lost the ability to tell ridiculously large stories like this.