I will admit that for most of my run in catching up with the Best Picture winners I hadn’t seen yet it has been a bit of a slog. It simply confirmed that there was a reason why I ignored most of these movies in the first place as I ran the gamut of over-wrought, extravagantly produced, and glacially paced prestige pictures that were manufactured to garner Academy interest. In this entry there are several examples of exactly this kind of movie. But then I stumbled upon a few movies that broke the trend, movies that were not just superficially prestigious looking but unquestionably great which kind of made the slog worthwhile. Without further ado here are the final entries (next week you can look forward to me finally ranking all of the Best Picture Oscar winners):
WINGS (1927) dir. William A. Wellman
The first movie (and only real silent film) to ever win the Best Picture Oscar is fortunately a worthy enough winner. It tells the story of two fighter pilots, Jack and David, and the field medic Mary who join up for the First World War, made barely a decade after that horrific war actually ended. The movie begins in less harrowing times as it chronicles the lives of these three people from their time in small-town America (with romantic dalliances included) to their eventual enlistment in the armed forced and deployment to the front. The pre-war drama is more or less what you might expect from a silent melodrama, with each of these characters given enough of a backstory for us to care about their fates once the shooting starts. However what makes the movie outstanding is the impossibly shot aerial sequences as well as the harrowing battle scenes that were surprisingly bleak and violent given that this was shot in the 1920s. The final battle (The Battle of Saint-Miheil) is a superb piece of cinematography more than equal to any of the great war scenes of the sound era. Though we have never looked back once we discovered how to put sound into movies, Wings serves as one reminder (amongst a great many) that the change was brought about not for lack of storytelling prowess in the silent era.
AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS (1956) dir. Michael Anderson
Around the World in 80 Days is a sprawling mess that can’t decide what kind of movie it wants to be as it tries to be a big tentpole for any and all interests and ends up pleasing none. The opening of the movie alone is a bizarre mish-mash of a Robert Osborne TCM-style introduction to the movie with some sermonizing to a cold-war America about our ability to destroy ourselves and an extended commentary of George Melies short A Trip to the Moon tossed in for good measure (that is messier than it sounds). From this serious opening, the movie shifts tones to a much more comedic movie with a heavy emphasis on slapstick and pratfalls to generate its laughs as the movie laboriously gets all of the moving pieces together to get Phileas Fogg and Passepartout on their journey around the world. Once the journey begins the movie then flits back and forth between comedy and drama, with the director using the journey as an excuse to exoticize every location and cast an overwhelming amount of white actors in minority roles (with plenty of brownface to boot). By the time Shirley MacLaine shows up as the half-Indian Princess Aouda the movie has committed so many brown-face offences that it makes the white-casting controversies of the last few years seem tame by comparison. But besides these questionable racial portrayals, the movie is a slog to get through at a 175 minutes as the movie skirts by on its admittedly impressive production values but fails at more basic things like a compelling plot or believable characters. It is exactly the kind of movie that might win Best Picture because the Academy got distracted by the sheer enormity of its production and failed to realize just how empty the movie was at its core. In any case, it looks like I need to update my “Biggest Oscar Mistakes” list.
HAMLET (1948) dir. Laurence Olivier
Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet is an important milestone in film as its win for Best Picture firmly validated the belief that Shakespeare could be every bit as effective and moving on screen as it was on stage. The mere fact that this movie is mostly a faithful adaptation to Shakespeare’s play immediately vaults it into one of the best screenplays written (that ironically wasn’t nominated for the Best Screenplay award). In the hands of Olivier and crew we are treated to a classic performance of one of Shakespeare’s best plays and the pleasure of watching that should be self-evident. The complaints I have, and they are minor, stem from the fact that the movie is not as inventive or imaginative from a pure filmmaking standpoint. The camerawork and editing is mostly static with a heavy emphasis on staging the performances while the soundtrack is virtually non-existent. Ultimately it looks and feels like a stage play with a much bigger set. Ironically this is the rare Oscar-winning movie that I sincerely wish was longer. In order to cut the 4-hour play down to a regular film length Olivier completely excised most of the political subplots of the play in order to focus on Hamlet’s personal relationship which works out fine within the context of the film itself but ends up looking slight compared to the epic scope of the play. For those reasons Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 epic adaptation of the play remains the definitive film version for me, even if Olivier’s version is a very good runner-up.
OUT OF AFRICA (1985) dir. Sydney Pollack
In the 80’s a certain kind of film was deemed important. It had to be long, set in the past and in an exotic locale, contain absolutely no humour in favour of dramatic acting, feature a sweeping classical score, practically announce its importance through its subject matter, and be meticulously paced. Out of Africa is the movie that checks all of those boxes, but in an entirely perfunctory manner. It stars Meryl Streep – the very epitome of a the prestige actress for Oscar hopefuls – as Karen Blixen who is a wealthy Danish woman who moves to Nairobi for a marriage of convenience to a Swedish nobleman. Along the way she bumps into Denys (Robert Redford) a big-game hunter, setting up the eventual love-triangle that will drive the plot. Unfortunately the plot, based on the memoirs of Blixen, is too episodic to really sustain any long-term interest because it creates a stop-start feeling to the larger narrative. This more than anything else makes the movie a glacial chore to get through. And though the movie is admittedly gorgeously shot, it also suffers from the problematic optics of being a story about three rich white colonists where all the Africans are used basically to exoticise what is basically your run-of-the-mill Hollywood melodrama.
TERMS OF ENDEARMENT (1983) dir. James L. Brooks
This movie is an impossible juggling act. It manages to be extremely funny in places and yet crushingly heartbreaking in others. It is a melodramatic weepie of a movie about the relationship between a mother and her adult daughter that blatantly tries to pull at your heartstrings. It features the most “Jack Nicholson” Jack Nicholson performance of all time. Its tone shifts from ludicrously comedic to solemnly poignant, sometimes within the same scene. This movie should not work. And yet that is precisely why this movie is so great because it threads the needle so sublimely that it manages to actually approximate the messy confluence of human relationships and life. Much of the credit for that has to go to writer/director James Brooks who turns out one of his best scripts who fills the screenplay with such humanistic dialogue that neither the comedic punchlines or the emotional gut punches come across as forced, instead flowing out of the fully formed characters he has written. Of course, a written character is only as good as the people who end up playing them and Brooks goes three-for-three in casting with Shirley MacLaine as the acerbic and emotionally cut-off matriach Aurora, Debra Winger as her wide-eyed and open daughter Emma, and Nicholson as a womanizing former astronaut who ends up being Aurora’s neighbour. With the story being extremely small the actors have nothing but the strength of their words and actions to carry this movie through and the fact that they succeed so well in doing that places this movie as one of the best acted Best Picture Oscar winners. The end result is an effortless movie from beginning to end that is the perfect pick for when you need a good and well-earned cry.
ORDINARY PEOPLE (1980) dir. Robert Redford
The truth is that by the grace of God most of us are able to cover over the cracks in our lives and relationships thanks to the emotional levees we build up over time. And there is a way in which a horrific tragedy can bulldoze those coping defences leaving nothing but wreckage in its wake. The great power of Ordinary People is that it takes a cold hard look at a family learning to cope on the other side of tragedy. As we enter the story a year has passed since the Jarretts, an upper-class Chicago family, have lost their oldest son in a boating accident. Their youngest son Conrad (Timothy Hutton), four months out of a psychiatric hospital after his own suicidal attempt and the only other one on the boat during his brother’s death, is wracked by guilt and depression and struggles to return to any sense of normalcy. His mother Beth (Mary Tyler Moore) meanwhile refuses to address the subject of his brother’s death or his suicide, doing everything in her power to carry on her life as if nothing has fundamentally changed while his father Calvin (Kiefer Sutherland) tries his best to mediate between the two and keep his family somewhat together, leaving him little time to process his own grief. The great power of the movie is that though the plot would seemingly beg for a melodramatic treatment, it never indulges in that instinct. It also refuses to villainize any of the principle players, instead respecting that the cataclysmic nature of the tragedy is something no human was built to cope with. Robert Redford decides to tell the story in an understated, matter-of-fact way and by refusing to mask the movie with dramatic flurries he forces us, a society prone to ignoring pain in ourselves and others, to stare at the face of grief, trauma, and depression. The balm in the piece comes in the form of Conrad’s psychiatrist (Judd Hirsch) who becomes the only true listening ear to Conrad’s deep-seated grief and the one to force Conrad to face his own pain. As someone who has experienced years-long depression and a bout of suicidal thoughts it just struck me how true this movie was, both in depicting the sources of our depressive neuroses and the way out of them. And in giving voice and shape to grief and depression, Ordinary People also helps to make those of us who suffer or have suffered from it feel not so painfully alone. This is simply, a powerful film.