Nov 30, 2008

Oscar Winning Best Actors of the '60s: 1961

Winner: MAXIMILIAN SCHELL - Judgment at Nuremberg

other nominees:

Charles Boyer - Fanny
Paul Newman - The Hustler
Spencer Tracy - Judgment at Nuremberg
Stuart Whitman - The Mark

Stanley Kramer's Judgment at Nuremberg is one of those big important issue pictures that started to become prevalent in the late 1950s and into the 1960s. It has an all-star cast headed by an aged Spencer Tracy as a judge presiding over the international trial of four German judges that handed down indictments of victims of the Fourth Reich. From reading, I have understood that this was originally a television drama that Kramer transformed into this mammoth 3 hour plus movie. Surprisingly, it has an overture and exit music, but no intermission. It is a static affair filled with histrionics, crying, blustering speechifying and crying for attention supporting roles by Montgomery Clift and Judy Garland. This film, supposedly, began the practice of Academy voters nominating "usual" head-liners in supporting categories. This enraged Hollywood gossip columnists, like Hedda Hopper, who thought it was an insult to allow a "star" to be thought of as a supporting player. Today, of course, it is common place and usually means a sure-fire win in that secondary category for the "star".

The star who, ironically, won the statuette for Best Actor this year was an actor who was not so known by American audiences at the time. Austrian born actor Maximilian Schell plays Hans Rolfe the German lawyer representing four judges who over saw the indictments of victims of the Fourth Reich. Schell had performed this role once before in the 1959 Playhouse 90 television production and was selected by Kramer to reprise his role several years later. Schell does an admirable job and you do pay a lot of attention to him when he is on screen. He poses an impressive figure; bold personality, strident voice and good looking dark features. His role is an odd one to honor in this category only because he plays a man who could be seen as a sort of villain. He is a man who strongly believes in the innocence of the men who allowed many to be sterilized, executed and sent to concentration camps for acts such as fraternizing with Jews and not being able to pass intelligent tests by the German officials. He believes in the duty of men to support the law of a land ... even if that law is unsound. However, Schell's Rolfe is a complex character; an honorable man who does not want his country to be thought of as entirely evil and corrupt; that there is still good there and these men were forced to do their duty whether sound or unsound. The opposing view, voiced by the usual blustering acting of Richard Widmark as the American military Captain in charge of the prosecution, is that evil acts should not be allowed whether they are law or not; evil should be stood up to and challenged. Schell poses a very good defense but ultimately loses, as we know from history and from the confession of guilt by one of his clients, that he admires greatly, played by Burt Lancaster (the winner of the previous year's Best Actor Oscar). He plays a learned renown German judge and professor of law who we find out hated the Fuhrer and all he stood for, yet upheld the edicts this monster and his Nazi officials had enacted into the law of the land.

Why did Schell win the prize? Good question. I found him adequate; he even has a spotlighted full-blown yelling to the rafters speech in the courtroom toward the conclusion ... pure Oscar bait. The film, though, dealt mostly with Spencer Tracy's role as presiding judge and his relationship with a German widow played by Marlene Dietrich. We spend almost the entire film with Tracy and his observations of German post-War life. Tracy was, indeed, nominated for Best Actor, but lost to Schell. And, most of all, I was impressed by Lancaster as the accused German judge. He is a fantastically fascinating character. He is stoic and appears evil and mysterious. As the film progresses you see his true nature and his moral dilemma. And the two powerhouse actors, Lancaster and Tracy, hold court in the final scene. Schell seems more of a supporting player to me and, perhaps, 1961 was a year that, through events or preoccupation with other matters of historical value, it was time for the Academy voters to hand the gold to a foreign actor.

Nov 25, 2008

Woody Movie Quotes #5: HANNAH AND HER SISTERS (1986)

Mickey: "Millions of books written on every conceivable subject by all these great minds and in the end, none of them knows anything more about the big questions of life than I do ... I read Socrates. This guy knocked off little Greek boys. What the Hell's he got to teach me? And Nietzsche, with his theory of eternal recurrence. He said that the life we lived we're gonna live over again the exact same way for eternity. Great. That means I'll have to sit through the Ice Capades again. It's not worth it. And Freud, another great pessimist. I was in analysis for years and nothing happened. My poor analyst got so frustrated, the guy finally put in a salad bar. Maybe the poets are right. Maybe love is the only answer."

Nov 24, 2008

Oscar Winning Best Actors of the '60s: 1960

Winner: BURT LANCASTER - Elmer Gantry

other nominees:
Trevor Howard - Sons and Lovers
Jack Lemmon - The Apartment
Laurence Olivier - The Entertainer
Spencer Tracy - Inherit the Wind

I've decided to watch, in succession, the Academy Award winning Lead Actors in the decade of the 1960s. Luckily, each of the 10 films I must view are available on dvd and I own them or can access them through the wonders of NetFlix. Starting with Elmer Gantry directed by Richard Brooks and based on the novel by the brilliant Sinclair Lewis, it is evident that the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have always loved those big brassy performances that declare an actor is on the screen in all his glory. Burt Lancaster portrays Elmer Gantry a traveling salesman who, though thrown out of the seminary as a younger man, ironically finds himself in the role of an Evangelist Tent Preacher. Gantry's morals are in question from the outset as we witness his duplicity, his drinking, his lying and his obvious lascivious manner toward the fairer sex. He becomes attracted to a famous evangelist Sister Sharon Falconer, played by Jean Simmons, whom he becomes entangled with in business and eventual romance. Gantry's cynicism and hucksterism is matched by Sister Sharon true beliefs and aim to serve God and help the masses. Her blind faith is in direct contrast to Gantry's earthy snake oil salesman approach. Lancaster is perfect in the role and he is at his most charming and toothy grinned best. His Gantry is all show; over the top thespian acting, bible thumping and going to the extent of using a monkey in his preaching to waylay the criticism of Darwin believing reporters. I can't think of another role of Mr. Lancaster's wherein he nears the perfection of what people think of when they hear his name or when I would see impersonators ape him on television. It is in the style of the few swashbucklers he was in early in his career. I like this performance, but find it hard to believe the public would find truth in this man's preaching. It is so phony, so oily, so grandstanding ... yet people looking for answers and faith and verbal balms to their earthly problems wold believe in most anything, especially anything that they believe God is telling them through a man in a seersucker suit and a silver tongue spitting out authority and fear; reduced to quivering souls ready to open their wallets for salvation.

I, personally, relish Mr. Lancaster's other style of acting. His quiet eccentric character studies in Sweet Smell of Success, From Here to Eternity, Atlantic City and Local Hero. He was a great actor and one I appreciated more so in his later years. As to the film by Mr. Brooks, I found it mediocre and found it very hard to forget the novel it is based on that I had read years ago. Sinclair Lewis' scathing portrayal of Gantry is hard to forget. Mr. Brooks, who won an Academy Award for his screenplay, portrays Gantry in this light, but he softens him and wants the audience to sympathize and actually turns him into a hero, of sorts by the conclusion. I try always to separate a film from its source material. Even if I could put the novel's text aside, I still would find this turnaround of this character a bit uncomfortable and the issues of believing and God as a business are different in the film and harder to stomach. This may be a cost of the time in which the film was released; certain parts of the novel may have been hard to pass by the censors. If this was the case, and not just poor story telling on Mr. Brooks' part, then more is the pity.

Nov 19, 2008

Frame of Mind 18

directed by Albert Lewin
cinematography by Harry Stradling Sr.

Nov 16, 2008

My Top 10 Criterion Collection Films

Spurred on by a friend, I have decided to list my current favorites from the Criterion Collection dvd library.

dir: Ingmar Bergman

Choosing between Bergman's Winter Light and this film was difficult, however, this story of questioning the existence of God and the meaning of Life trumped the other masterwork for its injection of occasional humor and exhaling of Life's bright gusts of intermittent brightness. Both exude beautiful photography that I can never forget.

dir: Eric Rohmer

Rohmer is my favorite French New Wave director. His static style, his dialogue and intelligent ideas enthrall me. No flashy camera work is needed to show human beings talking and relating and trying to find happiness. And there is talking. Lots of talking. Wonderful words and thoughts. Rohmer's characters visit bookstores and talk about what they read. This film is my favorite in his canon.

dir: Terrence Malick

One of the most beautiful films I have ever seen. A story filled with images and sounds and music. Malick is one of the most enigmatic directors in my experience of watching film. I can't really describe what he does ... but what he does is spellbinding. His dialogue is simple, the images simple, the story simple, the experience of letting his film flow over you is not so simple. The experience is transporting. True cinema. It's like entering a dream.

dir: Masaki Kobayashi

Defiance of authority is one of my favorite themes in film and Kobayashi's film slams you in the face with its rage filled defiance. I have never experienced a film that builds so magnificently to a bloody climax of the most artful action sequences I have ever seen. It feeds my pessimistic outlook and theory that Life is ultimately hopeless. It gave me that satisfying feeling after a good meal; not so bloated, but content with my melancholy digestion.

dir: Yasujiro Ozu

One of the most difficult things a director can do is show simple life in an interesting and involving way. Ozu does it. You watch life unfold for an elderly father and his doting daughter ... and you see how life changes for them and how it will change for us. One of the saddest films I have ever seen.

dir: Francois Truffaut

Truffaut takes the American noir film, does it in his style and everyone has copied it ever since. The story of a cafe piano player with a dark past who gets involved with gangsters. This film mixes all genres into one great film.

dir: Preston Sturges

A jealous concert conductor devises several ways to dispose of a wife he thinks is cheating on him; all plans set to classical compositions. Brilliant fast talking script by Sturges ... sight gags galore and fantastic comic timing. I like my comedy mostly dark and this one is lit only by a dim night light.

dir: Akira Kurowsawa

A movie that incorporates a western, a love story, a comedy, a tragedy, a historical epic all in one. The structure of this film is perfect. Long and involving, but never boring for one second. Idiot directors of so-called action films should be forced to watch how Kurosawa worked.

dir: Wong Kar-wai

This is one of the most beautiful sad love stories I have ever seen. Such beautiful cinematography and set design and music embellish this story of unrequited love. The ending still has not left my mind.

dir: Whit Stillman

The story of a very intelligent New York outsider to the "debutante scene" who is invited to join a clique of rich kids during the Thanksgiving/Christmas holiday "coming out" season. This movie is dryer than a saltine cracker, but I love that kind of humor. I love it beyond words. I tend to dislike snobs who know they are snobs, but love eccentrics who don't realize they are snobs. In that case, I truly wished Christopher Eigeman's character Nick Smith was my friend. Whit Stillman is the WASP version of Woody Allen. I only wish he made more films.

Nov 3, 2008

Woody Movie Quotes #4: SHADOWS AND FOG (1992)

Jack: "You don't believe in God and you can't make the leap of faith necessary."

Kleinmann: "I can't even make a leap of faith to believe in my own existence."

Nov 2, 2008

Frame of Mind 17

PSYCHO (1960)
directed by Alfred Hitchcock
cinematography by John L. Russell