Sunday, May 29, 2011

Expect Delays

I may have finished my Oscar coverage, but I'm going to take a little more time with my Retro Hollmanns. One more week, at least. I just don't think I can effectively determine the Best Picture of 1974 without having seen at least 50 films from that year. Right now, I'm at thirty-nine. I didn't think it was that low, but then I realized I haven't seen Ali: Fear Eats the Soul in three years and remember shit-all about it. So now it's down to 39. For comparison's sake: I caught about 73 flicks for the 2010 Hollmann Awards. I know the task I've set is difficult, but momma didn't raise no quitter. All I ask is one week to add at least eleven titles to the following:

Airport 75
Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore
The Beast Must Die
Black Belt Jones
Black Christmas
Blazing Saddles
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia
The Conversation
Day for Night
Death Wish
Flesh for Frankenstein
The Front Page
The Godfather: Part II
The Great Gatsby
Harry and Tonto
The Island at the Top of the World
The Little Prince
The Man with the Golden Gun
Murder on the Orient Express
The Night Porter
The Odessa File
The Parallax View
Phantom of the Paradise
The Sugarland Express
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
Thieves Like Us
Thunderbolt and Lightfoot
The Towering Inferno
A Woman Under the Influence
Young Frankenstein

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Best for Last: Actress, 1974

And so it comes to an end. Almost.

Yes, even though I looked at best Picture a few days ago, that is not the end of my 1974 flashback. There's still the Retro Hollmann Awards, of course, but more importantly: it's time to look at Best Actress.

The whole reason this project started was because of a tweet from Nick Davis of Nick's Flick Picks, asking readers to follow along with his class and watch Claudine and A Woman Under the Influence. He then suggested going through the other Actress nominees for a full taste of the greatness on display. Of course, once I realized just how many 1974 films I'd coincidently seen recently (The Godfather: Part II, Phase IV), and how much of an overlap there was between Oscar categories that year, I knew that a full-scale project was in order. The year itself will be given a send-off on the 31st, but tonight is another Oscar night.

And so, I'm going out the way I came in: with the Leading Ladies of 1974.

Ellen Burstyn in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore

You know what I really admire about this performance? Burstyn is capable of making Alice unlikable without making her unlovable. She spoils her bratty son, ignores readily apparent problems, self-martyrs to an extreme, and is generally confused, frustrating and ungrateful. I'm pretty sure I know her. You know her. We all know Alice. She's a funny woman with a big heart, but she doesn't always make the best decisions.

Sometimes Alice is a real chore to be around. She cries so much and she's so stupid about men. Burstyn is unafraid to tackle this head-on, yet she conveys such warmth that you root for her. She knows how to make Alice magnetic and personable, even if she's not perfect. Indeed, it's thanks to Burstyn that Alice is the most relatable character in this race. For everyone who has ever kicked themselves when they're down, for everyone who has ever worked to keep themselves afloat, for everyone who sacrifices for those they love: Alice. She's not perfect, but damn do I love her.

Diahann Carroll in Claudine

Carroll plays a strong, struggling mother of six pursuing a romance with slick garbageman James Earl Jones. I actually find it hard to discuss this role because, while I feel it's very solid, I don't find it extraordinary. Like, she's very good at portraying an often tired woman working to get by, but I feel that I would have loved her performance more if the film had focused on her and the family rather than the romance with Jones. Her interactions with her increasingly radical son (Laurence Hilton-acques) and sexually awakened daughter (Tamu Blackwell) are what kept me watching. Her frenzied "cleaning" whenever the welfare lady shows up is funny in its frankness, tackling the problem with the welfare state without directly saying it. Good Lord, must this woman work a job and lie to the government just so she can barely keep her family afloat? Is this really my America? And then we're back to James Earl Jones and it's ehhhhh.

I like the movie, and I like Carroll's performance, but something's missing. There are times where she doesn't look completely in the moment, and I actually don't believe the attraction between her and Jones. I don't. It's a key part of the film, and I'm not feeling it. And if I'm not buying part of the performance, then I'm not buying the whole character, and that's...that's disappointing.   

Faye Dunaway in Chinatown

This is a performance that requires two viewings before one can place judgment, and it's also one that's hard to get into without any spoilers. The movie may be almost 40 years old, but I somehow managed to see it the first time without any knowledge of the plot or plot twists, so why ruin it for everyone else?

Let it be understood, then, that Dunaway's performance is another great example of the weird balancing act the film does. She is at once old-school stylized and contemporary real. She has the look and the clipped speech down, but there's also a lot of subtlety and control in her line readings and expressions. The second viewing really brings this home, seeing just how that horrifying "twist" is hinted at with glances, gestures and pauses. Her final, desperate scene put a lump in my throat -- the one you get from anxiety, not necessarily from sadness. Her chemistry with Nicholson is surprisingly sweet, and it's actually more likely to touch you than get you hot and bothered...though it does that, too. Suffice to say, without giving anything away, Dunaway delivers. 

Valerie Perrine in Lenny

I am unapologetic in my love for this film, a film that (OF COURSE) extends to the performances. Perrine was more than a pleasant surprise: she was a revelation. Now, you'd be perfectly fair in saying, "But Walter, the first time you saw Valerie Perrine was in Can't Stop the Music. Surely anything she did afterwards was bound to impress you." And that may be true, though I absolutely love Can't Stop the Music ('Til my dying breath, I love it to death). Still, one look at this and it cannot be denied: she knocks it out of the park. She's so sweet and charming and's everything we want in a woman! Perrine makes us feel for Honey Bruce's troubled marriage as often as she irritates us with her choices. Like, my God, her husband gets her into a threesome and then berates her for going along with it? That brave woman stuck by him! But, my God, she's not brave -- she's weak! Look at her addiction, abandoning her child for drugs, jailed, broken, weeping. Any role that runs the gamut of emotions like this always risks melodrama, overplaying beats, or not selling the different halves equally well -- and with those intimidating press-on nails, you better believe it's hard to keep Honey subtle. Perrine manages it, and the interview sessions framing the story reveal this best. It's a real stunner.

But is it a lead performance? Perrine seems to be co-lead for the first act of the film, but since this is Lenny's story, there's little Perrine to be seen once Honey goes to jail. There's very little of her in the second half, and it's not like Lenny's choices and routines revolve around Honey. It's difficult to judge the placement of Perrine, since her character gets the most screentime out of any of the "narrators", but it's not really her story.

In the end, while I think it's a pretty perfect performance, I don't know if this is the right category for her. Still: goddamn is it impressive.   

Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence

I expressed some reticence concerning this film earlier, and I have to admit that it extends to this performance. On the one hand, I think it's a deeply disturbing, effectively uncomfortable one. Rowlands looks so much like the many women outside the Greyhound station, so certainly her portrayal of a woman not in complete possession of her wits is realistic. On the other hand, what makes people like this so uncomfortable is the spontaneity of their nature, and I just don't think Rowlands presents us with a spontaneous creature. A lot of her performance, for me, reads as technique, too calculated to be fully effective.

Of course, there's also the idea that while the character is clearly nuts, she's been nuts for so long that this erratic behavior has lost its spontaneity, and is practically routine. Certainly one sees the annoyance of familiarity in Peter Falk's face when Rowlands starts the whole raspberry-muttering-eye roll. And perhaps a large part of my inability to embrace this movie fully is the fact that it seems just fucking illogical that someone would willingly keep this woman in a house with children when she is obviously waaaaaaaay off in the head. But then, what we're seeing is the culmination of years of this finally getting out of hand.

I don't know, really. I know I like the performance, and I think I should give this movie a second chance somewhere down the road. But right now, it's too click-click for me.


Oscar chose Burstyn, who famously didn't show up because she didn't think she'd win. I would choose Perrine except for the whole category question mark. So, the choice is clear: my Oscar vote goes to...

a legend, and rightfully so

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Ultimate Prize: Picture, 1974

This is the category that makes history. Sometimes it's because of what got snubbed, whether in nomination (The Dark Knight) or win (Citizen Kane), but often it's the winner itself that stands on its own, whether deserving (Gone with the Wind) or undeserving (The Greatest Show on Earth...not my opinion, just history's). The winner of Best Picture stands forever in Hollywood legend, whether it likes it or not.

Often, people are quick to declare what merits Best Picture, with many claiming that it should go to the movie that is (a) most relevant to the time and (b) most likely to be remembered in the years to come. Which is fucking stupid, because how on earth are people supposed to judge what will be most remembered in the years to come? Most of the time, I forget about The Hurt Locker's existence, though it fit criteria a nicely and is used as one of the examples of the Academy "getting it right". Also, how is one supposed to choose something that is both timely and timeless? I personally think The King's Speech is a timeless story -- anyone who's had a best friend in time of need should be able to look past the class system -- yet apparently it's old-fashioned and stodgy to many others.

The voters of 1974 lucked out, with period pieces Chinatown and The Godfather: Part II reflecting contemporary concerns regarding corruption, times changing for the worse, crooks in power; it's better to approach these things when through the safe barrier of 1930s outfits. Meanwhile, the intimate The Conversation faced a paranoid, post-Watergate public; the biopic Lenny asked questions about the nature of censorship (cinema is no stranger); and then there's The Towering Inferno, which felt that the in vogue skyscrapers of the day would become death traps. My post-9/11 self feels eerie while watching certain moments of Inferno, but I'd never give it my vote. The Conversation is probably the most dated of the other four, but isn't it still a prime example of great filmmaking? I'd rather vote with my gut, and hope that others don't despise me for having feelings different from their own.

So here's what my gut tells me concerning the five Best Picture nominees of 1974. I've illustrated each with my favorite scene.

Meeting Noah Cross

There are two movies on this list that held my attention throughout the run-time. As in, I never left to go to the bathroom, tweeted during, or checked the time. This is one of them. Suspenseful, funny, romantic, and devastating. The performances are tops, from the lead to the brief appearances by Diane Ladd, John Hillerman and Fritzi Burr. Fantastic all-around, even if the music is forgettable.

The After-Party
The Conversation

I don't think I quite emphasized how much I admire this film. The sound is pretty much all diegetic, with the film compelling us to listen as attentively to each nuance as Gene Hackman's Harry Caul does. Of course, we find ourselves becoming just as paranoid, just as doubtful over what we think we might have heard, who can be trusted, who's in on "it", whatever "it" may be. It's not just the technical achievements, of course: Hackman's performance is one of his best, a private individual so afraid of exposure that the idea of someone leaving a birthday present in his apartment deeply unsettles him. Hackman's silence breaks my heart, especially in his scene with Teri Garr; even more heartbreaking is when he actually opens up, as in the after-party scene. The film builds the tension and never releases. Very cool. I do think it gets too slow in parts and takes a while to get the ending, but I'm willing to give it the benefit of the doubt and say this was the fault of the lateness of my viewing.

Fredo's Smart
The Godfather: Part II

Must I reiterate? "Meh" to the Vito stuff, "wow but..." to the Michael stuff, "absolutely!" (bow) to the Fredo stuff. A great film, I'm happy for its win, but there were better films this year. Still, it's a great achievement.

The Phone Call

Hey, did you know that I absolutely love this film? This is the only other film that I paid complete attention to while watching. Just incredible, haunted me the rest of the week, leaves me awed just thinking about it.

Any Scene with William Holden, His Awesome Glasses, and That Dinner Jacket
The Towering Inferno

A bone is thrown to the highest-grossing film of the year. The scope is epic, the leads are game, the action sequences are impressive, but overall a pretty dull film. Perhaps the problem lies in its conception: when Fox and Warner Bros. greenlit separate adaptations of The Tower and The Glass Inferno, they pooled resources to make one gargantuan disaster flick rather than release similar films against each other. Sometimes I think, "Take a lesson, Snow White producers." Then I remember that there is far too much going on in The Towering Inferno with little payoff. As a result, characters are introduced and forgotten (Faye Dunaway) or are given one-scene arcs (Robert Wagner). The best disaster films remember to be big and intimate -- certainly the greatest disaster film, Airport, remembered this, with a handful of connected characters, each one driving the plot. I love disaster flicks, but as good as it looks (and despite wonderful turns by Steve McQueen and William Holden), it doesn't deliver.


I try to vary the stars up a bit, usually only allowing for a repeat of one rating. Alas (or maybe not), this year had a pretty solid lineup. As stated, I can roll with the Academy choosing The Godfather: Part II. But hey, I bet you can't guess where my vote goes...

yeah, you saw this coming

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Men on the Edge: Supporting Actor, 1974

Once again, three actors from The Godfather dominated the field. Meanwhile, a never-honored veteran got his career nomination for a thankless role in a so-so film; and a young actor receives a surprise nomination from the unlikeliest of films. Even more surprising: two of the most legendary screen characters are ignored here in favor of, ahem, less noteworthy performances.

Fred Astaire in The Towering Inferno

What's going on here? When Astaire appears, I see adorable old Astaire. When he romances Jennifer Jones, I see adorable Astaire romancing Jennifer Jones. When he confesses a secret past, I'm confused. Much of the film seems to forget about this character's existence, with a full forty minutes going by between his scenes. Then his surprise revelation is only surprising because it comes from nowhere, then is quickly forgotten. I have trouble believing his was one of the characters featured in either The Tower or The Glass Inferno, so forced is his presence. Astaire the actor sleepwalks throughout. Literally, actually. He's getting by on the movie star charm without playing any of his supposed beats. It's a real disappointment.

Jeff Bridges in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot

A shocking nomination, coming from a heist film/buddy flick that didn't fare well. Bridges is co-lead as Lightfoot, an overconfident young buck who teams up with Clint Eastwood's Thunderbolt and two others to pull off a grand heist. Lightfoot is brash, irresponsible, horny; an all-around fun guy to be around. Bridges has a great swagger, flashing his winning smile whenever he can, allowing hints of youthful vulnerability so that his eleventh-hour doubts aren't shocking, but still a surprise. He and Eastwood build a great, believable repartee with each other that makes the ending pack such a wallop. Speaking of which, he plays the last scene so perfectly that I had tears in my eyes. A superb performance in an underseen gem.

Robert De Niro in The Godfather: Part II

De Niro learned Sicilian and studied Brando's performance in the previous film to play young Vito Corleone, winning an Academy Award for his dedication. You can see why when you watch the film: De Niro sounds like a young Brando, and you'd have t actually be Sicilian to know that this is a Brooklyn boy who didn't know the language before the film. De Niro plays Vito with his eyes, always watching, taking stock of the situation around him, calculating his next move. It's not hard to see where his character will become Brando's powerful, sometimes ruthless, leader. Unfortunately, he rarely plays -- or is given the opportunity to play -- anything else. We get few glimpses into Vito's home life, so that anytime we see him it's to chart his power plays within the community. It'd be nice to see moments where Vito doubts himself or meets his wife or something. De Niro's great, but it's a shame he doesn't have more to work with.

Michael V. Gazzo in The Godfather: Part II

Gazzo plays Frank Pentangeli, who runs the New York operations while Michael stays in Nevada, following the death of Clemenza; when he is led to believe Michael has tried to have him killed, Pentangeli becomes the chief witness in a Congressional hearing investigating the Corleone crime empire. I'm of two minds regarding Gazzo as Pentangeli. On the one hand, when I think of this movie, I think of his scenes. This could be due to my love of cinematic congressional hearings, or the knowledge that the character was originally supposed to be Clemenza before Richard Castellano dropped out (Clemenza is one of my favorite characters in the first one). Hell, maybe it's some sort of intrigue at Gazzo's performance. And yet, on the other hand, I wince at Gazzo's performance. It's so broad. I'm glad he's having fun (at least someone in the movie is), but something keeps me from fully embracing it. Maybe I just don't fully believe the arc.

Lee Strasberg in The Godfather: Part II

Hyman Roth is a Jewish crime boss, living and behaving like a retired businessman while making a deal with the Cuban government and trying to off Michael Corleone. Strasberg is hypnotic as Roth, playing up the sick old man aspects while keeping an eye on his enemies. Here is a respectable septuagenarian enjoying a pleasant birthday with friends, never showing the man who hired men to fire machine guns into Michael and Kay's bedroom. When Roth loses his temper, shows his anger, shows the crime boss side of himself, Strasberg's eyes are fiery. I'd like to see more of Roth -- I got excited whenever he came on screen -- but he doesn't overstay his welcome and Strasberg doesn't overplay it. Solid work.


De Niro won his first Oscar for a now legendary performance. I applaud respectfully and do not begrudge him this win, but I would give the Oscar to someone else entirely...

surprisingly magnetic, funny, touching

Monday, May 23, 2011

Painting with Light: Cinematography, 1974

I try not to be too focused on the nighttime cinematography, where the play with light is most obvious. That actually helps Orient Express, which has a kind of bright, dreamlike sheen throughout the film, like there's nylons and Vaseline on the lens.


John A. Alonzo, director of photography
How did they even get that first shot?


Philip Lathrop, director of photography
Honestly, I am very shocked that this was nominated. I think it's one of those special effects nominees whose camera tricks and matching templates just wows us. Which is fair, but this is soooo dulllllll.


Bruce Surtees, director of photography

Ugh. So much beauty in every frame.


Geoffrey Unsworth, director of photography
I love love love the kind of bright, dreamlike sheen used throughout the film, like there's nylons and Vaseline on the lens. And then at night, shit like the first shot. Outstanding.


Fred Koenekamp & Joseph Biroc, directors of photography
I'm actually pretty impressed with the cinematography here. A lot of great power outage/night time shots. Some hokey light effects, like shining a big red light on their faces when they open doors. It's clearly not fire, because it's not flickering. But I do love the last section.


The Towering Inferno won the Oscar, which is pretty cool, to be honest. It's a little predictable, maybe, but once again, I love that movie with the comedian. The Oscar goes to shoulda gone to...

this movie is so fucking perfect 

The Visionaries: Director, 1974

We've been discussing the acting and the technicals and the script, but we all know that it's the director who guides the final product. I mean, God (and the studio) willing.

John Cassavetes for A Woman Under the Influence

So, this was my first Cassavetes flick, and I have to say I'm pretty torn. On the one hand, Cassavetes intends for this to be an excruciating experience, since the film centers around a housewife who's losing it...or already lost it. So, yes, kudos to him for creating both a believable suburban environment that's suffocating and uncomfortable. On the other hand, I began to find it irritating that we were spending ten minutes watching a spaghetti dinner. "And what's your name? And what's your name? And what's your name?" And my friend assures me that this is purposeful tension to both irritate Peter Falk's character and get under the audience's skin. Which is fine, but (a) I don't care for it personally and (b) look, how many ten minute scenes do you really need to establish that this lady needs help no one is willing to give? Maybe Cassavetes got the job done -- it's a very good movie, certainly, and one that I think should be seen by serious film enthusiasts -- but I don't have to fall in love with everything.

Francis Ford Coppola for The Godfather: Part II

It's great. He's great. He manages to keep the film afloat despite the superfluousness of the Vito subplot. Aesthetically, he's nailed that Shakespearean element that really makes The Godfather an immortal classic. Of course, I wish that the performances were more varied, as everyone seems to be playing how EPICALLY TRAGIC the film is. But sequences like the Murder of Don Fanucci and the Cuban Revolution are effective and incredible enough to make up for most shortcomings.

Bob Fosse for Lenny

I find myself in that weird paradox where I am so in love with something that I cannot explain just why it earned that love. It's one of those "if you see it, you understand it" things, although I think if you've ever seen a Fosse film, you understand. The stand-up performances hint at Fosse's familiarity with the concert film, but even as he makes these sequences natural, he never loses sight of that more artistic form he's adopted for this. The film is a brilliant precursor to All That Jazz, and almost its equal. Maybe it is its equal. Anyway, Fosse's a god. 

Roman Polanski for Chinatown

It's interesting that everything is lit like a noir yet filmed with the same unlocked, handheld style of the independent films; more "realistic", if you will. The stylistic contradictions serve Polanski well, setting us up subconsciously for that awful dose of reality that the film continues to throw at us. And yet he never loses a sense of fun, and say what you will, movies need to be fun. Props for directing himself in a cameo.

Francois Truffaut for Day for Night

Truffaut maintains a light touch. He always has such a great grasp on comedy and drama. Look no further than Valentina Cortese's big scene, which has mixtures of both. Props for directing himself in a supporting role.


Oscar awarded Coppola, which I fully support. But I see things slightly differently and award the Oscar to...

seriously, he's so great

Sunday, May 22, 2011

One Good Turn...: Adapted Screenplay, 1974

We're up to the last leg of our grand 1974 tribute. Will we make it in time? Probably; tomorrow's my day off. For now, let's talk about works inspired by other works.

Mordecai Richler and Lionel Chetwynd for The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, adapted from the novel by Richler

Two hours with an itchy Richard Dreyfuss scrimping and lying for every penny he can better be damn interesting. It really is throughout a lot of it, but then every now and then it decides to throw subtlety out the window and directly address the issues of greed, materialism, the American Dream and antisemitism by, you know, naming them in very on-the-nose conversations. But for the most part, it's an interesting story, though I do think it's waaaaaaay bloated. Also, I don't even remember how he got into films. It was pretty vague.

Mario Puzo & Francis Ford Coppola for The Godfather: Part II, adapted from the novel by Mario Puzo

Puzo and Coppola give us two arcs to follow. The main one concerns Michael Corleone's further descension into evil as he expands the family business to Nevada and Cuba while facing betrayal within the family and a senate investigation. My love of cinematic senate committees certainly helps, but the relationship between Fredo and Michael is the real selling-point here. Forget the miscarriage, forget Bruno V. Gazzo; this one is all about the conflict between a younger brother in control and an older brother who always falls short. This is the story that wins Best Picture. Cazale and Pacino are selling the hell out of it, sure, but the big scene written for them -- "I'm smart! Not like everyone says, like dumb!" -- is surely one of the best-written moments in the series. I'm also rather fond of all the Hyman Roth scenes.

The second plot is the part adapted from Puzo's original novel, in which we witness Vito Corleone's rise to power in early 20th-century New York. The decision to juxtapose these humble beginnings with Michael's dealings with high-powered senators and the Cuban government is an intriguing, make no mistake, but it tends to interrupt the flow of the main narrative. Perhaps what keeps me from fully embracing this section is the lack of time given to it. Surely it's deserving of its own film entirely, the better to explore the era and get to know Vito. Its inclusion here seems a little forced, as though Coppola and Puzo are too insistent on making the Corleone saga the Great American Epic.

Julian Barry for Lenny, adapted from his play

First and foremost, I am impressed by the characterizations, from the sweet and sad Honey to the enabling Sally to the confused yet caring Artie. Oh, and of course there's Lenny, whose written with enough consistency to make a fully-developed character but loosely enough to reflect on whoever is narrating. The script is without judgment, and the structure of the story -- Lenny's life as conveyed in interviews with his nearest and dearest -- allows for truths, half-truths and legends to get all mixed together, giving us joy, laughter, anger and deep sadness. Barry's work is funny and, more importantly, the extent that one relates to a comic provocateur who OD'd. This movie really is pretty perfect.  

Paul Dehn for Murder on the Orient Express, adapted from the novel by Agatha Christie

Dehn deepens the characters/suspects, keeping each interview with Poirot from feeling same-old or episodic. One really must credit Dehn for getting Bergman her Oscar, for his rendering of Greta Ohllson is far deeper and more complicated than in Christie's original. He doesn't take the proceedings too seriously -- an element that sort of bogged down the recent television version -- and allows the characters to engage in witty repartee throughout (Poirot's interrogation of Vanessa Redgrave is an excellent example).

Of course, Dehn is not perfect. I think his characterization of Anthony Perkins' role is tired, for one. He also gives too many hints to the solution throughout the film, and he clearly has no idea what to do with Bianchi (Martin Balsam) or some of the suspects. Should those ten minutes really kill the remaining 120 of fun, though? Of course not.

Mel Brooks & Gene Wilder for Young Frankenstein, adapted from the Universal films and the novel by Mary Shelley

It's obvious Wilder and Brooks have great affection for their spoof material; indeed, this is not a parody so much as it is a tribute with a sense of humor. It's a sharp contrast to the kitchen-sink approach of Blazing Saddles: Young Frankenstein is not only hilarious and intelligent, but it's also genuinely moving in places. The monologue at the end is a perfect example of this, as is the scene just preceding the famous "Puttin' on the Ritz" number. Every character gets their great moment, whether it's Inga's knockers, Frau Blucher's confession, Elizabeth's seduction, or Inspector Kemp's game of darts. I also love the subtlety of certain gags: when young Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced Fronkensteen) is taking trains to get to Transylvania, the conversation a couple has on the German train is an exact translation of the conversation a couple has on the American one.


Oscar was feeling the love for the gangster drama, and so The Godfather: Part II won here. Were I to check off a box on my ballot, though, the Oscar would go to...

I suggest you put on a tie

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Passing Notes: Original Score, 1974

Jerry Goldsmith for Chinatown

One problem I've never been able to get over is my dislike for saxophone in noir films. It seems to always show up in scores to neo-noirs, yet I can't for the life of me think of a precedent for it. Many of the original noir films had those big Elmer Bernstein orchestras, didn't they, like any other Hollywood film of the time? Someone point out to me the exceptions, because I can't think of any.

Anyway, I didn't care for Goldsmith's score, and I think it isn't needed except for the opening credits. Hell, there's barely a score in the movie anyway, right? That's one of the things I love about Chinatown, it's naturalistic take on the noir genre. Then, here and there, the score comes up again, and while I don't hate it, it's not my cup of tea.

Nino Rota and Carmine Coppola for The Godfather: Part II

I feel like I would pick a fight with anyone who doesn't like the score to these films. Rota brings the old themes back with beautiful new work, and Carmine Coppola (father of director Francis Ford) adds some great work to complement him. Coppola's work can mostly be heard when young Vito is in New York, the most notable track coming during a neighborhood Catholic festival during which Vito makes a significant move to power. Rota, of course, is still giving us that immortal trumpet theme, but gives Vito his own theme, as well.

Really, it would still be amazing if it was the same old music from the last film. But it isn't, and the result is just as high-five worthy.

Richard Rodney Bennett for Murder on the Orient Express

Sidney Lumet was very clear that everything have a capital letter in his vision of Agatha Christie's whodunit. The performers Acted while wearing Costumes and walking amongst Production Design. So, naturally, Bennett wrote an Original Score, beginning with a loud, cymbal-crashing opening theme that sets the mood just perfectly. Eerie strings punctuate the unfolding of a child kidnapping/murder case. The jaunty Orient Express theme has the energy and glamor of a train ride with Lauren Bacall. The greatest crime is that the idea for an opening song was scrapped. If only!

Alex North for Shanks

Shanks is an odd little film, a semi-silent flick starring Marcel Marceau and his fellow mimes, in William Castle's final effort as director. It's beautiful and funny, and more than a little uncomfortable -- I'm pretty sure the 50-year-old titular puppeteer and the 15-year-old girl with him are supposed to be in love or something. It's more than a little weird, especially when he starts puppeteering corpses.

Since it does play out like a silent film, title cards and all, this is perhaps the most-scored out of any of the movies on this list -- hell, in this year, probably. The results are mixed, but I have to say it was, for the most part, a great success. The finale works as well as it does because of the music. If it wasn't for North's work, the corpse-puppets would just be creepy. It's really his score that makes this such an effective dark comedy. It's an odd little gem that's worth seeking out, movie and music both.

John Williams for The Towering Inferno

Suitably epic in parts, with that groovy 70s-ness for the more intimate moments. There are moments that drag, and I don't think it's as exciting as Williams' own Earthquake score, or as important as Alfred Newman's for Airport. But dammit, you've got John Williams scoring a big, epic disaster flick, so it must be great, right? Oh, sure, maybe a little unmemorable in parts, and maybe you don't even remember there being music in the helicopter scene even though the IMDb trivia specifically mentions it as a point of disagreement that Williams won -- sure, maybe you don't remember stuff like that. But then there's the main title theme and the finale and the theme for Fred Astaire's romance. I only wish it was two solid hours of pure music magic.


UPDATE: How did I forget to weigh in on my vote? Of course, you can see the stars, but just to reassure you, I agree with Oscar.

though maybe it should've been in Adapted Score ;)

Can't Get You Out of My Head: Original Song, 1974

I honestly look forward to this category every year, and I think the nominees say as much about the year in film as Screenplay or Best Picture. Back in the day, the winner might also be a chart-topper, and oh how I miss those days! Truly, there's nothing more I want to do then turn on the radio to hear "You Haven't Seen the Last of Me" ( won, right?).

Besides, this is the category where all the freaks go. 2010 gave us two cartoons and a Gwyneth Paltrow movie few saw and fewer liked. 1974? Well, see for yourself.

"Benji's Theme (I Feel Love)" from Benji

Like the film, the titular song is beyond cheesy, yet somehow manages to work. A pretty lovable tune, actually, and it works within the film's squeaky clean, family-friendly environment. It really does sound like something the dutiful, adorable Benji would sing if he could.

"Blazing Saddles" from Blazing Saddles

A simple homage to the country themes of old. Frankie Laine performs, an ingenious move considering he was the singer of the themes for High Noon and Gunfight at the OK Corral. Solid, singable, and a real earworm tune. I like it, it fits the film, it's great.

"Wherever Love Takes Me" from Gold

I once read Gold described as a disaster film, which is completely misleading. Sure, there is a (man-made) disaster at film's climax, but it's more of a corporate thriller/soapy romance. Perhaps the presence of Maureen McGovern singing this all right love tune threw people off; after all, she also contributed to the soundtracks for The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno (talk about a niche market).

Sing this she does, though, and the context...fits, I guess? It plays when Roger Moore gets into the plane of his boss's wife and they fly across South Africa to a weekend getaway of sexy sex sex. So I guess, wherever takes them, that's where they'll want to a plane. It fits the subplot, but not the main plot, and it's not very memorable, so I wonder how it got the nomination over the groovy title tune.

"The Little Prince" from The Little Prince

I almost cried when I heard Richard Kiley sing this at the end of the film. There is no moment more emotional than the final scene between the Pilot and the Prince, when the formerly disillusioned man begs for the magical youngster to stay behind. By this time, we've seen the relationship take that classic journey from irritation/confusion to a brotherhood, one where each learns something from the other. The tune is exquisite, and Kiley's interpretation...well, I said it already. It moves one to tears. By far the most powerful moment of the film.

"We May Never Love Like This Again" from The Towering Inferno

One of those lovably corny songs that somehow won the Oscar and was probably the first dance at many a mid-70s wedding. It's hard to turn off once that first line gets going, and soon you're just basking in its earnestness. And hey, they actually put Maureen McGovern in the film so that she could sing it at the grand opening of Fiery Death Tower. I kind of wish she appeared more in the film, I want to know if she survived the inferno. Of course, what this song has to do with anything in the movie is anyone's guess. The sad attempt at a love story is a waste of Faye Dunaway's time, and the song isn't even used in that context either. It's just there.

Well, I guess the fact that the couples are slow-dancing gives it some relevance. And the song is just so damn nice.


Oscar awarded the earworm song from The Towering Inferno. But for relevance and sheer, powerful beauty, I award the Oscar to...


Greatness at the Edges: Supporting Actress, 1974

Remember when StinkyLulu had a 1974 smackdown on his blog? I consider this my way-late weigh-in, just like it's my way-late Academy vote. I need a watch. And a calendar.

Ingrid Bergman in Murder on the Orient Express

When I first saw this movie as a young lad, I remember a "huh?" moment when hearing Bergman won the Oscar. Bergman is very good in this, I think, and it's absolutely shocking to see Ilsa Lund play this frumpy missionary. I believe every word she speaks, I believe her naively referring to the children of her mission as "black babies born more backwards than I" just as I believe her yelling, "Thou shalt not kill!" after the discovery of the body. It's a role that strikes one as merely stereotypical in the novel, but Bergman manages to convey some humanity in it.

But while I don't think this performance is deserving of the bile it's received in recent years, I certainly don't think it's Oscar-worthy. It's a solid performance of a simply-written character, but with such a large ensemble, there were at least three other superior supporting actresses to choose from. I really do love this movie, though I admit to being an Agatha Christie fanatic!

Valentina Cortese in Day for Night

Cortese is so electric and hilarious at film's beginning, it's a shame we rarely get to see her. I really only remember three key scenes with Cortese's character: the dressing-room, the Big Scene that she keeps flubbing, and the farewell dinner. My sister once said that she hates people who declare themselves divas, because real divas don't need to declare it, and they're rarely aware of it. Certainly this describes Severine, who boozes her way through the set of May I Present Pamela. Of course, she has her reasons, but these are hastily explained and dispensed with, never to be heard of again. Yet now the subtext is there, deepening our perception of the character.

Is the performance that deep? Not in the same way, but sure. Cortese seems to be playing with her own motivations, ones that work just as effectively and heartbreakingly as the one scriptgirl Joelle offers. Severine is confused, now jolly, now deeply unhappy, now joking, now motherly. Really, I miss Severine when she's gone, and her last scene made me wish for more. And that...that's an accomplishment.

Madeline Kahn in Blazing Saddles

Madeline Kahn is probably one of the funniest women to ever appear on screen. Her performances are as legendary as they are hilarious: Mrs. White, Elizabeth, the "brave, unbalanced woman" in What's Up Doc?, and of course, the Dietrich-parody that is Lili von Shtupp. She gets an entire sequence to herself, one in which she is tasked by the evil Hedley Lamar (Harvey Korman) to seduce and destroy the town of Johnson's black sheriff, Black Bart. She croons, she dances, she seduces, she falls for him. After all, what they say about men like Bart is twue.

Kahn's great ability as a comedienne, though, was not just to sell the jokes themselves, but to sell the character with sincerity. Seeing Lili go from exhausted singer-spy to a smitten romantic is not only amusing, but pretty adorable. Only Kahn could sell a song as corny/funny/bawdy as "I'm Tired" (They're alvays coming and going/And going and coming/And alvays too soon). Only Kahn could follow up an evening of carnality with the line, "Vat a nice guy." There's a reason why, more than ten years after her death, she's still one of the most admired and quoted character actresses around. It's a shame she quickly disappears after ten straight minutes of her hot comic genius, but I guarantee you'll be thinking about her at film's end. She;s easily the best part of one of the best comedies ever made.

Diane Ladd in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore

Alice... takes an awful long time to get going. Maybe this is because I knew she had to get there, but the first 40 minutes really feel like one long set-up to getting Ellen Burstyn to that diner to be a waitress.

You know who makes that 40-minute wait worthwhile? Diane Ladd's Flo, the greatest of all greasy-spoon waitresses. She's loud, she's crude, and you know that hair put a hole in the ozone. Of course, like everyone brassy individual the movies throw at us, Flo has some simple wisdom to impart, shrugged off with a cigarette in the bathroom as her friends break down. Really, anyone who doesn't want to be Flo's best friend is probably a real drag.

Talia Shire in The Godfather: Part II

Shire has two big scenes: playing boozy, negligent mother who wants to run off with Tory Donahue; begging Michael to forgive Fredo after that famous kiss of death. Shire plays both pretty lousily, in my opinion. Clearly, it was the second scene that got her the nomination, and it's a damn well-written piece. Unfortunately, Shire's the actress in this case, and for some reason she's just no good in this movie. Like, at all. From her first scene to her last, I grit my teeth and begged for the end. I don't even think Shire's a bad actress for the most part, but this does not work for me.


I can't believe Oscar chose Bergman, and that Bergman chose Cortese, because for me, it's so obvious that the Oscar should have gone to...

she's pooped