Friday, August 31, 2012

The Toughest Choice of All: Actress, 1975

Well, this is it. The end of my look at the 1975 Oscar nominees.

I wish it could be more complete, truly. But after trying the library, appeals on Twitter, etc., I just couldn't find a way of getting to Hester Street. I learned to accept this, though. As I mentioned earlier, I missed A Better Life last year, and I managed to survive. Truthfully, I love seeing every nominee if I can -- but if I can't, I must accept it.

The four I did get to see were phenomenal, though. I know I'm supposed to view 1974 as this category's zenith, but I prefer the zaniness of this year's line-up. Indeed, it was difficult to choose a winner...not until today did I settle on my champion.

But you'll see that eventually. For now, the nominees for Best Actress:

Isabelle Adjani in The Story of Adele H.
*****

Only nineteen when she took the role, Adjani surprises with her subtlety and insight. She is Adele H., the daughter of Victor Hugo who pursues the man she loves all the way to Nova Scotia -- though he does not love her back. Look at the way Adjani allows Adele to practically swoon over the lies she tells, until she herself believes them. The self-righteous anger with which she writes her parents, asking for more money and announcing a fictional betrothal, is immediately recognizable in any number of young people who insist that they have found their one true love. And the unconcerned, confident way she struts about, hair akimbo, talking to herself: that's the confidence of a crazy person who has no idea why the world is conspiring against them.


Ann-Margret in Tommy
****

As one critic put it, "she sings and dances like the fate of western civilization depends on it." Or at least that of her son, the titular deaf, dumb and blind kid. Ann-Margret is remarkable as Nora Walker: after her Act One hysterics of "What About the Boy?", she shows a mother who still tries to get her son some sort of help -- specialists, religion, whatever -- but has more or less shut down. And when he has finally found something in his pinball wizardry, she shows us the conflict between enjoying his success and weeping the inability to communicate with him. Surely the sequence of "Smash the Mirror/I'm Free", when she can finally tell him how he's a Messianic millionaire inspiring people, is her strongest moment: as she reaches out with the love of a mother, her eyes roll with the madness of a fanatic. It is an utterly bizarre, gaga performance, but damn if she isn't selling it.


Louise Fletcher in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
***

Displaying the same knack for understatement she displayed in Thieves Like Us, Fletcher's legendary portrayal of Nurse Ratched is more textured than the rest of the film wants to allow. Certainly, Ratched seems cold-hearted in her clinical detachment from her patients, and almost sociopathic in her humiliating goading of public confessions during "group therapy". But when dealing with a floor full of emotionally unstable people, voluntary or not, clinical detachment is probably the best course of action. Indeed, whereas other actresses could have made this a monstrous, power-mad villain, Fletcher makes it clear that while Nurse Ratched may indeed be controlling, she is a nurse who cares for her patients: witness her "NOOOO!" at the fate of one the patients in the finale. And when someone comes along to threaten what she considers to be the Right Way to Do Things, he must be stopped -- by any means necessary. Of course, I still consider this a supporting role, so I dinged her a star (as is my custom), but Fletcher's contribution is not to be understated.


Glenda Jackson in Hedda
****

It is said that Hedda Gabler can be played as a victim, a villain or a feminist hero. Jackson does a bizarre combination of all three that is absolutely delicious. Jackson's performance is the delirious icing on the crazy cake that is Best Actress, 1975. She presents Hedda as a woman who has made her bed, but refuses to lie in it; who entraps the man she loves and the people who love her as a bizarre revenge for crimes against her pride; who knows she's funny and brilliant, but also knows that that's worth peanuts to this group of academics and gossips. In short, Jackson plays Hedda as far too good for these people -- and this play -- and as such is someone who, in my most egocentric moments (don't we all have those), I completely identify with. Confident of her smarts, mystified by her presence among these people. Her reading of "vine-leaves wrapped in his hair" is to die for.


Carol Kane in Hester Street
ABSTAIN

--------------------------------------------------

 As I said, I had the devil of a time choosing my champion. I even thought about a tie, but no...one must choose. So, while Fletcher won the real Oscar, my Oscar vote goes to:

ISABELLE ADJANI
for
THE STORY OF ADELE H.
quelle superb! 

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Legends Giveth: Director, 1975

The nominees for Best Director are:

Robert Altman for Nashville
*****

All the directors here do wonders with their ensemble, but Altman especially is spectacular in his handling of the multi-storied, plotless sprawl of Nashville. I'm not just talking about his handling of the 24 stars, but of the performances he captures from Merle Kilgore as a local bartender, the Smoky Mountain Laurels, the diner talking to Keenan Wynn at the airport cafe, the girls working on the political campaign. He never overplays the satire, nor does he alienate with the darkly comic tone. This is his masterpiece.


Federico Fellini for Amarcord
****

If Spielberg must be left out of the party, at least his replacement is a worthy one. Fellini may be at his strongest here, leaving his camera sometimes stationary (the family dinner), sometimes at a distance (from the uncle up a tree), sometimes moving about, discovering people along with his ensemble (various times). He's pitched the actors at that wonderful place between reality and hyperbole, so that even in the most exaggerated of memories we still identify with them. His handling of different tones within a single sequence -- the Fascist rally being the best example -- is seamless. It looks like a memory, and that's important.


Milos Forman for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
***

Forman's light touch allows his scenes to feel unconfined: a major plus considering the setting. Indeed, surely we must credit him with the excellent chemistry shared by the patients of the 4th floor ward, and for integrating star Nicholson so comfortably with the rest of the group. He doesn't treat the triumphs of the fishing trip or the Christmas party with too much fanfare, maintaining the sense of transience that is McMurphy's presence. No, his moments of triumph are unusual: not watching the World Series is more inspiring than getting Ratched's approval, and the final scene...well, just listen to that celebratory whoop given by Lloyd.


Stanley Kubrick for Barry Lyndon
*****

Kubrick's unparalleled in his execution of tone; here, his choice of music, framing, lighting and actors all serve his darkly comic, unsettling masterpiece of social climbing and class snobbery. Everything is as meticulously arranged as the class structure -- or at the very least the drawing-room. Casting dashing blank slate Ryan O'Neal as dim, handsome Barry and the tragically beautiful Marisa Berenson as the melancholy Lady Lyndon are great coups. And while Kubrick is often accused of being a cold director, here his clinical eye is the perfect one with which to witness the bullshit.


Sidney Lumet for Dog Day Afternoon
****

Like Altman, Lumet's style is fast and loose, allowing for a spontaneous energy to flow throughout the proceedings -- even though everything is obviously lit and covered quite methodically. It's this energy that gets that electric current running through his ensemble of actors, ratcheting up the tension in each successive scene until that breathtaking climax. Too, more than any other director I've watched, Lumet's New York City is vibrant and real. Surely it's his New York we see in our heads when we think of the city, and here it is, captured in one of its infamous, broiling summers.

--------------------------------------------------------------

Cuckoo's Nest was sweeping the race, so Forman got his first Oscar. But you may have noticed that I've got a sweeper of my own. And so, it is with great pleasure that I award my Oscar vote to:

ROBERT ALTMAN
for
NASHVILLE
let me the one who understands you, Bob

And with Best Director gone, there's only one more category left! Check back tomorrow for Best Actress in a leading role, and next week for the start of my Retro Hollmann Awards, awarding the best my favorites of 1975.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Lush, Lovely and Loyal: Supporting Actress, 1975

The nominees for Best Supporting Actress:

Ronee Blakley in Nashville
*****

With her fragile looks, gentle manner, and bright smile, it's not hard to see how this young woman became the Queen of Nashville -- and when she sings, you might as well be hearing the choir of Heaven. Blakley sells this personable creature, but also keeps us clued in on her instabilities -- the petty jealousy of a rival, the childlike dependency on everyone around her, the far-off look of a woman not totally there. It all culminates in one of the most grueling breakdown scenes in cinema, as the stage persona and sick woman come up against each other during a performance at Opryland. Devastating.


Lee Grant in Shampoo
**

The Academy handed Grant the Oscar for this role, that of horny, unfaithful Felicia, a member of Beverly Hills society addicted to Warren Beatty's cock. She's funny enough, but being a fan of hers I couldn't help but be disappointed. There's so much more that could have been done with this role...but neither the character or the actress is given her due. I don't completely buy her character's actions, since there's little through-line from that bitter society dame to the careless nympho. Solid work, but nothing more.


Sylvia Miles in Farewell, My Lovely
***

Miles wittily declined interviews upon receiving this nomination with the line: "Anything I say will be longer than the performance." How true, but it is a good one. As a tired broad who's seen better days, she's got the information Marlowe needs and only needs some booze to get talking. Miles' helplessness gains our sympathy, lending the film some gravitas, and we miss her when she's absent.


Lily Tomlin in Nashville
****

She manages to maintain the life of a mother, choir leader, recording artist and housewife without ever coming loose. Of all the women, she's the only one who knows what Tom is all about, and so she can be affectionate without getting attached. Her sphinx-like face holds a multitude of secrets -- Lord knows her inattentive husband doesn't know half the things she does -- but rather than wearing her down, each new development is filed away. She's Southern housewifery at its best.


Brenda Vaccaro in Jacqueline Susann's Once is Not Enough
***

A caricature of a role brought to larger-than-life by a game actress. Vaccaro sells the insecurity behind the frank talks, as Linda Riggs bluntly talks about tits and dick and incest, but immediately breaks down the moment a man rejects her advances. Selfish, warm, kooky, and a little much, she's a hoot, and Vaccaro's having a ball. In my apartment, Linda Riggs is a hero.

-----------------------------

The Academy finally gave Lee Grant her due, though it figures they'd do it for the wrong film. The winner for me, however, is crystal clear:

RONEE BLAKLEY
in
NASHVILLE
i love you, i'm thinking of you, i'll never let you go

Monday, August 27, 2012

Past, Present and Poon: Original Screenplay, 1975

It's been a while since I've actually written an introduction, but I felt it necessary to shed some light on my ratings here.

Often, I feel, we champion individual screenplays based on our affection for the finished film, not for what the original author wrote. Because of this, we often miss out on very good screenplays that are poorly executed by a pedestrian director, or overpraise shallow work that a particularly skilled filmmaker polished into something enjoyable. It is understandable -- not everyone has access to screenplays (I don't), and so we can only go on what we see. If the movie's great, the screenplay must be great, and vice versa.

Well, I've done my best to concentrate on the individual screenplays as opposed to the finished product. It's difficult, and I don't claim to have been fully successful, but sometimes one can feel when a strong piece of work was mishandled, or the reverse. Take, for instance, Shampoo, a film that I will no doubt revisit for the performances, cinematography and direction, but also a film that, I feel, works in spite of its screenplay. More on that later.

Hopefully, I've done all right, and made clear why I rated these films the way I did. Hopefully, too, you'll feel free to argue with me. Anyway, the nominees for Best Original Screenplay:

Federico Fellini & Tonino Guerra for Amarcord
*****

With a colorful array of characters, Fellini's look at one year in a small town during Mussolini's reign is as uniquely Italian as it is universal. With the title translating to "I Remember", we are offered episodic glimpses into life at school (where the teachers are dull and pranks are pulled), home (quarreling yet well-meaning parents), and the neighborhood, along with those significant events that mark a lifetime. I'm talking holiday traditions, weddings, funerals, political rallies...and first brushes with sex. Warm, funny, with a teary-eyed mix of sadness and nostalgia, it's like hearing familiar and beloved stories from an old friend.


Claude Lelouch and Pierre Uytterhoeven for And Now My Love
ABSTAIN


Frank Pierson, from an article by P.F. Kluge and Thomas Moore, for Dog Day Afternoon
****

The phrase "churning out" has a negative connotation, usually, but man -- the 70s really churned out some perfect original screenplays, didn't they? Every line, every action offers something new, be it plot twist or character detail. Pierson provides those nuances that give Lumet his ensemble, the actors those incredible scenes, and cinema a masterpiece. Still, it's based on article, and I've always found it especially odd that screenplays based on newspaper articles are not considered adaptations, especially when it's credited like this.


Ted Allan for Lies My Father Told Me
***

Well-meaning film about a boy in a Canadian Jewish ghetto who adores his grandfather, a rag-and-bone man. The relationship with the grandfather is sweet, but the parents are sketchily written, though it could have worked in the hands of some stronger actors. It's sweet enough, and I shan't punish the screenplay for the shortcomings of the cast and director. 


Warren Beatty & Robert Towne for Shampoo
**

It's okay that I think this is slightly overrated, right? Has some great lines, and does a great job with some of its supporting players, but I find its protagonist undercooked - yeah, yeah, he's kind of dim and it's one of those characters who is who he is, but who he is, is a half-baked mechanism to satirize sex, gender relations, politics (I guess?), and changing times. I don't find it nearly as clever as it thinks it is, nor do I feel that most of the pivotal plot points come from logical transition so much as a necessity to keep the story going.

---------------------------------------------------

Dog Day Afternoon won the Oscar, and might have won my vote if not for the category confusion. Sorry, but if a sequel's an adaptation, then so is a film based on a newspaper article. So, my vote goes across the Atlantic:

FELLINI & GUERRA
for
AMARCORD
because, while i haven't gone, i've totally been there

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Hello, Gorgeous: Cinematography, 1975

 The nominees for Best Cinematography are:


John Alcott for Barry Lyndon
*****

Jaw-dropping. Lit predominately with natural light and candles, John Alcott captures the period not just in flawlessly imitating the artwork of the period, as per Kubrick's vision, but in also capturing how this world must have looked before the light bulb switched on.



Conrad Hall for The Day of the Locust
****

Conrad Hall constantly invokes the guignol aspirations of this adaptation through his eerie lighting choices, often drowning the cast in pitch black, or else emphasizing the bags, wrinkles and shadows under their eyes. Spotlighting the action in certain pivotal scenes, as though it's a star on the red carpet, is a brilliant choice.



James Wong Howe for Funny Lady
**

It honestly seems too bright most of the time. A marvelously-lit train scene is to be praised, but otherwise we get flat images, whether it be a stage performance or a dressing-room scene. Disappointing.



Robert Surtees for The Hindenburg
****

I like the difference between the brightly-lit passenger area and the darker recesses of the zeppelin's skeleton well enough. But you just know this nomination comes from the final sequence, where the film stock is suddenly grainy black-and-white to match the newsreel footage of the original blimp's destruction. It's as it should be: the sequence is marvelously captured, breathtaking, and seamless.



Haskell Wexler and Bill Butler for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
***

Solid work. His lighting emphasizes the cold sterility of the ward by day. At night, his moonlight is never too much, but just enough to cast all but the scene's focus in ignorant darkness.

------------------------------------

When only one Best Picture nominee is a lavishly-mounted period piece, you know it's going home with all the craft trophies. Maybe that's a bit expected and predictable, but it doesn't make the film any less worthy. Like its members, I give the Academy Award to:


JOHN ALCOTT
for
BARRY LYNDON

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Satin on My Shoulders, Mahogany on My iTunes: Original Song, 1975

The nominees for Best Original Song:

"How Lucky Can You Get" from Funny Lady
***

Fun little tune whose single almost makes one forget that it's actually a dark number, where Fanny Brice retreats into a song about all the advantages she has after her ex-husband announces his engagement. Catchy in either context, though.


"Mahogany's Theme (Do You Know Where You're Going To)" from Mahogany
*****
 
The song and its variants play throughout the film, as Mahogany pursues her dreams of being a lauded designer while also pushing away the man she loves. So of course the song is pertinent to the film overall: while Mahogany may have these dreams and fantasies, does she really know what she wants, or what she's willing to sacrifice? Does she know where she's going to?


"I'm Easy" from Nashville
*****

One of the most beautiful songs ever written, in which Keith Carradine's caddish Tom shows some tenderness as he secretly sings to Lily Tomlin's married choir-leader Linnea. It's one of the most famous parts of the film, as each of Tom's other paramours think they are the target of his lyrics...until they follow his eyes. What woman could possibly resist hearing, "Take my hand and pull me down/I won't put up any fight/'Cuz I'm easy"? Bonus points for being the sole representative of Nashville's twelve original songs.


"Richard's Window" from The Other Side of the Mountain
**

Tender love song from the film about Olympic skiing hopeful Jill Kinmont, who was paralyzed after a fall down a mountain during the Snow Cup competition. The movie follows her recovery, but of course the draw is the romance between Jill and daredevil Dick Buick...or Richard. Like the movie, the song is a little hokey, a bit much, but oddly enjoyable. A guilty pleasure, if slightly anemic.


"Now That We're In Love" from Whiffs
ABSTAIN

Yet another film from 1975 that apparently doesn't really exits.

--------------------------------------

Despite stiff competition from "Mahogany's Theme", the Academy sided with the Best Picture nominee. And so do I. The Oscar goes to:

KEITH CARRADINE
for
"I'M EASY"
that's how it oughta be

Friday, August 17, 2012

Men of Dishonor: Actor, 1975

The nominees for Best Actor are:

Walter Matthau in The Sunshine Boys
***

Matthau's an odd duck when it comes to comedy. He can go completely deadpan and subtle, or he can go hammy and demand a laugh. Much of The Sunshine Boys is spent in the latter, which is appropriate for the hammy, old-fashioned Willie Clark, a vaudevillian who refuses to retire. It's annoying as hell, of course, but it is appropriate. It's an amusing performance that kills when paired with George Burns, but some of his interactions with the other cast members -- his nephew, his nurse -- come off as more forced, more "acted", if you will.


Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
*****

What, like I need to tell you what a great performance this is? I love how Nicholson never tries to make McMurphy smarter, kinder or more selfless than he really is; instead, the small ways in which he saves and inspires the people around him come almost by chance through his arrogance and self-aggrandizement. He's an uneducated, vulgar, manipulative man, but he believes in the patients' ability to help themselves and even delays his own escape to allow the happiness of one of them. From his narrating an imaginary World Series to wiping snot from his nose during a basketball game, Nicholson's deft handling of big moments and little details illustrate an uncomplicated yet somewhat complex human being.


Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon
*****

I love everything about this performance. Pacino gives Sonny a bizarre energy, like an easily-distracted child making his own rules to a game everyone else has played. His various forms of self-delusion and self-pity are fascinating to watch, particularly in his interactions with his "wife". The slow slide from energized media hero to exhausted Man is subtly charted, so that Pacino's eventual hopeless acceptance at the end is organic, disquieting, and inevitable.


Maximilian Schell in The Man in the Glass Booth
**

The film is a bizarre, pretentious, dull mess, based upon the stage play by great actor Robert Shaw: a Jewish sculptor living in New York is arrested and tried as, and confesses to being, a notorious concentration camp official. But is he? Half the film leads up to the arrest, exploring this odd millionaire with the uncomfortable, gallows humor; the second half is the trial. Schell's performance is mesmerizing at times, but it also plateaus a bit, as he shouts with a mad expression throughout much of the runtime. He's getting a kick out of playing this mysterious and eccentric character, but it's exhausting.


James Whitmore in Give 'Em Hell, Harry!
**

The one-man show starring Whitmore as President Truman is quite literally a taped stage performance, often stopping to accommodate laughter and applause. One could forgive this were it a more challenging role, yet Whitmore is given little more to do than channel GREAT and AMAZING and OH IF ONLY OL' HARRY WAS STILL AROUND, with some sideswipes at then-recently disgraced Nixon. Honestly, I kind of wanted to yell at him every time he stopped himself to go, "Now, wait, now, hold on, just a minute, there, HOLD ON!" It happens constantly, and comes off more as poor improv than scripted mannerism.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------

In one of the most deserving Oscars ever received, Nicholson won the Academy Award. And yet....I have to give credit to the colorful, engaging, fearless performance from another great actor. My Oscar vote goes to:

AL PACINO
in
DOG DAY AFTERNOON

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Immortals and The Missing: Original Score, 1975

It's funny: the more things change, the more they stay the same. In 1974, this category saw honors for Richard Rodney Bennett, Alex North, John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith and Nino Rota & Carmine Coppola, who scored the eventual Best Picture winner. In 1975, we're now looking at a line-up that includes Gerald Fried, Alex North, John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith and Jack Nitzche, who scored the eventual Best Picture winner. As always, Goldsmith's and Williams' scores have stood the test of time, with both up for AFI's 100 Best Film Scores (only Jaws placed).

Gerald Fried for Birds Do It, Bees Do It
ABSTAIN 

I will never understand how an Academy Award-nominated film can go unreleased in any home viewing format. It boggles the mind, and reduces the film to a footnote. 


Alex North for Bite the Bullet 
***

This year was full of hat-tips to genres past, and North's Classic Western score is no exception. Shades of Aaron Copland in this perfectly fine, solid piece of work. It doesn't distinguish itself as much as the other nominees, but it's not to be sniffed at.


John Williams for Jaws 
*****

Instantly iconic. Everyone knows what you mean when you go "duhn duhn duhn duhn, etc." But we shouldn't forget the more adventurous music played for the Orca, music that calls back another era of filmmaking and turns the men's trip into a high-seas adventure...before returning to the relentless repetition of those damning strings.


Jack Nitzche for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest 
****

Its Native American influence hints at the novel's origins, as it provides the connection between Chief Bromden and Randle McMurphy. A simple tune, it's calming at the beginning, triumphant near the end, and haunting well afterward.


Jerry Goldsmith for The Wind and the Lion 
****

Where Milius fails, Goldsmith succeeds. Exciting and exotic, the score provides the adventure, romance and depth lacking elsewhere in the film. Paves the way for future adventure scores from Raiders of the Lost Ark to the remake of The Mummy. The kind of music that gets your blood pumping and turns the most mundane of tasks into a mission.

------------------------------------------------

I have to admit, Oscar usually does me proud in this category, and I'm going with its proclamation that the Award for Best Original Score belongs to:


WILLIAMS
for
JAWS
stay out of the water

Monday, August 13, 2012

Twice-Told Tales: Adapted Screenplay, 1975

Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay tend to go hand in hand. 1975 is one of the three years where one film ruled the Big Five -- Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay -- but in all three cases, that screenplay category was Adapted. Of the 84 films that have won Best Picture, 58 of them are adapted works. And, as in most years, while it's obvious who wins Original Screenplay, the Adapted Screenplay field consists of more than one Best Picture nominee, plus some audience and critic favorites.

When a miniseries of Vanity Fair aired on British television, Stanley Kubrick scrapped his plans for an adaptation and, instead, went with Barry Lyndon, another dark satire from William Makepeace Thackeray. Director John Huston had been planning to adapt Rudyard Kipling's "The Man Who Would Be King" for decades; finally, with co-screenwriter Gladys Hill, he got a production off the ground. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest began as a novel by Ken Kesey, before becoming a Broadway play by Dale Wasserman and starring Kirk Douglas; Douglas tried to get a film version off the ground, but it was his son Michael who found success with it, with Bo Goldman and Lawrence Hauben going back to the original novel for inspiration. The traditional foreign-language entry this year was the Italian Scent of a Woman, adapted by director Dino Risi and Ruggero Maccari; it would later be remade in 1992 with an Oscar-winning performance by Al Pacino. And then there's Neil Simon's adaptation of his play The Sunshine Boys, which I'm pretty convinced just missed out on a Best Picture nom. Screenplay, Art Direction and two Acting nods? If Airport can do it...

Notably absent from the lineup is Jaws, based on the novel by Peter Benchley, adapted by Benchley and Carl Gottlieb. Was it the fact that everyone looked at it as just a Blockbuster film, with no real pedigree to earn nominations in such intellectual, high-class awards like Director and Screenplay? Was it the fact that the best-written scene was mostly written by an uncredited Robert Shaw? Or were these five genuinely just better?

Well, I know at least one of them isn't better -- by far. But take a look yourself! The nominees for Best Adapted Screenplay are:


Stanley Kubrick for Barry Lyndon, from the novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon by William Makepeace Thackeray
****

Dryly humorous, with great moments of irony via a coldly-written narrator. Almost imperceptibly slips from a period comedy to a drama, building up the hitherto hinted-at ferocity of Mrs. Barry, squeamishness of Bullingdon and the manipulations of Reverend Runt. True, it's obviously building this from the source novel, but it is written clearly, missing neither detail nor tone.


John Huston and Gladys Hill for The Man Who Would Be King, from the short story by Rudyard Kipling
*****

Thrilling, another fun romp that evolves into something more. The central characters are distinct enough that you get their individual temperaments and still understand the mutual craziness that bonds them together. The ease with which one falls from power is hinted at throughout with the darkly-funny reoccurrances of the Buzkashi games. And, of course, turning the source tale's narrator into Rudyard Kipling himself adds an illusion of veracity and weight to the proceedings.


Bo Goldman and Lawrence Haubner for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, from the novel by Ken Kesey
****

By turning the focus from literary protagonist Chief Bromden solely to Randle McMurphy, we get a more focused character study of a sane man fighting the system from a madhouse. Little tweaks make McMurphy more of a rebel/liberator, such as breaking the patients out for some fishing (in the novel, it's a sanctioned field trip), thereby emphasizing his role as everyman hero. This firmly anti-establishment siding with McMurphy risks simplifying the conflict between him and Nurse Ratched, though still plays ambiguously enough so that the actors can interpret it either way.


Ruggero Maccari and Dino Risi for Scent of a Woman, from the novel Il buio e il miele by Giovanni Arpino
**

It's the original Italian version of that movie Pacino won his Oscar for! There are fewer Big Moments here, focusing a lot on the blind captain's love of big brunettes, finding several ways to show his softer, more sensitive side without resorting to a tango. Mostly, this comes in the form of a beautiful young woman who has always loved him, but that section kind of creeped me out, especially since the script, if I'm judging that ending correctly, roots for them to get together. The poor young man charged with accompanying the captain is sidelined, his arc not unfinished so much as declared unnecessary. Weird, considering he was the protagonist.


Neil Simon for The Sunshine Boys, from his play
***

Simon gets three things right. First is the relationship between Willie Clark and his nephew, written with the casual cruelty that some family members can unknowingly deliver. Second is the working relationship between Willie and Al Lewis, written with the familiarity of 30 years of friendship and the bitterness of ten years of animosity. Finally, of course, is that Doctor sketch, so creaky and groan-inducing, yet occasionally funny enough, that it seems almost lifted from an actual sketch from the 20s or 30s. Perhaps there's a one-liner too many that interrupts the flow of some scenes, but it's still a solid base for the actors to work from.

----------------------------------------------------

No one was going to stop the juggernaut that was Cuckoo's Nest, but it's pretty obvious that I care for another screenplay more. The Oscar goes to....


HUSTON and HILL
for
THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING 
Sikander would be proud

Friday, August 10, 2012

Now and Then: Art Direction, 1975

I know everyone has one or two categories that they especially adore, outside of Best Picture. Guy Lodge has an affinity for Original Screenplay, Nick Davis has seen every Best Actress nominee in history, and of course our dearly retired StinkyLulu loved the Supporting Actresses. Yet the category that I've never missed a nominee on is one that I could never discuss with any sort of authority, nor is it one where I could name all or even some of the nominees. I just know that I like it is all.

Yes, of course I'm talking about Art Direction, the Oscar category that gives me decorating tips. It can eschew historical accuracy (like the piano in The Hindenburg) in favor of a subtle statement, or recognize that in the historical accuracy is a subtle statement (as in Barry Lyndon). Every shop sign, piece of furniture or accoutrement has been created, considered and approved by the head of the art department. I won't try to discuss it any more than this (even in film school, we knew this was not my strong suit), but I know who to thank for a superlatively-executed set.

1975 is a unique year for this category, actually. Of course, the eventual champion is one of three period pieces nominated, but we also get two contemporary pieces in Shampoo and The Sunshine Boys. Sure, 1974 also featured contemporary-set nominees in Earthquake and The Towering Inferno, but those sets were the show. This year, the work is more subtle, and while I may not necessarily agree with all the nominations, such atypical recognition is commendable. Still, I can't help but wish one of these slots had gone to any of the three Ken Russell films eligible this year...

Anyway, the nominees for Best Art Direction:

BARRY LYNDON

Ken Adam/Roy Walker, art directors
Vernon Dixon, set decorator
*****

Period splendor, from the ostentatiously large paintings hanging over your head to the ornate bathtub sitting in the middle of the room. Yet despite these rich trappings, all the furniture and decor is spaced meticulously apart: no warmth or intimacy. There is much closer proximity in that cold dining room shared by the poorer Barrys of Ireland than in any manor.


THE HINDENBURG

Edward Carfagno, art director
Frank McKelvy, set decorator
****

Also period, this one a recreation of the titular doomed zeppelin. And there it all is: the map of the world, the windows, the staterooms. Fortunately, there is also much in the way of imagination: an intimidating metal labyrinth that provides the ship's skeletal framework, and a glittering piano that emphasizes the ostentatious pomp of the Nazi party. I also get a kick of Goebbels having a portrait of himself in his office.


THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING

Alexander Trauner/Tony Inglis, art directors
Peter James, set decorator
****

From the train and Kipling's newspaper office, one gets a real feel for the tight squeeze necessary in British India, a nation of many ethnicities sharing the same space. But of course, we dare not forget the riches of Sikandergul, nor the small yet nebulous cities in Kafiristan. It's the memorable visual splendor of a top-notch adventure film.


SHAMPOO

Richard Sylbert/W. Stewart Campbell, art directors
George Gaines, set decorator
**

Whether it's the stuffy wood-paneling of a Nixon party, the colorful mixture of a hippie happening, or the sterile rigidity of an LA mansion, SoCal circa 1968 is subtly conveyed. Quiet work that nevertheless expresses some small details about its inhabitants.


THE SUNSHINE BOYS


Albert Brenner, art director
Marvin March, set decorator
***

The cluttered apartment of Willie Clark is filled with trash, memorabilia of his vaudeville days, and stacks of Variety. Willie clings to his past despite his growing inability to do the work, so of course he refuses to throw anything out. His past surrounds him always. And, of course, there's the set for the Doctor sketch.

----------------------------------------------------

Oh, Oscar, every now and then (well, often enough) you get it right. Like the Academy, I give the little gold man to...

ADAM, WALKER & DIXON
for
BARRY LYNDON
for pure period pomposity