Tuesday, May 18, 2021

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1972: Puzo, Larner, and the Screenplays

So now we come to the last five categories: Screenplays, Lead Acting, and Best Picture. Up to this point, the only Best Picture to have won anything at the ceremony was Cabaret, cleaning up with seven awards, and only three to go! Deliverance? Zilch. The Godfather? Nada. Sounder? Not a thing. The Emigrants? It won for Best Foreign Film last year, so it was fine. And now came Jack Lemmon, who just bared all in Avanti!, to present the writing awards:

Good news for The Godfather, finally, and for poet/critic/novelist/political speechwriter Jeremy Larner! It's his second and final credited screenplay, following the adaptation of his own novel, Drive, He Said, the previous year.

Anyway, here's my take on both lineups:

Jay Presson Allen
from the musical play with book by Joe Masteroff, the play I Am a Camera by John Van Druten, and the book Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood
first of two nominations; WGA Awards winner for Best Adapted Comedy; BAFTA Award nominee for Best Screenplay, Golden Globe nominee for Best Screenplay

A combination of Isherwood's original work, the first play inspired by it, and the subsequent stage musical, a wonderful blend that, from what I understand, is mostly due to rewrites from Hugh Wheeler, credited as "research consultant." Credit aside, as an adaptation, goodness, this is how all such musicals should operate, combining the best of all the source materials into a completely new work for the cinema. The musical's romance between landlady Fraulein Schneider and Jewish tenant Herr Schultz is transferred to two young Jews, one poor and masquerading as Protestant, the other wealthy and a visible target for the brownshirts. Isherwood's homosexuality becomes Brian's bisexuality. And except for an impromptu Nazi rally, all musical numbers are transferred to the Kit Kat Club. Inventive, cutting, and brilliant.

The Emigrants
Bengt Forslund and Jan Troell
from the novels The Emigrants and Unto a Good Land by Vilhelm Moberg
first and final nominations for writing; NYFCC Awards second runner-up for Best Screenplay

Adapting one mammoth novel into a three-hour production sounds difficult enough; to combine two of them into one without the audience seeing the seams is quite a trick, especially since the briefest section of the film adapts the longer of the two novels. Gets down into the details of the characters and their environment. The build-up to the final scene is effective.

The Godfather
Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola
from the novel by Mario Puzo
past winner, second of five writing nominations for Coppola; first of two nominations for Puzo; Golden Globe winner for Best Screenplay, WGA Awards winner for Best Adapted Drama

Full but not bloated, zeroing in on the family drama at the heart of the epic. This is about brothers, about fathers and sons, not mere crime, not just murder. Memorable dialogue throughout: "Leave the gun, take the cannolis," "Look how they massacred my boy," "Listen here, my Kraut-Mick friend..." "I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse," "It says Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes," "Don't ever take sides against the family again." There's a reason why, 30+ years later, Nora Ephron would write in You've Got Mail, "The Godfather is the sum of all wisdom."

Pete 'n' Tillie
Julius J. Epstein
from the novella Witch's Milk by Peter De Vries
past winner, third of four nominations; WGA Awards nominee for Best Adapted Drama

The development of the relationship between Pete and Tillie is specific and wonderfully realized, two people that shouldn't work but do, for the most part. The story meanders quite a bit, a portrait of a relationship from beginning to middle, with all the ups and downs involved, beginning as an almost broad if straight-faced comedy, evolving into a dead kid trauma drama, ending as a frank look at the hardships and strong bonds of married life. It gets the full messiness of life.

Lonne Elder III
from the novel by William H. Armstrong
first and final nomination; WGA Awards nominee for Best Adapted Drama

It's still undoubtedly the story of a boy dealing with the aftermath of his father's arrest (and the violence against the dog of the title), but Elder emphasizes hope and community in his telling. Instead of years of searching and self-taught reading, the boy David learns his father's whereabouts, and how to read, from a kindly neighbor and is further educated when he happens on an all-Black school during his travels, where a female teacher introduces him to W.E.B. DuBois; instead of the little triumphs in the face of misery, there is a bittersweetness to the hopeful ending. It faces the struggle, but sees hope.


My vote:

(and also Hugh Wheeler)

And now Original Screenplay - though, as you'll see, it's not Original Screenplay, but rather, Best Material Based on Factual Material [how is that not adaptation?] or Material Not Previously Published Or Produced [covers a lot of ground!]:

The Candidate
Jeremy Larner
first and final nomination; WGA Awards winner for Best Original Drama

The candidate of the title is an idealist selected to run for California governor even though everyone accepts it's unwinnable against the Republican candidate; he can basically do what he wants until the Party decides to sand his edges down, after which he becomes more popular. Delivers genuine stomach-drop moments, as in the montage of our hero recycling the same speech for different audiences with different needs, or when he's chastised for trying to address real issues like poverty and racial inequality during a debate. Identifies the great problem with American politics: we've focused on winning, whatever it takes, and not so much on governing.

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
Luis Buñuel with the collaboration of Jean-Claude Carrière
first of two nominations for Buñuel; first of three writing nominations for Carrière; BAFTA Award winner for Best Screenplay; NYFCC Awards runner-up for Best Screenplay

A group of friends, wealthy and powerful and corrupt, tries to get a good meal. More or less. How would you describe this movie, a bizarre collection of absurd scenes and dreams, of dishonest people, easily appalled by others' lack of consideration for them, very politely rolling through scenes of death (multiple times!) so they can at least attempt getting even a cup of coffee. A work that proves that the theater of the absurd has to be just as meticulously written as "straight" drama. Apparently, Buñuel and I have the same dreams!

Lady Sings the Blues
Chris Clark / Suzanne de Passe / Terence McCloy
from the memoir by Billie Holiday with William Dufty
first and final nominations for all

This is where the absurdity of combining biopics with original works comes in: this is an adaptation of Billie Holiday's memoir of the same name! So how is the writing itself? Well. I can admire, certainly, the way it tries to depict Billie's "family," both the biological and professional, trying to ground it first and foremost as the story of a woman. But this woman is no Billie Holiday; that is to say, it barely bothers to scratch the surface of her fame and simplifies her legal battles with fictional melodrama - the real shit is crazy enough! At least it's not a "greatest hits"-style bio.

Murmur of the Heart
Louis Malle
first of two nominations for writing

Justly famous for its final act, not only for the content but for the fact that it genuinely gets away with it. Much of that is due to the strong character work in the screenplay: Laurent is allowed to be a sexually curious teen, not overly precocious, sometimes giggly, often awkward,  over-confident when he makes just a little progress. Too, there's the specificity of his Italian mother, a beautiful, youthful woman who loves her family but can't resist flirtations and affairs. Everyone is just so keenly observed: the older, more experienced brothers; the fascist-leaning twit at the resort; the long-suffering maid. 

Young Winston
Carl Foreman
from the book My Early Life: A Roving Commission by Winston Churchill
past winner, fifth and final nomination for writing

Another biopic nominee, adapted from Winston Churchill's memoir My Early Life. It's a coming-of-age film, a family drama, a war film, a political drama. Episodic in structure, it has moments of suspense, scenes of drama, narration connecting it all - and very little momentum. The most interesting aspect is the relationship between young Winston and his father, Lord Randolph, not so much the "dad gone mad" stuff, but more the influence a parent has over their child's future. Randolph is distant but a powerful presence, enough so that Winston's political career appears to be an attempt at gaining posthumous approval. That, I think, is done well.


Truly, the only movies I think even deserve to be here are the French ones. And, in the end, my vote goes to:


Tomorrow, the nominees for Best Actor: Marlon Brando (The Godfather), Michael Caine (Sleuth), Peter O'Toole (The Ruling Class), Laurence Olivier (Sleuth), and Paul Winfield (Sounder).

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