Best Director Final 50: John Huston – Prizzi’s Honor

JOHN HUSTON FOR PRIZZI’S HONOR

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The competition (Cliff: 4 for 5)

Sydney Pollack for Out of Africa

Hector Babenco for Kiss of the Spider Woman

Akira Kurosawa for Ran

Peter Weir for Witness

NOTE: dark blue text denotes individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue indicates those who were nominated.

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For decades, from its beginnings as iconic exploitation in Little Caesar and Scarface, through its elevation to operatic heights in the Godfather films, the gangster genre focused on the top of the pyramid.  The protagonists were kingpins and “most wanted”-grade thugs, and their brazen power plays defined our perception of organized crime.  A decade after the first two Godfather films, however, the spurt of gangster films that graced the Academy Awards reoriented down the ladder.  Stephen Frears’ The Grifters and Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas made their protagonists into average Joes trying to get by and, just maybe, get ahead.  Prizzi’s Honor, at the vanguard of this cycle, has perhaps the most cynical take on the mob as rat race.  Huston’s mobster romance darkly jests at a world in which the characters on the make are the ones who lose the most.  Though he knows the playbook backwards and forwards, Jack Nicholson’s Charley, a hit man for William Hickey’s frail Don Prizzi, reveals himself as little more than a two-bit heavy who is poorly cut out for the deft movements of mob politics.  Kathleen Turner’s Irene, the mysterious femme fatale for whom Charley falls, always has an angle but cannot pull off her daring schemes with anything close to the perfection she needs to stay ahead.  Their attempts to game the system only drive them downhill, while characters like Prizzi’s granddaughter Maerose (Anjelica Huston), who patiently wait for those around them to make mistakes, are left smiling when the film fades to black.

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Best Director Final 50: Franco Zeffirelli – Romeo and Juliet

FRANCO ZEFFIRELLI FOR ROMEO AND JULIET (1968)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

Carol Reed for Oliver!

Anthony Harvey for The Lion in Winter

Stanley Kubrick for 2001: A Space Odyssey

Gillo Pontecorvo for The Battle of Algiers

NOTE: dark blue text denotes individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue indicates those who were nominated.

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There are movies that bravely undertake the unfilmable, like 1967’s Ulysses or last year’s Cloud Atlas, and then there are those that, braver still, attempt the filmed-to-death.  Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 production of Romeo and Juliet is one of three Oscar-nominated direct adaptations of Shakespeare’s text, alongside the 1936 George Cukor version and the 1996 Baz Luhrmann Romeo + Juliet, a list that expands to include Best Picture winners West Side Story and Shakespeare in Love if you construe adaptation more broadly.  Somehow, I escaped watching this (or any) film version of the play during high school English.  Now that I’ve finally watched it, I have a hard time discerning whether Zeffirelli’s version seems so abjectly literal because of the reverent spirit in which it was conceived, or because it has so deeply influenced the decades of stagings, illustrations, and overall popular imaginings that followed it.  One way or another, this production rises to the level of standard, and while I’m always inclined to favor the radical (Throne of Blood, My Own Private Idaho) over the traditional treatment of Shakespeare’s work, I must credit Zeffirelli for at least doing a smart job in tackling perhaps the most clichéd story in Western literature.  Given the suffocating familiarity of the story, perhaps there is no better way to make a movie than to do it by the book, and as worthily as possible.

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Best Director Final 50: Stanley Kramer – The Defiant Ones

STANLEY KRAMER FOR THE DEFIANT ONES

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

Vincente Minnelli for Gigi

Richard Brooks for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Mark Robson for The Inn of the Sixth Happiness

Robert Wise for I Want to Live!

NOTE: dark blue text denotes individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue indicates those who were nominated.

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The strongest statement in The Defiant Ones is made in the title sequence, when the screenwriters’ credit comes on the screen.  The credits play over a scene of the prison van driving its charges through the stormy night.  The guards at the front of the van are played by the movie’s writers, Harold Jacob Smith and Nathan E. Douglas.  The latter of the two, blacklisted at the time, is credited as “Nedrick Young” for his work on the Oscar-winning original screenplay, and Kramer places both credits on the screen underneath the images of the two men in silent rebuke of the political oppression of the day.

In The Defiant Ones, Stanley Kramer recognizes the power of images to speak louder than words.  Indeed, the chief strength of The Defiant Ones is in its silence—not just the sparse soundtrack, which relies solely on feeble radio broadcasts and Sidney Poitier’s coarse singing for musical accompaniment and uses the distant cries of bloodhounds or the crash of a shelf during a break-in to pierce the tense stillness.  Most of all, it’s the power of words left unspoken that resonates throughout this sweltering drama about a black and a white prisoner chained at the ankle and on the run through the deep South.  Dispensing with the prolix monologues for which his filmmaking would later be known, Kramer trusts his cast to communicate through a glance or a simple gesture.  Racism in this film is so obvious that it can neither be explained nor explained away, and beyond the prediction t the beginning of the film that “they won’t get five miles before they tear each other apart,” the racial conflict is discussed at a minimum.  Characters weave in and out of the two escapees’ path to freedom with their hatred, kindness, or fear written plainly on their faces; meanwhile, the men’s mutual animosity grows fitfully into respect through wordless acts of compassion and loyalty.

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Best Director Final 50: Hiroshi Teshigahara – Woman in the Dunes

HIROSHI TESHIGAHARA FOR WOMAN IN THE DUNES

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

Robert Wise for The Sound of Music

David Lean for Doctor Zhivago

John Schlesinger for Darling

William Wyler for The Collector

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“Well, I wasn’t expecting that,” is becoming a minor refrain in this series, particularly when it comes to foreign language nominees.  Hiroshi Teshigahara became only the third individual to earn a Best Director nomination for a foreign language film (and it took no less than Federico Fellini’s force of nature La dolce vita to break that barrier four years earlier).  What’s more, Teshigahara earned the honor with no more than a Best Foreign Language Film nomination to accompany it.  How did he accomplish such a feat?  By making one of the most striking films ever nominated in this category, before as well as since.  Woman in the Dunes plays like a long episode of The Twilight Zone by way of Samuel Beckett, a haunting, discombobulating gaze into the deepest trenches of human nature and nature itself.

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Best Director Final 50: William Wyler – Friendly Persuasion

WILLIAM WYLER FOR FRIENDLY PERSUASION

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The competition (Cliff: 4 for 5)

George Stevens for Giant

Michael Anderson for Around the World in Eighty Days

Walter Lang for The King and I

King Vidor for War and Peace

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NOTE: henceforth, dark blue text will denote individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue will indicate those who were nominated.

Politics sweeps up films in the strangest ways.  I talked earlier about how a biopic of Woodrow Wilson could harbor the crusading anti-Nazi sentiments of the war years, and now I come across a film whose pacifist politics embroiled it in a world of controversy.  William Wyler’s Friendly Persuasion, a sustained exercise in homespun Americana, seems at first blush like the director’s most innocuous film.  And in many ways, it is: a rustic kindred spirit to Jean Renoir’s The Southerner and Clarence Brown’s The Yearling from a decade earlier (when Jessamyn West’s source novel was first published), Wyler’s film tells that tale of the Birdwells, a humble Quaker family living in rural Indiana on the far fringe of the Civil War.

However, this idyllic onscreen story belies a tortuous behind-the-scenes saga of Cold War politics.  Screenwriter Michael Wilson began his adaptation of West’s novel after World War II as a project for Frank Capra, who abandoned the project and later named Wilson and the script at a HUAC hearing as evidence of communist influence in Hollywood.  When the blacklisted Wilson’s script was eventually taken up by William Wyler (who had worked with blacklisted writers before), screenwriting credit was withheld from the opening credits, and when the Writers Branch nominated the *authorless* work for Best Adapted Screenplay anyway, the Academy instructed Price Waterhouse to remove the nomination from the official ballot (restored in 2002, eighteen years after also bestowing him with the Oscar he deserved for the following year’s The Bridge on the River Kwai).  As a strange coda, by the 1980s Ronald Reagan, apparently oblivious to the film’s McCarthy-era associations, or perhaps because of them for all I know, entrusted a VHS copy of the film to Mikhail Gorbachev, calling it his favorite film.  Whew, someone should make a screenplay about that!

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Best Director Final 50: Joshua Logan – Sayonara

JOSHUA LOGAN FOR SAYONARA

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

David Lean for The Bridge on the River Kwai

Sidney Lumet for 12 Angry Men

Mark Robson for Peyton Place

Billy Wilder for Witness for the Prosecution

NOTE: henceforth, dark blue text will denote individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue will indicate those who were nominated.

Movies don’t change with the passing years, but we do.  As a result, social problem films pose perhaps the greatest challenge to the judgment of future generations.  Deliberately wading into complex problems with a forthright purpose of speaking to their own times, these movies wind up repeating the same message over and over to a changing society, exposing their makers’ biases and assumptions more with each passing year to viewers whose values grow further and further apart.  As a result, I tend to err on the generous side when discussing these films, far more willing to compliment them for their virtues than condemn them for their sins.

So it was very tentatively that I watched Joshua Logan’s Sayonara charge into the fraught terrain of miscegenation.  Logan is no stranger to the subject, or even to adapting James Michener works on the subject, having previously co-authored and directed the stage and films versions of South Pacific, although here he takes the novel straight to the screen and bypasses Rodgers & Hammerstein entirely.  (One wonders what kind of Puccini-inspired musical creation they might have concocted.)  The story of two American servicemen and their love for two Japanese women echoes a Western storytelling vein at least as old as Madame Butterfly in drama and Broken Blossoms in film.  From today’s vantage point, Logan seems caught between past and future, charging head on against some prejudices while remaining blind to others.

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Best Director Final 50: Lina Wertmüller – Seven Beauties

LINA WERTMÜLLER FOR SEVEN BEAUTIES

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

JOHN G. AVILDSEN for Rocky

Ingmar Bergman for Face to Face

Sidney Lumet for Network

Alan J. Pakula for All the President’s Men

(SPOILER ALERT, just because I don’t think I could meaningfully talk about the film without specifically diving into the plot and its outcome)

It seems like a disservice to women as directors to say what kind of films I would or wouldn’t expect them to make.  That said, however, I could hardly have been more surprised by the first film to earn woman a Best Director nomination.  Lina Wertmüller’s Seven Beauties (Pasqualino Settebellezze in its original Italian), a grim picaresque set during Italy’s fascist regime, is a bold entry in the darkest and most daring of 1970s art house filmmaking.  The film follows Pasqualino “Seven Beauties” (Giancarlo Giannini), jumping back and forth between the horrific depths of his wartime ordeal in a Nazi concentration camp and his cartoonishly macabre escapades in prewar fascist Italy.  Wertmüller’s contrast of these two tones is so drastic that I can’t find a single image for this post that could capture both.  Roger Ebert posited that this film was Wertmüller’s experiment in the “ultimate black comedy,” but I think that she structures the film as an anticomedy, exposing and obliterating his character’s sick mentality in the bleak furnace of the concentration camp.

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