Best Director Home Stretch (the one that got away): Frank Lloyd for Drag

FRANK LLOYD FOR DRAG (1928/29)

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The nominees (Cliff: 5.1 for 7)

Frank Lloyd for The Divine Lady

Lionel Barrymore for Madame X

Harry Beaumont for The Broadway Melody

Irvin Cummings for In Old Arizona

Frank Lloyd for Weary River

Ernst Lubitsch for The Patriot

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Alas, I’ve come up empty-handed in my quest to find the stubbornly elusive Drag, or as the original herald card (thank you, Randy!) delightfully phrased it, “Richard Barthelmess in Drag!” I was afraid when I set out on this project that I would not be able to acquire this one elusive Warner Bros. talkie from 1929. Still, I held out hope that between the first-rate video stores and film archives that were so indispensable in the Best Actress Quest, and the many friends (Jonathan, J.Y., Randy, Alan, Andrew, Bob, Adam) who have tracked down the rarest of quarries, I might come up with a copy of the movie in the end. My best lead is that a reference copy of the film may exist at the Eastman House in Rochester, NY, and at my earliest convenience I plan to go there to find out. Until such a time, though, I must leave a few measly observations about a missing film, in lieu of the full post I will write one day.

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Best Director Home Stretch: Arthur Penn for Alice’s Restaurant

ARTHUR PENN FOR ALICE’S RESTAURANT (1969)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

John Schlesinger for Midnight Cowboy

Costa-Gavras for Z

George Roy Hill for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Sydney Pollack for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

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The age-old Hollywood chestnut would posit that after the shocking success of Bonnie and Clyde, Arthur Penn could have directed the phone book and gotten away with it. What actually Penn did wasn’t far off. In 1967, the same year in which Penn blew the doors off of Old Hollywood with his Nouvelle Vague-inspired gangster flick, Arlo Guthrie released a 19-minute rambling monologue about the Alice’s Restaurant Massacree. Penn would really cash in his chips one film later, with the proto-Dances with Wolves/Forrest Gump Old West epic Little Big Man. For now, though, he followed the show business adage not to follow one elephant act with another elephant act and plunged into one of the unlikeliest adaptations in Hollywood history. Such was the afterglow of Bonnie and Clyde that the Directors Branch probably would have rewarded Penn for any follow-up film at all. Still, I’m rather astonished that they would give the nod to this shaggy counterculture celebration and requiem.  Even if it pales in comparison to his prior masterpiece, Alice’s Restaurant is an improbably grand and glorious snapshot of a precious, ephemeral moment in America’s cultural history. Continue reading

Best Director Home Stretch: Roland Joffé for The Mission

ROLAND JOFFÉ FOR THE MISSION (1986)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

Oliver Stone for Platoon

Woody Allen for Hannah and Her Sisters

James Ivory for A Room with a View

David Lynch for Blue Velvet

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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Roland Joffé was, for a few years, the Academy’s “it” boy. His luck would run out after only his second feature, but not before delivering a gorgeous lyrical contemplation of the South American landscape. Largely forgotten by Hollywood, who would prefer to stay closer to home, South America still occupies a strong place in the European imagination. Where Werner Herzog depicts the continent as harshly unforgiving, the folly of those fortune hunters who plunge into its interior, Joffé’s film laments the inexorable progress of enough fortune hunters over time. However, in contrast to the urgent social drama of Joffé’s previous film, The Killing Fields, The Mission is a primarily sensory experience of the landscape. The political struggle between Jesuit, Spanish, and Portuguese interests over the fate of the Guarani tribe forms a suitably evocative, if simplistic, framework for the story. This is a film that still finds wonder in the primeval natural forces of river and rainforest that surround the paltry European outposts, aloof beauties that serenely endure the petty human strife. The backbone of this film, Chris Menges’ second Best Cinematography win in three years came for capturing the trance-inducing majesty of the rainforest and the waterfall that pierces its otherwise impenetrable expanse.

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Best Director Home Stretch: Joseph L. Mankiewicz for Sleuth

JOSEPH L. MANKIEWICZ FOR SLEUTH (1972)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

Bob Fosse for Cabaret

John Boorman for Deliverance

Francis Ford Coppola for The Godfather

Jan Troell for The Emigrants

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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SPOILER ALERT: Pretty much throughout this post. You’ve been warned.

The stage-to-screen adaptations Sleuth, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Give ‘em Hell Harry! as the only films to earn Oscar nominations for their entire casts. However, James Whitmore’s one-man show is the only definitely qualified candidate, since Woolf features two actors with no screen credit (Agnes & Frank Flanagan as the the roadhouse proprietors) while Sleuth credits four actors who are never featured onscreen. The actors, Alec Cawthorne, John Matthews, Eve Channing, Teddy Martin, don’t exist—screenwriter Anthony Shaffer and director Joseph L. Mankiewicz are having a little fun. The story’s match of wits unfolds exclusively between Laurence Olivier‘s Andrew Wyke and Michael Caine‘s Milo Trimble. Both put on a great show, but the key difference between the two is hinted at in the two acting styles: Lord Olivier’s classical performance is all affect and no passion, while the younger Caine is operating from a position of genuine feeling. Like Edward Albee’s Woolf, Andrew Shaffer’s mystery thriller is basically a game of chicken between two characters, a competition to see how much they can put each other on until one of them breaks the façade. In the characters’ ultimate showdown, the notions of who is actually feeling and who is fooling will become of vital importance. The amusing and chilling film seems like a comment on Mankiewicz’s career–a lifelong purveyor of clever diabolically clever narratives, he uses his final puzzle box to dismantle itself.

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Best Director Home Stretch: Roman Polanski for Tess

ROMAN POLANSKI FOR TESS (1980)

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The competition (Cliff: 4 for 5)

Robert Redford for Ordinary People

David Lynch for The Elephant Man

Richard Rush for The Stunt Man

Martin Scorsese for Raging Bull

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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As with stories set in the future, period pieces are projections of the present day, and often wind up reflecting the time of their production more than the time in which the story is set. It’s a rare historical film that can seem to step straight out of its era, and I was surprised to see Roman Polanski’s Tess do just that. From Rosemary’s Baby to The Ghost Writer, Polanski’s directorial vision has always seemed to grapple with the troubles of the present day; even Chinatown feels like a projection of 1970s disillusionment and paranoia back to the dusty days of boomtown Los Angeles. For his adaptation of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, though, Polanski seems content with the staggering forethought of Thomas Hardy’s social critique, presenting the exquisitely inlaid brutality of English society through the alternately splendid and wretched world of the late Victorian era. Forgoing the familiar faces and places of the impending Merchant-Ivory-led renaissance of British costume drama (even sidestepping England proper to film in Brittany), Polanski’s film presents a searing look at class and gender, one that resonates all the more because it seems to emanate not from a modernist gloss on the past, but from within the cruel regime of the era itself.

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Best Director Home Stretch: J. Lee Thompson for The Guns of Navarone

J. LEE THOMPSON FOR THE GUNS OF NAVARONE (1961)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins for West Side Story

Federico Fellini for 8½

Stanley Kramer for Judgment at Nuremberg

Robert Rossen for The Hustler

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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If Wake Island was the hasty call to action for the World War II combat film, The Guns of Navarone displayed the genre at its bombastic peak. J. Lee Thompson’s adventure appeared amidst a cycle of blockbuster behind-enemy-lines productions that stretched from The Bridge on the River Kwai to The Dirty Dozen. Thompson directs the tale with a muscular action film sensibility, but I was struck by the frequent flares of contention within the ranks of the usual team of highly trained specialists. Screenwriter Carl Foreman, recently freed from the Hollywood Blacklist (which had deprived him and Michael Wilson of their Oscars for Kwai) intended the movie as antiwar tale of the toll taken on the characters’ humanity even in the process of saving countless lives. The film that results is a fascinating mix of blend of taut caper and critical meditation on the tough decisions that must be made in the fog of war.  Like The Bridge on the River Kwai, the film presents the grim business of war before capping everything off with a triumphant explosion and calling the wreckage a victory.

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Best Director Home Stretch: John Farrow for Wake Island

JOHN FARROW FOR WAKE ISLAND (1942)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

William Wyler for Mrs. Miniver

Michael Curtiz for Yankee Doodle Dandy

Mervyn LeRoy for Random Harvest

Sam Wood for King’s Row

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 first of two World War II dramas I watched last night was startling in its immediacy. Released eight months after Pearl Harbor, John Farrow’s vivid recreation of crushing military defeat was the first full-fledged combat film to emerge during the war, leading a charge of productions that would dominate theaters for several years to come. John Farrow’s realization of the siege and conquest itself portrays the faraway conflict with a close-to-home thrill, while W.R. Burnett and Frank Butler’s screenplay, written under the auspices of the US Marine Corps and the freshly established Hollywood Branch of the Office of War Information, recasts the naval outpost’s surrender to Japanese forces as a heroic last stand. Hitting theaters in the middle of 1942, amid a cascade of setbacks in the American and Allied war effort, Wake Island strikes a powerful minor chord to commence Hollywood’s dramatization of the struggle, framing the story in a somber resolution to fight on.

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