Best Director Home Stretch: George Cukor for A Double Life

GEORGE CUKOR FOR A DOUBLE LIFE (1947)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

Elia Kazan for Gentleman’s Agreement

Edward Dmytryk for Crossfire

Henry Koster for The Bishop’s Wife

David Lean for Great Expectations

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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We’re back on the Shakespearean stage again with George Cukor’s A Double Life, where an actor once more wrestles with the willpower of the character he has summoned. While Peter Yates’ The Dresser places us outside the head of the thespian who may or may not have disappeared into the madness of King Lear, Cukor burrows straight into the fevered mind of a man haunted by Othello’s jealous spirit. Curiously, both films make use of the Moor’s final scene, though in The Dresser it serves mostly as a vehicle to establish Sir’s domineering ego. A Double Life, meanwhile, structures the film around the interior paranoia of the tragedy’s second half, as the aging thespian Anthony John performs the scene on the stage as he draws inexorably toward enacting it in his own life. The film, only three years after Cukor’s taut thriller Gaslight, is a strange mixture of jagged noir aesthetics and Hitchcockian psychodrama in equal measures. The film’s uneven success is the result of the clash between of these respectively expressionist and explicit strands of 1940s Hollywood filmmaking.

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Best Director Final 50: Peter Yates for The Dresser

PETER YATES FOR THE DRESSER (1983)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

James L. Brooks for Terms of Endearment

Bruce Beresford for Tender Mercies

Ingmar Bergman for Fanny and Alexander

Mike Nichols for Silkwood

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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Here’s a fun fact for Oscar nerds: The Dresser shares the distinction with the next year’s Amadeus as the last films—to date—to earn dual Best Actor nominations. This trivial connection reflects a deeper resonance between the films. Both Ronald Harwood and Peter Shaffer adapted the screenplays from their own stage shows, which set a capricious artist against an onlooker who beholds him with a mixture of resentment and self-loathing awe. However, as the titles suggest, the stories diverge in where they place the weight in this relationship. Shaffer & Forman’s sumptuous period drama places the character of Mozart (an offstage presence in the play) firmly in the center of the screen, presenting Mozart as a man favored by the court and loved by God, his genius issuing forth effortlessly before the eyes of an impotent Salieri. Yates’ modest wartime drama, meanwhile, has the actor known only as Sir toiling away as the head of a theatrical troupe at the height of the Blitz, his faltering talent extractable only through the heroics of his devoted backstage attendant. And that’s the key difference between the two films, evident in their titles: where Amadeus is fundamentally about the majesty of genius, The Dresser is about the tremendous sacrifice needed to support such a white elephant. Yates’ film is an intimate psychological contemplation of the faithful rather than the deity.

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Best Director Final 50: Woody Allen for Bullets over Broadway

WOODY ALLEN FOR BULLETS OVER BROADWAY (1994)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

Robert Zemeckis for Forrest Gump

Krzysztof Kieslowski for Three Colors: Red

Robert Redford for Quiz Show

Quentin Tarantino for Pulp Fiction

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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Bullets over Broadway begins with Al Jolson warbling “Toot, Toot, Tootsie,” the song that follows the famous (and, for Broadway, fateful) line, “You ain’t heard nothing yet!” in The Jazz Singer. Setting the credits to this song serves as a fitting memento mori for a vanished chapter in New York’s cultural history. As a writer, Allen crafts a charming show business satire that snuggles into the mythology of the Roaring Twenties, a tribute to Broadway’s last days as America’s undisputed cultural capital. What sets Bullets over Broadway apart, however, is the film’s superb production value, resurrecting the image of Broadway’s true heyday (long before its ballyhooed, midcentury Golden Age). This is no idle period piece; famous for romanticizing the New York of his present day, here Allen mounts a historical recreation to rival Gangs of New York or even the Godfather films in its richness. The production places as much emphasis on exploring the magnificent sets as it does on the gaggle of characters milling about the frame, and certainly more than the barely-glimpsed production fo Gods of Our Fathers. Allen’s Bullets over Broadway presents the Great White Way as a firmament of theaters, nightclubs, and penthouses, in which the people—and even the plays—are mere overnight occupants.

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The Home Stretch: Grace Moore in One Night of Love

(the 3rd of the 25 remaining Best Actress nominees!)

GRACE MOORE IN ONE NIGHT OF LOVE (1934)

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The competition (Cliff: 4* for 4*!)

Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night

Bette Davis in Of Human Bondage— (write in!)

Norma Shearer in The Barretts of Wimpole Street

As I started out on this tour of female performance, I never thought I would see three nominees give their renditions of Carmen.  Neither Dorothy Dandridge nor Eleanor Parker’s actual voices were heard in Carmen Jones (and English language adaptation by Oscar Hammerstein) or Interrupted Melody; that proud distinction belongs solely to Grace, the surprising & fleeting opera sensation of Columbia’s silver screen.  While my taste in opera remains woefully unrefined, I could still appreciate her ample singing ability and stage presence in the all-too-few scenes of actual operatic performance.  Unfortunately, sixty-odd minutes of flimsy, misunderstanding-laden backstage drama surround the twenty minutes of singing, and Grace does not have the same ear for dialogue that she does for recitative.  Not that it matters too much; her placement in an extra-tight field of three nominees in 1934 (shockingly, at the expense of Myrna Loy for The Thin Man, which otherwise rivaled It Happened One Night in major category noms) reflected an appreciation for a woman whose “La Barrett” is all her own.

Still, the story does Grace few favors: her character emerges as petulant, not just the usual immature: she fakes illnesses out of jealousy, and is willing to refuse to go on stage when she thinks the performance will be canceled, but submits when she learns the role will go to a competitor.  The film errs in overstating her gift–her Carmen earns a drooling invitation from the Met, but her maestro naturally insists that she isn’t ready.  It’s not all bad, though.  If the movie sags in the middle, it’s still glorious around the edges.  I fell in love with the opening scene, which distilled the fantastical enchantment of a bygone era of opera: we open with Grace singing in a radio contest to determine the winner of a two-year tutelage under Europe’s greatest maestro, while he listens over the airwaves on his yacht on the moonlit Mediterranean.  Also, at the very end of the film, following a triumphant performance of Puccini, the tender intimacy found amidst thundering applause assures that the story closes out with the same measure of grace with which it began.  For 1934, Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night wins it by a country mile over the conventional nominees and by a clear margin over Bette Davis’ raw, write-in driven nomination, and Grace at least goes down as a unique entry in the history of the category.