Category Check 2014: 2 down, 6 to go

All right! Some computer problems have finally been put to bed and I’m happy to return for an update on the overall progress of the Oscar Quest.

Having now completed the Best Actress and Best Actor categories, I find that I still have a long way to go. Updating each of the six remaining checklists, I’ve realized that the Big Eight categories are far less interconnected than I originally thought. I’d anticipated that most of the Best Director nominees would be multi-category juggernauts, and indeed many were, especially when one factors in the craft categories. However, true across-the-board nominees tend to be the ones I had seen already, and my recent conquests barely made a dent in most of the remaining fields: I’ve only checked off 21 of the 123 remaining Best Actor nominees and a mere 10 of the remaining 127 Original Screenplays. To be sure, by finishing Best Director I made much more overall progress than I did by finishing Best Actress, but the fact remains that I’ve now seen over one thousand movies with major Oscar nominations, and I still have several hundred to go.

This prospect is daunting and exhilarating at the same time. With six diverse and extensive categories remaining, it’s clear that unless I should wind up in traction or under house arrest in the near future, finishing the Oscar Quest will mean five more summers of heavy film viewing. Frankly, though, I’m glad to have so much still ahead of me! I don’t doubt for a second that each of these categories has brilliant, fascinating, and downright perplexing nominations in store, just like those I discovered on the Best Actress and Best Director Quests.

Last year, I posted individual profiles of all seven remaining categories. I doubt there’s any need to replicate such detail, so I’ll confine myself to a link to last year’s overview, a quick update, and a few sundry thoughts.

Best Picture – 27 down, 43 left

Here, of course, we do see a lot of Best Director overlap. I won’t conceal that I am saving this category for last, and that I’ll probably tackle it right after I finish the penultimate category. I’ll be curious to see the different facets of this category that are revealed as I peel of each screenwriting and acting category. This is the only category left in which I’ve seen all the winners, but I do still expect some remarkable filmmaking from among the remaining contenders! I’m particularly looking forward to two longtime holes in the DVD universe (Ruggles of Red Gap and The Magnificent Ambersons) and two disaster spectaculars (Airport and The Towering Inferno), all of which I hope to catch on the big screen!

 

Best Actor – 21 down, 102 (including 10 winners) left

Though I typically think of Best Actress as the real “one-shot” performance category, Best Actor also has its fair share of films nominated exclusively in that category. Given that many of my favorite Best Actress performances (Testament, Séance on a Wet Afternoon) came from such low-profile films, I’ll eventually take on this category with an open mind and high hopes! Sight unseen, I’m particularly anxious to see the non-winning work by several of the category’s winners, such as Rod Steiger in The Pawnbroker, Jeff Bridges in Starman, and Denzel Washington in The Hurricane (1999).

Best Supporting Actress – 10 down, 82 (including 9 winners) left

Supporting Actor and Actress are a fascinating mixture of moonlighting stars, rising or fading legends, true character actors, and complete outsiders. As I’ve said before, I often know so little about the nominated performance that I’m looking forward to the film first and foremost. However, I’m especially keen to see the Oscar-nominated work of actresses I know for completely different reasons: Billie Burke in Merrily We Live, Paulette Goddard in So Proudly We Hail, and yes, Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted.

Best Supporting Actor – 13 down, 104 (including 12 winners) left

With a total of 305 separate nominees, Supporting Actor represents more separate individuals than any other acting category. Again, it’s a spendid mix of the famous, the familiar, and the unknown, with several of my all-time favorite performances included among the ones I’ve already checked off. I hardly know how to start narrowing it down, but I’d say I’m most excited by the truly great character actors, like Thomas Mitchell in The Hurricane (1937), John Lithgow in The World According to Garp, and Arthur Kennedy in The Trial.

Best Original Screenplay – 10 down, 117 (including 9 winners) left

Original Screenplay is the youngest and thus the smallest category among the Big Eight, and yet it still has the most left for me to see.  That just shows how exceptionally idiosyncratic the category is. As with Best Actress, the category defines a minority of commercial films (around the world as well as in Hollywood), and the best work often comes from the most marginal movies. I have a huge array of anticipated and totally unknown titles before me, but I’m especially looking forward to the robust contingent of international films, including Rossellini et al’s Paisan, Duras’ Hiroshima, mon amour, and Jackson & Walsh’s Heavenly Creatures.

Best Adapted Screenplay – 18 down, 78 (including 1 winner) left

As this is also something of a shadow Best Picture/Director category, I have fewer remaining in this category than any other and it will likely be my next target. Many of the titles still outstanding come from those pesky 2nd Academy Awards, in which multiple works were under consideration for each individual. I don’t know if I can expect to find all of them, but I’ll do my darnedest! Meanwhile, as with Original Screenplay, I look forward to catching up with many of the foreign offerings: Amedei & Fellini’s Rome, Open City, Bertolucci’s The Conformist, and Hodge’s Trainspotting.

That should do it for now!  I’ll post sporadically in the coming weeks and months, including comments on the 2013 Oscar race and the season that will intervene between now and the start of the next category.  And if all goes according to the current plan, I’ll be back next spring for Best Adapted Screenplay!

Category Check: Best Picture

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Well, Best Picture is the star of this show, perhaps the first and foremost accolade for a film to earn.  This category, more than any other, is meant to define the filmmaking industry as a whole.  In spite the layers and layers of stereotypes for what this category favors, the 506 nominees in this category cover an astonishing array that I can’t even condense into one of my usual run-on sentences.  So here’s a list of two nominees per decade, just to sample the staggering range of films that contribute to the definition of a Best Picture nominee:

  • 1930s: The Thin Man and Grand Illusion
  • 1940s: The Ox-Bow Incident and Double Indemnity
  • 1950s: Father of the Bride and Marty
  • 1960s: Dr. Strangelove and Mary Poppins
  • 1970s: The Exorcist and Taxi Driver
  • 1980s: Raiders of the Lost Ark and Fatal Attraction
  • 1990s: Beauty and the Beast and Pulp Fiction
  • 2000s: Moulin Rouge! and District 9
  • 2010s: Inception and The Tree of Life

For all of its considerable blind spots and prejudices, this is nevertheless a remarkable cross-section of film history.  Given it’s supposed importance, of course this category has been scrutinized every which way (Best Director overlap, box office bumps) and retooled a number of times during the first twenty and last five years.  For what it’s worth, I love it whenever the field of nominees is expanded beyond the typical five, widening the spectrum to The Blind Side as well as Amour and aspiring to the “cross-section” goal, while also virtually guaranteeing that everyone will passionately agree and stridently disagree with one choice or another.  While I cherish the rare slate that I can admire in its entirety (1939, 1975, 1979), the truth is that I’m more excited by the fact that most years present me with a clunker as well as a brilliant work, since it demonstrates that the category is working when it comes to representing an array of opinions and tastes.  As long as there is a Ghost to offset Goodfellas, or a Cries and Whispers to counterbalance American Graffiti, then the system is working beautifully.

This is one of the categories that I’ve pursued more actively than others, making a point to see rare films like The White Parade and Trader Horn, or neglected ones like Quo Vadis or Nicholas and Alexandra, because of their designation.  Still, that’s only gotten me as far as 436 of 506 of the nominated films, leaving me with 70 films to go.  Almost all of these films are significant in one regard or another, whether for their spectacular box-office success (Airport), or for their overweening ambition (The Alamo), their artistic achievement (The Thin Red Line), social message (The Defiant Ones) or sumptuous craftsmanship (Anthony Adverse).  I’m looking forward to films with sizeable critical cache (Z, The Magnificent Ambersons) and those with none at all (One Foot in Heaven, Doctor Dolittle).  Most of all, perhaps, as usual I gravitate back toward World war II, and especially the trio of unseen 1942 nominees: The Pied Piper, 49th Parallel, and Wake Island, to further illustrate how the narrative of the war was playing out at the very height of the conflict.

(NOTE: For the purposes of this category, I cast a wide net, including the “Best Unique and Artistic Production” winner and nominees from 1927-28).

All in all, Best Picture is a treasure trove of films I know about and care about seeing.  However, I plan to save this category for last, whittling it down as I close out Director, Acting, and Screenplay, and finally tackling the 19 films that stand alone in this category.  Part of this is a curiosity about the movies that were great enough in their sum, but not in their parts, to earn a Best Picture nomination without the usual above-the-line accolades.  (I should note that I’m still debating whether to save The Magnificent Ambersons for last, in spite of the fact that it also merited a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Agnes Moorehead, or go with Ruggles of Red Gap, whose sole nomination was for Best Picture)  The end of this category will be an epic relief and a poignant farewell, but it won’t be coming for some time yet!

Category Check: Miles to Go

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Lest anyone think that my recent completion of the Best Actress category is the rule and not the exception, I’m starting a survey of my progress in the other seven categories as of the day that I watched the last Best Actress nominee. Among the overabundance of reasons that led me to begin the Best Actress Quest was that it was my weakest category, and would remain so unless I took deliberate action.  It’s funny now to see where the other categories lie relative to one another, and how the completion of the Best Actress quest has affected their trajectories.

These lists remain essentially accurate as of the time of writing–as an intentional change of pace, I’ve spent the last three weeks sampling films well outside of the Best Actress wheelhouse.  Between cult films (Primer, Point Break), documentaries (Stories We Tell, The Yes Men Fix the World), and new movies (Star Trek into Darkness, 42, Before Midnight), not to mention gobs and gobs of TV from To Play the King to Redwall, I’ve had a nice refreshing break from the typical range of the Best Actress film.  Only 1 of 19 features I’ve seen since The African Queen boasts any major Oscar nomination, the exception being Mildred Natwick’s Supporting Actress nomination for her delightfully haphazard mother-in-law in Barefoot in the Park–though I’ll be appalled if the number doesn’t retroactively rise to 2 in January with Julie Delpy’s nomination for her magnificent work in Before Midnight.

Anyhow, the next three days will see me post overviews of the Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Picture, along with a few comments on the best of what I’ve seen and the work cut out for me.  And last but not least, it’s hard to ignore the fact that it’s now the beginning of summer, leaving me just under three months in which to polish off a second category!  Which one ought to become clear soon enough.  In the meantime, let’s take a look at the mountains yet to be scaled.

4 Down, 6 to Go: Diana Wynyard in Cavalcade

(the 418th of the 424 Best Actress nominees!)

DIANA WYNYARD IN CAVALCADE (1933)

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The competition (Cliff: 3 for 3!)

Katharine Hepburn in Morning Glory

May Robson in Lady for a Day

Reluctantly, in order to finish the Best Actress nominees in a timely fashion, I gave up on my goal of seeing the last Best Picture winner on my checklist on the big screen, settling instead for a VHS copy from A Video Store Named Desire in West L.A.  Finally watching it, I felt an embarrassing surge of affection for the Academy Awards  overtake me and my regard for the film.  In so many ways, this is the epitome of a Best Picture winner: epic scope and intimate family drama, splendid historical sweep viewed through the prism of reassuring modern sensibilities.  Indeed, Cavalcade is Forrest Gump sixty years earlier, and a film that in spite of its stuffiness I think I could watch many times more.  Like Gump, it works historical references into its British family saga six ways from Sunday, my favorite coming when one of the boys carves out sand sculptures of the “Important People of 1909:” Theodore Roosevelt, Emmeline Pankhurst, even Estee Lauder.  Of course the family is directly touched by the tense struggle of the Second Boer War, the tragedy of the Titanic, and the horrors of World War I (represented in a stunning montage that I must say captures the sheer scale of human loss in the conflict), finishing off with a note of stoic assurance in the face of the Depression.  This kind of film belonged to a whole cycle in the early days of the 1930s, with fellow Best Picture winner Cimarron and a personal favorite of mine, The Conquerors, telling of strong families bravely enduring the troubles of the past, as though to minimize the world’s current economic travails.  All in all, this is far from the most flawless Best Picture, but one that stands for so much of the beautifully earnest and middlebrow sensibilities of the Oscars that it somewhat transcends them.

Where, in the midst of this historical sweep, does Diana’s staunch matron of the family fit in?  She has a remarkable look but an ineffectual acting style still indebted to stage; playing each emotion to the balcony and making sure to divorce her movements from her dialogue.  In its sixth year of existence (and the fifth year of the talkies), the Academy was still torn between its reverence for the greats of the stage and the inconsistent quality of their performances (see Lynn Fontanne).  She is directed by Frank Lloyd, whose Mutiny on the Bounty I love for its stunning ensemble, but who directs the cast of Cavalcade as unimpressively as in his other Best Director win for The Divine Lady (also featuring a lackluster Best Actress nominee, Corinne Griffith).  For as often as I was distracted by her abrupt and fulsome acting throughout most of the march through the early Twentieth Century, she admirably redeemed herself in the final moments of the film, in which she seems to shed her affectations to play an elderly version of her character with a simple grace.  My vote for 1933 goes to a far more tender and proficient performance from May Robson in Lady for a Day, but I still have a guilty soft spot for this film, and a love for Diana’s final scene.