Best Director Final 50: Martin Scorsese for The Last Temptation of Christ

MARTIN SCORSESE FOR THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988)

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The competition (Cliff: 4 for 5)

Barry Levinson for Rain Man

Charles Crichton for A Fish Called Wanda

Mike Nichols for Working Girl

Alan Parker for Mississippi Burning

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These days, Martin Scorsese is the safest Oscar blue chip around. Five of his last six films have returned 42 Academy Award nominations and 14 statuettes, including five Best Director nominations and a win for The Departed. While I’ve neither exalted nor condemned these recent works, for me nothing compares to the unbounded creative force he wielded in the decade between Raging Bull and Goodfellas. However, even trusting the protean genius behind those films as well as The King of Comedy and After Hours, I approached The Last Temptation of Christ with trepidation. I am far from an observant Christian, but the film was coupled in my mind first and foremost with its polarizing theatrical release, and I had a hard time picturing Christian iconography and Scorsese’s iconoclasm mixing well. Even the movie’s title (not to mention the cover of the Criterion Collection DVD) threatened to careen either into indulgent chaos or grueling treatise. These days, how could any filmmaker strike at the central narrative of Western civilization and yield an artistic triumph?

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Best Director Final 50: Alan Parker for Midnight Express

ALAN PARKER FOR MIDNIGHT EXPRESS (1978)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

Michael Cimino for The Deer Hunter

Woody Allen for Interiors

Hal Ashby for Coming Home

Warren Beatty and Buck Henry for Heaven Can Wait

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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Back to Turkey, though in a somewhat (but not completely different) light. The Turks have had a rough go of it lately, first as an oppressive ethnic majority, now as the perpetrators of a penal system that made the term “Turkish prison” shorthand for hell on earth. The film’s six nominations and two wins indicate the strong impression the sensational true-life account of Billy Hayes made on the Academy, much of which stemmed from permanently punching up the sobering brutality of prison life by a notch or two. The film had a substantial impact on the genre—just compare Cool Hand Luke to Hunger and it’s clear the worlds that Midnight Express bridged. On the other hand, as a political thriller the film’s legacy is dimmer—its distortion of Turkey through the eyes of its American protagonist is a cross for Alan Parker, Oscar-winning screenwriter Oliver Stone, and the Academy to bear. Ultimately, I found both elements combine into a meticulously—and frighteningly—effective study of unjust imprisonment and its toll on the human spirit.

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Best Director Final 50: Miloš Forman for The People vs. Larry Flynt

MILOŠ FORMAN FOR THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT (1996)

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The competition (Cliff: 4 for 5)

Anthony Minghella for The English Patient

Joel Coen for Fargo

Scott Hicks for Shine

Mike Leigh for Secrets & Lies

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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I’m now returning to the first of three films left on the conveyor belt since last summer. It was tough to get a handle on The People vs. Larry Flynt on first viewing, but after revisiting it I have a better idea of its strengths and weaknesses and a clearer picture of what’s there beneath the surface.

Miloš Forman’s major project has been his profound reverence for irreverence. His irrepressibly anarchic spirit manifested early, in his taunting satires of communist life in Czechoslovakia (particularly in The Firemen’s Ball, with its debt to the Marx Brothers). Then came the Prague Spring and its military suppression by the Soviets. If impertinence was Forman’s directorial sensibility in these early films, it became his subject after his flight to the West. Starting with Randle Patrick McMurphy, Ken Kesey’s iconic literary creation, and continuing with three actual figures in Mozart, Flynt, and Kaufman, Forman seized upon the trickster as his central archetype. Embarrassingly, I haven’t seen The Man in the Moon, but One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus both stress the sublime nature of impertinence, even in its demise at the hand of a bitterly uncomprehending establishment. Irreverence, for Forman, is the soul of freedom.

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Best Director Final 50: Roland Joffé – The Killing Fields

ROLAND JOFFE FOR THE KILLING FIELDS (1984)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

Milos Forman for Amadeus

Woody Allen for Broadway Danny Rose

Robert Benton for Places in the Heart

David Lean for A Passage to India

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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From a certain perspective, The Killing Fields seems like the quintessential Oscar film of the 1980s, combining the phenomenal cinematic spectacle of Gandhi and Out of Africa with the urgent social message of Missing and Platoon. For a while now, I’ve been waiting to get to the colossal one-two punch thrown by Roland Joffé, who scored Best Director nominations for both of his first two films and put himself in the exclusive company of Mike Nichols, Warren Beatty, and the inexplicable Stephen Daldry. Unfamiliar as I am with M. Joffé’s oeuvre (apart from his involvement with the perversely wondrous Super Mario Bros. movie; his take on The Scarlet Letter has long been on my list of must-see flops), I’ve long been curious to see whether his initial Oscar success was the product of the Academy’s bias toward such Important Filmmaking or the genuine (if unsustainable) merit of his directorial vision. With one movie down and one to go, my conclusions about Joffés directorial voice remain provisional, but he seems to live up to the brag. Both on the level of craft and story, The Killing Fields is a substantial and powerful feat of filmmaking, even if it doesn’t quite live up to its own earnest standards.

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Best Director Final 50: Henry King – Wilson

HENRY KING FOR WILSON (1944)

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The competition (Cliff: 4 for 5)

Leo McCarey for Going My Way

Billy Wilder for Double Indemnity

Alfred Hitchcock for Lifeboat

Otto Preminger for Laura

If science fiction films have a stronger relationship to the time in which they’re made than the future they purport to show us, I feel that biopics share much the same dynamic regarding the past.  Thus, Henry King’s 1944 film about the president who led the U.S. into war against the Germans in the 1910s must necessarily reflect sentiments about the war against the Nazis in the 1940s.  At one point, on the very eve of America’s entry into the Great War, Wilson (Alexander Knox) takes the opportunity to launch into a diatribe against the German Ambassador over news of the Zimmerman Telegraph:

“Is your Kaiser so contemptuous of American military prowess?  Does he think we’re so weak and disunited, just because we prefer peace to war, that we will not fight in any circumstances?  Or is he so drunk with power, that he can’t understand that such action will unite this nation as never before in its history?  And that he has made it clear at last, that this is in truth a fight for freedom and decency, against the most evil and autocratic power this world has ever seen?”

I felt like I was watching a holdover from the pro-Allied propaganda of a few years before—Foreign Correspondent, Sergeant York, Mrs. Miniver.  The film’s failure with audiences, despite its success at the Oscars and apparent critical praise, is a symptom of a film out of time, far behind not only the pre-Pearl Harbor pleas for American intervention, but even the onslaught of anti-Nazi diatribes that followed the attack.

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423 Down, 1 to Go: Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde

(the 423rd of the 424 Best Actress nominees!)

FAYE DUNAWAY IN BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

Katharine Hepburn in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

Anne Bancroft in The Graduate

Edith Evans in The Whisperers

Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark

What is there to say about an American classic that hasn’t been said already?  I absolutely agree with the praise.  What I saw was a cinematic Rhapsody in Blue, an ebullient American classic: chaotic and free-formed in appearance and yet meticulously masterful in every detail.  This is a masterpiece on every level, and I’m crushed that I had to miss it at TCM (I was trying out for an Academy Awards-themed trivia game show, which I consider a justifiable excuse), but thrilled to have finally added this landmark to my movie experience.  I guess the best thing for me to focus on is how the film lived up to its gargantuan reputation.  In addition to the French New Wave-inspired, kinetic energy that Arthur Penn breathed into American filmmaking for the next decade, and the fraught glorification of outlaw violence underlying the entire film, there were many discoveries that diverged from the movie I was led to expect.

There are things in classic films that nobody really pays attention to (I remember, when I caught up with Taxi Driver, how surprised I was that the political campaign takes up such a huge chunk of the narrative).  Here, I was surprised by the sexual difficulties between the two characters; his reluctance toward her advances being a storyline that I had not known of beforehand, and a layer to the characters that added such a complex twist to their charisma onscreen.  I was struck by the intricacies of the story (the duo car running a truck piled with high with furniture off the road during their first getaway, a truck just like the one belonging to the evicted farmers who inspired them to start robbing banks), and in the filmmaking (the in-a-blink game played with the audience when a police officer reaches for a weapon and the retaliatory gunshot that precedes the cut to Warren Beatty firing his gun by several seconds), and the confidence that issues from every choice, from the insistent photo montage in the opening credits to the boldly abrupt end to the final shot.

However, the biggest surprise to me, fittingly enough, revolved around Faye’s astonishing character.  I had always perceived Bonnie and Clyde as essentially a buddy picture, an equal duet between two iconic American figures that could only be perceived as a single unit.  I was unprepared for how much the film takes on Faye’s perspective as the small-town girl swept up and transformed into an outlaw heroine.  The film begins with Faye’s own gaze, regarding herself in the mirror and then watching Clyde unseen, as he attempts to lift her family’s car.  It gives her a narrative voice, in her composition and recitation of “The Story of Bonnie and Clyde.”  And it subtly privileges details of her performance, such as the sound mix accentuating her gasp of delight when she first sees & hears a gunshot, or the camerawork barely catching the tops of her knees, pressed up against her chest as she tries to watch The Gold Diggers of 1933.  And of course, Faye imbues the character with rough-hewn energy: a vulnerable, girlish (almost still-innocent) dissatisfaction wrapped up in boisterous gangster bravado, dynamically balancing the woman with the myth.  With such a rich character, beautifully through Faye’s magnetic performance, I guess I have no choice but to give her my vote, over stiff competition from Anne Bancroft and Edith Evans, for Best Actress of 1967.  An unparalleled performance for the penultimate film on the quest!

It’s hard to believe that the next time I get up from watching a movie, I will be at the end of this wonderful, ridiculous, and surreal film-watching saga.  It’s a bittersweet moment to be sure, and the perfect opportunity for a few extraneous reflections on the whole journey.  Stay tuned!

2 Down, 8 to Go: Ingrid Bergman in Joan of Arc

(the 416th of the 424 Best Actress nominees!)

INGRID BERGMAN IN JOAN OF ARC (1948)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

Jane Wyman in Johnny Belinda

Irene Dunne in I Remember Mama

Olivia de Havilland in The Snake Pit

Barbara Stanwyck in Sorry, Wrong Number

Joan of Arc is the typical Hollywood historical epic, with the same virtues and faults.  It’s an ideal, though unintentional, swan song for Victor Fleming, combining his muscular adventure stories (Treasure Island, Captains Courageous) with his gift for sensitively directed, female-centric epics (Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz).  He directs the battle scenes with kinetic glee, particularly when staging a brilliant rally at Orleans against the backdrop of a blazing turret.  However, he also knows to place Ingrid firmly at the center of the saga, keeping her anchored in the midst of any number of dolly shots and action montages.  The film removes the more interesting frame story of the play, in which a troupe staging a performance of Joan of Arc is apparently affected by the characters they perform.  It can’t help but plod in places, and all the performances, including an excellent Donald Sutherland-esque Jose Ferrer as the Dauphin, are hindered by some of Maxwell Anderson’s stuffier dialogue.  Still, the film serves as a great showpiece for Ingrid’s predilection for Important Roles, and here (unlike in For Whom the Bell Tolls) I think she delivers nicely.

Ingrid approaches the role of Joan of Arc in the shadow of one of the greatest film performances of all time: Maria Falconetti in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s intimate epic, The Passion of Joan of Arc.  Ingrid’s goal is to present the clear, divine inspiration of a saint, and while she doesn’t turn in the virtuoso performance that Maria does, I think that in many ways she has the tougher challenge, not just because of the fortuitous issue of precedent, but because of the parameters of the role.  Where Maria famously appeared before the camera stripped of makeup, lighting, and all other trickery (instantly becoming metonymous with cinematic truth), Ingrid appears cloaked in the lush artifice of Technicolor Hollywood.   Where Maria’s Joan existed only on trial, Ingrid journeys through a full two acts before indictment for heresy.  Ingrid does an excellent job of conveying sincerity, her naturally furrowed brow and soft attacks of her lines of dialogue conveying a serene confidence behind her pleas.  She truly comes into her own during the trial, when she makes Joan craftily parrying the church’s leading questions seem like a character arriving at the truth like a natural consequence.  And of course, at the end, nobody suffers more gorgeously (immaculately, even) on the cross than she.  My vote for 1948 goes to Olivia de Havilland in The Snake Pit for a bold and still-impressive examination of mental illness, but Ingrid makes a worthy contender.