Tuesday, February 21, 2012


Some kids lose their innocence when they find that there is no Santa. I lost mine a few years later when I realized that the best picture didn't always win the Oscar!

Picture it, as Sophia Petrillo used to put it, "New Paltz, 1959. No T.V. in the student union so Marian Harding a beloved music teacher invites a number of us to watch the Academy Awards at her home. She, as an older, unmarried lady, has a warm spot in her heart for "her kids" and we for her. She has made popcorn, and there is soda and coffee. There is a warmth in her little house that I remember fondly to this day. I cannot tell you what film won best picture that year (well, I could cheat and look at IMDB, but I'll let you do that), but I can tell you who was up for best original screenplay; Ingmar Bergman's brilliant WILD STRAWBERRIES and the light and frothy, Doris Day/Rock Hudson starrer, PILLOW TALK. As a young kid who was just learning about symbolism, I had been blown away by WILD STRAWBERRIES, probably having seen it three times before Oscar night...and don't forget, these were the days before VCR's, Netflix and HBO....you went to the movies each time you wanted to see a film. So, as my friends ate their popcorn, I waited impatiently for the best screenplay award to be announced. To this day I can still feel the disbelief, the sadness, the actual betrayal in my heart when PILLOW TALK took home the Oscar. I had lost my Oscar virginity.

Through the following years I noticed with a jaundiced eye when undeserving films won different Oscars but I didn't care. The WILD STRAWBERRIES snub still hurt. Fast forward MANY years and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN is up for best picture. Now I AM interested. I loved that film. Brilliant on all counts. And the winner is.... SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE!?! What! Now a lot has been written about that race and about how Miramax and Harvey Weinstein put tons of money into advertising and wining and dining Academy voters, but to me it was PILLOW TALK all over again. I would not, I vowed, ever care about what film wins what award again! And then came BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, a film of such grace, brilliance of directing, acting and cinematography that it HAD to win best picture. When director Ang Lee won I thought for sure it would......."And the winner of the Oscar for Best picture is....CRASH!!!!! Okay, CRASH had some terrific moments and dealt with prejudice and the Hollywood mentality, but as a better film than BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, which, by the way had been the odds on favorite, no way. The Academy was clearly afraid of anointing a film about gay cowboys as their best picture. AGAIN, THERE IS NO WAY THAT I WILL EVER CARE ENOUGH ABOUT A SINGLE FILM TO BE HURT IF THAT FILM LOSES. NEVER. NEVER......until this year.

I have a sinking feeling in my stomach that THE ARTIST, one of the most wonderful films to come along in many years may get snubbed by the Academy. I will be sorely disappointed if THE HELP wins, though I can see the merits in its winning, if it does, but if something like THE DESCENDANTS wins...I mean come on. Give me a break.CRASH 2! (Now I know that all that I have said is all about subjectivity, but if you can honestly tell me that SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE or CRASH were better than their betters, well, that's just nuts. But enough of that rant and on to those I think will win the big awards this year. Again, I haven't seen all of the films nominated, but of the ones I have seen, here are my choices.

George Clooney was good in THE DESCENDANTS, though I thought he was better in THE IDES OF MARCH and he looks like the odds on favorite. My pick; Jean Dujardin for THE ARTIST. What a talent! What a performance! (And why were Ryan Gosling (DRIVE) and Joel Edgerton (WARRIOR) not nominated?)

This is the hardest of the lot. Viola Davis was luminous as Aibileen in THE HELP, but Meryl Streep inhabited Margaret Thatcher at all different times of her life in THE IRON LADY. If either of these incredible ladies wins I will be quite happy, so I will hedge here and say that I don't have a favorite.

The field is kind of thin in this one so I am sure it will be Christopher Plummer for his role as a 75 year old man who finally comes out as gay. I thought he was excellent, but, in all honesty, I liked his co-star Ewan McGregor better and he wasn't nominated.(Nor was Tom Hardy who was amazing in WARRIOR and Gosling, again, who rocked in THE IDES OF MARCH). Plummer in a walk!

I think Octavia Spencer has the lock on this one for her role as Minnie THE HELP, and well deserved it will be should she win. My favorite, who does not have a chance in hell is the luminous Berenice Bejo for her role as Peppy Miller in THE ARTIST. If you see this film and don't fall in love with her, check your pulse, you might be dead.

This is an interesting category for me as, with the exception of Alexander Payne for THE DESCENDANTS, I think each nominee is worthy of the award. MIDNIGHT IN PARIS is one of the finest things Woody Allen has done in his long and illustrious career. The film was one of the most satisfying of the year, especially for those of us who tend to live in the past! Terence Malick's THE TREE OF LIFE was, like Kubrick's monumental 2001, a film that dealt with man and his place in the universe. Far too esoteric to win, the film is absolutely magnificent in every way. I love Martin Scorcese, but with HUGO there is a problem. Scorcese is a cool or even cold director, dealing with the raw realities of life. HUGO is a child's picture, meant to convey wonder in every frame. I think Scorcese's coolness just didn't work with the subject matter, though, at the end, where George Melies is recognized as the great film innovator that he was, a spark is lit with the director and the film blazes to life. (By the way, the 3-D in HUGO is amazing!) So, we are left with Michel Hazanavicius the director of THE ARTIST, who is my choice for best director.

I hope all my choices win, but if THE ARTIST loses to THE DESCENDANTS, which it just might, for me it will be WILD STRAWBERRIES, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN and BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN all over again. (And Miss Marian Harding, please know that I will be thinking of you this Sunday as I watch the awards, as I always do. No popcorn since has ever tasted better.

Thursday, February 9, 2012


A number of years ago, when I was teaching English at Elmont Memorial High School, a forward thinking principal, Richard Caliendo, realized that there was a need for a class that would review and discuss the classic films from Hollywood and Europe. I was lucky to have him build a "Little Theater" for me where, on a giant wide screen, I showed Hollywood's best. (Remember, this was just before the advent of the VCR and Turner Classic Films on TV so there was no way of seeing these films in any form). Dr. Caliendo gave me a small budget and with it I booked the greats, Lean's DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, Mankiewicz's ALL ABOUT EVE, Bergman's WILD STRAWBERRIES and Kazan's ON THE WATERFRONT among many others. One of those others was William Wellman's early color film (1937) of A STAR IS BORN, with a screenplay written by Dorothy Parker and Alan Campbell. I must have shown that film hundreds of times and yet I still bought the new blu ray DVD and watched it again this evening. What a truly delightful film with so many brilliant moments! This Hollywood saga tells the story of Norman Maine, an alcoholic actor whose star is slowly falling, and Vicki Lester a youngster from out West whose star is on the ascent. In a magnificent performance, Fredric March plays Maine as a pathetic alcoholic before the Betty Ford clinic and AA, whose self destruction is out of his hands. He cannot stop going back to the bottle when anything untoward happens. The only good thing in his life is Vicki Lester, whom he marries and whose career he nurtures. She is desperate to help him but is unable to do so. The end is inevitable, yet every time I see the film I keep hoping for a different resolution. As you watch the film you keep thinking, "No matter how hard they try, the just don't make them with this kind of care anymore." Case in point; early in their relationship, Norman kisses Vicki goodnight. He is the major star, she, at this point is a nobody. As he says goodnight the shadow of his face covers almost all of hers. He is in control and will be the Svengali to her Trilby. Vicki stays at a seedy Hollywood Hotel called The Oleander Arms. Screenwriter Parker, with no love for Hollywood, names the hotel after a poisonous flower. These and other such touches are no mistakes. They are the small things that enrich this version of the classic story to make it better (at least to me) than the Judy Garland (1954) version, as good as that one was...and it was, or the misbegotten version with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristoferson of the 1970's which was simply a vehicle for Streisand. I understand yet another version is in the planning stages, this one an African- American version and I wish it well. No matter how good it will be, it will have to be judged by the fine William Wellman version and that is going to be, as they say, a hard act to follow.