Showing posts with label Oscar Film Journal. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Oscar Film Journal. Show all posts

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Oscar Film Journal: Hamlet (1948)

Welcome to another entry in the Oscar Film Journal, here at  Yeah, I know, the 2021 Oscar ceremony has come and gone, but dammit, I'm gonna try and keep the Oscar spirit alive all the year.  Keep it, but you don't keep it!

Today's film is the classic 1948 adaptation of Hamlet, directed by, produced by, adapted for the screen by, and starring the legendary Sir Laurence Olivier.  He was quite the multi-talented fellow, that Olivier.  This film version was commercially successful on its release and won a slew of awards, not least of which were its four Academy Award triumphs, including Best Picture and Best Actor.  Olivier took Shakespeare's dense, four-hour opus and whittled it down to a manageable 155 minutes, cutting out a few major beats and supporting characters such as everyone's favorite pair of bumbling fools, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  The changes proved somewhat controversial among purists, but what can you do, the play's four freakin' hours long.  

Olivier plays the lead character as a very psychologically troubled but often scampish young man, not unlike the way an unhappy teenager would act.  I always find it strange how often the young student Hamlet is played by 30- and 40-somethings; here the 40-year-old Olivier is eleven years the senior of Eileen Herlie, who plays Hamlet's mother Gertrude.  Perhaps a more experienced actor tends to find the character's many nuances more easily than would a fresh-faced 20-year-old.  Nonetheless, Olivier gives a very strong performance here, brooding without being mopey, commanding the screen without bravado.  Olivier also stood in as the ghost of Hamlet's father, recording his lines in a whisper and slowing down the tape to produce a lugubrious, ethereal quality in the ghost's voice.  

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Oscar Film Journal: Driving Miss Daisy (1989)

Welcome to another Oscar Film Journal entry, here at!  This here is the first installment that features a film I'd give a full non-recommendation....

We're heading back to the 80s today, with a movie that heads back to the 40s through the early 70s.  The 1989 Best Picture winner was textbook 80s Oscar bait, a light-footed comedy-drama that kinda sorta tackled the issue of race in mid-century America but in a very safe, innocuous fashion.  I'm talking about Driving Miss Daisy, starring Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman, and based on the 1987 stage play by Alfred Uhry.  DMD is about a rich southern widow who takes her car out for a spin one day and learns that at her advanced age she's no longer sound behind the wheel, driving it backwards into her neighbors yard and totaling the vehicle.  Her son (played by Dan Aykroyd) insists that he hire her a chauffer, a prospect she resists kicking and screaming.  But gradually Hoke (Freeman) wins her over with his calm demeanor and uncanny ability to handle her excitable, disagreeable nature.  Over the years Hoke becomes her most trusted companion, gradually helping her understand the ugliness of oppression and bigotry (something that as a Jewish woman in the Jim Crow south she begins to experience firsthand); Daisy exhibits some racist behavior early in the film but by the end actually attends a dinner where Martin Luther King speaks (though she fails to extend Hoke a proper invitation).  The pair age into retirement and are forced to separate, only visiting each other once in a while at Daisy's retirement home.  And, well, that's it.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Oscar Film Journal: Nomadland (2020)

And now for the second half of today's Oscar Film Journal - I've already talked about the film and performance I think SHOULD have won at the Oscars, here's the movie that DID win.

Based on Jessica Bruder's non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century, director Chloe Zhao's meditative, immersive docudrama stars Frances McDormand as a widow who lost her job at a manufacturing plant, the only major business in her town (which itself shut down once the plant folded), and became a traveling member of the "gig economy."  She takes seasonal work at a nearby Amazon plant and then drives around the country working at various locales such as a Badlands campground, the Wall Drug restaurant, and a sugar beet plant, but spends part of her time in an Arizona community with other nomads who haven't been able to find enough work to keep a permanent residence.  

The film is essentially a series of little episodes and vignettes as Fern (McDormand) develops friendships with her fellow roamers, spends some time with her sister in California, visits another nomad Dave (played by David Strathairn) who's now staying with his family, and just tries to keep her van maintained.  It's more of a non-narrative experience than a traditional film, its uniqueness no doubt the reason it earned so many accolades; Nomadland is about evoking mood and setting, not so much about a story.  

Oscar Film Journal: Promising Young Woman (2020)

The Oscars may be over, but I'm still pluggin' away at the Oscar Film Journal.  Because the Oscars got one award very wrong this year from where I sit....

I'll be reviewing the other side of this particular issue a bit later, but right now I'm focused on what I felt was the best of the Best Picture nominees, Emerald Fennell's explosive directorial debut, Promising Young Woman, starring Carey Mulligan in a career performance that, goddammit, should've won her the Best Actress award.  I've been a low-key fan of Mulligan's for about a decade now, after her dripping-with-sadness turn as Sissy in Steve McQueen's Shame, and again after her venom-spitting supporting role in Inside Llewyn Davis (I still often quote the phrase "Because you are SHIT!").  Mulligan is a veritable chameleon, as evidenced by the fact that until this past week I'd never heard her speak in her native English accent (which is as proper as that of Sherlock Holmes).  But her performance as Cassie in Promising Young Woman is a force of nature; she absolutely commands the screen in every frame, seething with righteous anger beneath a veneer of dark sarcasm.

If you're not familiar with the premise by now, Promising Young Woman is about a former med school student who dropped out after her best friend Nina was sexually assaulted by a classmate, and now roams bars and nightclubs pretending to be fall-down drunk so men will take her home.  But once she gets there she hits them with the truth, hoping to hold a mirror up to their complicity in perpetuating rape culture.  She reconnects with another classmate who seems to actually be a decent fellow, but when he mentions that Nina's rapist is now getting married, she hatches a plan to punish everyone involved.  

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Oscar Film Journal: Fatal Attraction (1987)

Welcome to another Oscar Film Journal entry, here at  The awards are coming up fast....

Today's subject is a lurid piece of rather trashy pulp that not only made a fortune but somehow grabbed the Academy's attention, Fatal Attraction, starring Michael Douglas and Glenn Close.  You all know the story by now - Douglas stars as Danny Gallagher, a high-powered New York lawyer who has a torrid weekend fling with a work associate, who then becomes a maniacal stalker looking to turn the affair into a relationship at all costs.  Played with complexity and legitimately frightening eroticism by Glenn Close, the character of Alex Forrest is one of the legendary cinematic femme fatales, and the role launched Close's career while earning her a well-deserved Oscar nod.  Douglas's performance is quite strong as well; he's made a career of playing very flawed protagonists desperately slipping to the end of their pitiful rope.  The unsung performance in the film (though she did also get a Supporting Actress nomination) is from Anne Archer as Danny's devoted wife, who doesn't suspect a thing until Alex begins to turn the Gallaghers' lives upside down.  Poor Beth Gallagher thinks her marriage is on solid ground until this whackjob boils her daughter's new rabbit (That's just uncalled for, Alex).  

Watching this film for the first time (I had seen bits and pieces and knew the major beats of the plot), I found myself thinking "THIS got a Best Picture nomination??"  It's obviously a well-made erotic thriller with strong performances by all three leads, and Close became something of a pop culture icon in the process, but let's take an honest look at this thing.  Fatal Attraction is an over-the-top film noir crossed with a checkout line romance novel (even the title evokes it).  Had the filmmakers been a little more daring they could've seriously explored the Alex Forrest character and her terrifying psychological issues, instead of just making her a full-on horror film maniac.  We get glimpses of nuance during the second-act fallout of the affair, as Alex manipulates Danny in different ways to get him to stay in her life.  But the producers changed the climax of the movie from a disturbing but believable suicide/murder frame-job ending to something resembling a slasher film denoument, complete with a "killer's not really dead" moment.  I get why they reshot this; it's a crowd-pleasing Hollywood finish, but it lowers the material from a sophisticated grown-up thriller to popcorn schlock.  They weren't even all that imaginative in the execution either; there are shovel-to-the-face obvious suspense tropes, like the killer popping up in the bathroom mirror behind one of the good guys, or a shot of the married couple sleeping and a slow pan over to the phone just before it suddenly rings at 2am, or a water-level shot of the full bathtub just before the killer pops out of the water.  This stuff is B-movie cheeseball, and simply has no place in a supposedly Oscar-worthy film.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Oscar Film Journal: The Hustler (1961)

Welcome to another Oscar Film Journal review, here at!

Today's subject is the 1961 billiards-related classic, The Hustler, starring Paul Newman, Piper Laurie, George C. Scott and Jackie Gleason.  This gritty saga of gambling, winning and losing, and unlikely romance centers around "Fast" Eddie Felson, a prodigious pool hall hustler who along with his manager Charlie, travels town to town playing for money.  His ultimate quarry is pool legend Minnesota Fats (Gleason), whom he challenges to a series of games.  Eddie dominates most of the 25-hour session but can't bring himself to quit while he's ahead, and Fats cleans him out by the end.  Financially ruined and now "outed" as a hustler, Eddie plans to move on but meets Sarah (Piper Laurie), a part-time college student and full-time alcoholic, at the bus terminal.  The two connect instantly and Eddie moves in with her, breaking his partnership with Charlie.  Facing a choice between resuming his life as a hustler and going all-in with Sarah, Eddie strikes up a business arrangement with Fats' associate Bert (an austere George C. Scott) to get him back in a game against Fats.  Under Bert's cruel tutelage, Eddie learns the true nature of hustling, sacrificing his humanity and more to become a "winner."

Directed by Robert Rossen, a former Communist who sold out over 50 associates during the HUAC hearings in the 1950s, The Hustler is steeped in guilt and regret, now read almost as a parable for Rossen's McCarthy-era betrayals.  The Eddie character doesn't realize his dream of becoming the best pool player until after he's destroyed the two relationships he cared about, first his partnership with Charlie, then his romance with Sarah.  That inner conflict, career ambition at all costs vs. personal happiness, is central to the story, and The Hustler was one of few American films at the time to directly address such a theme.  

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Oscar Film Journal: Ford v Ferrari (2019)

Dear Oscar Film Journal, 

It is time for me to write in you again.



Today's film is one of last year's Best Picture nominees, the historical car racing drama Ford v Ferrari, starring Matt Damon and Christian Bale, and directed by James Mangold.  FvF chronicles the saga of a heated rivalry between two egomaniacs, one a true artist in the realm of automobile design, the other a journeyman whose business philosophy is about quantity at all costs until sales begin to slump.  Henry Ford II, grandson of the company's legendary founder, desperate for new ideas, gets talked into buying out the bankrupt Ferrari, but its owner Enzo Ferrari instead sells to Fiat and hurls insults at Ford via the aborted deal's broker, Lee Iacocca.  Ford is so enraged he vows to design a race car that can break Ferrari's winning streak at the 24 Hours of Le Mans annual race.  This fit of hubris sets the film's story in motion, as its two main characters, former racer Carroll Shelby and current track wiz Ken Miles are assigned to the case.  Shelby (Matt Damon, channeling Tommy Lee Jones's down-home frankness) owns a car design company and oversees the project, falling back on his raw salesmanship and chutzpah to up-manage the corporate swine above him.  Ken Miles is an uncompromising expert racer and mechanic seemingly possessing of a symbiosis with cars; he can innately feel when to speed up, when to shift gears, when to lay off, etc.  His lack of people skills however are a turnoff for Ford's top brass, and the company's senior VP Leo Beebe (a smarmy-as-ever Josh Lucas) is always maneuvering to get him ousted from the team.  But Shelby goes to bat for Miles, who proves his virtuosity at the 24 Hours of Daytona with a stunning come-from-behind win.  All roads lead to Le Mans, and the epic showdown between the two auto titans.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Oscar Film Journal: All About Eve (1950)

And we're back with another review for the Oscar Film Journal!

Today's subject is the 1950s drama All About Eve, which garnered a staggering 14 Oscar nominations (a record it still co-holds along with Titanic and La La Land) and is widely considered Bette Davis's definitive screen role.  Written and directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, All About Eve is the story of an aging Broadway actress who finds both her personal life and career threatened by an adoring fan.  The titular Eve, a seemingly doe-eyed girl next door charms the actress, Margo, and her inner circle of friends, and swiftly becomes Margo's personal assistant and confidant.  But Eve becomes so good and so thorough at her job she begins to wield power over Margo, who grows to resent her and tries in vain to get her reassigned to the office of her producer.  Eve gets herself hired instead as Margo's understudy, and when Margo's friend Karen causes her to miss a performance, Eve finally gets her shot on stage and is an instant sensation.  Thus begins Eve's Broadway rise and the fading of Margo's star.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Oscar Film Journal: Dangerous Liaisons (1988)

Welcome to yet another entry in the Oscar Film Journal, here at!

Traveling back to the 1980s, today I'll be talking about a lurid period piece directed by Stephen Frears, based on a play, which was in turn based on a 1782 French novel, Dangerous Liaisons.  Starring Glenn Close, John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer, and two young up-and-comers named Uma Thurman and Keanu Reeves, Dangerous Liaisons is the tale of a former couple whose only pleasure in life is derived from sleeping around and destroying lives.  Glenn Close's character the Marquise de Merteuil is out for revenge against her ex, who left her for a young virgin he intends to marry (Thurman).  She enlists Vicomte de Valmont (Malkovich) to seduce the young girl and ruin the reputations of both her and her fiance.  But Valmont has designs on someone else, Marie de Tourvel, the devoutly religious wife of a member of Parliament; to him the young virgin isn't a challenge, but a chaste married woman is a worthy conquest.  The two schemers enter into an arrangement - if Valmont can produce written proof that he's seduced Marie, the Marquise will agree to sleep with him.  Thus begins this saga of malevolence and deception, as Valmont seduces not only Madame de Tourvel, but also the young virgin, while the Marquise gets her claws into the virgin's young lover, Le Chevalier Danceny (Reeves).  The philandering and strumpetry are on full display from these two awful people.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Oscar Film Journal: An American in Paris (1951)

Time for another entry in the ol' Oscar Film Journal!

We're going back to the 1950s today to talk about the delightful musical romp featuring Gene Kelly, An American in Paris.  The Best Picture winner for 1951 (one of several awards the film took home) tells the story of three friends - a struggling painter (Kelly) who catches the eye of a wealthy socialite, both for his art and his good looks; a struggling pianist (Oscar Levant) who's given up on love, throwing himself into writing the great piano concerto; and a famous singer (Georges Guetary), who's just begun a relationship with a sweet French girl he intends to marry.  Things get complicated though when the Gene Kelly character spots this very French girl in a nightclub and falls instantly in love with her.  He pursues her relentlessly, and while she strongly rebuffs him at first, he manages to charm her and they begin a secret affair.  But she hides her relationship with the singer from him, and he begins to suspect something is amiss.  At the same time the painter is torn between the young girl and the older wealthy art collector, who promises to advance his art career.  This love quadrangle forms the basis of the shoestring plot, more an exercise in style than storytelling.   

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Oscar Film Journal: The Piano (1993)

Welcome to another Oscar Film Journal entry, here at!

Today we travel back to that grand ol' decade known as the 90s, for a film so Oscar-baity it could very well be the poster child for what general audiences think of overly artsy art films.  I'm talking about Jane Campion's 1993 opus The Piano, starring Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel, Anna Paquin, and Sam Neill.  Set in the 1800s, The Piano is about a mute woman, Ada, whose father sells her into marriage, transplanting her and her young daughter Flora from Scotland to New Zealand so she can be the wife of a settler.  Played by Sam Neill, the husband Alisdair is cold and unsympathetic, expecting Ada will eventually come around to loving him.  But aside from sign language, Ada's only true means of communication is through her piano playing, and despite having transported her instrument all the way from Scotland, the husband tells her he has no room for it.  Instead his neighbor George (Harvey Keitel) acquires it in exchange for some land, and asks Alisdair that Ada visit him once a day to teach him to play it.  What follows from George and Ada's association is an awkward, unlikely romance, wherein George offers to sell the piano back to her one key at a time for daily moments of affection.  But after a few weeks he realizes he has genuine romantic feelings for her and can't continue the arrangement.  Upon being cut off from George, Ada in turn realizes she also has feelings for him.  The rest of the story plays out as a love triangle of sorts, with Alisdair continually trying to connect with Ada to no avail, as Ada's daughter begins throwing wrenches in her relationship with George.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Oscar Film Journal: Sound of Metal (2020)

Welcome to another Oscar Film Journal entry, here at!

Today I'll be talking about one of this year's Best Picture nominees (Hey look at that, I'm topical for once!), the intimate, poignant drama Sound of Metal, starring Riz Ahmed as a drummer who loses his hearing and has to essentially start his life over.  Directed by Darius Marder in his feature film debut, Sound of Metal opens on Ruben, the drummer of a metal duo called Blackgammon.  His girlfriend Lou is the band's singer/guitarist, and the pair lives in a mobile home, touring the country from club to club.  Blackgammon seems to be gaining traction, as we see them on the cover of numerous metal magazines and their trailer is full of expensive recording equipment.  But then one day Ruben's hearing suddenly becomes a garbled hum and he can't make out people's words or hear music properly.  After some tests, a doctor informs him he's lost 70-80% of his hearing and it will quickly get worse.  His options are to quit music altogether and try to preserve what's left, or have cochlear implants put in, a surgery that will cost anywhere from $40-80k.  Lou, fearing the former heroin addict Ruben will relapse, convinces him to check into a halfway house for the hearing impaired.  It's here that the bulk of the film takes place, as Ruben learns how to live with his deafness and connects with the other members of his new community.  

Along with its central performances, Sound of Metal is an exercise in restraint.  This material could've easily lent itself to melodramatic After-School Special excess but Marder wisely keeps things understated and internalized.  Riz Ahmed does so much acting with his eyes I think each of them should've earned their own Oscar nod.  His performance is tragic but not in the way you'd expect; Ruben hides behind a wall of metal guy machismo (As a metal musician myself I can relate), working hard to convince everyone around him he's got this, as if to convince himself.  In the film's third act he's faced with an austere, disheartening finality, and again Ahmed conveys most of Ruben's regret non-verbally.  This is sure to be his starmaking performance.  

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Oscar Film Journal: The Aviator (2004)

Welcome to another Oscar Film Journal entry, here at!  Oscar season is in full swing, so stay tuned for this year's predictions with my colleague Mike Drinan, who usually kicks my ass at prognostication....

Today's entry is a relatively recent one, and by recent I mean it was released this century (The fact that 2004 was already 17 years ago makes me feel old AF).  It's Martin Scorsese's epic biopic The Aviator, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as eccentric billionaire/filmmaker/aviation engineer Howard Hughes.  The second of five (so far) Scorsese/DiCaprio collaborations, The Aviator chronicles Hughes' rise to worldwide fame and the beginning/middle of his descent into OCD-triggered paranoia and reclusion.  Hughes took Hollywood by storm in the late 20s/early 30s with films like his World War I epic Hell's Angels (at that point the most expensive film ever made due to both its spectacular flight sequences and the fact that he reshot much of it when talkies burst on the scene), and Scarface (considered incredibly violent for 1932 and the inspiration for the 1983 Pacino film).  His perfectionism and penchant for overspending on his projects made him both the talk of the town and the scourge of both major industries in which he worked.  After becoming a successful director-producer he leaned more into aviation, designing and building planes for private companies and the US government, and eventually buying TWA.  In the 30s and 40s he ran afoul of Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin), president of PanAm Airlines with designs on monopolizing international air travel, to the point that he'd purchased a US Senator, Maine Republican Owen Brewster (a slimy Alan Alda).  Brewster's strategy for ruining Hughes was to publicly accuse him of war profiteering and hope that the bad press would bankrupt TWA and clear the road for Trippe, but of course things didn't go Brewster's way.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Oscar Film Journal: High Noon (1952)

Welcome back to the Oscar Film Journal here at, where I review an old Best Picture nominee through my 2021 lens.

Today I'll be talking about the 1952 classic Western, High Noon, starring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly.  Very unconventional for its time, High Noon is a simple tale about a retiring town Marshal who must singlehandedly protect his town from a dangerous outlaw returning from prison.  The newly married Marshal Kane, who planned to hang up his gun and badge, learns on his wedding day that Frank Miller (wait, the comic book writer??), a savage murderer he sent to prison, is returning via the noon train and rightly assumes Miller's gang will try to take revenge on him and his new bride.  Rather than have the bad guys follow him to his new home, Kane opts to remain a Marshal for one more day and deal with Miller's gang before going off to start his new life.  After his deputy Harvey Pell walks off the job due to resentment over not being named Kane's successor, Kane attempts to deputize numerous townspeople to help him fend off the coming attack.  

The film plays out in real time, Miller's imminent arrival hanging over the film like a death shroud as Kane scrambles to come up with a plan, while his new wife, a pacifist Quaker, refuses to stay.  Cooper plays Kane as an deeply uncertain lawman, knowing he's doing the right thing but often ineffectual in his execution.  Kane is unable to convince the townspeople to stand up to the outlaws; most of them just want him to leave so Miller's gang will spare the town.  A few men offer to help, but one is missing an eye and is far too old to be of use, another is a young teenager, and the one able-bodied adult who stands by Kane balks upon learning he's the only volunteer.  Everyone else tries to talk Kane out of his impending showdown, and the film becomes something of a parable about a respected leader struggling to find a balance between what is right and what is popular, the old mob mentality issue.  

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Oscar Film Journal: Moonstruck (1987)

Welcome to another entry in the Oscar Film Journal, here at!  Only about six weeks till this year's awards, I better pick up the pace....

Today we take a trip to the 1980s for Norman Jewison's critically acclaimed romantic comedy Moonstruck, starring Cher, Nicolas Cage, Olympia Dukakis, Vincent Gardenia and Danny Aiello.  This ensemble piece takes place primarily in an Italian-American Brooklyn neighborhood, over the course of a few days.  Cher plays Loretta Castorini, a widow whose current beau Johnny (Danny Aiello) has just proposed to her before flying to Sicily to tend to his dying mother.  Johnny asks Loretta to seek out his estranged brother Ronny and convince him to attend their wedding, but Loretta and Ronny are instantly and passionately attracted to each other, beginning a torrid affair.  Loretta isn't the only one in her family engaging in extracurricular activities however; her father Cosmo has a girlfriend, something her mother has long suspected.  The film weaves in and out of these main romantic threads but also depicts Loretta's aunt and uncle as an elderly couple who still burn for each other, as well as teasing a romance for Loretta's mother Rose when she meets a middle aged college professor (John Mahoney) who can't help chasing after his female students.

I must say given the universal praise this movie garnered (plus six Oscar nods, all of them major) I was a little underwhelmed by it.  The highlights for me were Cher's performance as Loretta, reluctant to ever fall in love again after losing her first husband, yet subconsciously yearning for real passion, something Johnny doesn't provide; and Olympia Dukakis as Rose, certain her husband is cheating but incapable of doing the same to him, or of even leaving him.  Her immediate response upon learning of Loretta's engagement is "Do you love him?"  "No."  "Good.  When you love them they drive you crazy because they know they can."  That line reveals much more about Rose than we realize at first; being in love with another person on some level makes you powerless over them.  

Thursday, March 4, 2021

Oscar Film Journal: Rebecca (1940)

Welcome to another entry in the Oscar Film Journal!  We're about a month and a half out from the 93rd Academy Awards and I'm attempting to watch as many Best Picture nominees of years past as I can before then....

Today I'll be talking about Alfred Hitchcock's first US-produced film, the psychological thriller/gothic romance known as Rebecca, starring Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine and Judith Anderson.  Released in 1940 and based on the best-selling novel, Rebecca is about a young woman who marries an affluent widower after a whirlwind romance and moves into his palatial estate, only to find that she has trouble filling the shoes of his apparently beloved first wife, the titular Rebecca.  The Second Mrs. de Winter, as she's known in the story, comes from modest means and finds herself unable to adjust to this lavish new lifestyle, further exacerbated by a menacing housekeeper named Mrs. Danvers, who remains dutifully loyal to Rebecca and thus resents this new bride trying to replace her.  As the story progresses we learn that things are not quite as they seem - Mr. de Winter is very secretive about his past life, and new information about Rebecca's death threatens to fling the newly married couple's lives into disarray.

Rebecca marked the first and only time Hitchcock worked with famed producer David O. Selznick, a partnership marred by intense creative strife between the two strong-headed film auteurs.  Hitchcock wrote the first draft of the screenplay, changing much of the story details from the novel, believing that a film director should take liberal artistic license in adapting a previous work.  Selznick refused to make any major changes, insisting that audiences would want to see the popular novel faithfully translated to the screen.  In the end Selznick got his way, and the film was a major commercial and critical success, garnering an astonishing eleven Oscar nominations and winning Best Picture and Best Black & White Cinematography.  

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Oscar Film Journal: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)

Welcome back to the Oscar Film Journal, here at, where I review an old Best Picture nominee in preparation for this year's delayed ceremony!

Today's entry is another Tennessee Williams adaptation, the classic 1958 family drama Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman and Burl Ives.  Directed by Richard Brooks from a screenplay by Brooks and James Poe, the film version of COAHTR was met with disappointment from its stage creator, after revisions made necessary by the oppressive Hays Code whitewashed some of Williams' themes.  In the play version the Paul Newman character Brick had a close friendship with a male friend named Skipper that veered into romantic attachment, and Skipper committed suicide after Brick rebuffed his sexual advances.  In the film this was reduced to a vague, euphemistic exchange where Skipper was simply depressed and reached out to Brick for help, but Brick turned his back on him.  

Regardless of ill-conceived 1950s forms of censorship though, COAHTR is an emotionally intense, superbly acted drama depicting a family implosion.  The setting is a large southern plantation house owned by Harvey "Big Daddy" Pollitt (a gruff, foul-mouthed, self-important Burl Ives in a major departure from Sam the Snowman, the only role I'd previously seen of his).  Big Daddy is home from the hospital after being tested for cancer, apparently having been given a clean bill of health (later revealed to be a lie).  But during his absence his son Gooper and daughter-in-law Mae have been planning to cut out of the eventual inheritance his other son Brick, a former football star turned drunk, whose estranged wife Maggie sees through Gooper and Mae's machinations.  Throughout the film we learn of the strained relationships between all the characters.  Brick believes Maggie cheated on him with his best friend Skipper, but has agreed to stay in a loveless marriage with her out of convenience.  Maggie is more attracted to Brick than ever but he refuses to show her any affection.  Gooper and Mae resent Brick for being Big Daddy's favorite son.  Big Daddy hasn't been in love with his wife Ida in decades.  All of this comes boiling to the surface over the course of an evening, with potent results.

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Oscar Film Journal: The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

Welcome to another entry in the Oscar Film Journal, here at

Today's installment is the first color film I've reviewed for this series, the 1938 swashbuckler starring Errol Flynn in his most famous role, The Adventures of Robin Hood.  Produced by Warner Brothers for an at-the-time staggering $2 million as their first big Technicolor film, Robin Hood is the most influential of all the legend's adaptations.  From Looney Tunes to Disney to Mel Brooks, this film and its visual aesthetic has been imitated and parodied countless times over the decades, and it stands as a delightful, stirring romp of an adventure film.

Flynn was actually the studio's second choice to play the character for which he'd become a household name; the part was originally slated for James Cagney (almost impossible to imagine now), but Cagney inexplicably walked off the project.  Starring alongside Flynn were Olivia de Havilland as Maid Marian, who slowly devlops feelings for Robin Hood despite him being "the enemy," Basil Rathbone as the overbearing Guy of Gisbourne, and Claude Rains as the cowardly Prince John.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Oscar Film Journal: Gaslight (1944)

Welcome to another installment in the Oscar Film Journal, here at!

Today's film is steeped in psychological torment and paranoia, and its title has become, especially in recent years, part of our lexicon.  In fact its core subject matter is perhaps as relevant as ever, in this age of post-truth and disinformation.  I'm talking about the 1944 thriller Gaslight, starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer.

Based on a 1938 play and a 1940 British film (In its arrogance MGM tried to have all copies of that version destroyed prior to this film's release - rather ironic considering the topic), Gaslight concerns a woman whose husband systematically breaks her down mentally and emotionally, to the point that she believes she's going insane.  Its depiction of a psychologically abusive relationship was so potent that it gave birth to the term "gaslighting," meaning to lie to and abuse one's partner so thoroughly they doubt their own reality and accept the one you've created for them.  

The film begins with the aftermath of a murder; a famous opera singer has been killed in her London home and her 14-year-old niece Paula is sent to Italy.  There as a voice student she meets a charming pianist and the two have a whirlwind romance culminating in their hasty wedding.  Her new husband Gregory talks her into moving back to London, into the house Paula's aunt bequeathed to her.  From there it's obvious there's more to Gregory than meets the eye, as he reacts violently to one of the aunt's fan letters (specifically the name of its author) and accuses Paula when small objects begin to go missing around the house.  He hires a new maid (18-year-old Angela Lansbury in a pretty great supporting turn) who clearly seems to be in his pocket, passively aggressively antagonizing the lady of the house at every turn, and begins isolating his wife from the outside world under the pretense of her "not being well."  Every night Gregory goes out to "work" while Paula is locked in her bedroom, and she sees the gaslight dim as if someone elsewhere in the house turned on another, and hears noises from a supposedly boarded room upstairs.  All the while a Scotland Yard detective (an always engaging Joseph Cotten) recognizes Paula as a relative of the deceased aunt and decides to reopen the unsolved murder case.

Oscar Film Journal: Mildred Pierce (1945)

It's time for another entry in the Oscar Film Journal!

I'm back with another Joan Crawford vehicle, this one a film noir classic called Mildred Pierce.  Based on the 1941 novel but revamped as something of a murder mystery, the film kicks right off with the shooting death of Monte Beragon, a formerly wealthy California playboy, and the title character's second husband.  Immediately Mildred appears to be the prime suspect, as she lures a former friend and business associate back to the scene of the crime and locks him in the house for the police to find.  Numerous suspects are brought back to the station for questioning, including Mildred's first husband Bert, whom she insists is innocent.  We then begin a long series of flashbacks as Mildred explains her backstory.  

Mildred and Bert are on the outs and financially strapped after Bert quits his real estate job.  The couple separate and Mildred takes a waitressing gig to support her two daughters (The elder, Veda, is obsessed with status and ashamed that her mother waits tables for a living).  Mildred immerses herself in the restaurant business and decides to open her own establishment, consulting with Bert's old business partner Wally Fay to help her negotiate with the site's property owner Monte Beragon.  The new restaurant takes off and becomes a chain, meanwhile Mildred and Monte begin a romance and later marry (out of convenience rather than love).  Veda secretly marries a rich boy and extorts him for money, showing a pattern of malignant materialism that drives a wedge between her and Mildred.  Ultimately after supporting both Monte and Veda for years, Mildred is financially ruined and has to sell her business, a deal co-brokered by Monte and Wally (hence her attempt to frame Wally for Monte's murder).  I won't spoil the ending here but suffice it to say that Mildred is one of numerous characters with a clear motive to murder.