Starring: Geza Morcsanyi (Endre), Alexandra Borbely (Maria).
Oscar nomination: Best Foreign Language Film
Where to watch: Streaming on Netflix
The country of Hungary is riding a hot streak at the Oscars in recent years. The powerful Holocaust film Son of Saul won in this category just two years ago. And last year, the Hungarian short Sing, a sweet film about a children’s school choir, won in the Live Action Short category.
This year Hungary is represented again in the foreign language category with On Body and Soul. This movie introduces us to Endre, the CFO of a slaughterhouse. He is good at his job, respected by his workers, but seems to live an empty existence. Endre (played by Geza Morcsanyi) has one of those faces that is a road map of his life; every wrong turn, every bad decision is written in the creases. A new quality control expert begins working at the slaugtherhouse. Maria (played by Alexandra Borbely) has an almost angelic, ethereal quality about her. She is strikingly beautiful, which gets everyone’s attention. But she also appears to have Asperger’s syndrome, or something which places her on the autistic spectrum. She is very intelligent, but lacks simple social skills. Even navigating a mundane lunchroom conversation is beyond her.
We see her at home, using Lego characters to replay and re-imagine interactions in the workplace. After a workplace theft, a psychologist is brought in to interview the entire staff. One of the psychologist’s questions is about dreams. Endre and Maria separately narrate an identical dream. Both dream that they are one of a pair of deer in a forest. The psychologist thinks they are playing her for a fool and confronts them. Soon Endre and Maria begin an awkward, unconventional courtship. Could they be having the same dreams? Are they meeting in their dreams?
One could call this a romance, but it does not follow a conventional path. The film takes it time, giving the viewer the opportunity to discover details along the way. What makes the film a pleasure to watch is the power of the two lead performances. I had imagined that Morcsanyi must be a veteran Hungarian actor, with dozens of films to his credit. Lo and behold, this is the Hungarian playwright and professor’s feature film debut, at the age of 65. Equally impressive is Borbely’s performance as Maria. She manages to inhabit the character in a way that is believable, and never slips into caricature.
There are a couple of scenes that some viewers may find disturbing. The movie is set in a slaughterhouse, and some scenes were clearly shot in a working slaughterhouse, with very real animals being killed and carved. The scenes are brief but clearly real.
Another memorable scene shifts tone from gruesomely uncomfortable to awkwardly funny in a way I’ve never quite experienced in a movie before. This is not a perfect film, but it is a memorable one. The love story of Endre and Maria will stay with me for some time. Like our best dreams, it is not fully formed, but has a power beneath the surface that lingers after waking.
Starring: Robert Julaczyk (Vincent van Gogh), Douglas Booth (Armand Roulin), Chris O’Dowd (Postman Roulin), Jerome Flynn (Dr. Gachet), Saoirse Ronan (Marguerite Gachet), Helen McCrory (Louise Chevalier), John Sessions (Pere Tanguy).
Oscar nomination: Best Animated Feature
Where to watch: Limited theatrical release, streaming on Amazon
When a movie opens with a title card explaining to the viewer how unique and special it is, I am immediately leery. Oh, brother! In this case, we are told that this is the first completely painted movie ever made. Each frame was painted with oil on canvas; it took a team of over 100 painters to create the 65,000 images in the film. In retrospect, I’m glad they did give us this information up front. Fortunately, the film is in no way gimmicky. It is a surprisingly rich and powerful story.
The movie is based primarily on the later years of the famous post-impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh. The movie opens a year after van Gogh’s death, with an unopened letter that Vincent wrote to his brother Theo. Vincent’s old postman, Joseph Roulin, asks his son Armand to return the letter to Theo. And this is the beginning of a great journey, that will send Armand first to Paris, and then to Auver-sur-Oise, where van Gogh lived out his last days, and ultimately where he died.
Along the way Armand will talk with several people, who fill in gaps in van Gogh’s past. We meet van Gogh in several flashbacks, which are painted and filmed in a start black and white. Armand’s feelings about van Gogh shift as he uncovers more about the past. There is also a mystery surrounding van Gogh’s suicide (or was it murder?) which takes a prominent place in the story.
All of the main characters in the film are based on historical people, many of whom were painted by Vincent at some point. The actors in the movie did not just provide their voices; they were filmed practically, and later each image was painted over individually. It is possible to recognize Chris O’Dowd’s face behind Postman Roulin’s great beard, and Saorise Ronan is instantly recognizable as Marguerite Gachet, a young girl who befriended Vincent in his last year.
Film making is well into its second century now, and it is refreshing to see this joint Polish-British venture find a new way to tell a story visually. If you are a fan of van Gogh, or of his style of painting, then this film is an absolute must-see. It is rather like spending ninety minutes inhabiting a van Gogh painting. Or better yet, seeing the world with his unique vision. Many of the scenes recreate specific paintings. But you don’t have to be an habitue of art galleries to enjoy this movie. The story is well developed and told, the talent is strong, and the visuals unique.
Armand’s journey through the film is ultimately frustrating on some levels. He is unable to deliver the unopened letter to Theo, who died just a few months after his brother. And Armand is left with more questions than answers, as indeed is the viewer. There are many specific details about Vincent van Gogh’s last days that we will never know. But he certainly gave us plenty of detail, in his hundreds of paintings. He left it all there, the pain and the beauty. Shouldn’t that be enough?
Documentary short features can be one of the most powerful forms of cinema. Imagine wanting to tell a real story, that is original and captivating. Now imagine doing so in 40 minutes or less. All of the dross must be snipped away, until you are left with something that shines. I suppose it’s a similar narrative challenge to short story writing.
This short film centers on the town of Huntington, West Virginia, known as the overdose capital of America. The city averages over ten overdoses a day.
The movie views the epidemic through the eyes of three women who are giving everything they have to make a difference. These women are Jan Rader (the first woman fire chief in West Virginia history), Judge Patricia Keller (who oversees “drug court”) and Necia Freeman (who runs a ministry for women on the street).
Necia drives around at night, handing out food and hygiene supplies, helping women to get into a shelter, or a treatment program. Judge Keller treats everyone in her court equally. She can be tender, she can be tough. But the addicts have to be willing to work towards change. And Chief Rader responds to calls, overdose after overdose, day after day.
This movie is not intended in any way as an in-depth look at the drug crisis. It doesn’t attempt to explain it, or offer widespread solutions. This is a much more simple, human story, a look at three women who are living with the stuggle every single day, and are trying to save lives, one person at a time.
Starring: Fionn Whitehead (Tommy), Kenneth Branagh (Commander Bolton), Mark Rylance (Mr. Dawson), Tom Hardy (Farrier), Cillian Murphy (Shivering Soldier), Harry Styles (Alex), James D’Arcy (Colonel Winnant), Barry Keoghan (George Mills).
Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Music Score, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Production Design.
Where to watch: Blu ray or DVD, streaming on Google Play.
Dunkirk (n) 1. a seaport in northern France 2. site of an amphibious evacuation, when over 300,000 British troops were evacuated while under enemy fire 3. a crisis in which a desperate effort is the only alternative to defeat.
As you can see from the dictionary definition, Dunkirk began as a geographic location. Then it became known as the site of one of the greatest evacuations in human history. Then it became something more, something that perfectly encompasses the British demeanor of courage under fire. Christopher Nolan’s movie encapsulates all three meanings, in one tense, gripping film.
The movie doesn’t build tension, it begins with it. There is some text, providing very basic detail: In the early days of World War II, the Germans have pushed through France, backing the British up to the sea. Trapped there in Dunkirk, they await the arrival of ships to evacuate them.
Nolan decided to tell the story in a very original way. There are three different narrative threads: one on land, one on the sea, and one in the air. They each cover a different period of time: one week, one day, and one hour respectively. On paper this sounds tricky to pull off, or perhaps a bit gimmicky. But it works to perfection. The movie cuts from story to story, and we never lose sight of what we are seeing or who we are following. Sometimes the threads of the narratives overlap, or come together.
On the land we see most of the action through the eyes of young private Tommy (played by newcomer Fionn Whitehead), who is justifiably frightened out of his wits, and wants to get on a ship as soon as possible. He meets up with another young soldier, a mystery man who may be hiding a secret, and their plans to sneak on a boat go from bad to worse.
On the sea, we follow one of the “little ships”, as they were affectionately called. Britain put out the call to all willing private vessels to cross the channel and assist in the evacuation of soldiers. Over 800 ships answered that call. In the movie we follow the Moonstone, piloted by a middle-aged Mr. Dawson, accompanied by his young son and another young man. Mark Rylance brings a quiet self-assurance to his portrayal of Dawson. He is the perfect actor for this role, for he is representative of all of the little ship owners, who crossed the channel into a war zone because it was the right thing to do.
In the air, we follow Tom Hardy as Farrier, the pilot of a British Spitfire. Farrier never loses his cool, even when engaged in a dogfight with an enemy plane. The aerial photography in this movie is some of the best ever captured on film. The entire movie was shot in large format, either 65 or 70 mm, and the aerial scenes in particular look glorious.
Eventually all three story lines will meet up, in time and space, bringing some of the now-familiar characters together. Technically, every aspect of this movie is near-flawless. Christopher Nolan eschews digital effects, and shoots as much as he can practically. This adds to the realism of the film, which is almost unbearably tense. I can’t recall a single other film I’ve seen which began with the tension this high, and then just kept increasing it. The film score has a ticking clock sound, and the music itself has a metronomic quality which never lets the viewer forget that time is passing, that something is imminent.
When I saw this movie the first time in the theater, I thought it had the best sound quality of any movie I’d ever seen. That holds up on the home theater as well. The editing works flawlessly with the score, as the camera cuts from one story line to another, without ever confusing the viewer. I think this movie may have the least amount of dialogue of any major film in quite some time. It is so visceral that little dialogue is needed. When words are needed, they are brief and to the point. Kenneth Brannagh as Commander Bolton gets to deliver some of the most memorable.
On the surface, the Dunkirk evacuation is about a failure, not a success. Hundreds of thousands of British soldiers fleeing from the enemy and abandoning the French. But of course, it was so much more than that. Those same British soldiers would live to fight on, and many would give their lives in the years to come as Europe was reclaimed from the Axis armies, foot by foot, inch by inch. Had the British not succeeded in getting off the beaches at Dunkirk, the war could have taken a very different turn. We all owe a debt of gratitude to those men, who stood there watching, waiting for a ship. And a particular debt goes to those people who got into their fishing trawlers and pleasure cruisers on the English coast, not because they had to, but because they were asked.
So every year I try to watch all Oscar-nominated movies in every category. It’s a tradition I started with my son Kevin several years ago. It has deepened our appreciation of movies. This year I will review all nominated films leading up to the Oscar ceremony on March 4, 2018.
Some of the most powerful, and memorable movie moments I have experienced in recent years have come from movies nominated in the documentary feature category, so I have decided to start with a film from that category.
Many of us heard the news, announced in December, that all Russian athletes are banned from competition in the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. This movie explains not only how the Russians beat the anti-doping testers at the Sochi winter games, but details decades of state-sponsored doping of Russian athletes.
Funnily enough, the movie started out as something completely different. Director Bryan Fogel set out to make a movie about doping, focusing on the world of cycling. Fogel has been an amateur cyclist and cycling enthusiast since childhood. The downfall of Lance Armstrong was a personal blow to Fogel, as it was to many fans of the sport. So he set out to demonstrate how easy it could be to use banned substances in the cycling world.
Fogel participated in the most challenging amateur bike race in the world, the Haute Route. The course is grueling, covering 500 miles in seven days, with an astonishing 65,000 feet of climbing through the French Alps. Fogel was no slouch, finishing 14th in a field of over 400.
The movie demonstrates how he plans to institute a doping regimen, to improve his position in the next year’s race. He is put in touch with Grigory Rodchenkov, the man who runs Russia’s anti-doping laboratory, and this is where the movie really takes off.
Fogel is put on a regimen of banned substances. Rodchenkov gives him detailed instructions, telling him to begin saving pee samples and freezing them. Rodchenkov then comes to the US, meets with Fogel, and smuggles the pee samples back to Russia, where he will begin the process of “cleaning” them.
It is right at this time that the first wave of the doping scandal breaks. A documentary airs on German TV, alleging systematic doping of Russian athletes. Rodchenkov is asked to resign his post. He comes to the US, fearing for his safety in Russia. He talks openly, first to Bryan Fogel, and later to the New York Times. And he drops a pretty big bombshell, admitting that virtually every Russian athlete at the winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia was doping. He explains how “dirty” urine samples were swapped for clean on a daily basis during the games, how supposedly tamper-proof bottles were indeed tampered with. There is a lot of pee talk in this movie. I can’t recall any other movie in which urine was such a major plot point.
Rodchenkov alleges that not only were Vladimir Putin and other high-ranking officials aware of the doping, but they officially sanctioned it. Other officials involved include Minister of Sport Vitaly Mutko (a man with arguably the worst hair ever, in a country with a history of bad hair.) A friend and colleague of Rodchenkov dies suddenly, under questionable circumstances. Any student of recent Russian history will see a common thread at play here. Putin has left a trail of questionable deaths in his wake for decades.
The movie gets off to a slow start, but is very engaging. The key to the movie’s success is the unfettered access to Rodchenkov. He is a fascinating guy. Here is a man who was supposed to be running one of the most highly respected anti-doping laboratories in the world, and yet he was doing precisely the opposite.
Early in the movie, Rodchenkov struts around with cocky self-assurance, making jokes. In later scenes, after he has fled to the US, it is clear he is shaken. Fogel presents him in a very sympathetic light, and I’m not quite sure how I feel about that. Fogel mentions how Rodchenkov had to leave his wife and children behind in Russia. Leave is one word you could use. Abandon is another one that comes to mind. Granted, were he to travel back to Russia now that would be a death sentence. But he was quick to fly out when the scandal broke. Couldn’t he have made arrangements for his family to get over the border? Their passports have been confiscated now, so they have in effect been sentenced for the crimes that he committed. I don’t want to minimize the risks that Rodchenkov took in speaking out, but I do feel like his family got a very raw deal.
Another major thread in the movie is George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece 1984. The book was banned in the USSR, for obvious reasons. When Rodchenkov got his hands on a copy in 1989, it was an eye opener. He realized that it described in exact detail how things were in Russia. He used it as a sort of primer, a way of reconciling how he could be both the doper and anti-doper at the same time. These elements give an added layer to the film, and help it find structure. This movie works best as a character study, and Grigory Rodchenkov is definitely an interesting character.
It would be nice to think that the uncovering of this massive scandal will bring about change. But as long as athletes compete, there will always be a handful who will do anything to obtain an advantage. And as long as men like Putin are in power, endemic corruption will be the status quo. With a new Olympic games about to start, one hopes the Olympic Oath will be honored in good faith by all.
Starring Ray Milland (Roderick Fitzgerald), Ruth Hussey (Pamela Fitzgerald), Gail Russell (Stella Meredith), Donald Crisp (Commander Beech), Alan Napier (Dr. Scott), Cornelia Otis Skinner (Miss Holloway).
Cinematography by Charles B. Lang
Music by Victor Young
Where to watch: Criterion Collection blu-ray, released in 2013.
(As I write this, it’s early October, so I thought it would be fun to take a look at a few “scary” movies. I’m going to wander in the cemetery of forgotten films and see what I can dig up!)
In the rather lighthearted opening scenes of this movie, we are introduced to a man, a woman, and a dog. The man and woman are siblings Roderick and Pamela Fitzgerald, vacationing in an English coastal village. Their dog chases a squirrel into a large, abandoned house, and they follow along. They immediately fall in love with the house, and impulsively decide to buy it.
The owner, an older man named Commander Beech, seems all too ready to part with the house, although his granddaughter Stella objects to the sale. She was born in the house, and feels a strange connection to it.
Soon enough, brother and sister move into the house, and all is well for a short time. Well, except for the small matter that the dog won’t go upstairs. And the upstairs room that composer Roderick plans to use to write music? There is an eerie, unearthly quality on display in this room. It is always cold, even though there are large windows admitting lots of light. Anyone who spends a moment in this room finds their mood turning melancholy for no reason. Then, brother and sister are awoken by loud, pitiful, heart wrenching sobbing and crying, which can’t be located in the house. “It’s everywhere and nowhere” says sister Pamela (Ruth Hussey). The crying always disappears at dawn.
Stella Meredith (Gail Russell) the young woman who so objected to the sale of the house, meets Roderick in the village, and fills him in on some of the backstory on the house. Stella’s mother died at the house, in a fall from a cliff. There is a rumor that Stella’s father, a painter, was having an affair with a model, and this may have contributed to the plummet from the cliff.
So who is haunting the house then, Stella’s mother? And if so, why is she a malevolent spirit, even towards her own daughter? Maybe the model is responsible for the haunting. As the movie progresses, the story about what really happened at this house will change, grow and expand more than once. Ultimately, this story isn’t really about who is haunting whom. It’s about character and atmosphere.
This is one of the first Hollywood films to deal with the idea of ghosts in a mature way. This was not a comedy; the spirit would not be discovered as a fake in the final moments; and the effects are not cheap. Most of the elements of the haunting are portrayed through acting and atmosphere alone. First time Hollywood director Lewis Allen would have preferred to have no visible ghost at all, but Paramount insisted, so he created an effect that is simple, subtle, and believable.
Much credit is to be given to Oscar-nominated cinematographer Charles Lang, Jr., and the haunting score of Victor Young (more on that in a moment), for filling this movie with a palpable energy and intensity.
The performances are great throughout. In addition to Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey, we have Donald Crisp as the crotchety Commander Beech, who seems to be hiding a secret. The always charming Alan Napier turns up as Dr. Scott, the village doctor who tries to help Stella and the Fitzgeralds get to the bottom of the haunting. Napier will forever be remembered as Alfred from TV’s Batman, but he was a stalwart character actor for half a century, with over a hundred film and TV credits to his name. Cornelia Otis Skinner turns up in a small but powerful role as Miss Holloway, a doctor who claims to want to help Stella but seems to have other motives. Her affinity for Stella’s departed mother deliberately evokes the way Miss Danvers felt for Rebecca in the Daphne du Maurier novel. It is pretty clear that Miss Holloway felt more than mere friendship for the late Mrs. Meredith. And finally we come to Gail Russell.
Gail was interested in art at a young age; she enjoyed both painting and sketching. She was signed to a contract at Paramount based on her looks alone, despite having no acting experience, or any interest in acting. One look at her and it’s easy to see why Paramount was willing to put her under contract. Gail has an ethereal beauty, with large expressive eyes. She was never comfortable in front of the camera however, always doubting her own abilities. This is a real shame, because her performance in this movie is wonderful. She was only 19 at the time of filming, in a role that requires a display of the full range of human emotion.
Gail took to drinking to steady her nerves, and basically never stopped. She would act again, off and on. She would also be in the papers as much for her displays of public drunkenness as for her acting. She died at the unbelievably young age of 36, of liver damage from chronic alcoholism.
At one point in the film, Ray Milland’s character sits at the piano and plays a song he has composed for Gail Russell’s Stella Meredith. He calls the song “To Stella by Starlight.” Victor Young’s musical composition here is simply exquisite. Little did he know that he was writing a song for the ages. Because “Stella by Starlight” would become one of the most recorded jazz standards of all time. There are literally hundreds of versions of the song, recorded by a who’s who of jazz greats. Everyone from Charlie Parker, to Miles Davis, to Ella Fitzgerald, to Stan Getz, to Chet Baker, to Frank Sinatra have serenaded Stella.
This movie is not a “scary” movie by any stretch, certainly not by today’s standards. But it is powerful, haunting, and unforgettable. And yet, more so even than the power of the movie, it is the ghost of a song, and the ghost of a girl, that haunt this viewer the most.
There is a rumor that Gail Russell used to call a Los Angeles radio station and anonymously request “Stella by Starlight.” One DJ even claims that she called on the evening of August 25, 1961, the night of her death.
I like to imagine that every time someone plays “Stella by Starlight”, it is offered up as a prayer to Gail Russell; hundreds, thousands of prayers drifting into the night. It isn’t that you weren’t good enough, dear Gail. Rather, you were too good. Too good for the Hollywood machine that consumed you. Too good for the studio men who just saw a beautiful girl and tried to reshape her, without ever thinking to ask what she wanted. We understand, Gail. We who sit in the dark, watching, listening, hanging on your every word. If only that had been enough.
Starring Thora Birch (Enid), Scarlett Johansson (Rebecca), Steve Buscemi (Seymour), Brad Renfro (Josh), Illeana Douglas (Roberta Allsworth), Bob Balaban (Enid’s Father).
Where to watch: Criterion Collection blu-ray, released in 2017
We’ve all known someone like Enid. Remember the self-proclaimed “outsider” in high school who spoke dismissively of everyone? The person who dressed with a seeming disregard for fashion, but simultaneously cultivated a look designed to attract attention? When someone ridicules Enid’s green hair and leather jacket, telling her that punk is over, she angrily says that she is not displaying copycat punk, but a genuine 70’s punk look. What’s the difference?
The movie begins with Enid (played by Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) graduating from high school. And they have a plan, of sorts. They will get jobs, and rent an apartment together. That is as far as their concept of “adulting” has taken them.
While looking at apartments in the classifieds, the girls see a missed connection ad, written by a man who helped a woman find her contact lens and believes they may have “had a moment.” Enid responds to the ad, pretending to be the woman in question and setting up a date at a retro diner called Wowsville. Enid and Rebecca show up at Wowsville to spy on the man and have a laugh at his expense. When he shows up in his prearranged green cardigan, Seymour (played to perfection by Steve Buscemi) is just as pathetic as they imagined he would be. But his growing discontent at his absent date becomes unbearable for the girls to watch.
What starts as a cruel joke leads to the friendship at the heart of the film, as Enid follows Seymour home, and finds in him a kindred spirit. Seymour is also an outsider, who claims he “can’t relate to 99% of humanity.” Enid claims that she will help Seymour find a woman, and they bond over the course of the movie.
While Rebecca begins to move on with her dream, getting a job and finding an apartment, Enid seems stuck. Those high school classmates that she looked on with such disdain? Perhaps she isn’t so ready to leave that world behind. Her feeling of confusion, of being trapped in the netherworld between childhood and adulthood (whatever that is) is captured perfectly. This movie does have a plot, and a story arc, but it is by no means a conventional film. The genius of this movie is in the little things, the small details, the background characters that inhabit this almost fairy-tale world.
At least Seymour is self-aware enough to realize his life could be better. He owns 1,500 vintage 78’s, having pared his collection down to “just the essentials.” But he understands that his passion for his hobby has helped to sequester him from the world. “You can’t connect with other people, so you fill your life with stuff” he tells Enid., a commentary not just on himself, but on consumer culture. The sad irony is that in helping Seymour to expand his horizons, Enid begins to lose him, much to her disappointment. After all, he is the one who gets it, who gets her. He can’t become one of “them.”
There is an underlying theme in the film that attacks not just consumerism in general, but the lack of authenticity in modern society, whether in the 50’s diner that plays innocuous 90’s electronic bubble gum pop, the aptly named band Blueshammer or Enid’s art teacher (the always wonderful Illeana Douglas) who isn’t so much concerned that art moves people as that it makes a “statement”, and any statement will do.
This is a movie about people whose lives are in stasis. Everyone is looking for a change, looking for the spark that will get them from here to there, wherever “there” may be. No one is more symbolic of this than Norman, an old man sitting on a bench every day at a decommissioned bus stop, waiting for a bus that will never come. Until it does. Maybe belief has to precede action.
The movie is based on a graphic novel by Daniel Clowes, and retains the emotional feel and overall aesthetic of the book, while expanding the story greatly. The performances in the film are wonderful throughout, not only in the main characters, but also those who show up for a scene or two, or inhabit the background. The late Brad Renfro has a good supporting role, as does the sublime Bob Balaban.
Ghost World is a movie that rewards multiple viewings. There are so many subtle details are that easily missed. Listen for the TV commercials, heard but never seen, for an oil company that cares about the environment. Or watch the background of the scene where Enid and Rebecca go apartment hunting. Did you see that young woman pass left to right, on screen for only a couple seconds? (Yes I meant the pregnant woman, smoking a cigarette and toting an open bottle of beer! ) I won’t disclose any more; I’ll leave it to you to find our own details.
It’s impossible to talk about this movie without mentioning the music. Most of the soundtrack consists of existing music rather than original scoring. And the director Terry Zwigoff assembled one of the most unique soundtracks ever created for film. The opening credits feature “Jaan Pehechan Ho” an Indian song from the 60’s movie Gumnaam, which is so infectious I couldn’t get it out of my head for days. The bulk of the film features music from the 1930’s, early blues and Lionel Belasco instrumentals which fit so perfectly, it’s as if they were written expressly for the movie.
This is a movie that takes chances; it mixes tone, it doesn’t follow a conventional story line, and it has an ambiguous ending. That can be a recipe for disaster if it doesn’t work. In this case, everything works perfectly. I love this movie. I love every single minute that I inhabit this world, and I’m sad when I leave it.
Some people see the ending of the movie as a pretty dark and final metaphor. I guess it depends on what you bring to it, but I think this misses the overall tone of the film. Enid ultimately wreaks havoc on the life of Seymour, and his only response is to forgive her. In this forgiveness she finds the courage to believe in herself. I think the future could be bright for Enid. Maybe even Seymour will love again. But he’ll always keep those 78’s. Just the essentials, of course.
Where to watch: The Criterion Collection blu-ray, released in 2017
Bogie and Bacall may be the most celebrated couple from Hollywood’s golden age, but Spence and Kate can’t be far behind. Both Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn were under contract at MGM studios in the early 1940’s, and both were riding high. Tracy had won back-to-back Oscars in the late 30’s, and Hepburn was coming off of the smash hit play and film The Philadelphia Story. They certainly knew of one another at the time Woman of the Year went into production, but they had never met. So in this film we get the rare treat of watching not just two characters fall in love, but watching the actors fall in love too.
Spencer Tracy plays Sam Craig, a sportswriter for the New York Chronicle. Early in the film Sam is sitting in his local watering hole with a couple of other sportswriters, when he hears a woman on the radio named Tess Harding (Hepburn) who has the nerve to disparage the game of baseball. Sam is upset by this; America is at war and baseball is our national pastime. So he responds to Tess in his column, despite the fact that she is also a columnist for the same newspaper. She responds to his column with one of her own, and the editor summons them both to his office; after all, he can’t have two of his columnists attacking each other. This sets up one of the most memorable on-screen meetings of all time. Sam is in a sour mood when he walks in the room, but his mood changes immediately when he sees Tess. Their mutual attraction is unmistakable, from the first time they share the screen together.
This is in essence an “opposites attract” story, but the two characters don’t represent the stereotypes that the viewer might expect. Yes, Tess is very worldly, speaking several languages, and well-versed in world issues. But she is not demure; she is actually more sexually aggressive than Sam. And while he is a sportswriter, he is no coarse buffoon. He speaks plainly and reacts rationally, even when faced with seemingly irrational events.
One of the joys of this movie is the way it plays with stereotypes, (for most of its length anyway). Sam invites Tess to a baseball game, and there are funny moments as he tries to explain the game to her. But by the end of the scene, she is fully involved, cheering the Yanks along with everyone around her.
Sam has a harder time adjusting to her world, and we get some more funny moments as he attends a gathering at Tess’s where everyone seemingly speaks a different language. It is clear that these two are in love, and Sam impulsively asks Tess to marry him. She agrees, and the rest of the film follows Sam’s growing disillusionment as he tries to adapt to her ever busy, ever changing world, and Tess’s ultimate realization that the wedding vows she utters are more than just words.
This film is funny and fresh for most of its length. But it seems to take a slight step backwards in the final scene. This scene, (which was a rewrite that Katherine Hepburn detested) mocks Tess’s lack of ability in the kitchen. What makes the scene truly funny are Spencer Tracy’s subtle, almost deadpan reactions to what is going on around him. But it also seems to imply that a woman can’t have it all in 1942. While this closing scene marks the movie as a product of a different time, it is still worth viewing. It is a genuinely funny comedy, which caused me to laugh aloud several times. And of course, we also have the pleasure of watching Spence and Kate get to know each other, get comfortable with each other, fall in love with each other.
If you pick up the Criterion version of this movie, be sure and watch the two documentaries that are included. Both are feature-length, and well worth the time. The first is about the life and career of director George Stevens. This documentary (written and directed by his son) paints the picture of a quiet, dignified man who created an impressive body of work and deserves to be mentioned alongside the likes of Ford, Hawks and Capra. The other documentary is a tribute to the life of Spencer Tracy, narrated by Katherine Hepburn. She speaks openly and honestly about their careers, their relationship, and his passing. It ends with one of the most moving scenes I have ever witnessed. In it, Hepburn reads a letter she had written recently to the long-dead Spencer Tracy, with her emotion getting the better of her at the end. (You can watch this scene below.) What a brave woman she was, to share this with the world. And what a great love she clearly had for him. God bless them both.
Starring Bette Davis (Jane Hudson), Joan Crawford (Blanche Hudson), Victor Buono (Edwin Flagg), Marjorie Bennett (Dehlia Flagg), Maidie Norman (Elvira Stitt), B.D. Merrill (Liza Bates)
Where to watch: Warner Bros. Anniversary Edition blu ray (Comes in collectible digibook, with loads of extra features).
The new anthology series Feud debuts March 5 on FX, with season one (Bette and Joan) focusing on the often tortuous (and occasionally tortured) relationship between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. I expect good things from this series. Creator Ryan Murphy hasn’t made a real misstep yet, and the casting of Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange in the starring roles certainly looks promising. So this seems like a perfect time to take a look at the movie that launched the titular feud.
The movie opens on the vaudeville stage, with a young blond girl singing and dancing for a star-struck crowd. She is not only a popular performer, but a bit of a marketing phenomenon as well. Her father hawks life-size Baby Jane dolls (with matching blond ringlets) from the stage. Jane’s dark-haired sister Blanche stands in the wings, radiating envy. Not only does Jane get all the attention, she is also a spoiled brat.
Twenty years later, the tables have turned. Blanche is a popular Hollywood actress, while her sister Jane struggles to keep herself out of the bottle long enough to act coherently. One night after a party, an accident occurs, leaving Blanche paralyzed. Did her own sister run her down?
This is the set-up of the movie, which jumps to the early 60’s, where we find Blanche (Joan Crawford) dependent on her sister Jane (Bette Davis) for her care. Jane is resentful of her sister’s popularity before the accident, which had eclipsed her own, and resentful for having to care for her. Jane is drinking far too much. She also appears to be going completely bonkers.
This film does a marvelous job of slowly increasing the tension, as Jane’s behavior towards her sister grows more sadistic. We begin to wonder if Blanche can possibly survive her sister’s cruelty. I found myself really rooting for Blanche by the end of the film, which has an ending as strange and unpredictable as the movie deserves.
The first time I saw this movie was on late-night cable, maybe 15 years ago, and my memories were of rather campy performances. Seeing it again, I was astonished at what a well-made film it is. The bulk of the movie takes place in the Hudson sisters’ house, and the black-and-white cinematography, set design, musical score, and Oscar-winning costumes all combine to create a perfectly realized setting. The acting is quite good throughout. Joan Crawford creates a truly sympathetic character (and it takes a lot for me to sympathize with Joan Crawford. Ever since seeing Mommie Dearest on HBO when I was about 10, she has thoroughly creeped me out). And sure, Bette Davis’ performance does become campy at times, but in this particular role, I don’t think the term “too much” applies.
If you read enough of my reviews, you know I’m all about the character actors. So I have to mention a couple. Victor Buono chews up the scenerey in his Oscar-nominated supporting role as a petulant man-child who is able to transform himself into a charming, Peter Ustinov-sounding English gentleman to woo Bette Davis out of some cash. Poor Victor died very young, but left his mark in this and a couple other fine roles. And Maidie Norman is great as the housekeeper, who brings both tenderness and strength to her role. Maidie had a long and prolific career, mostly in television. If you are my age, you probably saw her in 15 different shows and never realized it.
Director Robert Aldrich had a very solid career, and he is almost forgotten today. He basically launched the “crazy old lady” (some prefer “psycho biddy”) sub-genre with this movie, which had many imitators (most famously Aldrich’s own Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte).
The Feud series contends that the movie studio encouraged on-set rancor between the two stars. I don’t know if that is true, but it certainly didn’t bleed over into the finished film. (Well, Bette Davis does really seem to be enjoying herself when slapping and kicking Joan around). It is rumored that Crawford was upset when Davis received an Oscar nomination and she did not. Bette Davis believed that Joan Crawford was campaigning against her, which may have contributed to her loss. Or maybe, dear Bette, Anne Bancroft won for The Miracle Worker because she deserved it. At any rate, Crawford had the last laugh. Because Anne Bancroft was unable to attend the ceremony, and Crawford made arrangements in advance to accept the award on Bancroft’s behalf if she won. Crawford’s smile as she walks out to accept the award is certainly quite gleeful. How much of that is because Bancroft won, and how much because Davis lost?
At any rate, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane is a good psychological thriller that holds up well after 55 years. Below you can watch the clip of Joan Crawford accepting Anne Bancroft’s Oscar for Best Actress.