In Part 6 of my journey through the Best Picture winners, I’m looking at the films I rated 4 stars. These are films I consider very good to excellent. All entries contain spoilers.
You can find the earlier parts of the list here:
Watched 29 March 2023
Gladiator is what I’d called a good film. I don’t think it’s a great one (though many certainly seem to disagree) but neither do I think it is a bad one. “Good” is hardly the word most filmmakers will be hoping to see applied to the fruits of their labour but there’s a lot to be said for a good film. It’s a word like “nice”, almost deemed an insult through it’s comparative lack of enthusiasm, but just as I’d always say yes to a nice piece of cake, a “good” film, in my interpretation of the phrase, is one that can pretty much be watched and enjoyed any time. This is how I feel about Gladiator. When the random generator threw it out there, I was pleased that I knew I’d be guaranteed an uncomplicated, entertaining evening’s viewing. Gladiator already feels like a classic, partially because it also feels like a relic. By the dawn of the 21st century we hadn’t seen its like on this scale for decades. Inspired by classic Historical Epics like Spartacus and Anthony Mann’s underrated The Fall of the Roman Empire, Ridley Scott’s film slips neatly into that lineage, feeling like a continuation rather than a pastiche. This is to the film’s great credit and is something that the imitators that followed in Gladiator’s wake failed to achieve. The fact that none of these inevitable pretenders to the Gladiator phenomenon succeeded in replicating its success meant that Scott’s film retained a unique feel for its era and remains the easy choice of go-to for anyone who fancies some grand Old Hollywood-style spectacle from this side of the millennium.
For all its grand scale, Gladiator is a fairly straightforward revenge story of respected Roman General Maximus, who is favoured by the Emperor to the extent that the Emperor’s jealous son Commodus murders his father, assumes the role of Emperor and kills Maximus’s beloved wife and son. Unbeknownst to Commodus, Maximus himself escapes with his life but falls foul of slavers who sell him to a gladiator trainer. When Commodus arranges 150 days of commemorative games in his father’s memory, his path crosses with Maximus again in the gladiatorial arena. It’s a classic tale, in keeping with Gladiator’s classical style, and it’s one that still works with audiences. Sometimes it feels a bit regressive in the way it characterises its hero’s idealised masculinity as a sort of anti-emotional stoicism and its villain’s loathsomeness as a stereotypical effeminacy and sexual deviancy. Commodus feels like the archetypal bullied outsider in the playground, while willing warmonger Maximus is the popular head boy and sports captain who’s obvious disdain ensures the continued abuse. Gladiator seems to approve of this mindset, suggesting Commodus had this coming mainly for being a bit wet and wanting to bonk his sister. Fortunately, the jock-centric subtext of Gladiator is kept palatable by a script that gives us the heroes and villains in broad enough strokes to leave us in no doubt who to root for. For all his pitiable vulnerability, we’re hardly going to side with Commodus after a line like “They tell me your son…squealed like a girl, when they nailed him to the cross. And your wife…moaned like a whore, when they ravaged her again…and again…and again.” Unsubtle lines of this kind abound but that’s fine. There’s plenty to be getting on with here without letting the ideological malfunctions of the early 21st century interfere too much with the broad definitions of heroism and villainy.
Also helping in this respect are the lead performances of Russell Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix as Maximus and Commodus respectively. Crowe’s Oscar win seems like a vast overreaction. He serves the role well enough, squinting his eyes, talking in a growl and, in rare moments of humour, laughing in a gradually less restrained way which, if properly nurtured, could potentially grow into an Errol Flynn style thigh-slapping roar. But the love for the performance feels like it has been significantly subsidised by love for the character. You could argue that this is testament to Crowe’s ability to sell Maximus’s humanity but the cynic in me still feels like the Academy gave him an Oscar chiefly for helping make ancient Rome into a republic. Phoenix, meanwhile, is a greater source of vegan ham than the Quorn corporation. Fortunately, Commodus is not a role that should be underplayed (check out Christopher Plummer’s equally enjoyable take on the role in The Fall of the Roman Empire) and Phoenix is at least a blast to watch, giving us the full-on snivelling weasel treatment. I’ve always felt that the better performances in Gladiator lay in the supporting roles. Though she is given less to work with, Connie Nielsen is dignified, convincing and understated as Lucilla (despite being forced to take part in one of the most ill-advised on-screen kisses I’ve ever seen, in one of Gladiator’s most shameless moments of audience pandering), while Oliver Reed steals the film as Proximo. I’ve always thought Reed probably only missed out on an Oscar nomination because of his death during production, which necessitated certain scenes to be finished using computer technology. Speaking of which, there are dated moments of CGI here and there in Gladiator which distract a little and I’ve always thought that Scott occasionally feels like he has pushed too close in on the action sequences, making them seem muddy and ill-defined at times. On the other hand, there are plenty of them, punctuating the film’s stretches of dialogue that veers between adequately expositional, appealingly poetic and overstatedly silly. But when it’s working, it’s really working. That famous speech by Crowe (you know the one) refuses to lose its impact, no matter how many times it is parodied. In fact, its continued use as a reference point all these years later only adds to Gladiator’s classic air in a way that is the antithesis of the effect that run-into-the-ground box of chocolates line had on Forrest Gump. For a film that reportedly had terrible script problems from the outset, Gladiator remains extraordinarily quotable.
Gladiator is a very easy film to make fun of but that has always been the stock-in-trade of these Historical Epics. Crucially, it is also a very easy film to enjoy and, for all its faults, I still do enormously. I’d never rank it among my favourite films or the best films of its era but I’m always happy to sit down and indulge in its shameless excesses and I never find myself not not entertained.
42. CHARIOTS OF FIRE
Watched 17 October 2022
Chariots of Fire is a curious film if you go into it with the standard expectations usually associated with Sports movies. This isn’t a film with a lot of suspense or tension, there are no real rivals or underdogs in the traditional sense, and the fleeting moments in which the sport itself is represented onscreen are some of the least noteworthy of the whole film. Though it is nominally about Olympic runners, Chariots of Fire is more concerned with why these people run, what drives them, the prejudices and restrictions that clash with their passion, and the steps they’ll take to ensure they can compete. What happens on the day of the race feels almost secondary, quite unlike a film like Rocky in which the climactic fight is absolutely the payoff to the build-up. Many critics of Chariots of Fire focus on this choice as if it were a mistake and thus end up reviewing a film they thought they’d be seeing rather than the one they have. It’s fair to say that Chariots of Fire could’ve been better if its actual running scenes didn’t feel so cursory but the real heart of the film is in Colin Welland’s lyrical, moving screenplay.
Chariots of Fire’s most iconic moment is over and done with in the first few minutes: the slow motion images of young runners on the beach, soundtracked by that rousing Vangelis score. Every part of this remarkably effective opening entered the culture and it really is stirring. The strength of Chariots of Fire, and probably a large part of why it won Best Picture, is that continued ability to stir. In particular, Ian Charleson’s beautifully unassuming performance as Eric Liddell, a devout Christian preparing to go to China to work as a missionary, manages to portray religious faith in an unpatronising way that even an old agnostic like myself can find inspiring and moving. Welland’s screenplay is remarkable in this respect, with lines like “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure” delivered with a complete lack of melodrama or pious superiority. We’re not prodded to share in Liddell’s specific beliefs but rather to draw inspiration from his personal passions, which can so readily be applied to our own. Though Chariots of Fire was seen as an explicitly religious film by many, it’s more of a spiritually-engaged piece with versatile connotations.
An early example of what would become known as Heritage films, the seemingly fetishistic depiction of elite academia and Britishness saw Chariots of Fire quickly dismissed by many as a Thatcherite film but that is to do it a great disservice through wilful oversimplification. Since the film is based on a true story, certain settings and themes were predetermined and to approach them with sledgehammer denunciations would do a disservice to the material. Instead, the left-wing, working class Welland is able to provide a balanced view of this world which acknowledges the pleasure its inhabitants derive from it while simultaneously addressing the hypocrisy and prejudice at its core with laudable subtlety. It’s rare to see a screenplay of this considerable delicacy receive its due with an Oscar win but Welland’s sterling work here absolutely deserved its award.
It’s a bit of a shame that Hugh Hudson’s direction doesn’t quite match Welland’s screenplay. Hudson does solid work and the film is always enjoyable but there are moments when he fails to juggle the numerous strands and a slight incoherence creeps in that requires some effort on the viewer’s part from which to recover. There are also numerous moments, largely the running scenes themselves, where Hudson’s pedestrian efforts seem to casually throw away what should’ve been pivotal moments. As I’ve already mentioned, the race scenes (at least not those kind of race scenes) are not, nor are they meant to be, the heart of Chariots of Fire, but giving them some more dramatic weight would’ve enhanced the film’s real themes rather than overshadowed them.
Though that opening Vangelis-infused sequence has enshrined Chariots of Fire in a place of historical significance forever, it does seem to have become an unfashionable film to like in subsequent years. You can attribute that to all sorts of reasons, from the misperception of Conservatism to reductive complaints from alienated Americans that it is overly-British, or, most commonly, bitter fanboyism stemming from its Oscar victory over popular favourite Raiders of the Lost Ark. But I’d attribute Chariots of Fire’s drop in popularity to the virtual disappearance of a certain kind of writing style that once characterised British television at its best. In sharp contrast to the slick, pared-down teleplays that now adorn our screens, Welland’s TV origins stem from a time when sprawling narratives were allowed to breathe, where tangents were allowed to be explored and ultimately enhanced the narrative, and where episode lengths were determined by the requirements of the story rather that a designated timeslot or the demands of advertisers. I’m not drifting into nostalgic conservatism here myself and I do recognise the pros of a tighter modern approach too, but I adore the looser, more adventurous writing from that era of British TV where the writer was the star, and Chariots of Fire feels like a cinematic expansion of this, which probably does ultimately make it more accessible to a British audience of over-40s.
41. DRIVING MISS DAISY
Watched 18 October 2022
Driving Miss Daisy is a classic example of a film that was a victim of its own success. This intimate, low-key character study charmed its way to the top of the box office and, ultimately, onto the Best Picture winners podium, through its simple, good-natured storytelling and strong trio of central performances. But almost immediately people began asking “Is this really a Best Picture quality film?” The fact that Spike Lee’s exceptional Do the Right Thing was not even nominated for Best Picture that year saw Driving Miss Daisy cast as the villainous alternative: the comfortable, toothless exploration of prejudice which removed all those details like police brutality that white audiences find so hard to stomach. But this comparison recast Driving Miss Daisy as something it was never meant to be. Though prejudice is one of the themes, it is at least equally focused on themes of friendship, family, age and class, with which it deals in a beguilingly gentle, accessibly PG-rated manner. To pit it against Do the Right Thing is patently unfair and judging two such different films in relation to each other will undoubtedly result in a jaundiced view of the family-friendly film in light of the power of Lee’s masterpiece.
Driving Miss Daisy’s Best Picture win has forever trapped it into being a film that has to spend its runtime trying to justify people’s heightened expectations. It invariably appears on lists of worst Best Picture winners. Certainly, the first time I saw it I was underwhelmed to the point that I have long had it rated as a 2 star film. But had it not won or even been nominated, I think people would have an easier time enjoying Driving Miss Daisy for what it is and it would likely be seen as a small gem rather than an out-of-its-depth clunker failing to fulfil the lofty demands of a best film of the year tag. Certainly, relieved of these expectations for my second viewing, I warmed to Driving Miss Daisy to the extent that I now think of it as a wonderful film whose shortcomings were unfortunately highlighted and subsequently exaggerated by the spotlight into which it was unexpectedly thrust.
The story of an elderly Southern widow who’s son hires her a black chauffeur, and the 25 year relationship between the two as the world changes around them, Driving Miss Daisy is not the overstated, unsubtle production one might expect from this material. It has moments of sentimentality for sure, but the changes that Daisy and her driver, Hoke, go through are realistically small, at least on the surface. No-one breaks down and declares they’ve seen the error of their ways and this isn’t a malicious-racist-to-civil-rights-activist transformation tale. The changes are much more subtly rendered than the film is given credit for, with the awkward barrier between Daisy and Hoke never quite fully coming down and declarations of intimacy only made possible by moments of vulnerability that accompany fading mental health. Ironically, the film is generally seen in very black and white terms when the light and shade is present. As a Jewish woman in the South, Daisy is forced to confront prejudice against herself when her synagogue is bombed, but the result of this episode is not the patronising “oh, now I understand what you go through” reaction that many have either misremembered or deliberately misinterpreted it as being. Daisy refuses to openly acknowledge the nature of the crime, internalising the incident in a way that influences later scenes without the film having to openly state this through speechifying. One of the film’s major achievements is its ability to put across its small developments incrementally, using expressions and body language as much, or even more, than it does words.
Driving Miss Daisy is not without flaws. The character of Hoke is perhaps a little too broadly drawn in the dialogue, all “Yassum” and long Southern drawls, but Freeman manages to bring out his considerable humanity in a way that avoids the subservient toadying many have accused it of epitomising. There’s the occasional bit of stereotypical Southern wisdom delivered by way of shonky metaphor, Hans Zimmer’s upliftingly merry score occasionally dips into distractingly anachronistic synths, and the scene in which Daisy first starts teaching Hoke to read is quite excruciatingly bad, but ultimately these are bumps on a smoothly pleasurable road. Those who characterise Driving Miss Daisy as a white saviour narrative due to Daisy teaching Hoke to read are somehow missing the obvious balancing of how much Hoke gives to Daisy, simply because it is not openly stated as one would expect from the unsubtle film as which Driving Miss Daisy has unfairly been painted.
Much has been made of how Driving Miss Daisy’s major strength is its central performances. As Daisy, Jessica Tandy gives a delightfully multi-faceted performance, her initially broad-seeming tendencies retained with a skilful surface continuity as the intricacies of what’s underneath are layered in. Freeman overcomes the more stereotypical aspects of Hoke’s character with a deeply sympathetic performance that nonetheless sidesteps accusations of unrealistic saintliness for anyone who’s watching closely enough to pick up on the insecurities and preconceptions with which Freeman undoubtedly imbues the character. Often overlooked but just as excellent is Dan Aykroyd as Daisy’s son Boolie, a generally good-natured but flawed character whose conflicted nature ultimately prizes his own success over his progressive inclinations. This one character, the crucial, unsung third strand of Driving Miss Daisy’s narrative menage a trois, represents the resistant status quo that rumbles along beneath the gradual social change that Daisy and Hoke’s relationship symbolises with an artful rejection of oversimplification or self-congratulatory overstatement.
I’m quite taken aback by how much I enjoyed Driving Miss Daisy second time round. I was fully expecting it to wind up near the bottom of the list. Though there’s no way it should’ve won Best Picture in a year where Do the Right Thing was eligible (though, tellingly, not nominated), to perpetuate this comparison is to do an arbitrary disservice to a film that deserves to be reappraised on its own merits, regardless of what it won and what it beat.
40. SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE
26 February 2023
Shakespeare in Love’s Best Picture win was one of the most hotly contested Oscar moments of the 90s. It wasn’t just that a film considered so light and fluffy took the top award but that it beat two War epics that were considered more thematically weighty and cinematically significant. Of course, with this escalation of garment-rending excess over Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line losing out, a certain brand of 90s prejudice has been kept alive into the supposedly more enlightened decades that followed. Though it shouldn’t be the case, the Rom-Com and the War film carry with them gendered assumptions about target audiences which betray an obvious subtext to the endless beating of the Spielberg/Malick horse: i.e. how can a woman’s film about love and poncing about in tights possibly have beaten two men’s films about men doing men’s things? There’s a genre bias at work here too, with a chin animated in laughter traditionally being deemed intellectually inferior to one statically awaiting a stroking. Not that I don’t sympathise a little with the impatience some felt with Shakespeare in Love’s victory. Before it was broken by the bitter pill of American Beauty, there was a run of mid-90s Best Picture winners that favoured a swooning romanticism that was becoming cumulatively wearing: The English Patient, Titanic, Shakespeare in Love. I can understand how some craved more gravitas in their next Oscar champ, even if the two films that have become totemic of this desire are far from my favourite contenders for such deliverance from banality.
Although I enjoyed it immensely, I do feel that Shakespeare in Love’s numerous Oscar wins were a bit of an overreaction. And while it was refreshing to see a comedy win Best Picture for the first time in two decades, there is a sense that its victory was tied to that Academy-approved brand of anglophilia that favours a cultural and social elitism loath to acknowledge the existence of council estates (although, in all fairness, the recent nomination of The Full Monty had been a notable exception to this). Conversely, though it comes wrapped in a cautiously literate package, Shakespeare in Love offers the sort of lighthearted escapism that is often itself a victim of critical snobbery during awards season. There are broad, thigh-slapping gags, theatrical caricatures, moments of bodice-ripping bawdiness, fourth-wall-troubling meta-anachronisms and even a little bit of swashbuckling. In keeping with its themes, Shakespeare in Love is a crowd-pleaser in the truest sense and if this sort of film can be whipped up into a temporary phenomenon, as Harvey Weinstein’s overly-aggressive publicity campaign managed to do, of course it’s going to see off the competition for those still bathing in the exhilarating shared experience, even if they quickly experience buyer’s remorse.
Even though I don’t think of it as a classic, I quite like the variety that Shakespeare in Love’s Best Picture win brought to a 90s winner’s circle that was getting lost in its own overwhelming seriousness. After enduring three-hour runtimes and inspirational speeches from preening matinee idols for several years, what a relief to see cast members from every contemporary British comedy from Bottom to The Fast Show wandering around in period costume and having a ball. Although there’s an inescapable corniness to the way it keeps dropping in sly Shakespearean Easter eggs, Shakespeare in Love’s screenplay manages to strike a happy balance between goofy comedy and beguiling eloquence, with Tom Stoppard’s presence among the writing credits making itself obvious. Instinctively knowing when to lean into the romance and when to undercut it with a gag, the script builds impressively to an uplifting finale in which the whole cast gets their moment to shine and the viewer realises just how well the film has layered in its supporting characters without distracting from the central love story.
Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow, as the fictionalised Shakespeare and his muse Viola de Lesseps, prove to be a solid anchor for the story. Fiennes, in particular, has a suavity and comic vitality that makes him consistently appealing, though it was Paltrow who took home the Oscar. But it is the supporting cast who make the film stand out, with the likes of Imelda Staunton, Jim Carter and Mark Williams bringing small roles convincingly to life. Judi Dench won the Supporting Actress Oscar for her commanding and droll Elizabeth I and Geoffrey Rush received a nomination for his cartoonishly desperate Philip Henslowe, but the standout for me is Tom Wilkinson as Hugh Fennyman, a brutal moneylender who finds himself amusingly won over by the power of theatre. Clad in Sandy Powell’s Oscar-winning costumes, this is an impressive cast indeed who strike a precisely judged balance between the authentic and the self-consciously theatrical.
Shakespeare in Love has acquired a reputation as an undeserving Best Picture winner, something that rather obscures its comparative quality. It’s a very fine, entertaining film which, while of especial interest to Shakespeare lovers, ensures that the pre-existing knowledge of the Bard that enhances some of the gags is not a prerequisite for understanding or enjoying the story. If it trades on its high-art connections for reflected prestige to some extent, its ultimate goal is to entertain as wide an audience as possible and, disgruntled self-serious War fetishists notwithstanding, it succeeded in that respect.
Watched 21 October 2022
Part of the joy of doing this Best Picture Project has been discovering that films I thought I didn’t like are actually rather wonderful. I did it with All the King’s Men, I did it with Driving Miss Daisy, and now I’ve done it with Chicago. I really disliked Chicago the first time round but I don’t think I went into it with an open mind. The film, along with Moulin Rouge (which I actually do hate and will not be revisiting!), ushered in a new era of 21st century Musicals of which, for the most part, I’ve not been a fan. This new wave of musicals mostly had more in common with stage Musicals on which they were based than they did with the old Hollywood Musicals I adore and by the time I saw Chicago the market was, if not flooded, then certainly lightly marinated in them. This glitzy braising was something that, in a misguided and, for me, rare concession to machismo, I rejected with unnecessary and embarrassingly outspoken vigour. So watching Chicago for the first time, I was judging not that film but those spawned by its success, en masse and with the indiscriminate arrogance of an insecure man (boy) in his 20s.
As time has passed and this new breed of musicals has proved its mettle as more than a fad, Chicago has begun to feel like a more important film and something of a contender for the title of modern classic. While I’d stop short of that label, for those who revel in the 21st century Musical there’s surely a robust case to be made for what is undoubtedly an impressive, spirited and hugely enjoyable film and ultimately, contrary to the cynical unstudied tuts that emanated from the tongue of my younger self, an extremely influential one. While the likes of The Greatest Showman and Into the Woods may never be for me, they’ve undoubtedly made their mark in cinema history and the likes of tick, tick… BOOM! and Spielberg’s West Side Story suggest I might be won over yet. We can now add Chicago to that list of 21st century Musicals that get two jazz hands up from me.
Chicago was written by Bill Condon, who began his career in the Horror and Sci-fi genres before becoming strongly associated with the Musical revival, with screenplays for Dreamgirls (which he also directed) and The Greatest Showman and a tedious directorial retread of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Chicago also marked the impressive directorial debut of Rob Marshall, who subsequently directed Nine, Into the Woods and Mary Poppins Returns. Marshall also choreographed Chicago, his experience in Broadway shows making him the perfect candidate to do this screen adaptation of the legendary Bob Fosse’s stage Musical justice. Fosse’s play, co-written by Fred Ebb, was itself based on a 1927 silent film of the same name, meaning the first iteration of this story featured a contemporary setting, whereas the later versions lean heavily on Jazz Age nostalgia. One of Marshall’s strong suits is his ability to evoke both the period detail of the 20s and the stylised recreations of the stage play, which he bases on both the original, unsuccessful 70s run and its hit revival in the 90s. The narrative is built around a running commentary provided by fantasy cabaret sequences and showstopping routines, some of which threaten to spill out into reality. So while Chicago can whisk us away from its bleak prison setting by way of showbiz dreams, it also occasionally forces incarceration upon those same fantasies, as in the famous musical highlight Cell Block Tango. Marshall flits between the real and fantasy worlds with clear, effective aesthetic distinction and, unlike more sparing examples of the genre that hold back from their big numbers to maximise impact, in Chicago the music practically never stops, with the numbers co-narrating more than punctuating.
The cast of Chicago are a strong asset, although the stagey performance style makes it difficult to gauge whether some of the acclaim was an overreaction. Though Queen Latifah and John C. Reilly provide very effective support, their Oscar nominations feel like overreactions to the success of the overall production. The key role of unscrupulous lawyer Billy Flynn unfortunately went to Richard Gere, whose flat acting style fails to make the most out of the characters’ potential and clashes with the pizzazz of his co-stars, especially when he is required to perform in one of the numbers. Fortunately, the main focal points of Chicago barely put a foot wrong, whether that foot is clad in a dancing shoe or not. Catherine Zeta-Jones, as charismatic, manipulative murderess Velma Kelly, has rarely been better and received a Supporting Actress Oscar for her trouble, but the real star of Chicago is Renée Zellweger who mirrors her opportunistic character Roxie’s devious resolve by resolutely refusing to let scenes be stolen from her. Whether playing the sweetie-pie, the tough gal, the brat or, in a wonderful mime performance, a completely convincing wooden ventriloquist’s dummy, Zellweger is phenomenal. If we were to be unkind, we might suggest Zellweger made an even more convincing wooden dummy in her subsequent Oscar-winning turn in Cold Mountain, although that wildly overacted role did turn out to be the highlight of an otherwise dull picture by inadvertently applying the stage-acting conventions of Chicago to the prestige dullardry of Cold Mountain’s realism. It’s a fitting illustration of how a particular acting style can be massively effective or completely ludicrous depending on the context in which it is placed. In Chicago’s context, Zellweger’s larger-than-life gestures feel as finely honed as those of her more restrained competitors.
The music of Chicago mixes showstoppers like All That Jazz, Cell Block Tango and Roxie with subtler gems like Mister Cellophane or symbolic transitions like A Tap Dance. Tying in the music so closely with the narrative means that not every song slays but there’s no real flab here either. If you don’t like Musicals then Chicago might wear on you very quickly, since the music is everywhere to the extent that it sometimes feels like it is the narrative that is vying for screentime. There are immediately recognisable elements of Fosse’s previous hit Cabaret present in the style of Chicago, but that film used realistic performances in the Kit Kat Club to punctuate a strong narrative, while Chicago intertwines its strands seamlessly, forsaking realism for an altered reality in which the clearly metaphorical function of the dreamlike song sequences does not curb expectations that they will bleed into the real world. Sometimes when the number finishes and we are suddenly back in the prison, it is even more jarring than when the outlandish excess of the fantasies intrudes on the mundane.
Part of Chicago’s enduring appeal is its comparatively dark subject matter. Far from being the fluff or simple aesthetic exercises that many of the 21st century Musicals it inspired chose to be, Chicago has things to say about showbiz, the media, the legal system, and corruption in all three of those arenas, and it does so with a delicious amorality that sidesteps the pious finger-wagging that the Academy has sometimes celebrated a little too readily. Just because it casts a critical eye on crass opportunism does not mean Chicago is above indulging in the same and neither does it feel the need to hide or apologise for that fact. Come on in, it beckons, and enjoy something salacious. And this time, I absolutely did.
38. THE ARTIST
Watched 8 April 2023
When Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist first arrived in cinema’s I was extremely excited to see it. I was going through a period of watching almost exclusively silent cinema at the time and had been deeply immersed in the works of masters like Lang and Murnau, Chaplin and Keaton, films that were nearly a century old at that time but which had been new and revelatory to me. As such, I approached The Artist with the arrogant air of a self-proclaimed expert, wielding about a month’s worth of experience in my chosen field and ready to denounce The Artist for failing to live up to the expectations I had projected onto it rather than those it had intended. Like many of those who both praised and criticised the film, I assumed that The Artist was a tribute to the silent era of cinema, and it does draw on some of those conventions in its presentation. But this is not an attempt to make a film that solely apes the silent classics and my expectations of something that might’ve amounted to pure pastiche, if met, would’ve resulted in a far more gimmicky and less resonant experience. Rather, The Artist is a film indebted to and in thrall of a much wider range of classic Hollywood cinema than just that which shares its limited colour palette and verbal economy. That cross-pollination of A Star is Born and Singin’ in the Rain is completely intentional. That nod to Citizen Kane is deliberate. That snatch of music from Vertigo, though controversial, is not thematically out of place. Though it borrows the aesthetic, The Artist’s debt to silent cinema is merely one piece of a much larger puzzle, like Kane’s elusive Rosebud.
In my initial and, let’s not mince words here, snobbish response to The Artist, I entirely missed the message that is so emphatically underlined by the title. Jean Dujardin’s matinee idol George Valentin rejects the new sound cinema as a fad, as so many did at the time. He sees himself as a great artist and this new form of cinema as an inconsequential trifle. Unlike Singin’ in the Rain’s Lena Lamont, who is unable to make the transition due to a terribly grating voice, George’s withdrawal is voluntary, as he seeks to pooh-pooh progress and cling to what he knows, a decision that costs him dearly. There’s a warning about erroneously minimising the importance of entertainment which recalls Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, a film I’d already watched and adored by the time I saw The Artist, but one who’s message I had clearly failed to properly absorb. I mean, I spent my time rolling my eyes at how much people were enjoying the dog in The Artist instead of, you know, just enjoying the dog. I mean, it’s a dog that plays dead at the sound of pretend gunshots. That’s pretty easy to love, right? Not to mention that, in a film that includes famous faces such as John Goodman and James Cromwell, the dog still manages to give the third best performance. I refused to acknowledge just how well the dog fit the theme, seamlessly aligning itself with a cinematic heritage of hero mutts, because I was too busy being an asshole about how much people enjoy dogs. Anyway, this time I enjoyed the dog.
There was undoubtedly a juvenile sense of ownership at work in my initial reaction to The Artist. Here was I, an aspiring cinephile who had just got round to the silent classics, and now here was this new silent film that everyone was talking about, robbing my fragile ego of the change to convincingly claim that I was watching silent films long before it was cool (a month at least). So witnessing the cinema audiences positive response to The Artist, I churlishly convinced myself that this was completely different from me sitting at home alone masturbating over Battleship Potemkin (I can’t help myself, that maggots in the meat scene does it for me every time). It was like being at school again, when that small Indie band you’ve been complaining that no-one listens to suddenly had a huge hit and then you start complaining about how everyone is listening to them now. In retrospect, it’s hard to imagine how I still could’ve been so wrapped up in my own arrogance in my late 20s to not see the parallel between the reaction I was having and what was up on screen. George Valentin loves cinema too but, as far as he is concerned, it is his world and he only wants others to enjoy it on his terms. As a result, he watches the thing he loves most almost slip away from him completely.
The Artist was sold to audiences as a Comedy and certainly there are funny moments, while the initial novelty of its style also carries an inherent amusement. But The Artist works so well for audiences across the board because it is actually a very sincere Melodrama and its cineliterate references do not detract from the telling of its emotionally engaging tale. It’s a film filled with clever little tricks, such as an ingenious dream sequence in which the arrival of sound is given a nightmarishly literal interpretation. There’s one trick towards the end of the film involving a caption that reads “Bang” that stuck with me long after even that first egotistically-compromised viewing. While some found these little winks distractingly arch, I think they are superbly incorporated into the story without detracting from its significant heart. The relevant conclusion that can be drawn here is that good storytelling can make any film appealing to any audience, whether a silent or sound production. It’s a lesson that George Valentin learns in one direction before our eyes, while teaching the audience it in the other direction. Swathes of skeptics were won over to the possibilities of silent cinema by The Artist’s delicate balance, if only, as it transpired, momentarily.
The Artist is bolstered considerably by its two main stars, Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo, who had previously starred together in Hazanavicius’s fitfully funny Spy Spoof OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies. Dujardin’s naturally expressive face makes him a dead cert to nail the role of George Valentin and he looks magnificent in Guillaume Schiffman’s black and white cinematography. While Dujardin showed his flair for broad humour in OSS 117, in The Artist he does very well to avoid such a thing. It is crucial that we buy George as a real, vulnerable human being rather than an exaggerated grotesque and Dujardin’s facial expressions manage to embrace the heightened hallmarks of silent film acting without overselling the concept. Dujardin walked away with an Oscar but for my money it is Bejo who walks away with the film. While Dujardin boasts an expressive face, Bejo acts with her entire body, perfectly capturing the essence of the rising star whose ascent contrasts with Valentin’s fall. There is a quietly intimate scene early on in which Bejo puts one arm inside a hanging jacket and mimics being held. It’s a small, beautiful moment which Bejo executes perfectly, evoking the mixture of melancholia and dexterity that characterised the great silent comedians.
Initially The Artist looks like it might pull off the trick of being a flawless film but it does succumb to a few problems as it progresses. The Melodrama with which we are presented is, by design, a well-worn tale and it does become slightly wearing in the final half-hour. The nods to classic cinema, which initially work so well, come to a head when a pivotal final scene is set to Bernard Hermann’s Love Theme from Vertigo. It’s the one moment where The Artist’s love affair with Hollywood feels overdone and the use of a pre-existing recording of the piece makes it feel more like a crutch than a tribute. Questions were raised when Ludovic Bource won the Oscar for Best Original Score, none more audacious than Vertigo star Kim Novak’s comparison of the use of Hermann’s music to a rape. Though that is undoubtedly going too far, this odd musical decision does feel like a very late-game dropping of the ball for The Artist, which is unfortunate when its closing stretch does so much to rejuvenate the audience’s waning attention.
Despite a couple of nitpicks, I enjoyed The Artist thoroughly this time round, with my chief source of displeasure being the regrets I felt about my pretentious earlier self. I mean, The Artist briefly made silent cinema a popular enough topic that everyone was talking about it. This was an opportunity for me to finally talk about Douglas Fairbanks to people in pubs and not see their eyes immediately glaze over, and I missed out on it because of my fragile ego. It’s like a Twilight Zone episode or something!
37. 12 YEARS A SLAVE
Watched 27 April 2023
When the random generator threw out Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave as the next Best Picture winner for me to watch, I had two telling reactions. Initially my heart sank and my stomach turned. Then I thought, Was this film made as part of a challenge to create a movie in which Chiwetel Ejiofor is treated worse than he is in Love Actually? So here’s the thing. I really liked 12 Years a Slave the first time I saw it but its unflinching brutality made me reluctant to ever revisit it. That accounts for my first reaction. My second reaction of hiding behind an inappropriate joke, meanwhile, is testament to why a rewatch of the film was long overdue. In a Guardian piece in 2013 about why he refused to watch 12 Years a Slave, Orville Lloyd Douglas wrote “I’m convinced these black race films are created for a white, liberal film audience to engender white guilt and make them feel bad about themselves. Regardless of your race, these films are unlikely to teach you anything you don’t already know.” But films like this aren’t necessarily about teaching audiences new things so much as they are about ensuring the things we know remain visceral and in the forefront of our minds, rather than becoming the subject of glib evasions like the one my mind instinctively and shamefully concocted.
The year before 12 Years a Slave’s Best Picture win, Quentin Tarantino tried to claim credit for restarting the conversation about slavery with his ludicrous Django Unchained, but that film had nothing to say about slavery beyond using it as a suitably emotive justification for third act carnage. McQueen’s film instead gives us the harsh realities of slavery without the blaxploitation superhero to provide tonally-cockeyed closure. Another problem with Orville Lloyd Douglas’s claim is that 12 Years a Slave absolutely does teach us something new, in that it is a true story told with a high degree of accuracy that focuses on a clearly defined protagonist rather than a whole group. In adapting Solomon Northup’s memoir of the same name, McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley created a film that is about one man forced into slavery as much as it is about the whole disgraceful concept of slavery itself. For Peter Malamud Smith of Slate magazine, this was a problem because he claimed it gave every viewer too easy a way to empathise with the protagonist, thereby removing the racial angle. To Smith, it became a story of a man trying to get back to his family above all else. But, from my point of view, I thought the issue of race kept this from being the case. Of course I empathised with Northup’s plight and desperately rooted for him to get home, but from beneath the safety of white skin I never entertained the notion that this situation could happen to me. Though I was on the side of Northup, I was all too aware that my race meant I could only imagine these horrors to a certain extent. 12 Years a Slave did an excellent job of pushing me to the extremes of those limitations, a place I subconsciously and reprehensibly attempted to flee from by reaching into a pit of emotions and pulling out a punchline.
One thing 12 Years a Slave cleverly avoids becoming is a Suspense Thriller. Though tension is a constant of the viewing experience, the specificity of the title removes any expectation that Northup will stage a successful escape attempt early in the narrative. This is important, since the cheap adrenaline rush of an action sequence could easily undermine the film’s tight focus on survival in the face of evil. Hope is a quality in short supply here, as evidenced in the gut-wrenching scene in which Lupita Nyong’o’s Patsey asks Northup to help her die. Though we know from the banner on the marquee that Northup’s enslavement will eventually end in one way or another, Patsey feels completely trapped in her unimaginable hell and the complete lack of hope available doesn’t make her inevitably uncertain final moments on screen any easier to stomach. 12 Years a Slave refuses to pull any punches, depicting vicious whippings, beatings, humiliations and sexual assaults with uncompromising realism. What could be seen as gratuitous in another kind of film is absolutely necessary here, for to soft pedal the realities of slavery in the name of more palatable viewing would be to undermine one of 12 Years a Slave’s major themes. If the brutality of the imagery makes it an easier film to admire than to love, it would be much harder to love if McQueen had fumbled the depiction of slavery by averting the camera’s gaze at key moments. In fact, he does the opposite. An unforgettable scene in which an attempted lynching is broken up but Northup is left in the noose lingers for nearly three minutes on the image of him desperately straining on tiptoes to prevent strangulation. It’s an agonising scene which contrasts the eerie quietness with the deafening images, forcing the viewer to witness the whole ordeal instead of utilising cutaways as a more tentative director might have done.
One issue that 12 Years a Slave does have is that of casting. There are several big names amongst the cast, some of whom have become more famous since the film’s release, and the rate of success varies. On the one hand, Ejiofor and Nyong’o could scarcely be better, with Nyong’o rightly walking away with the Supporting Actress Oscar for her devastatingly raw performance, much of which consists of chillingly convincing reactions to various forms of brutality. Michael Fassbender is convincingly volatile as an unstable slaver, Paul Dano is appropriately detestable as a sadistic carpenter and Alfre Woodard makes a welcome, dignified cameo. On the other hand, Paul Giamatti’s slave trader is pitched a little too closely to the tone of his more comedic cameos, Sarah Paulson is oddly blank as a jealous wife and Benedict Cumberbatch just feels like Benedict Cuberbatch playing dress up. The most notoriously misjudged piece of casting is Brad Pitt, who turns up towards the end as a vocally anti-slavery labourer who assists Northup in proving his identity. Many people have accused 12 Years a Slave of being a white saviour narrative because of this character but that ignores the fact that the film is a true story and that Pitt’s character, actions and large chunks of his dialogue are taken directly from Northup’s account. It also ignores the fact that Northup himself orchestrates his own salvation, taking huge risks to acquire Pitt’s character’s assistance. To call this a white saviour narrative is to ignore a black character’s agency as it unfolds in front of you. The real problem with Pitt’s appearance is that it is simply a very bad performance. He rocks up looking every inch the movie star and proceeds to burst the bubble further by reciting his lines like the best actor in the middle school play. It’s very unfortunate that Pitt’s character is so crucial to the narrative or his scenes would surely have ended up on the cutting room floor, superstar or no.
If 12 Years a Slave’s casting problem is slightly too big an issue to overlook completely, the general excellence of the production does mean it emerges as a very fine film indeed. More than that, it is an important film and one which those who can stand to watch undoubtedly should. The issue of race relations remains tragically thorny and 12 Years a Slave’s period setting means it will age well as a continually relevant warning against prejudice, be it deliberate bigotry or the sort of dunderheaded slip that I made with my initial crass reaction to the film. Witnessing such an authentic depiction of the extremes of bigotry and hatred is a sober reminder that glib trivialisations can be as detrimental as more overtly horrifying transgressions against humanity because they incrementally lower our standards. Contrary to Orville Lloyd Douglas’s assertion that films like this are designed merely to make white liberals feel bad about themselves, 12 Years a Slave is actually a key text in the gradually diversifying representation we’re belatedly starting to see. And while I disagree with the notion that this film was made with a white liberal audience in mind, this particular white liberal believes that Douglas misses the key detail that, while these films initially make us feel bad about ourselves, they then inspire us to try and feel better by subsequently being better.
36. RAIN MAN
Watched 30 January 2023
Since its release in 1988, Rain Man has become something of a polarising film. It’s easy to forget that screen representation of autism was virtually non-existent back then and Rain Man undoubtedly brought the subject more prominently into the public conversation. Unfortunately, it did so in a way that immediately muddied the waters by combining the autism of Dustin Hoffman’s Raymond Babbitt with Savant Syndrome. The film’s efforts to differentiate between the two are cursory at best and this resulted in a widely-held misconception entering the culture, that being autistic meant you could effortlessly memorise phonebooks and count cards. Though it is possible for autism and Savant Syndrome to be combined, it is an extremely rare phenomenon and, while you could argue that it is the lot of entertaining cinema to seek out exceptional stories, when the heart of a subject has not been adequately explored elsewhere, it’s dangerous for the pioneer to go immediately to the periphery.
I really like Rain Man. In terms of its storytelling, acting, direction, cinematography, score and soundtrack, there’s much to recommend so it’s tempting to say that it is a shame that reviews have to be framed by discussion of its arguably irresponsible depiction of autism. But rather than it being a shame, it’s actually heartening and somewhat essential that retrospective reviews of Rain Man invariably spend some inches reckoning with the film’s social responsibilities. In doing so, we recognise that the filmmakers’ intentions were good, even if the execution was in some respects misguided. I’ve read reviews by autistic critics and autism specialists who have both loved and loathed Rain Man, have characterised it as an important trailblazer and an opportunistic exploiter. Watching it now, cop out though this may seem, it feels like a little of both. As many have pointed out, the focus is on the relationship between Raymond and his selfish, bullish brother Charlie (brilliantly played by Tom Cruise) rather than the nuances of Raymond’s condition, but this sometimes feels like it is underexploring what should be the core of the story, reducing Raymond’s abilities to the level of a magic act and his challenges to comedic inconveniences for his neurotypical brother. On the other hand, there is some effort made to make Raymond into a rounded character rather than just a representation of his condition, with the film getting at the buried emotional core of many of his motivations.
In an era when what has now become known as “cripping up” was frequently a path to praise and award nominations, Dustin Hoffman’s Oscar-winning performance as Raymond became widely hailed as a studied masterclass rather than the broad stereotype it is often seen as today. At the risk of officially becoming the most annoying person in the world, I’d have to say that for me it falls somewhere between the two again. This was an important role to Hoffman, who’s prior work at the New York Psychiatric Institute made this a subject close to his heart, and he worked with autistic individuals in order to work out Raymond’s mannerisms. Though laudable in theory, such preparation does seem to rather reduce the complexity of the broadness of the spectrum and the characterisation that Hoffman settled on was both immediately iconic and a trifle one-note. That’s partially by design, of course, as the difficulty of defining Raymond’s emotional responses is central to what makes his relationship with his brother Charlie so compelling. Hoffman’s body language, so different to that which we’ve seen in his other films, is impeccably maintained and he is able to mine effective comedy from his atypical behaviours without it ever seeming mean-spirited. The humour arises mostly from Charlie’s frustrated inability to accommodate his brother’s ways. But in creating such an instantly iconic character, Rain Man also ensured that audiences everywhere would leave the film imitating Hoffman’s distinctive delivery, saying they had 3 minutes to Wapner and that they definitely weren’t wearing their underwear. In the same way that Forrest Gump voices rang throughout the latter half of the 90s, so Raymond Babbitt impersonations were likely to arise whenever the subject of autism came up. For every audience member inspired by Rain Man to seek a greater understanding of the condition, there was one who would throw a box of toothpicks at the feet of any autistic individual they encountered and demand “Count ‘em.”
Though time may have magnified Rain Man’s problematic elements, it has also thankfully rendered them less harmful. When most people watch Rain Man for the first time now, they will do so with some experience of autism already in place, enabling them to appreciate that the Savant Syndrome element of the plot is not representative of the average autistic experience. Part of this increased level of autistic visibility for modern audiences can certainly be traced back to Rain Man’s initial success, which helped increase medical research into and diagnoses of autism tenfold. So the cases for and against Rain Man from an ideological standpoint are complex and fascinating, with the ongoing discussion they generate arguably enhancing the legacy of the film as much as it damages it.
The quality of the filmmaking in Rain Man is evident in how it overcomes the discomfort that could so easily scupper a lesser piece of work. It is a very funny film, with an excellent Cruise displaying exceptional comic timing in his bewildered and exasperated reactions. The road trip Rain Man becomes makes it a visually impressive piece of Americana, while its penchant for sentimentality makes it warmly welcoming. This latter point does see the film trip over itself a few times. I’ve always hated the deeply questionable scene in which Valeria Golino has a “date” with Raymond in an elevator, which is the one moment in which Hoffman’s performance is reduced to that of a cutesy mascot, while the moment in which a court-appointed psychiatrist tries to push Raymond into a panic in order to prove a point feels as unlikely as it is uncomfortable. But this same melodramatic flair results in an extremely moving scene in which Charlie realises the significance of Raymond in his childhood memories, which effectively pivots the film from mismatched buddy comedy to something more emotionally resonant.
I can appreciate how strong both positive and negative feelings about Rain Man are but it just works for me, in spite of its obvious shortcomings. I thought perhaps my four star rating was too high but, while nostalgia undoubtedly plays a part here, I also think Rain Man is in some ways an important film, and certainly a greatly entertaining one. Well-meaning but controversial, its layered history only enhances my continued interest in it as more than the sugary comedy/drama many have taken it to be.
35. AN AMERICAN IN PARIS
Watched 21 April 2023
An American in Paris is a film I didn’t like much the first time I saw it. I was already a fan of grand Old Hollywood musicals and was well acquainted with the fact that the plots of these opulent delights are often negligible, but even with the benefit of that foresight, An American in Paris seemed thin and meandering. Revisiting it for only the second time though, I realised this is partially its source of charm. This is a hanging out movie, allowing us to enjoy the leisurely pace of life as an artist in a beautiful city. Of course, the lifestyle is as romanticised as the stylised Parisian backdrops, with quippy allusions to starvation belying any real sense of desperation, but such realism has no place in escapist fare such as this and it’s neither surprising nor detrimental when the romantic plot eventually overwhelms every other narrative strand. What director Vincente Minnelli and screenwriter Alan Jay Lerner do so well is to keep the other themes chugging along in the background, so that a love of art in all its forms, from paintings to music to architecture, becomes intertwined with the notion of romantic love. Faced with losing his beloved Lise, artist Jerry tells her “I came to Paris to study and to paint, because Utrillo did, and Lautrec did, and Roualt did. I loved what they created and I thought something would happen to me too. Well, it happened all right. Now, what have I got left? Paris. Maybe that’s enough for some, but it isn’t for me anymore, because the more beautiful everything is, the more it will hurt without you.”
An American in Paris is a film deeply in love with art but with little interest in the creative process. Rather, it revels in the emotions the finished works inspire in those who are enraptured by them. Jerry rudely sees off a student who wants to talk about the aesthetic technique of his paintings, preferring his art to be experienced on a gut level. It’s a philosophy that An American in Paris embraces wholeheartedly, and while it does tend to minimise the scope and complexity of art, it does also help to keep any sense of pretension at bay. For this film and its characters, art is so purely experiential that the final set-piece in which the lovers step into the artworks themselves feels like the only logical conclusion. Though accusations of pretension are often levelled at An American in Paris, these tend to come from the sort of inverse snobs who will never know the plight of the starving artist because they have an inexhaustible supply of chips on their shoulders. An American in Paris’s love letter to art comes from the same place as, say, Hot Fuzz’s love letter to Action movies and, freed from arbitrary associations of class and status, they are both sources of the same kind of joy. As if to emphasise this point further, An American in Paris offers a selection of songs from the Gershwin brothers’ catalogue that range from the classical Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra to featherlight bon-bons like I Got Rhythm and ‘S Wonderful, and culminating in the titular tune which aptly merges the influences of classical and jazz, just as its visual interpretation merges ballet and cinema. Far from a finger wag imploring movie audiences to raise their game, this marriage is an acknowledgement that art is for everyone.
If only such laudable equality was applied to the film’s gender politics, but then you can only expect so much of mid-twentieth-century films. Sometimes applying context is easier, such as some of the line-crossing harassments to which Fred Astaire’s characters subjected Ginger Rogers in their RKO films, supposedly in the name of romantic persistence. The light charm of Astaire always makes these moments more palatable, whereas Gene Kelly has a mean intensity and icky smarm about him which sometimes makes his aggressive pursuits harder to swallow. Certainly, Jerry’s initial determination to date a clearly uninterested Lise is a tad uncomfortable, while his utter disdain for Nina Foch’s lonely heiress Milo Roberts is even worse. While Milo’s behaviour towards Jerry is duplicitous and toxic, her obvious vulnerability is given scant consideration by the invariably disgusted males she encounters. It’s not that Milo is unattractive, merely that her overt interest in men is seen as inappropriate for a woman, by the characters and, by implication, the film. Her final role in the story, as Jerry’s impulsive, abortive rebound, is extremely cruel and, while it could’ve been softened by Jerry being at least a little apologetic for his actions, neither Jerry nor the film seem willing to do her this courtesy.
Meanwhile, untroubled by romance, aspiring concert pianist Adam dreams instead of his own one-man show (in the most literal sense). Amidst the romantic sweep of An American in Paris’s swoony melodrama, it is Oscar Levant’s Adam who keeps the whole thing grounded. A cynical, hangdog presence with the same schlubby charm that would later make a star of Walter Matthau, Levant provides comedic asides and sober piano interludes that increase the film’s sense of variety. There’s a great set-piece in which he envisages a concert performance in which he plays every role, while a scene in which a romantic misunderstanding reaches a head is brilliantly enhanced by his comic business in the background as he silently betrays the fact that he is the only one in the scenario in possession of all the information. Georges Guétray is also charming as an aging cabaret singer who completes the central trio of leading men, although his main function as an unknowing obstruction to the romantic plot rather undersells his potential. As Lise, Leslie Caron is agreeably winsome, while Kelly gives one of his better acting performances, although as usual it is his talents as a hoofer that make him indispensable here.
When people talk about An American in Paris, the main focus is usually on the 17 minute climactic ballet, in which Kelly and Caron dance amongst sets inspired by the works of various French artists. It is, undoubtedly, a glorious achievement, closing the film with a dreamlike reverie in which the line between art and life disappears completely. But what fewer people recognise is how the magnificence of this sequence is enhanced by the relative simplicity of most of the numbers that lead up to it. Kelly’s cutesy interactive rendition of I Got Rhythm with a group of Parisian street children, his spellbinding dance with Caron to Love is Here to Stay and his joyful romp on top of Levant’s piano to Tra-La-La all have a lovely spontaneity to them. Not everything works as well. By Strauss, an old Gershwin party piece, is performed as such by the three male leads but rather than capture a sense of camaraderie, it just feels like three performers trying to outdo each other, the vague melody lost in their relentless asides. To find a more annoying contemporary musical number, you have to look to The Band Wagon’s execrable Triplets routine.
For all its flaws, An American in Paris is a largely pleasurable, sometimes exceptional, experience for lovers of the classic Hollywood Musical. If you can approach it without the usual expectations of plot, the film functions as a marvellous revue held together by an adequate framework, enhanced by a beautiful recreation of Paris incorporating the conventions of classic Hollywood artifice. Its numerous Oscar victories may have highlighted its inferiority to other unnominated classics (notably the subsequent Singin’ in the Rain) but removed from its award-winning context, it is a dreamy treat with much to recommend it.
34. THE SOUND OF MUSIC
Watched 5 May 2023
The Sound of Music is a deeply beloved film for so many people but it is equally a film that causes eyes to roll and nostrils to snort in the sort of derisive harmony that almost mimics the titular aural experience. It’s easy to be dismissive about something so insistently wholesome and almost aggressively saccharine, but then I’d argue that The Sound of Music pushes its natural inclinations to the extreme in the same way that an over-the-top Action movie does. Turning up explosions, fights, gore and quips as loud as they’ll go often results in enthusiastic plaudits from the same people who would snootily denounce The Sound of Music, but it’s essentially the same trick to crank the romance, cutesiness and feelgood factor to eleven. We’re all looking for those vicarious experiences to take us out of our lives and sometimes serving them smothered in oodles of sauce enhances the enjoyment, even if it inevitably drowns the nuance.
It’s a tad misleading to begin by talking only about The Sound of Music’s perceived goody-goodiness, because it is actually a fine story told well by a great screenwriter, director and cast. Plus there are Nazis. For all the talk of what a shot of syrup this film is, many people forget to mention that the very real encroaching threat of fascism plays a prominent part, even if one overzealous German 20th Century Fox executive tried their best to lop it out by removing the entire third act. Screenwriter Ernest Lehman did soften this element, removing two of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s songs from the stage musical, How Can Love Survive? and No Way to Stop It. If this slightly blunted the political and satirical edge, it also gave Robert Wise’s film adaptation a greater sense of focus. The fleeting mentions of the Third Reich’s imminence are perhaps even more chilling for their brevity, allowing the film to be about love, family and religion for over two hours, finding what would be any other romance’s natural conclusion and then knocking it off centre with the terrible consequences of Naziism. Cleaving so closely to the feelgood aesthetic also allows Richard Haydn’s scene-stealing cynic Uncle Max to cut through the film with an even more effective, undulled edge, before the third act gives him a begrudging but moving redemption.
If Hadyn manages to steal scenes, the overall film undoubtedly belongs to Julie Andrews. It’s hard to imagine The Sound of Music coming anywhere close to working as well as it does without Andrews’ astonishingly sympathetic, abundantly human portrayal of rebel nun Maria. From her gamine gambolling in I Have Confidence to her kindly teacher act in Do-Re-Mi and her doting motherliness in My Favourite Things, Andrews has both the terrific voice and astute physicality to carry off every musical number with aplomb, even when the song is as dreadful as Something Good. Her opening performance of the title track even manages to upstage the breathtaking Untersberg mountains against which it is staged, even as she struggled somewhat adorably to stay upright in the breeze created by the film crew’s helicopter. Even when the music stops, Andrews is superb, making Maria a level-headed, assertive but affectionate presence filled with the joys of existence.
Andrews is ably supported by Christopher Plummer as Captain von Trapp, the upright, grieving father of the seven children to whom Maria is appointed as governess. Less effective, though it may seem cruel to say, are the children themselves, who’s stiff, mannered performances rarely convince. The exceptions are the oldest and youngest, with Charmian Carr giving a decent enough portrayal of the pubescent Liesl and Kym Karath fulfilling all the requirements of the cute little one type as Gretl. To be fair, the rest of the children’s parts are underwritten to the point of interchangeability, with the two male children’s main motivation seemingly being to be as blonde as possible. Somewhat predictably, it is through the children that The Sound of Music reaches its most cloying lows, with their little dance on their knees during Do-Re-Mi and that excruciating cuckoo song testing even the limits of this paternal sentimentalist’s patience. Fortunately, Wise does manage to coax a convincingly sweet relationship between the children, their father and surrogate mother and they are perfectly tolerable when not centre stage.
Thanks to a previous girlfriend who adored The Sound of Music, I attended a Sing-a-Long screening in my early 20s. One of the main things I remember is that, amidst a sea of fancy dress nuns and wannabe Marias, one of the attendees came dressed as the bench from the gazebo in the I Am Sixteen, Going on Seventeen routine. Every time a scene occurred in the gazebo, the audience would chant “BENCH, BENCH, BENCH” and he would come up in front of the screen and assume the position on all fours. The other thing I recall is that the audience were encouraged to hiss at the Baroness whenever she was on screen. I remember this specifically because I’ve always found the Baroness to be one of cinema’s most sympathetic villains. Yes, she manipulates Maria into leaving but it is in a desperate and understandable attempt to preserve the relationship she has forged with the Captain. In the stage play, her political ambivalence towards the Nazis broke her and the Captain up, but here she is eventually allowed to step aside in an ambiguously noble manner. Hardly worthy of hisses from anyone but the most uncharitable shippers. It helps that the Baroness is played with a wry wit and vulnerability by Eleanor Parker, who was cast as a name actress to bolster the relative newcomers in the leading roles. Andrews and Plummer would quickly overtake Parker in the fame stakes but she brings a welcome air of old Hollywood glamour and some agreeable moral ambiguity to an otherwise fairly black and white story. Not that those hissing Sing-a-Longers would have it that way.
The Sound of Music is great, uplifting company for much of its runtime, with Wise knowing how to emphasise the dramatic rise and fall of the plot, how to get the most out of the ample humour in Lehman’s screenplay, and how to make his stars appear modestly glamorous without compromising their humanity. To be honest, by the end of the second hour my attention was threatening to wane, but fortunately this is where the film switches gears and delivers that genuinely tense final act. It may not be totally true to the story that inspired it (Austrian and German audiences tended to prefer 1956’s The Trapp Family) but The Sound of Music is a tightly constructed, emotionally engaging and thoroughly entertaining classic. It may push the syrup to extremes at times but, in the end, those extremes are sometimes what great cinema is all about and, for all the cries of protest from humourless, masculine windbags, would The Sound of Music really have been playing that different a game with the audience if the helicopter that kept blowing Julie Andrews over had blown her up instead?
33. MY FAIR LADY
Watched 20 June 2023
There are certain things that you have to forgive My Fair Lady if you are to accept its greatness. You have to forgive the fact that Julie Andrews, who had made such a success of the role of Eliza Doolittle in the stage version, was not cast in the part for the film. You have to forgive the fact that the film runs to almost three hours when it can’t quite convincingly sustain such an epic length. But you don’t have to forgive My Fair Lady the fact that it has one of the worst endings of any Best Picture winner. Not because that isn’t something you have to look past in order to enjoy the film. The sheer sense of deflation and of numerous narrative themes undermined is overwhelming in that climactic moment when Rex Harrison utters those six fatal words: “Where the devil are my slippers?” But this supposedly happy ending is not the creation of this version of the story. It, and variations of it, had been buzzing around the tale of Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins since George Bernard Shaw’s original play Pygmalion emerged early in the century. The audience, you see, fell in love with these characters and wanted to see them feel that way about each other. Various stage versions would bulldoze Shaw’s original ending, in which Eliza correctly chooses her independence, in order to insert at least some level of ambiguity and, more often than not, the implication that she gives in to her love of Higgins and Higgins uses this weakness in order to keep treating her in the beastly way he always has. The “Where the devil are my slippers” routine was there for all to see in the 1938 film adaptation of Pygmalion and both the Broadway musical of My Fair Lady and, ultimately, this film version, retained it. So don’t blame My Fair Lady for its final bum note. It is we, the demanding public, who have foisted this nonsense onto it, in the same way we’ve ensured that the majority of adaptations of Dickens’ Great Expectations go with the revised happy ending that betrays character and theme for a burst of unearned feelgood.
I decided to begin at the end in this review because I didn’t want that sour finale to be reflected here. Why end on a down note when I enjoyed My Fair Lady so much for so long. This tale of an arrogant phonetics professor who wagers that he can transform an uncouth cockney flower girl into a high society lady is replete with gloriously witty dialogue and intelligent examinations of class and gender roles that are only knocked askew by the ruinous climax, which paints the film as misogynistic and snobby when it is actually the opposite. Alan Jay Lerner’s screenplay draws heavily on Shaw but weaves the sparkling dialogue of Pygmalion deftly into a musical framework, with song lyrics that often match the dialogue’s level of wit. Frederick Loewe’s music is wonderful, tending towards uplifting even in the wistful ballads. On the Street Where You Live is such a beautiful melody which, since childhood, has never been far from my lips whenever they are pursed to whistle. It is a tune that is etched into me through cinema, to the same extent as As Time Goes By, and guaranteed to produce the same tingles. Elsewhere, there are tunes littering the runtime that are designed for the same effect: Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?, I Could Have Danced All Night, With a Little Bit of Luck, Show Me. Winners, all! Meanwhile, barbed spoken-word pieces like Why Can’t the English Learn to Speak? and An Ordinary Man, showcase Rex Harrison’s mastery of sprechstimme. It seems to make sense that a man like Henry Higgins would never quite lower himself to the indignity of actually singing.
A pretty big bump in the road to loving My Fair Lady comes in the lead performance of Audrey Hepburn, at least for half the film’s runtime anyway. This was the year of the unconvincing cockneys, with Dick Van Dyke’s performance in Mary Poppins becoming the gold standard for bad movie accents. I’ve always been a big defender of Van Dyke’s turn as Bert the chimney sweep though. Despite his inability to master the native inflections, I don’t think any other performer could’ve brought the same level of charisma, magic and showmanship to that role. There’s an element of that to Hepburn’s performance too. It’s certainly a thing of great physicality, as in the first half of the film she lurches and bends and shuffles around like a strange, giant bird. She comes fully to life when given the chance to indulge in the contemptuous song Just You Wait (although her singing voice throughout is dubbed by Marni Nixon). Her buzzsaw howls are sometimes intolerable but that can serve to highlight the grating effect she has on Higgins every time she opens her mouth. For the most part, Hepburn is playing pantomime cockney (save for a few moments, like when she says the word “French” and seems to devolve into some guttural aural atrocity that has never been heard before or since) and it almost works. After all, My Fair Lady asks us to make some pretty big leaps in credibility in order to appreciate its delights. There are few more uplifting scenes than when Eliza, Higgins and Pickering joyously perform The Rain in Spain, but the instantaneous transformation Eliza undergoes to get to this point is pure fantasy, and even with what we know of Higgins’ hubris, it beggars belief that after only a couple of well-intoned sentences he would declare her fit to try out in a public setting. But if we buy this notion, we’re rewarded with the ingenious scene at the races in which Hepburn is hilarious as she blends elements of cockney phrasing with pristine RP. The rewards of My Fair Lady are ample, if you’re willing to suspend disbelief to an excessive degree.
One particular issue I have with My Fair Lady is that once the wager is over and the transformation is complete, there’s still an hour left and the film struggles to fill it. This is where it becomes more about the relationship between Higgins and Eliza, beginning with a fantastic scene in which they have a blazing row in the wake of a triumphant evening. But after she leaves, the film has to simply replay the row again in a different setting. The players are more restrained the second time round but this ultimately makes it less entertaining, especially when we know the payoff afterwards is going to be so detrimental. Had Higgins story ended with Harrison’s fine performance of I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face, this would’ve been a perfect little tragedy with a moral. Higgins should slink away at the climax, realising his mistake too late. One thing My Fair Lady does not work as at all is a romance. Elements of the dialogue even seem to acknowledge this, with references to Eliza and Higgins’ unconventional relationship and the importance of kindness over passion. But when the climax plays out as if it is a romantic reconciliation, it just emerges as confusing. I remember when I watched the film as a child, I didn’t even catch that there were supposed to be romantic feelings involved. Basically, as a pre-teen, it all went downhill after the bit where she says “arse!”
Still, if the main plot loses momentum and, ultimately, its entire purpose, the final hour of My Fair Lady is still replete with pleasures. While we don’t really need that second Higgins song about the whimsical folly of womanhood, there are still big numbers like Show Me and Get Me to the Church on Time left in the barrel. The latter nicely concludes Stanley Holloway’s storyline as Eliza’s poor but carefree father who’s opportunistic visit to Higgins inadvertently seals his fate. This parallel plot has always been one of my favourite parts of Pygmalion and My Fair Lady and Holloway was a fine choice for the role, throwing himself into the dialogue and musical numbers with equal enthusiasm and glee. It’s a shame that his excellent final moment, being carried off mock-funeral style by a group of his fellow revellers, was not mirrored in an equally satisfying but more downbeat finale for Higgins.
I began this review by saying I didn’t want to end on a down note but the utter misjudgement of that ending is rather hard to dance around, all night or otherwise. There are other ways that My Fair Lady could’ve been better too, chiefly the casting of Julie Andrews in the lead role, who’s performance you can practically paint a picture of in your mind. Ironically, given that she was passed over due to her lack of box office pull, Andrews won the Oscar that year for her performance in Mary Poppins, while Hepburn went unnominated. In a production as heralded as My Fair Lady, the role of Eliza Doolittle should have been a shoo-in to bag its actress an Oscar nomination at least, but sadly the Academy’s decision was the correct one. As fascinatingly weird as she is in this, Hepburn’s performance clashes as much as it amuses, with the memory of that cockney cartoon haunting the more emotional later scenes and robbing them of their power. Still, with issues as difficult as an ineffective lead performance, overlength and a terrible ending, it’s testament to how strong the rest of My Fair Lady is that it can overcome them to such a degree. The performances of Harrison and Holloway, the steady directorial hand of old pro George Cukor, the often biting wit of the screenplay and the overwhelming wonderfulness of the music all make this flawed classic a joy to revisit.
32. KRAMER VS. KRAMER
Watched 17 July 2022
A sensation in its day, Kramer vs. Kramer is a film who’s stock has fallen somewhat in intervening years. As well as being ruefully chastised as the film that beat Apocalypse Now to the Best Picture Oscar, it is also regularly depicted as sentimental drivel, lumped in with the slew of bad TV movies it inspired, usually only differentiated on the basis of its lead performances. Many have issues with its jaundiced view of the legal system, while others view it as a misogynist tract on men’s rights. But I disagree with the majority of these claims. It’s true, I’ve been backwards and forwards on Kramer vs. Kramer over the years but this latest viewing confirmed the impression that I had in the back of my mind, that it is a sensitive, balanced and good-hearted film that pulls at the heart strings without overreaching in that way that makes the tear ducts more reluctant to produce. I’m an easy mark when it comes to tear-jerkers and Kramer vs. Kramer is guaranteed to squeeze a few out of me, even more so now than when I first saw it. I don’t want to sound like one of those terrible people who says “You can’t understand unless you have kids yourself” but, from a personal point of view, Kramer vs. Kramer affects me even more deeply since I became a Dad. My other personal emotional tie to the film involves my own Dad, who I lost in 2020. Dad would watch pretty much anything but he always point blank refused to watch Kramer vs. Kramer because, he said, it wasn’t a subject he wanted to explore in detail. I later understood this to mean that my Dad could take just about any subject matter but he couldn’t bear to imagine losing his own children.
If Kramer vs. Kramer has a major issue it’s the same one that marred American Beauty: a lead actor with sexual abuse allegations against him. Having heard stories and even seen footage of the way Dustin Hoffman treated many of his female co-stars, it’s impossible to completely put away that souring influence, especially when you hear some of the awful things he did to Meryl Streep on this production. As well as unwanted sexual advances, Hoffman’s well-documented and tedious dedication to The Method saw him bulldozing his co-star into his approach to acting. Not only is there that famous but spectacularly difficult to watch moment when he unexpectedly smashed a glass against a wall, leaving a shocked Streep with shards in her hair (and actually creating one of the few moments when the film spills over into overwrought melodrama) but Hoffman apparently pushed for Streep’s casting because he knew her fiancé John Cazale had recently died and he thought she could use that pain in her performance. Whether she did ultimately draw from this well is academic. This sort of choice has to be the decision of the actor themselves and no-one else, something Hoffman apparently ignored when he taunted her with Cazale’s name throughout production. This ugly male tendency to underestimate and refuse to hear women is something that Kramer vs. Kramer very pointedly calls out but these stories from the set are sadly baked into the experience. Of course, both Hoffman and Streep are excellent in their Oscar-winning performances but most people would probably have trusted in Streep’s undoubted ability to cry on demand or convincingly fake a reaction to a temper tantrum. One can’t help but think of Laurence Olivier’s famous advice to Hoffman on the set of Marathon Man: “My dear boy, why don’t you just try acting.”
Kramer vs. Kramer is a small, intimate film which examines its emotionally raw subject matter with minimal melodrama. Despite accusations that the film tips our sympathies towards Hoffman’s Ted, Robert Benton’s screenplay is actually very careful to avoid demonising Streep’s Joanna after she walks out on her husband and son. Apparently Streep was instrumental in pushing to make Joanna more sympathetic and her completely captivating performance ensures that we connect with her reasons for leaving. She weeps copious tears in this film and not a single one seems insincere. This is because she avoids depicting Joanna as hysterical, as a lesser actor would’ve done. She is desperately conflicted and disheartened by years of being ignored and moulded by an overbearing husband. Those who accuse Kramer vs. Kramer of misogyny often point to an early moment where mutual friend Margaret tells Ted that Joanna was brave to walk out, to which Ted replied “How much courage does it take to walk out on your kid?” This is the end of the scene but not the end of the argument, and in a later, very moving moment Ted explains to their son Billy how his shortcomings as a husband pushed Joanna to fit in with traditional gender roles rather than be her own person.
Kramer vs. Kramer is actually very progressive on gender roles, especially for its time. Plenty of films about fathers finding themselves unexpectedly holding the baby were released in and around the time of this film, but they were almost invariably comedies about the uselessness of male caregivers, in a way that sought to reinforce the idea that women are inherently better at childcare than men. When Ted questions this notion in Kramer vs. Kramer, it has nothing to do with a blinkered call for men’s rights but a more balanced view of parenthood overall that acknowledges the different roles both parents can play if stripped of society’s narrow demands. This is not to say that Kramer vs. Kramer doesn’t have some fun with Ted’s newfound role as single parent. There is plenty of humour in seeing him struggle with making French toast or taking calls about ice cream in front of his intolerant employer. But crucially, Ted does learn and grow, and not in that traditional way beloved of sitcoms in which the men, covered in exploded cake and baby vomit, say “Hey, you women really do have it tough. I’ll remember that now I’m going back to work and never have to make the mistake of trying to look after my child again”. Kramer vs. Kramer allows this growth to take place without ballyhooing it as a major achievement for which this particular man should be singled out for praise. It’s shown as a natural process that takes time and Ted is never shown to be a perfect parent, just one who grows through experience. The beautiful silent sequence in which Ted and Billy are shown to have found their rhythm together illustrates this wonderfully. There are other points at which Kramer vs. Kramer could’ve become melodramatic where it instead opts for a more effective realism. Eight year old Justin Henry’s performance as Billy is crucial in this respect, and he became the youngest ever Oscar nominee in any category. Henry plays Billy’s pain at losing his mother with a laudable lightness of touch. Of course, he also occasionally acts out, like in the very famous chocolate chip ice cream sequence, but this too feels realistic and the way that superb scene turns on a hairpin from comedy to devastating drama is indicative of Kramer vs. Kramer’s measured approach. Hoffman and Henry work wonderfully together, with that aforementioned ice cream scene apparently being largely improvised. Equally, Kramer vs. Kramer’s courtroom scenes, despite the film’s confrontational title, do not go down the root of bitter custody battle. Rather, this is the moment when both Kramers begin to have key epiphanies about their relationship and Billy’s welfare. While many have claimed that the ending is a Hollywood copout, it is actually exactly what the courtroom scenes have been building to and I think the low-key final moments are beautifully judged and satisfyingly get us to the film’s natural destination: a still fractured but more mature family who can now function in harmony for the good of their son. The moments of revelation that make this ending believable are mostly played through looks exchanged by Hoffman and Streep in the courtroom scenes. The moment when Ted shakes his head when his lawyer tries to make Joanna say she was a failure in their relationship slays me every time. If you miss moments like these, you may very well ask “Why would she give up custody after spending all that money?” but if you’re asking a question as cynical as that, you’ve probably missed more than just a few well-acted glances.
There are moments of Kramer vs. Kramer on which I’m not so keen. Though it ramps up the tension at an appropriate juncture, Ted’s quest to quickly find himself a job or forfeit custody plays like an endorsement of the Get On Your Bike and Look for Work ethos, with his unrealistically successful gambit depicted as a heroic example to us all, the sort of cheap shot to which Kramer vs. Kramer rarely stoops (the fact that Ted celebrates with a moment of sexual assault on an unsuspecting party goer that is played for laughs is a sign of the film’s era, though it does inevitably jar the viewer out of the film and back to those Hoffman allegations again). A key sequence in which Billy is injured in a playground accident leads to an emotional charge to the hospital which stays in the mind long after the film. But this nightmare scenario is undercut by the poorly shot accident itself, which culminates in an awkwardly cut-in shot of Billy’s bloodied face that elicited laughter in a way from which I could not then get back sufficiently to fully feel the impact of the hospital sequence. Jane Alexander, who plays Margaret, is sometimes moving but I think her Oscar nomination was a bit of an overreaction and her perfunctory counterpoint of a side plot involving her ex felt unnecessary and tacked on. And a comedy sequence in which Billy stumbles across the naked Phyllis, a colleague and new sexual partner of his father’s, in his hallway at night plays out with unconvincing casualness given the probable effect this would have on a child who’s mother recently left. I’m not asking for added melodrama here but the comedy we get doesn’t really fit either.
But if it occasionally falters, I do think Kramer vs. Kramer deserves its status as a classic, a title of which many have since moved to strip it. It’s a well-written, well-acted piece of social drama that clues us into contemporary attitudes without seeming woefully dated by them. I’ve been back and forth over the years on how to rate Kramer vs. Kramer and something must’ve really sat wrong with me the last time I watched it because I had it rated at a weak 3 stars. But this rewatch has bumped it up to a strong 4 stars and a respectable place in my ranking.
Watched 26 April 2023
Marty is the most low-key Best Picture winner in Oscar history but it is a classic example of how less can be more. To add any of the more recognisable tropes associated with Hollywood romances would be to take away that which makes Marty great. Hinging on a subtle, incisive screenplay by the legendary Paddy Chayefsky, Marty began life as a 1953 teleplay starring Rod Steiger in the title role. Its eventual expansion from a 50 minute small screen affair to a 90 minute theatrical release spoke of both the growing influence of TV and an increasing desire by screenwriters to explore smaller, more realistic stories. The social realism of Marty is bolstered by only a few slightly larger than life characters, making it feel like an unacknowledged influence on the subsequent British New Wave. It may not have created an instant fashion for slice-of-life minimalism (the following year’s Best Picture list included Giant, The Ten Commandments and Around the World in 80 Days) but Marty certainly feels like an important and influential film in retrospect.
Marty’s transition from the small screen involved a few changes. Esther Minciotti, Augusta Ciolli and Joe Mantell all reprised their supporting roles but the central figure of Marty was this time portrayed by Ernest Borgnine after Steiger declined the part, while the role of his love interest Clara, originally to be played again by actress Nancy Marchand, went to the blacklisted Betsy Blair after her husband Gene Kelly lobbied hard on her behalf. In terms of the script, the location of the Waverly Ballroom was renamed the Stardust Ballroom, and that’s the full extent of the added glamour. While certain subplots were added and expanded, the focus on character and minutiae was kept tight and Marty retained its charming restraint and emotional realism, in sharp contrast with its swooning Best Picture competitor Love is a Many-Splendored Thing. Marty’s victory struck a blow for the notion that relatable characters and situations could provide entertainment as pleasurable as widescreen escapism and impossibly gorgeous matinee idols.
Marty tells the simple tale of a lonely Italian-American Butcher living in the Bronx, who is constantly badgered by his family, friends and customers to find himself a woman. Overweight and tired of emotional pain, Marty just wants to stay in and watch TV but he ends up being strongarmed into a Saturday night at the Stardust Ballroom, where he meets the similarly lonely, shy science teacher Clara after she is abandoned by her blind date. Marty and Clara connect and have a good evening together but their romance is complicated by their own romantic inexperience and the objections of friends and family who, despite wanting Marty to find a woman, have various reasons for not wanting it to be that woman. Though Marty and Clara’s tentative courtship is the heart of the film, Chayefsky has opened out his teleplay by adding subplots in which we meet other characters from the neighbourhood who, like Marty, are suffering under the weight of societal expectations. Particularly ironic, given Marty is constantly hectored by his mother to find himself a wife, is the arrival in their home of her sister because of an inability to get along with her daughter-in-law. While some critics deemed a similar subplot in the TV version as an unwanted distraction in such a short runtime, across 90 minutes these tales from the sidelines add colour and subtle satirical commentary. It is notable that when Marty achieves his happy ending, he immediately gets subsumed by these same societal expectations, putting pressure on his best friend to find a woman and using the exact same language he had been fending off from others at the start of the film. It’s a nice cynical sting to an otherwise feelgood finale.
In the title role, Borgnine is very good. In keeping with Marty’s observations of how society treats those who are not conventionally attractive, Borgnine tended to be cast in villainous roles so Marty allowed him to show his range a little more as a sweet-natured character. Chayefsky gives Borgnine a lot of dialogue to deal with as Marty nervously blathers away to his date and occasionally it comes out sounding a little practiced but he makes up for that in the weightier emotional moments when he really captures the crushing gravity of embarrassment, disappointment and loneliness. Chayefsky astutely retains these reactions even in scenes where things appear to be going well, such as when Clara tells him she wants to see him again. These are bruised, frightened people who feel they have to keep their guards up longer after so much devastation. In a particularly strong scene, Marty responds to Clara’s admission that she finds herself crying all the time by making the same admission, a bold moment in an era that so prized traditional masculinity in its screen heroes. As Clara, Blair is also very moving, showing vulnerability without over-emoting and avoiding the shrinking violet stereotypes through a combination of delicately restrained acting and Chayefsky’s humane, poetic realism.
If Marty has an issue, it is that subsequent films in its mould have made it seem less unusual. Small stories abound on the big screen and this simple tale of a Bronx butcher may feel unremarkable to those who approach it without context. But in its bold and humane deconstruction of contemporary attitudes, Marty still has the power to pull complacent viewers up short. It presents an unerringly unpleasant portrait of male chauvinism in the language used by Marty’s friends to describe women and, while Marty is realistically implicated in this milieu he is also pushing against it in his contrasting attitude. Marty may be a small film but it has a lot to say that is still worth saying, and, with Chayefsky’s weight behind it, it says it more eloquently that most of those films that owe it a debt.