Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs

In 1937, Walt Disney had something to prove.

He’d arrived in Hollywood from Kansas City in 1923. A cartoonist with aspirations of becoming a live-action movie director, he began to make a name for himself with the Alice Comedies, a series of hybrid short films that combined live-action and animation, and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, one of the earliest recurring characters to have his own distinct personality.

Oswald had been created for producer Charles Mintz, who distributed the cartoons through Universal. In 1928, Disney tried to up his fee for the cartoons but Mintz refused, offering less money and reminding Disney that he owned the rights to Oswald. If Disney didn’t accept the terms, Mintz would just find somebody else who would. Disney walked away from Oswald, created Mickey Mouse and made history.

Of course, it wasn’t quite that simple. There would be a lot of trial and error, more unfavorable business deals, and key collaborators would both enter and leave Walt’s life (perhaps most notably, Walt’s long-time friend and partner Ub Iwerks, who left in 1930). Still, by most any yardstick, Disney was a huge success by 1937. Mickey Mouse was recognized around the world, the Silly Symphonies series was a smash hit, and Walt had already won 6 Academy Awards (out of an eventual 22, still the most ever won by an individual). He was 36 years old. And yet, he still had something to prove.

Disney wanted to break out of the short subject rut and into feature filmmaking with an adaptation of the Grimm fairy tale Snow White. Outside of the studio, literally no one thought this was a good idea. Even inside the studio, folks were skeptical. Walt’s brother, Roy, and wife, Lillian, both tried to talk him out of it. Throughout Hollywood, the project was referred to as “Disney’s Folly”. Walt thought he could make it for around $250,000. It ended up costing close to $1.5 million and he’d have to mortgage his house to help finance it. It took around three years to make and when it finally premiered at the Carthay Circle Theatre in Los Angeles on December 21, 1937, it changed everything.

It’s impossible to imagine today just how revolutionary Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs must have been to audiences at the time. Today, most people consider it to be a genteel, rather old-fashioned picture, a relic from Hollywood’s golden age. But no one had ever told a complex story with a beginning, middle and end in animation before. Up until then, animated cartoons were only designed to hold the attention for about 8 minutes with a series of gags and maybe a quick song or two. There were even those who doubted that people could physically take a feature-length animated cartoon. All the bright colors would probably lead to eyestrain and headaches.

Most of all, animated cartoons up to this point were only intended to provoke one of two simple emotions: happy or sad. Sure, people loved characters like Mickey and Minnie Mouse but they weren’t emotionally invested in them. You didn’t hope that they’d find a true and lasting love and you certainly never worried that one of them might actually die.

Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs did all that. It told a familiar story in a way that made it seem brand new. It seamlessly integrated the exaggerated animation style of the dwarfs with some of the most realistic human characters the medium had yet seen. It introduced no less than 8 original songs, most of which went on to become instantly recognizable standards including “Heigh-Ho”, “Whistle While You Work” and “Someday My Prince Will Come”. And, as far as I know, it did all this without causing a single migraine or seizure.

It’s clear from the opening titles that Walt Disney had put everything on the line with this production. A personalized title card early on reads, “My sincere appreciation to the members of my staff whose loyalty and creative endeavor made possible this production.” That sounds as much like a goodbye as a hello, as though Walt was resigned to the possibility of failure and was saying, “Well, boys…we gave it our best shot. Thanks for trying.”

As it turned out, everyone else also sincerely appreciated their creative endeavors. Even today, it’s impossible not to respect the artistry behind Snow White, even if you find elements of it dated. The stunning backgrounds, the fluid movement of the characters, the design elements, everything comes together to create a lush spectacle that’s simply beautiful to look at.

Disney’s success with short subjects translated surprisingly well to creating Snow White‘s story structure. As with the shorts, the story was broken down into a series of interconnected gags, with the distinct personalities of the Seven Dwarfs serving as the driving force behind many of them. But gags are sprinkled throughout the film. If the movie had been a flop, Disney could easily have excised the “Whistle While You Work” sequence and released it as a stand-alone Silly Symphony.

The vocal performances are also key to selling the story. The dwarfs’ design gets you halfway there but it’s the voices of Pinto Colvig, Roy Atwell, Billy Gilbert, Otis Harlan and others who bring them to life. Lucille La Verne had been an actress for over fifty years when she voiced the evil Queen, both in her vain, “fairest-of-them-all” form and as the apple-poisoning old hag. Both voices are terrifying and intimidating in their own unique ways. La Verne retired from acting after Snow White, perhaps realizing she’d already achieved immortality.

The most divisive voice these days is Adriana Caselotti as Snow White herself. Her high-pitched, tremulous voice has been parodied for generations at this point. But it’s frankly perfect for the character. It’s nowhere near as one-note as those parodies might have you remembering. And the character is meant to be as pure and innocent as the driven snow, after all. If Caselotti’s voice has since come to sound like a cliché, that’s because it works.

In later years, Disney would become a bit overprotective of Snow White’s voice. Jack Benny famously wanted to hire Caselotti for his radio show but Walt refused, not wanting anything to ruin the mystique of that perfect voice. Caselotti probably lost quite a bit of work over the years thanks to Walt. Still, she never seemed to hold a grudge, at least not publicly, and became the first female voice actor to be named a Disney Legend in 1994. Even so, from today’s perspective at least, it does seem like Walt was a bit of a dick about it.

The public went wild for Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs. For a little while, it was the highest-grossing film of all time (at least until Gone With The Wind came along). The movie landed Walt and the dwarfs on the cover of Time magazine. At the Oscars, Shirley Temple presented Walt with an honorary Academy Award and seven mini-Oscars, recognizing the film as “a significant screen innovation which has charmed millions and pioneered a great new entertainment field”.

The movie’s music also earned a nomination for Best Scoring. This was at the 10th Oscars and, like many categories in the ceremony’s early years, they were still trying to figure this one out. At the time, the nomination went to the head of the studio’s music department and pretty much every studio was guaranteed a nomination for whatever movie they chose to submit. Snow White, and everything else that year, lost to the Deanna Durbin musical One Hundred Men And A Girl. Its “score” consisted of two original songs and a whole bunch of classical music. Realizing that it wasn’t entirely fair to make people compete with the likes of Mozart and Wagner, the Academy changed the category’s rules in time for the next ceremony.

Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs changed movies forever. It paved the way for every single animated feature film that would follow, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that audiences could be made to care just as deeply about a series of drawings as they did about flesh-and-blood characters. The Disney Era had begun.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

An Honor To Be Nominated: Nine

THE CONTENDER: Nine (2009)

Number of Nominations: 4 – Actress in a Supporting Role (Penélope Cruz); Costume Design (Colleen Atwood); Art Direction (John Myhre, Gordon Sim); Original Song (“Take It All”, music & lyrics by Maury Yeston)

Number of Wins: 0

Hollywood and Broadway used to enjoy a much more symbiotic relationship than they do today. The Broadway stage was a reliable source of material for moviemakers. In return, Hollywood made Broadway look like the highest peak a young up-and-coming actor, singer or dancer could aspire to. Hell, the second movie (and the first sound picture) to win Best Picture was The Broadway Melody, about a pair of sisters fresh off the vaudeville circuit trying to make it big on the Great White Way.

Some of the most beloved movies of all time are based on Broadway musicals: My Fair Lady, The Sound Of Music, West Side Story, the list goes on and on. One thing these movies all have in common: they all appeared in theatres not too long after their stage debuts. My Fair Lady won the 1957 Tony for Best Musical. The movie came out in 1964. The Sound Of Music came out five years after winning its Tony.

But the movie-going public’s appetite for big, splashy musicals all but died in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Broadway adaptations continued to pop up now and then (The Wiz, Annie, A Chorus Line) but they rarely returned on their investment (Grease being one of the few exceptions).

So pretty much any popular, Tony-winning musical that had the misfortune to debut in the 1980s was resigned to sit on the sidelines. Evita had to wait 16 years before it was made into a film. The Phantom Of The Opera took 18. And Cats…well, we all know what happened to Cats.

Nine premiered on Broadway in 1982 and it was kind of a big deal. It helped launch Raul Julia (already a big Broadway star) into a film career, won multiple Tony Awards and was nominated for a Grammy. 21 years later, a revival of the show also won a bunch of Tonys. But it wasn’t until six years after that when the movie version was finally released to an indifferent public who had most likely forgotten all about the show. It probably didn’t help matters that just a few months earlier, a completely unrelated animated film called 9 had been released (and that one had come out just a few months after District 9…nines were everywhere in 2009).

Based on the classic by Federico Fellini (who was reportedly cool with giving over the stage rights to his film as long as his name and the movie’s actual title were kept far, far away from it), Nine follows cinema maestro Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) as he preps for his latest film, Italia. Principal photography is scheduled to begin in just 10 days but Guido doesn’t have a script. Panicked, Guido flees a press conference and attempts to hole up in a spa away from Rome, summoning his mistress (Penélope Cruz) and stashing her in a much seedier hotel close to the train station…just in case.

Naturally, “just in case” becomes a reality as the entire film crew follows Guido in an effort to get him to focus on the project. But the script remains elusive as Guido’s mind slides into a fantasia of all the women in his life, including his wife (Marion Cotillard), his leading lady (Nicole Kidman), his costume designer/confidante (Judi Dench), an American reporter (Kate Hudson), a prostitute from his childhood (Fergie) and his late mother (Sophia Loren).

The impressive lineup of talent doesn’t stop in front of the camera. The screenplay was written by Michael Tolkin and the late Anthony Minghella (this ended up being his last film credit). The director was Rob Marshall, who had made an impressive transition from Broadway to film with the Oscar-winning Chicago just a few years earlier. On paper, everything about this movie seems like a home run. So why is it so totally inert?

A big part of the problem here is the character of Guido, both as written and as played by Daniel Day-Lewis. Guido is a brooding, narcissistic, control freak who gets away with his bad behavior because he’s a genius. Day-Lewis has the brooding control freak side of the character down pat but we don’t get to see even a glimpse of the genius or any other redeeming quality to suggest why we should care about this guy.

He also never seems particularly comfortable with the singing and dancing that comes along with starring in a musical. He only has a couple of numbers and he’s a fine singer. But songs in musicals are all about taking what a character is feeling inside and making it physical through music and movement. Day-Lewis is such an internal actor anyway, you feel him bristling at being made to externalize his emotions. It isn’t his strong suit.

Fortunately, the ladies do most of the heavy lifting in the music department while Day-Lewis looks on, usually bathed in a spotlight and smoking a cigarette. They’re all perfectly fine, although I wouldn’t say any of them are particularly inspired. Marion Cotillard has the most to do as Guido’s ignored wife and gets two numbers, including one of the three new songs written for the film. “My Husband Makes Movies” is sort of an insipid introduction to the character but she fares better with the new song, “Take It All”. Nicole Kidman and Sophia Loren are barely in the movie long enough to register, while Kate Hudson pops in for an energetic but stupid new tune, “Cinema Italiano”. As for Judi Dench…she’d go on to appear in Cats, so we’ll cut her some slack for this one.

But when you have a cast like this, somebody’s bound to get an Oscar nomination and this time, Penélope Cruz’s name was pulled out of the hat. Her performance is…fine. No better or worse than anyone else in the cast. She gives 100% to her sexy performance of “A Call From The Vatican” and her role allows for a bit more range than Cotillard’s did, so I assume that’s why she got the nod. But honestly, this is one of those nominations that feels like the Academy selected just by throwing a dart at a poster of the movie.

The best song in the movie and the one sequence that feels authentically Fellini-esque belongs to Fergie, the only person here who has never been nominated for an Oscar. “Be Italian” is clearly the show-stopper, so thank God they gave it to somebody who could sing the hell out of it. But during the black-and-white flashback sequences, Fergie is the one person in the cast who looks like she belongs in a Fellini film. She’s sexy, earthy, uninhibited and playful in a way nobody else pulls off. It’s the one sequence in the film that really comes to life.

It’s hard to argue against Nine‘s art direction and costume design nominations. If nothing else, the movie looks spectacular. It lost in both categories (to Avatar and The Young Victoria, respectively) but production designer John Myhre, set decorator Gordon Sim, and costume designer Colleen Atwood have all won Oscars before (and since, in the Atwood’s case), so don’t feel too badly for them.

2009 was the first year the Academy upped the number of Best Picture nominees to 10. You’d think that with more slots available, a movie with Nine‘s pedigree would be a shoo-in for the big prize. But Nine was unable to muscle past the likes of The Blind Side and A Serious Man, much less eventual winner The Hurt Locker. In fact, Nine tied with J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek for the most number of nominations without getting a Best Picture nod. Difference is that Star Trek actually won one (that’d be Best Makeup).

Today, Nine is a footnote in the careers of those involved with the movie. Perhaps the greatest legacy of the play is that it was one of the first big Broadway shows based on a movie. These days, when everything from The Lion King to Beetlejuice to Evil Dead to Monty Python And The Holy Grail has been adapted for the musical theatre, it feels almost risky to base a show on a 1960s Italian art film. And who knows…maybe if Nine had made the transition back to cinema back in the 80s, maybe it would have been something fresh instead of the reheated pasta it became.

Nine is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

An Honor To Be Nominated: Twelve Monkeys

THE CONTENDER: Twelve Monkeys (1995)

Number of Nominations: 2 – Actor in a Supporting Role (Brad Pitt); Costume Design (Julie Weiss)

Number of Wins: 0

Not too long ago, I sat down to finally watch Terry Gilliam’s long, long delayed The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. As I did, I was confronted with the sad but very real possibility that I was watching his last film. Gilliam has rarely had an easy time getting his movies made but the road to Don Quixote had been especially arduous. It had been preceded by the barely-released The Zero Theorem; The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus, which had to be completely rethought after star Heath Ledger died in the middle of production; and the even-more-barely-released Tideland, which found the former Python making the publicity rounds while toting a cardboard sign reading, “Studio-less film maker. Family to support. Will direct for food.” How much does he have to put up with before he finally says enough is enough?

It wasn’t always this way. Gilliam’s 1981 breakthrough, Time Bandits, was a bona fide smash hit. It was the 10th highest-grossing movie of the year in America and remains a delightful, endlessly rewatchable classic. His troubles began with his next film, Brazil, which became embroiled in a notorious struggle for final cut between Gilliam and Universal Pictures (specifically then-chairman Sid Sheinberg). Gilliam won that battle and the film is now rightly regarded as a masterpiece but it didn’t exactly demolish box office records.

Then came The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen, a fantasy epic that went wildly over-budget and completely tanked at the box office. Most directors never recover from a debacle like that (see also: Cimino, Michael). But Gilliam was determined to shake his reputation as an irresponsible, out-of-control auteur. He rebounded and back-to-back made the two biggest hits of his career: The Fisher King and Twelve Monkeys.

An Academy Award-winning film in its own right, The Fisher King will be a subject for another day. So let’s contemplate the unlikely success of Twelve Monkeys. First off, it’s a remake of (or, as the credits have it, “inspired by”) a 28-minute French art film told almost entirely in still images, Chris Marker’s La Jetée. It’s a dystopian science fiction nightmare about a violent criminal (Bruce Willis as James Cole) who is “volunteered” to travel back in time to gather information about a virus that wipes out most of humanity in 1996. His job isn’t to prevent the virus from being released. We’re told repeatedly that ship has sailed. The world is dead. The best Cole can do is assist the scientists in their search for a cure.

Cole’s first journey to the past sends him back too far, arriving in 1990 where he finds himself committed to a mental hospital under the care of Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe). He’s befriended by fellow inmate Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), who rants and raves about corporate America and consumer culture. Cole is snatched back to his own time, then accidentally sent to a battlefield in World War I before finally ending up in 1996, just before the virus is due to be released. The scientists believe a group of radical environmentalists called The Army of the Twelve Monkeys is responsible and it turns out that Jeffrey Goines is the leader of the group. But all this back and forth is taking a heavy toll on Cole. He’s doubting his own sanity and is plagued by a recurring childhood memory of seeing a man shot by police in an airport.

In a nutshell, Twelve Monkeys is a dark, dark film. It’s all about madness and death, it takes place in run-down sanatoriums and on the decaying streets of Philadelphia in the grayest of winters, and ends by promising a future that’s about to get a whole lot worse. Nevertheless, it was a sizable hit and earned a pair of Academy Award nominations.

One of those nominations went to costume designer Julie Weiss (she’d be nominated again a few years later for her work on Julie Taymor’s Frida). As far as I’m concerned, Gilliam’s films should routinely be nominated for both production and costume design. There simply aren’t any other movies that look like his. Weiss’ work here is fantastic and not just the futuristic containment suits. Even the contemporary scenes bear a mark of individuality. The various mental patients and homeless people Cole encounters all look weathered and beaten down by life. Of course, these aren’t exactly the kind of fashion statements that win Oscars.

The film’s other nomination went to young up-and-comer Brad Pitt. It was his first nomination and he’d go on to win in the same category just this year for Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood. It’s not quite fair to say that this was the first time Pitt had shown he was more than just a pretty face. He’d been proving himself as an actor for awhile by now in movies like A River Runs Through It and Legends Of The Fall. He’d also grunged himself up for movies like Kalifornia and True Romance. So we already knew he wasn’t exactly vain. We also knew that he was willing to go into some pretty dark territory. His other big hit of 1995 was Se7en. Brad Pitt was not spending the year spreading sunshine, lollipops and rainbows.

But up until now, Pitt’s screen persona had been very laconic, almost bordering on sleepy from time to time. He was charming and extremely good-looking but his energy was very low-key. Twelve Monkeys was the opposite of all that. For the first time, here was Brad Pitt literally bouncing off the walls, firing off dialogue like a machine gun and grinning like a lunatic. We’d never seen this Brad Pitt before and, honestly, we haven’t seen too much of him since. His performance is absolutely over-the-top but in the best way. Personally, I’d love to see Crazy Brad show up again someday.

Bruce Willis (perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not) has never been nominated for an Academy Award. Did he deserve one here? Possibly. Willis certainly doesn’t disappear into the part of James Cole. He’s not that kind of actor. But he anchors this film in some important ways. The consistency of the character’s through-line is what prevents all the time travel mind games from becoming confusing, even as Cole thinks he’s going insane himself. And Willis has at least one genuinely lovely, touching moment when Cole hears music again for the first time in lord knows how long. Willis really sells that scene. The expression of pure happiness on his face speaks volumes about what he’s endured.

You would think that after the back-to-back success of The Fisher King and Twelve Monkeys that Terry Gilliam would have had an easier time of it. You would be wrong. His next film, the appropriately gonzo Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, divided critics and struggled at the box office. After that, Gilliam spent a lot of time on movies that never got made, including a go at adapting Watchmen and the first of several attempts at The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Gilliam was even J.K. Rowling’s first choice to direct Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone before cooler heads prevailed, Gilliam deciding he didn’t want the headaches of a big tentpole film and Warner Bros. deciding they didn’t want the headaches of dealing with Gilliam.

If Terry Gilliam’s directorial career is indeed winding down, Twelve Monkeys will stand as his last big hit. In 2015, SyFy launched a 12 Monkeys TV series that credits Chris Marker and screenwriters David and Janet Peoples but pointedly not Terry Gilliam. People now seem to believe that the movies Gilliam made that were successful succeeded in spite of him, not because of him. If so, that’s a real shame. Terry Gilliam remains a singularly talented filmmaker with a vision all his own. His legacy will outlast any virus.

Twelve Monkeys is available on Blu-ray from Arrow Video.

An Honor To Be Nominated: À Nous La Liberté

THE CONTENDER: À Nous La Liberté (1931)

Number of Nominations: 1 – Art Direction (Lazare Meerson)

Number of Wins: Zéro

In the last column, I discussed how focusing only on the top categories of Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film does a disservice to the complete history of foreign films at the Academy Awards. Many, many excellent international productions have competed in nearly every category. As near as I can tell, only the Visual Effects category has never nominated a foreign language film. Sure, the UK, Australia and New Zealand have been represented but it seems kind of weird that there’s never been anything nominated from Asia or non-English-speaking Europe.

At any rate, the topic got me to wondering: what was the very first foreign-language film nominated for an Academy Award? Turns out, it was a lot earlier than you may have thought. At just the 5th Academy Awards, René Clair’s influential social satire À Nous La Liberté became the answer to a future trivia question when it became one of three films nominated for Best Art Direction. It would be over a decade before a foreign-language film would actually win anything but it was a start.

Clair had been a journalist and film critic whose first two short films, The Crazy Ray and Entr’acte, firmly established him as a key member of the French avant-garde. Over the course of the 1920s, he became one of the most highly regarded silent filmmakers with films like An Italian Straw Hat. Clair was initially resistant to the arrival of sound but it didn’t take him long to master it, becoming one of the most innovative directors of the early sound era.

À Nous La Liberté was his third sound film and, in many ways, it remains his best work. Henri Marchand and Raymond Cordy star as Émile and Louis, cellmates in a French prison. They plot an escape but only Louis makes it to freedom. Once back in society, Louis takes a job selling phonograph records on the street. He’s successful at it and over time, the street corner job turns into a storefront, which in turn grows into a factory, replicating phonographs using the same assembly line techniques Louis learned in prison.

Years later, Émile, now released from prison, is arrested for loitering. Through his jail cell, he hears the singing of a young woman, Jeanne (Rolla France). He’s immediately smitten and, after managing to escape the cell, he follows her back to Louis’ factory, where she works. Émile ends up in the employment line, stuck with another assembly line job that he didn’t really want. His disruptions land him in hot water and end up reuniting him with his now rich and powerful old cellmate. At first, Louis assumes Émile has turned up to blackmail him by exposing his secret past. But it doesn’t take long for him to be reminded of his old friend’s inherently good nature and Émile is welcomed back like a brother.

The two friends pick up where they left off, singing their old prison song, “À Nous La Liberté” (literally, “Freedom For Us”). Louis promises to help Émile win Jeanne’s heart by helping out financially but Émile eventually decides to let her go after realizing she truly loves another. Meanwhile, Louis has attracted the attention of another ex-prisoner and this one has less-than-honorable intentions, threatening to blow the whistle on him.

There are any number of elements in À Nous La Liberté that could be singled out for praise, starting with the performances of both Marchand and Cordy. Movies with this kind of structure don’t often work. Clair starts with both characters, then drops Marchand entirely to focus exclusively on Cordy. Eventually, Marchand comes back in and we forget about Cordy for awhile. Finally, after a long time apart, the two characters are brought back together. For this to work, we have to be invested in both Marchand and Cordy equally. This is harder to pull off than it seems and works here thanks to the two actors’ magnetic screen presence and chemistry that establishes their friendship within seconds.

À Nous La Liberté also became the source of controversy a few years after its release when the French studio Tobis accused Charles Chaplin of plagiarizing Clair’s work in his own Modern Times. It’s hard to deny the similarities between the two but we’ll never really know for sure if it was an influence. The suit was eventually settled out-of-court and Chaplin always maintained that he’d never even seen the picture. For his part, Clair wanted nothing to do with the lawsuit, professing his own admiration for Chaplin and saying he’d be honored even if Chaplin had ripped him off.

Whether you’re Team Chaplin or Team Clair, the French director was definitely ahead of the curve when it came to sound. Chaplin was one of the last holdouts of the silent era and he managed to produce some of his best work after everyone else had switched to talkies. But Clair overcame whatever reservations he had about the technology early on and pioneered innovative use of music, sound design and dialogue, blending them into a seamless tapestry of sound. Keep in mind, the Academy didn’t even have music categories at this time and the award for Sound Recording was given to the entire department of the studio, not to individuals for work on specific films. Hollywood would spend another year or two trying to catch up to Clair.

Instead, the Academy chose to honor Lazare Meerson with a nomination for Best Art Decoration. Again, it’s hard to complain about this choice. Meerson’s sets, particularly in the prison and factory sequences, are truly spectacular, all streamlined angles and curves. There were only three nominees in the category and À Nous La Liberté ended up losing to a Grand Hotel-style comedy-drama called Transatlantic. I couldn’t tell you if it was robbed or not. Transatlantic is a tough movie to track down, having never been released on video in any format. It’s my understanding that it’s received some kind of restoration, so I hope it’ll become easier to see at some point because it sounds genuinely interesting. Any movie that beat À Nous La Liberté for Art Direction has to interesting to look at, if nothing else.

René Clair only made a couple more pictures in France. Then, like most European filmmakers during World War II, he traveled to the UK and America, making English-language features like The Ghost Goes West and I Married A Witch. Clair returned to France as soon as the war was over and continued making films, some of which were well-received. But eventually, Clair would run headlong into the French New Wave. His style seemed quite old-fashioned compared to the work of young auteurs like Godard and Truffaut. He retired from filmmaking in 1965 and concentrated on writing until his death in 1981. But even today, audiences continue to discover and appreciate Clair’s innovative, ahead-of-their-time masterpieces from the 1930s.

À Nous La Liberté is available on DVD from The Criterion Collection and is currently available for streaming on The Criterion Channel.

An Honor To Be Nominated: The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared

THE CONTENDER: The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared (2013)

Number of Nominations: 1 – Makeup and Hairstyling (Love Larson and Eva Von Bahr)

Number of Wins: 0

Accepted wisdom has it that foreign language films historically have a difficult time at the Oscars. The rules for eligibility in the Best Foreign Language Film category (which is evidently going to be redubbed Best International Feature Film as of next year) are admittedly labyrinthine and strange; with countries submitting entries for consideration like it’s the Eurovision Song Contest. If a film is not an “official entry” from a country, it’s often out of luck. Even if they are official, they can still be disqualified or withdrawn for a wide range of reasons, from language to distribution to politics.

But this fails to take into account the huge number of foreign films that have been nominated in other categories. Granted, only a handful has competed for Best Picture. But there have been dozens of documentaries, several animated films, and a long line of actors and actresses recognized in their categories. The complete list of nominated writers and directors reads like a who’s who of international cinema masters. And if you look at the technical categories, foreign films are extremely well-represented in Costume Design, Cinematography, and Art Direction.

Makeup is one of the few categories where international films are arguably under-represented, although they have been catching up in recent years. The number of foreign language films nominated in the category has almost doubled in the last decade alone. Recently, Sweden has been on a bit of a streak, racking up its most recent nomination just this past winter for Border. The country’s first nod in the category came in 2016 with the marquee-busting comedy The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared.

Directed by Felix Herngren and based on the novel by Jonas Jonasson, The 100-Year-Old-Etc chronicles the adventures of Allan Karlsson (played by popular Swedish comedian Robert Gustafsson). On the day of his 100th birthday, he decides he’s had enough of the retirement home where he’s been forcibly placed and…well, you can probably figure it out. He buys a bus ticket for as far as his pocket change will take him, which turns out to be not far at all, a defunct train station in the middle of nowhere. But before he can get on the bus, a skinhead biker, frustrated that he can’t squeeze his oversized suitcase into the cramped restroom with him, demands that Allan hold on to it for a minute and not let go. That’s exactly what Allan does. He just gets on the bus, too.

Reaching the end of the line, Allan is befriended by Julius (Iwar Wiklander), an older man who’s facing the likelihood of being put into a retirement home himself soon. Meanwhile, the skinhead turns out to be a courier for a British crime boss (Alan Ford, who you may recognize from Snatch) and the suitcase contains millions in cash. Thus begins a journey across the Swedish countryside with the skinheads trying to track down the suitcase and a bored policeman (Ralph Carlsson) trying (not very hard) to track down the hundred-year-old man.

Layered on top all of this, we have Allan recounting his life story in flashback, a distinctly Forrest Gump-like journey that finds Allan discovering his one true passion in life: explosives. His love for blowing stuff up first lands him in a mental hospital. But upon his release, he’s able to put it to use, first in Spain alongside the revolutionaries against Franco, then as part of the Manhattan Project, and eventually in a Russian gulag, where he’s imprisoned alongside Herbert Einstein, Albert’s idiot brother. After an escape, Allan ends up working as a spy for both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. during the Cold War, feeding both sides useless information.

So what we have here is essentially a mash-up of Forrest Gump and an absurdist crime comedy. Think Coen Brothers Lite. Perhaps surprisingly, the present-day antics work a lot better than the flashback romp through history. There’s a simple reason for this. The characters in this half are a whole lot more compelling than the various historical caricatures Allan encounters. Apart from Herbert Einstein, who is admittedly funny, Allan encounters Franco, Stalin, Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, Truman, Gorbachev, and Reagan; all played indifferently by actors who sound nothing like their counterparts. If this were a Hollywood movie, these would be opportunities for scene-stealing cameos. In European cinema, they’re awkward moments best glossed over as quickly as possible.

But the characters in the present-day story are a lot of fun. Allan and Julius’ little group grows to include Benny (David Wiberg), a stammering, middle-aged graduate student who is perpetually a few credits shy of completing whatever degree he’s working on at the moment. We also meet Gunilla (Mia Skäringer), a young woman who lives on her own with Sonja, a liberated circus elephant. (Oh, did I not mention there was an elephant involved? There is.) Gunilla’s ex-boyfriend also happens to be the brother of one of the skinheads, in case you’d forgotten about them. Spending time with these characters is so pleasant and breezy that you almost come to resent Allan’s past intruding on the story.

The Oscar-nominated makeup is pretty good but I don’t think I’d deem it Oscar-worthy. Gustafsson’s old-age makeup is clearly the showcase piece and it’s fine, though not up to the heights hit by Dick Smith earlier in films like The Exorcist. As for the historical figures, some like Einstein and Stalin are perfectly acceptable, while others like Reagan are downright dodgy. Makeup artists Love Larson and Eva Von Bahr would do better work on their second Oscar-nominated film, A Man Called Ove, the following year.

The Makeup category has taken a hit in recent years, as advances in digital technology have blurred the lines between makeup and visual effects. The category used to be dominated by science fiction, fantasy and horror films. These days, the Academy is more likely to be impressed by historical transformations and old-age makeup than by monsters and aliens. Most of the innovative work in that area is now a marriage between digital effects and practical makeup artists and, unfortunately, the Academy doesn’t seem to know quite how to address that yet.

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared is now the third highest grossing Swedish film of all time, behind only the original versions of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire (the Swedes do seem to like long titles, don’t they?). In fact, a sequel was recently released called (deep breath) The 101-Year-Old Man Who Skipped Out On The Bill And Disappeared. It’s currently streaming on Netflix and a glance at its IMDb page suggests that the filmmakers decided to double down on the structure of the first one, with flashbacks to Allan’s eventful life intercut with a quirky road trip to find a Russian soda recipe. Feels like the very definition of pushing your luck to me but who knows? Maybe it’s just kooky enough to work.

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared is available on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital from Music Box Films.

An Honor To Be Nominated: Cain And Mabel

THE CONTENDER: Cain And Mabel (1936)

Number of Nominations: 1 – Best Dance Direction (Bobby Connolly for “1000 Love Songs”)

Number of Wins: 0

When I expanded the parameters of this column to include any movie that had been nominated for any Academy Award, it was out of a desire to explore the fringes of Oscar history. There have been a lot of pictures nominated for a single award like Best Original Song or Best Make-Up whose achievement has been forgotten, sometimes rightly, sometimes not.

The Oscars’ early years are chockfull of curios like that. The biggest reason for this is simply that it took them a number of years to figure this shit out. The number of nominees in any given category could vary wildly, from as few as three to a dozen or more. At the 17th Academy Awards, 20 (!) movies were nominated for Best Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture. This was just a few years after several technical categories (including Cinematography) were split in half between Color and Black-and-White. That tradition lasted well into the 1960s, resulting in a whole lot of weirdly bloated categories.

And then there’s the case of the Categories That Time Forgot, defunct categories that were introduced, hung around for a year or three, then vanished. The very first ceremony had several that were immediately dropped, including Comedy Direction and Artistic Quality of Production. For a number of years, the Academy handed out special Juvenile Awards to outstanding child actors like Shirley Temple and Judy Garland. But those were non-competitive awards and only given out intermittently.

All of which brings us to today’s subject: the obscure musical comedy Cain And Mabel which racked up a single Academy Award nomination in the long-gone Best Dance Direction category. Even by Oscar standards, this was a weird one. It was given out only three times, from 1935 to 1937. And unlike most other categories which recognize the overall quality of the production, nominees for Best Dance Direction were honored for a specific dance sequence within a film. This is how you could end up with Merian C. Cooper’s adventure movie She competing against the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers classic Top Hat.

Cain And Mabel was directed by Lloyd Bacon, a man who knew his way around the dance floor thanks to his work on such musicals as 42nd Street and Footlight Parade. Marion Davies stars as Mabel O’Dare, a waitress at a busy New York cafeteria. She takes pity on suicidal ex-reporter Aloysius K. Reilly (Roscoe Karns, whose rat-a-tat delivery is immediately recognizable from classics like It Happened One Night and His Girl Friday), giving him a breakfast that was being sent back to the kitchen. After her altruism gets her fired, Reilly vows to make things right. Realizing that his propensity for making up phony stories made him a lousy reporter but would serve him well as a publicity agent, he takes the seemingly talentless Mabel on as his first client.

Reilly marches Mabel into the office of theatrical producer Jake Sherman, claiming they’re old friends and promising to get her an audition. But Reilly stops the first person who walks out the door, assuming he must be Sherman. It’s actually Broadway star Ronny Cauldwell (Robert Paige, then going under the name David Carlyle). For a laugh, Ronny pretends to be Sherman and says he’ll give Mabel a shot at the lead role if she comes to rehearsal the next day.

Mabel and Reilly show up at the appointed time and place where the real Sherman (Walter Catlett) is understandably confused. Fortunately for Mabel, she shows up just as Sherman’s temperamental star Toddy (Pert Kelton) throws a tantrum and threatens to quit (perhaps because her producer stopped rehearsal dead for a good five minutes to banter with some rando off the street). Feeling bad about the trick he played, Ronny convinces Sherman to give Mabel a shot. Of course he does and of course she gets the lead. Why not? It’s not like he has a stage full of chorus girls directly in front of him who would probably kill for an opportunity like this.

The untested Mabel works day and night to prepare for her Broadway debut. It’s the “night” part that brings prizefighter Larry Cain (Clark Gable) into her life. He has the hotel room directly beneath hers and her hoofing practice is preventing him from getting much-needed rest the night before a big fight. Why Mabel is practicing in a hotel and not, say, at the theatre or a rehearsal space is not clear, nor is it understandable why the management of the hotel sides with her over the comfort of literally every other guest but whatever. Mabel’s show goes on, Cain loses his fight, and the two go their separate ways, happy to be out of each other’s life.

Some time later (Weeks? Months? A year? Who knows?), Cain has fought his way to the top but receipts are down. It seems nobody really cares about Larry Cain. Mabel’s having the same problem. People think her show’s OK but don’t have any real investment in her. So Reilly concocts a plan to sell the press on a phony romance between the two, giving them both a much-needed public persona. Both are reluctant at first, hardly a surprise considering they can’t stand the sight of each other, but agree to the arrangement once they realize how many other jobs depend on them. I don’t want to go into spoiler alert territory but if you don’t think Cain and Mabel end up falling in love for real, please let me know how you enjoy your first movie after you see it.

Cain And Mabel is one of those zippy Hollywood confections that has no agenda other than to make you smile for 90 minutes. By that measure, it’s fairly successful. The script, credited to Laird Doyle and H.C. Witwer, is fast-paced and quippy. The story is ludicrous but it manages to work in themes like economic insecurity and the easily-manipulated media that are still relevant today.

Clark Gable was one of the biggest stars in the country, if not the world, at this time and every ounce of his considerable charm and charisma is on display. He has a relaxed, easy chemistry with the other members of his team, Allen Jenkins as corner man Dodo and William Collier Sr. as trainer Pops Walters. And it’s always a pleasure to see Roscoe Karns in action. He could read the want ads and make them sound hilarious.

But the real surprise here is Marion Davies, an actress who is too often given short shrift by movie fans today, most of whom I’d argue haven’t seen a single one of her films. Her career was overshadowed by her relationship with publisher William Randolph Hearst and his behind-the-scenes role in her career. Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Pictures was behind many of Davies’ films, including this one, which explains how such a trifling entertainment could boast such an extravagant budget. Today, too many people assume that the character of talentless singer Susan Alexander in Orson Welles’ Hearst-inspired Citizen Kane is an accurate depiction of Davies’ abilities. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Davies is a gifted comedic actress, more than holding her own against Gable and Karns. She’s tough, funny, sharp and even acquits herself reasonably well in the musical numbers. She’s no Ginger Rogers but she doesn’t need to be. Dance director Bobby Connolly finds other uses for her physicality that don’t require elaborate movements.

About that Oscar-nominated Dance Direction: Cain And Mabel is one of those “musicals” where the production numbers are part of the show within the show. There are two of them and both could be lifted out in their entirety without hurting either the narrative of the film or the integrity of the musical numbers. They’re that superfluous. Davies is involved in both but a couple of ringers are brought in to make her look good, vaudeville entertainer Sammy White and featured dancer Charles Teske. Both of them do their routines and vanish, never to be seen again.

Connolly’s nomination was for the second number, “1000 Love Songs”. The song itself by Harry Warren and Al Dubin is pretty unbearable, performed by Paige in a quavering falsetto. But the production surrounding it is jaw-dropping. Hearst supposedly paid upwards of $100,000 to have the roof of Warner Bros.’ Stage 7 raised 35 feet to accommodate the sets, which included a movable floor over a pool of water and enormous archways and sculptures. The sequence includes ethereal chorus girls suspended in midair, dozens more dancing everywhere you look, and elaborate costumes that render Davies completely immobile. In other words, it’s a number that would be impossible to stage in the Broadway theatre where it’s supposedly being performed.

The non-Oscar-nominated number, “Coney Island”, is even weirder. Sammy White does the song and dance around Davies, describing how they met and fell in love during a trip to Coney Island. Then, the set revolves, revealing a giant carousel. White and Davies proceed to promenade into the Wax Museum, where various historical figures come to life, including Napoleon, Julius Caesar and…um, Popeye. So if you thought Robin Williams was the first actor to play a live-action Popeye, guess again.

(If you’re wondering what the hell Popeye’s doing here, as I was…E.C. Segar’s comic strip Thimble Theatre featuring Popeye ran in the New York Journal and was syndicated by King Features Syndicate, both of which were owned at the time by, you guessed it, William Randolph Hearst. So there you go. Corporate synergy was alive and well even in 1936.)

In the end, Connolly lost the Oscar to The Great Ziegfeld, which also won Best Picture. He probably never stood much of a chance. Cain And Mabel had been a box-office flop and his competition included Swing Time, one of the very best Astaire-Rogers pictures. Connolly never did win an Oscar. The Best Dance Direction category was already a thing of the past by the time his best-known movie, a little thing called The Wizard Of Oz, was released. Marion Davies only made one more picture after this one before she retired to Hearst’s San Simeon estate. It would be decades before critics and audiences would begin to reappraise her work, a process that is still ongoing. As for Clark Gable, he grew his mustache back and continued to do pretty well for himself.

The Best Dance Direction category was a short-lived experiment. Even when musicals were at the height of their popularity, the Academy never really knew how to recognize achievements in choreography, opting instead to give honorary awards to people like Gene Kelly and Jerome Robbins. But, for a few years anyway, at least they could say they tried.

Cain And Mabel is available on DVD and Digital from the Warner Archive Collection.

An Honor To Be Nominated: Carol

THE CONTENDER: Carol (2015)

Number of Nominations: 6 – Actress (Cate Blanchett); Supporting Actress (Rooney Mara); Adapted Screenplay (Phyllis Nagy); Cinematography (Edward Lachman); Costume Design (Sandy Powell); Original Score (Carter Burwell)

Number of Wins: 0

Patricia Highsmith’s first novel, Strangers On A Train, was published in 1950. Just one year later, before she’d even published her second book, Alfred Hitchcock’s movie adaptation premiered. Pretty impressive for a first-timer. Over the next forty-plus years, Highsmith would publish 22 novels and 9 collections of short stories, many of which would subsequently be adapted for film and television. Her work has attracted a diverse, international line-up of filmmakers, including Wim Wenders, Anthony Minghella, Claude Chabrol, and Liliana Cavani, and will likely continue to do so for as long as people make movies based on books. But despite her enduring popularity among filmmakers, it would be decades before anyone would even consider making a movie based on that second book. Indeed for many years, no one even realized she had written it.

In 1951, Highsmith published the novel The Price Of Salt under the name “Claire Morgan”. It had been rejected by her first publisher and strongly discouraged by her agent, who warned against following up a best-selling suspense novel with a novel about a lesbian relationship. For her part, Highsmith kind of agreed with that assessment. The Price Of Salt was highly personal and even a bit autobiographical. She knew she had more thrillers in her but she wasn’t entirely certain that she’d ever write another novel quite like this one. So it was published pseudonymously and went in and out of print over the years, despite being well-regarded, especially among the gay and lesbian community for its then-groundbreaking depiction of a same-sex relationship that doesn’t end in tragedy. It wasn’t until 1990 that Highsmith finally allowed the book, now retitled Carol, to be published under her own name.

It took a number of years for the movie version of Carol to make it to theatres, which is probably just as well. The extra development time allowed the project to attract the ideal creative team. Playwright Phyllis Nagy, a friend of Highsmith’s, wrote her first draft of the screenplay all the way back in 1997. The project then went through multiple stars, directors and financers, before finally attracting the attention of Cate Blanchett. Blanchett was the perfect choice to play Carol Aird, the sophisticated older woman who enters into an affair with young shopgirl Therese Belivet. Very few actresses are as effortlessly alluring as she. From the second Therese spots Carol across the crowded sales floor, you can completely understand why she caught her eye.

Scheduling conflicts continued to pose a problem for the production as various directors came and went. Finally, the script landed in front of Todd Haynes, which is really where it should have been in the first place. Haynes had already hit a home run with the 1950s-set Far From Heaven, a modern updating of Douglas Sirk’s Technicolor melodramas. Carol, while certainly more grounded in realism than the earlier film, is still very much a spiritual cousin to the themes and ideas explored in Far From Heaven.

As Therese, Haynes cast Rooney Mara, stepping into the role after Mia Wasikowska had to bow out. Mara tends to bring a studied theater major intensity to everything she does and, depending on the role, I find that to be a little off-putting. But she’s great in this part, striking just the right balance of hunger for new experiences, naivete, strength, and passion. Carol isn’t exactly a coming-of-age movie but it’s definitely a story about Therese coming into her own, realizing who she is and what she wants out of life, and embracing it. Every step of that journey is reflected in Mara’s large, expressive eyes and her body language.

It’s also reflected in the subtle, meticulously detailed costumes designed by Sandy Powell. Despite going through a bitter divorce and custody battle, Carol already knows who she is. Her clothes are the elegant, luxurious dresses and furs you’d expect from a woman of means. But Therese’s look changes incrementally over the course of the film, going from plain, sensible, almost childlike outfits early on to more fashion-forward designs that are perhaps influenced by Carol’s tastes but are clearly Therese’s own. By film’s end, she takes ownership of her life, her identity and her look.

The attention to period detail shines in both Powell’s costumes and in the production design and set decoration by Judy Becker and Heather Loeffler. Becker and Loeffler weren’t nominated for their work but they certainly should have been. All of this is captured lovingly by Edward Lachman’s gorgeous cinematography. Lachman had previously been nominated for his work on Far From Heaven. While that film was all bright autumnal colors, Carol has a much grayer palette, highly suggestive of the dirty, cold winter months. But Lachman also makes great use of close-ups, resulting in remarkably tactile imagery. It truly feels as though you could reach into the screen and touch the cars, the fabrics, even the curls of Blanchett’s hair. It’s an extremely sensuous film and the desire between Carol and Therese radiates off the screen.

Carter Burwell’s lush score also contributes a great deal to the film’s sense of longing. Remarkably, this was Burwell’s first Oscar nomination, despite longtime collaborations with Oscar favorites like the Coen brothers and Spike Jonze. His work here ranks among his finest scores, with swirling, haunting strings that linger in the memory long after the film ends.

Carol racked up six Academy Award nominations, which is certainly nothing to sneeze at. However, it was almost certainly never going to win any. It’s unusual for a movie to score that many nominations, including two acting nods, and not be nominated for Best Picture. Carol‘s absence in the big category was a bit of a mystery. The Academy recognized 8 films that year. That’s two shy of the 10 allowable under current rules. Carol could have (and, I’d argue, should have) easily been included without knocking any of the other titles out of the race.

As great as she is in the film, Blanchett was not likely to win Best Actress. She’d already won twice, most recently just two years prior to Carol, so the Academy would want to give someone else a turn. It also wouldn’t be Rooney Mara’s year. This was her second nomination and she’d been pegged as someone who’d likely have plenty of other chances in the future. And so, with the movie squeezed out of the biggest categories and unlikely to win anything for its marquee names, Carol was relegated to also-ran status.

Fortunately, I think Carol will have a longer shelf-life than some of the other movies it was up against that year. Films like Spotlight and The Big Short seem very “of the moment”, movies that if you haven’t watched within about a year, you’re probably never going to. By expertly evoking a very specific time and place in the not-too-distant past, Todd Haynes was able to create a film that seems timeless. The boldest thing about it is how unassuming and matter-of-fact it is. Carol presents a relationship between two women that’s as universal and recognizable as any love story ever told. Afterward, the very idea that someone could find such a relationship controversial seems absurd. In its own way, I suppose that is a quietly revolutionary concept.

Carol is available on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital from Anchor Bay Entertainment.

An Honor To Be Nominated: West Side Story

THE CONTENDER: West Side Story (1961)

Number of Nominations: 11 – Best Picture (Robert Wise); Supporting Actor (George Chakiris); Supporting Actress (Rita Moreno); Director (Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins); Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (Ernest Lehman); Cinematography, Color (Daniel L. Fapp); Art Direction/Set Decoration, Color (Boris Leven, Victor A. Gangelin); Sound (Fred Hynes and Gordon E. Sawyer); Scoring of a Musical Picture (Saul Chaplin, Johnny Green, Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal); Film Editing (Thomas Stanford); Costume Design, Color (Irene Sharaff)

Number of Wins: 10 – Everything except Adapted Screenplay (sorry, Ernie)

Before I expanded the parameters of this column to encompass all Oscar-nominated films in all categories, the rules were very simple. To be included, a movie simply had to have been nominated for Best Picture and lost. Using those guidelines, I never, ever would have included West Side Story.

West Side Story is by far the winningest movie we’ve covered here to date. It came very close to a clean sweep, with only Abby Mann’s screenplay for Judgment At Nuremberg standing in the way of 11 for 11. Its soundtrack went on to become the best-selling album of the 1960s. Not just a year, the entire decade. It has been referenced and/or parodied in everything from The Muppet Show to The Simpsons to Curb Your Enthusiasm to Anchorman. And somehow, the closest I had ever come to seeing it before now was in seconds-long clips in award show montages.  

The Academy’s attitude toward musicals seemed to be changing in the early 1960s. The genre had been part of the Oscars pretty much since synchronized sound became the norm. Most years found at least one musical nominated for Best Picture. But only a handful had actually won, starting with The Broadway Melody all the way back at the second ceremony. But that changed in the 1960s, as musicals came to dominate the Best Picture category, winning more frequently than they ever had before or would since. It would be their last hurrah.

As Hollywood fought the encroaching medium of television in the 1950s, the movies got bigger. Fancy new processes were created to help embiggen the public’s love of movies, with fun futuristic-sounding names like CinemaScope, Cinerama, VistaVision and Todd-AO. The Academy embraced the Age of the Epic with open arms, handing out trophies to movies like Around The World In 80 Days and Ben-Hur as if they couldn’t sculpt the statuettes fast enough. It was an age when even a small movie, like Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, looked huge.

It didn’t take long for musicals to embrace the possibilities of widescreen cinematography. Movies like White Christmas, Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, Oklahoma!, and many more pushed the boundaries of the screen. Of course, all this extra space meant filmmakers needed more stuff to fill it with. So sets got bigger, costumes got more elaborate, and the number of dancers on screen at any given moment multiplied like rabbits. It was just as well that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were aging out of the genre. By 1961, the idea of paying to see just two people dance elegantly on screen was hopelessly outdated and quaint.

In many ways, West Side Story was the culmination of all this change. The play had debuted on Broadway in 1957, the brainchild of director and choreographer Jerome Robbins. Robbins recruited playwright Arthur Laurents to tackle the book and composer Leonard Bernstein to write the music. Eventually, Stephen Sondheim was brought on board to write the lyrics, resulting in a once-in-a-lifetime gathering of talent.

When it came time to bring the show to the big screen, the director’s reins were handed to Robert Wise. Robbins had wanted to direct himself but the money folks at The Mirisch Company balked at his total lack of experience with filmmaking. At the time, Wise must have seemed an odd choice. He had started his career as an editor, earning an Oscar nomination for his work on Citizen Kane and was notoriously put in charge of Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons after RKO fired Welles.

As a director, Wise had bopped from horror (The Curse Of The Cat People) to noir (The Set-Up) to westerns (Two Flags West) to sci-fi (The Day The Earth Stood Still) to pretty much any other kind of movie you can think of but he’d never made a musical. So it was agreed that Jerome Robbins would stay on as co-director to handle the musical and dance sequences. But Robbins’ insistence on multiple takes led to the production going over-budget and, eventually, his firing. He never directed another feature which, as near as I can tell, makes him the only one-and-done Best Director Oscar winner in history.

What Wise, Robbins, cinematographer Daniel L. Fapp, and all the other filmmakers were able to accomplish with West Side Story was nothing short of extraordinary. Watching the movie, you would be hard-pressed to imagine that this material could ever be contained on stage. The sets are too big, the movement too expressive, the colors too vivid. It’s dynamic and exciting in a way that’s unique to film. And unlike too many other bloated epics of the period, West Side Story moves. It’s a long film, clocking in at around two-and-a-half hours, but there isn’t a wasted second in it.

It’s a little hard to judge the actual performances in West Side Story. Certainly the dancing and physicality is remarkable across the board. But this was a time when movie stars didn’t really have to sing in musicals if the producers didn’t want ’em to, so we end up with these odd Frankenstein performances with lip-synched vocals. The movie’s big name is Natalie Wood, who had already been a star for over a decade. She was still a teenager when she’d earned her first Oscar nomination for Rebel Without A Cause a few years earlier. 1961 ended up being a very good year for her. In addition to West Side Story, she’d garner her second Oscar nod for her other movie that year, Splendor In The Grass.

Even though Wood’s singing voice was dubbed by go-to ghost singer Marni Nixon and even though she’s no more Puerto Rican than I am, her performance as Maria is delicate and lovely. She hits just the right blend of sweetness and sensuality, really selling the emotion and pathos of the character. Richard Beymer as Tony isn’t quite as successful. He’s handsome and charming enough but his inexperience comes through occasionally. He just doesn’t yet have the depth as an actor to really connect with the songs he’s not singing (Jimmy Bryant dubbed his voice). He’d find it by the time he played Ben Horne on Twin Peaks (and as a Twin Peaks fan coming to West Side Story late, I should add that seeing Beymer and future Dr. Jakoby Russ Tamblyn together in this does result in a moment or two of cognitive dissonance) but back then, he seems a little out of his depth.

That is definitely not the case with Oscar-winning supporting actors Rita Moreno and George Chakiris. Both stars had an intensive dance background and both were sort of struggling to find their place in Hollywood when West Side Story came along. They made the most of the opportunity, especially Moreno who practically explodes off the screen. Moreno got to do most of her own singing and Chakiris did all of his, possibly just because he doesn’t get any big solo numbers. Their Oscar victories are even more impressive when you consider who they were up against. Chakiris’ competition included Montgomery Clift, Peter Falk, Jackie Gleason and George C. Scott, while Moreno was in her category opposite no less than Judy Garland.

Unfortunately, Hollywood didn’t know what to do with either Moreno or Chakiris. Rita Moreno found herself unemployed for seven years afterwards, not making another movie until The Night Of The Following Day in 1968. Eventually of course, she’d go on to be one of the rare EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) winners and an all-around national treasure. As for Chakiris (who, again, not a Puerto Rican, but certainly believable and acceptable as one), he made some pretty forgettable movies throughout the 60s before becoming a prolific TV actor in the 70s.

The only nominee who went home empty-handed that night was screenwriter Ernest Lehman. Lehman was one of the great Hollywood script writers. If he’d done nothing else, his place in film history would be secured by his screenplay for North By Northwest, essentially the platonic ideal for the contemporary mystery thriller. Lehman would be nominated for six Oscars over his career, winning none. Perhaps he was overlooked this time because the Academy figured the movie was so faithful to the play that Lehman hadn’t really done much. In any event, he would go on to become the first screenwriter to receive an honorary Academy Award for his body of work in 2001, by which time he had long since retired.

It’s hard to make a case against any of West Side Story‘s Oscar triumphs. At the time, the technical awards were still split into two categories, color and black-and-white. Odds are this arrangement benefited the black-and-white movies more than West Side Story, which probably would have dominated no matter what it was up against. In the Best Picture category, its only real competition was the star-studded but somber Judgment At Nuremberg. Of the other nominees, The Hustler was likely too small to make much of a dent and The Guns Of Navarone was probably dismissed as just a popcorn epic. As for Joshua Logan’s Fanny, another movie based on a stage musical that perversely decided to eliminate all the songs…nobody remembers Fanny.

As they are wont to do, Hollywood learned all the wrong lessons from West Side Story. Musicals continued to get bigger and busier, eventually becoming so expensive to produce that they priced themselves out of existence. It didn’t help that musical tastes were changing rapidly in the 60s, turning big Broadway-style productions into dinosaurs. But West Side Story captured the form at its best, with a perfect storm of talent working together to bring a timeless story to life. The Romeo & Juliet template is essentially foolproof. It’s a classic, endlessly malleable story that everyone relates to on some level. When you apply this level of craftsmanship to a story this universal, the results will almost always be timeless.

West Side Story is available on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital from MGM/20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

An Honor To Be Nominated: Do The Right Thing

THE CONTENDER: Do The Right Thing (1989)

Number of Nominations: 2 – Supporting Actor (Danny Aiello); Original Screenplay (Spike Lee)

Number of Wins: 0

When Green Book took home the Best Picture prize at last February’s Academy Awards, many viewers and film pundits felt like they were experiencing déjà vu. It was eerily similar to the 1990 ceremony where Driving Miss Daisy unexpectedly won Best Picture. Full disclosure: I haven’t seen Green Book, so I can’t comment on its quality. But there are undeniably some surface similarities between the two films. Both are about white people who learn valuable life lessons about tolerance from an African-American. Both are centered around cars. Both managed to win Best Picture without receiving a nomination for their directors. And both films had to share the spotlight with the eternally outspoken Spike Lee.

Which is not to say that absolutely nothing had changed in the nearly 30 years between ceremonies. Lee’s 2018 film, BlacKkKlansman, was nominated in 7 categories, as opposed to Do The Right Thing‘s paltry two. Perhaps more importantly, BlacKkKlansman was not alone at the party. It was honored alongside other strong African-American films like Black Panther and If Beale Street Could Talk. Aside from Driving Miss Daisy, the other Best Picture nominees back in 1990 included Born On The Fourth Of July, Dead Poets Society, Field Of Dreams and My Left Foot. When people refer to “Oscars So White”, this is exactly the kind of thing they’re talking about. It’s hard to imagine a whiter lineup of films than that one.

Do The Right Thing inspired passionate reactions from the get-go. It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where it was shut out of the awards despite rave reviews from critics and audiences. Lee, ever the diplomat, has long blamed jury president Wim Wenders for the loss, although Wenders denies that he had it out for the film. By the time it opened in the States in July, it was accompanied both by glowing reviews from the likes of Siskel and Ebert, as well as dire warnings of the potential for violence at screenings from folks like David Denby and Joe Klein.

Needless to say, Do The Right Thing failed to incite a single riot apart from the one depicted on-screen. The idea that audiences (and, let’s be clear, these articles were specifically talking about black audiences) would be so quickly and easily provoked into violence is condescending at best, outright racist at worst. Not only does it insult and underestimate the audience, it undervalues the film itself and fails to take in the entire scope of what Spike Lee was able to accomplish.

Taking place over the course of one very long, very hot day in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, Do The Right Thing is, first and foremost, a master class in form and structure. By the end of the film, any viewer would be able to draw a reasonably accurate map of the neighborhood. That’s how thoroughly and clearly Lee, director of photography Ernest Dickerson, and editor Barry Alexander Brown have covered and depicted the space. It’s a cliché to say that the location is a character but in this case, it’s really true. The homes and businesses of Bed-Stuy inform everything about the film. It’s a vibrant, living neighborhood and you can feel the heat radiating off the asphalt.

Sharing this space are some of Lee’s most vividly drawn characters, played by an astounding ensemble of actors. In addition to Danny Aiello as pizzeria owner Sal and Lee himself as delivery guy Mookie, there’s Ossie Davis as local drunk Da Mayor, Ruby Dee as Mother Sister, Giancarlo Esposito as Buggin Out, Bill Nunn as Radio Raheem, Roger Guenveur Smith as Smiley, John Turturro and Richard Edson as Sal’s sons, Pino and Vito, Sam (not yet Samuel L.) Jackson as DJ Mister Señor Love Daddy and many more. Every character is so distinct and well-crafted that the names alone are enough to conjure up vivid images of each one. It’s a shame that the Screen Actors Guild didn’t start presenting awards until the mid 1990s. This almost certainly would have had a lock on Best Ensemble.

What’s fascinating about Do The Right Thing and, I think, what made its detractors so deeply uncomfortable is how thoroughly Lee delves into the lives of these characters and their beliefs. In 1989, this was arguably the most urgent and passionate film about race relations in America that had ever been made. Even today, it remains potent and timely. Lee digs deep, looking into what causes these feelings and beliefs and showing just how easily a simple question like “How come there ain’t no brothers on the wall?” can spiral into an argument and worse. Buggin Out has a point. Sal’s clientele is mostly black, so it’d be nice and respectful of him to make some concessions in the décor. But Sal has one, too. End of the day, it’s his place, has been for a long time and he can do what he wants with it. And with neither side willing to listen to the other, it’s not a conflict that’s going to be resolved easily.

It’s also interesting that when Buggin Out tries to organize a boycott of Sal’s, not only does he receive zero support from the community, he encounters outright hostility and disbelief. The idea of a boycott is ludicrous, especially over such an insignificant issue. The only people he can rally to his cause are Radio Raheem, who had his own run-in with Sal that day over his music, and Smiley, the mentally challenged street vendor who not only had gotten into it with Sal’s son, Pino, but was probably also just happy to be included in something. They’re looking for a fight when they confront Sal, so things rapidly spin out of control thanks to a multitude of factors: the lateness of the hour, the aggression on both sides, and, of course, that infernal heat that has everyone on edge.

The big question mark that hangs over the film is this: is the violence that follows justified? Lee seems to be leaving it ambiguous by concluding the film with contrasting quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. But I don’t think it’s really all that hard to interpret. After Radio Raheem’s death, the anger is entirely justified. Therefore, the violence that erupts is understandable, if not justifiable. It certainly doesn’t solve anything. But that anger needs an outlet. It’s been tamped down for too long. Of course it’s going to end up exploding.

Cooler heads need to prevail but when tempers and temperatures are running hot, there are none to be found. Certainly the police aren’t the answer. They should be there to restore order, not make things worse with excessive force. The cops in Do The Right Thing remain ciphers throughout and that’s appropriate for the story. This movie is about the community and the police are pointedly not a part of it. They’re outsiders who come and go. In a neighborhood where everybody knows everybody, they don’t seem to know anyone’s name except for Sal. They are not going to be the ones to fix this problem.

It’s disappointing but not terribly surprising that Do The Right Thing was shut out at the Oscars. Aiello ended up losing to Denzel Washington for Glory, which was certainly a deserving win, and Lee lost his category to Tom Schulman’s script for Dead Poets Society, which…um…was not. It was a strong year for the Original Screenplay category, with nods for Woody Allen’s Crimes And Misdemeanors, Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape and Nora Ephron’s When Harry Met Sally. Literally any of those other four nominated scripts would have been a better choice.

Perhaps even more disappointing were the categories that completely overlooked Do The Right Thing. In addition to Best Picture and several other actors and actresses, Ernest Dickerson would have been a deserving nominee for his shimmering, colorful cinematography. Dickerson was a phenomenal cinematographer before he turned his attention to directing. Astonishingly, he was never even nominated for an Oscar. Editor Barry Alexander Brown finally got an editing nomination for BlacKkKlansman (he had previously been nominated for co-directing the documentary feature The War At Home in 1980) but his work here is just as good.

And then there’s Best Original Song. Obviously the Academy just wasn’t ready to recognize a rap song back in 1990. But Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power” is a phenomenal track, instantly iconic and, as far as I’m concerned, one of the best examples of a song written specifically for a movie in my lifetime. As near as I can tell, the song wasn’t even eligible due to a rule that states only songs that are “original and specifically written for the motion picture” are considered. Which means that a song like “Fight The Power”, which is built on a bedrock of samples, is out. It would take a while longer for the Academy to catch up. Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” would become the first hip-hop track to be nominated for (and win) an Oscar…over a decade later.

We’ll see more Spike Lee joints in this column but not as many as you might think. Considering that he’s probably one of the most recognizable filmmakers working today, Spike Lee is curiously undervalued. He’s a risk-taker, a challenging and provocative director who has rarely compromised, making the films he wants to make. That is not a surefire recipe for mainstream success. His biggest hit, the 2006 thriller Inside Man, made quite a bit of money both domestically and overseas. Even so, Lee was still unable to get the funding necessary for a proposed sequel.

Both Lee’s best films (including Malcolm X, 25th Hour, Summer Of Sam, and especially Bamboozled, a movie I would dearly love to see Criterion release) and his worst (I can’t say I was a huge fan of Chi-Raq) are all clearly and immediately identifiable as his films. With BlacKkKlansman, the Academy finally started to catch up with what they’d failed to recognize almost 30 years earlier and it’s about damn time. The film world needs more Spike Lees, not less.

Do The Right Thing is available on DVD from The Criterion Collection and on Blu-ray and Digital from Universal Studios Home Entertainment.

An Honor To Be Nominated: Rob Roy

THE CONTENDER: Rob Roy (1995)

Number of Nominations: 1 – Actor in a Supporting Role (Tim Roth)

Number of Wins: Nane

Every so often, Hollywood studio executives will drink from the same batch of Kool-Aid and, as a result, we’ll get two or more competing projects with weirdly similar themes. Sometimes these movies are alike in only the broadest strokes, as happens whenever we get a glut of body-switch comedies all at once. Other times, they’re bizarrely specific. I’m still not sure why we got two Truman Capote biopics in 2005-06.

Back in 1995, we had the Battle of the Scottish Epics with Mel Gibson’s Braveheart debuting about a month after Rob Roy, starring Liam Neeson as the Highland Rogue. It was a short-lived skirmish. Braveheart quickly eclipsed Rob Roy in popularity, making over six times as much at the domestic box office and eventually winning five Oscars, including Best Picture. By the time the nominations were announced, pretty much everybody had forgotten all about Rob Roy…except for Tim Roth’s out-sized performance as the loathsome Archibald Cunningham.

In most respects, comparisons between Rob Roy and Braveheart are unfair from the start. Yes, both films take place in Scotland, are (very) loosely based on historical figures, star long-haired men wearing kilts and feature the great character actor Brian Cox in supporting roles. But apart from these surface similarities, the two films are quite different. Braveheart is an epic war film that champions freedom and independence, while Rob Roy is a smaller-scale adventure focusing on personal relationships and ideas like honor and self-worth. Braveheart has massive battle scenes. Rob Roy has duels between individuals. They don’t even take place in the same century. Almost 500 years separates the two stories.

Rob Roy is an old-fashioned movie, romantic in the classical sense of Blake and Shelley. Neeson plays Robert Roy MacGregor, a Highland chief devoted to his Clan, his children, and his beloved wife, Mary (Jessica Lange). Hoping to provide a better life for his people, MacGregor borrows a thousand pounds from the Marquess of Montrose (John Hurt) with the aims of using it to trade cattle. But Montrose’s devious factor Killearn (Cox) sees an opportunity and recruits the exiled, penniless aristocrat Cunningham to kill MacGregor’s go-between (Eric Stoltz) and make off with the money.

Montrose offers to forgive the debt if Rob will bear false witness that Montrose’s rival for the Queen’s support is a Jacobite. Rob refuses, not out of any great love for the Duke but simply because lying would violate his own code of honor. And so, Rob Roy is branded an outlaw and Cunningham sets out to flush him out of hiding by seizing his land, burning his house, killing his livestock and, last but not least, raping his wife. One small problem with that plan: Mary knows full well what will happen if Rob sets out in a blind rage, so she doesn’t tell him about the rape. So with cooler heads prevailing, Rob and Mary focus on finding out what happened to the thousand pounds.

As I mentioned, this is an old-fashioned movie in both story and style. It isn’t too difficult to imagine versions of this same tale coming out in the 1930s, 40s or 50s. Indeed, Walt Disney produced one back in 1953, presumably with considerably less rape. The sexual assault is handled about as tastefully here as one could hope, thanks in large part to Lange’s powerful performance. She’s a strong character and an ideal match for Neeson. They have palpable chemistry together and you never once doubt their commitment to one another. If there is perhaps a bit too much emphasis put on Neeson’s reaction to the assault rather than Lange’s, at least it’s her decision to make. And when Neeson does discover the truth (seemingly long after everyone else in Scotland has), he’s hurt that she didn’t tell him right away but concedes that it would have been much worse if she had.

All of which brings us back to Tim Roth. In interviews, Roth has said that he fully expected to be fired once studio execs got a look at his over-the-top performance and credits director Michael Caton-Jones for encouraging him to go for broke. On the outside, Cunningham is a lisping fop. But beneath the filigreed lace and curly wig lie the steely eyes of a true sociopath. Roth allows us to see that anything likable or charming about this man is a total sham, an act required by the conventions of the society he aspires to. Even Cunningham’s patron, Montrose, holds him in contempt and Killearn, who at first views him as an easily manipulated partner, grows steadily more horrified by his behavior. It is, in other words, the quintessential villainous Basil Rathbone role given a grim and gritty 90s upgrade, right down to the swordplay. Roth gets two great showcase scenes and the climactic fight against Neeson is right up there with the best sword fights ever filmed.

Roth racked up a number of Supporting Actor nominations for Rob Roy and even ended up winning a BAFTA Award. But he was always considered a longshot for the Oscar (the award ended up going to Kevin Spacey for The Usual Suspects). The Academy is rarely shy about rewarding actors for going big and broad. Just look at Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda or Cuba Gooding Jr. in Jerry Maguire. But they are extremely skittish about awarding a performance in a movie with no other nominations. They seem to view such things as anomalies, like the actor made a happy mistake in an otherwise dire film. I don’t think that’s quite fair here. Roth’s performance isn’t at odds with the rest of the movie. In fact, it suits the tone quite well. If Roth’s performance deserved to be singled out, then so did Lange’s.

Even more surprising than his nomination for Rob Roy is the fact that it remains Tim Roth’s only Academy Award nomination to date. Prior to Rob Roy, Roth was known to hardcore film buffs as a risk-taking chameleon, having appeared in such films as Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, Robert Altman’s Vincent & Theo, and, of course, Quentin Tarantino’s first two films, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. But in the years since, he hasn’t really found a breakthrough part in a major Oscar contender. He has certainly continued to do excellent work but often on television, in smaller films that fly a bit beneath the radar, like Chronic, or as part of a larger ensemble, as in Selma and The Hateful Eight.

For his part, Roth has always seemed somewhat ambivalent about awards and accolades. I suspect he was somewhat uncomfortable with being the one thing about Rob Roy to be singled out for award consideration. Tim Roth is an actor’s actor, quietly doing the work and very happy to contribute his unique gifts to a story that’s larger than any one person. That’s why his nomination for Rob Roy is such an outlier in his career. It’s a scene-stealing performance from an actor with no prior criminal record.

Rob Roy is available on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital from MGM.