An Honor To Be Nominated: Traffic

THE CONTENDER: Traffic (2000)

Number of Nominations: 5 – Picture, Supporting Actor (Benicio Del Toro), Director (Steven Soderbergh), Adapted Screenplay (Stephen Gaghan), Film Editing (Stephen Mirrione)

Number of Wins: 4 (Supporting Actor, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing)

Steven Soderbergh released two films in 2000, Erin Brockovich and Traffic. Both were critically acclaimed. Both were hits at the box office, each one making over $100 million. And when Oscar time rolled around, both received multiple nominations. In fact, Soderbergh became the first filmmaker since 1938 to receive two nominations in the same year for Best Director. But while the previous record-holder, Michael Curtiz, went home that night empty handed, Soderbergh actually won.

For a while, it seemed as though Traffic might also win Best Picture. But the Oscars played out differently that year. The year’s biggest prize went to Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, making it one of the few Best Picture winners not to be honored in either the directing or writing categories. Even so, Traffic did extremely well, winning four of the five categories for which it was nominated.

Perhaps it isn’t surprising that Traffic won accolades and awards. But it is somewhat surprising that it was a hit. This is a complex, multilayered story with a sprawling cast of characters that rarely intersect in obvious ways.

Michael Douglas plays the newly-appointed drug czar whose new job takes a back seat when he discovers his daughter (Erika Christensen) is herself heavily addicted. Benicio Del Toro is a mildly corrupt Tijuana cop who finds his own limits when recruited by General Salazar (Tomas Milian), who wants to break the Tijuana cartel for reasons of his own. Catherine Zeta-Jones is a wealthy mother-to-be who only discovers her “legitimate businessman” husband (Steven Bauer) is a trafficker after he’s dragged to prison by the DEA. Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman are DEA agents assigned to protect the key witness in Bauer’s case. And those are just the main plot threads.

But Soderbergh, who almost always acts as his own cinematographer under the pseudonym Peter Andrews, developed a unique visual shorthand to keep the various stories clear. Working with color, different film stocks, and post-production tricks, Soderbergh gives each story its own individual style. It’s a brilliant move. The film runs slightly over two hours but never feels long. There’s simply too much story to tell for your interest to flag. But it’s also never confusing, a charge I’ve heard leveled at screenwriter Stephen Gaghan’s similar follow-up, Syriana.

It’s fair to say that Traffic hit a nerve with the public that Syriana would never have been able to find. I admire Syriana quite a bit but the labyrinthine machinations of the oil industry are a lot more abstract to most people than the war on drugs. I imagine everyone has a story to tell about how drugs have affected their lives or someone close to them. One of Traffic’s great strengths is its ability to make us see not only our own story reflected back but the bigger picture we never dreamed existed.

If Soderbergh and Gaghan deserve credit for economy of storytelling, the ensemble cast earns most of the kudos for making us believe in these characters. We learn almost nothing about the personal lives of Cheadle and Guzman. But we can fill in the blanks thanks to their effortless chemistry. Zeta-Jones makes a thoroughly believable transformation from idle rich wife to a ruthless Lady Macbeth. And the Oscar-winning Del Toro is a smart, soulful survivor. The moment when he half apologetically confirms to a pair of American tourists that their “stolen car” is a police scam speaks volumes.

Traffic seems to view the war on drugs as futile but surprisingly ends on a note of some hope. The smile on Cheadle’s face as he walks away from Bauer’s home and the contented look Del Toro has as he watches a baseball game suggest that all is not lost. But there is a good chance that this “war” is being fought all wrong.

The world has changed a lot in the years since Traffic debuted. Drug cartels have turned Mexico into a war zone. The director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, or the so-called “drug czar,” is no longer a Cabinet-level position. Yet, Traffic remains relevant. No doubt it will continue to as long as illegal drugs are bought, sold, and abused. Rather than the screeching anti-drug harangue it could have been, Soderbergh made a quietly powerful, thoughtful film examining the problem from multiple perspectives. Whether or not it’s his crowning achievement is debatable. But it’s a high-water mark that brilliantly displays Soderbergh’s ambitions and confidence as a storyteller.

Traffic is available as on Blu-ray and DVD from both The Criterion Collection and Universal.

An Honor To Be Nominated: Nashville

THE CONTENDER: Nashville (1975)

Number of Nominations: 5 – Picture, Supporting Actress (Ronee Blakley & Lily Tomlin), Director (Robert Altman), Original Song (“I’m Easy,” music and lyrics by Keith Carradine)

Number of Wins: 1 (Original Song)

In my Honor To Be Nominated column on Jaws, I wrote that 1975 was the year the Academy got it right. Every single film up for Best Picture that year can make a legitimate claim to greatness. And just look at some of the movies that weren’t up for the big prize: The Man Who Would Be King, The Day Of The Locust, Night Moves, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Yes, 1975 was a very good year.

But if I were forced to pick just one movie from 1975 as my favorite, it would have to be Robert Altman’s Nashville. Don’t get me wrong. I’m crazy about a lot of these other movies, especially Jaws. But Nashville has a scope and ambition few other films have ever come close to replicating. It aims high, weaving 24 characters into a beautiful tapestry that forms a microcosm of America, and hits the mark.

The massive project began innocuously enough. Country-western music was enjoying a surge in popularity and United Artists wanted to make a movie capitalizing on it. They approached Altman and while he wasn’t interested in their idea, he agreed to develop his own country-western movie.

He sent writer Joan Tewkesbury to Nashville to get a feel for the place and its people, instructing her to keep a journal of her visit. The journal became the basis for Tewkesbury’s screenplay. United Artists didn’t know what to make of the sprawling script and passed on the project. So Altman was forced to raise funds independently, not for the first time in his career and far from the last.

When the film was released, it failed to impress one key demographic: the actual people of Nashville. Country stars complained that the movie completely misrepresented them and their city. Not only that, they hated the music, almost all of which was written for the film, often by the actors themselves. In an interview on the DVD, Altman quips that their complaint about the music really meant they were just upset that he hadn’t used any of their tunes.

Altman is probably correct about that. The music feels authentic, from the patriotic bombast of “200 Years” as performed by Henry Gibson’s pompous superstar Haven Hamilton to Keith Carradine’s Oscar-winning “I’m Easy”. The soundtrack is a key element to the film’s success. If the music didn’t work, nothing in the movie would work.

Even though Nashville captures a very specific time and place, it’s eerie how much of the film remains relevant, even prescient today. One of the key threads running through the picture is the organization of a fundraiser for presidential candidate Hal Phillip Walker.

Walker is running on the “Replacement Party” and his campaign van appears throughout, broadcasting populist messages about running lawyers out of Congress and changing the national anthem to something ordinary people can sing. By the time the fundraiser begins, you half expect Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, and other Tea Party favorites to show up.

Altman ties politics and fame together in another way that would come true a short time later: (Spoiler alert for those of you who haven’t seen this) the assassination of a celebrity. After John Lennon’s murder, Altman was contacted by a reporter from the Washington Post who asked if he felt responsible. Altman turned the tables and suggested the media should feel responsible for not heeding his warning.

Despite its Oscar nominations and critical acclaim, Nashville was not a popular success. Altman finished the ’70s with movies that met with mixed reviews and little box office before embarking on Popeye, the multi-million dollar disaster that effectively ended his Hollywood career for over a decade. Nashville would be Altman’s last trip to the Academy Awards until he was welcomed back into the fold in 1992 with The Player.

In some ways, it’s just as well that Robert Altman’s only Oscar was an honorary one. Even by the New Hollywood standards of the 1970s, his movies were too iconoclastic. Altman often worked within the system but he always did it his own way, refusing to be reigned in by the demands of the studios. Rewarding him for a specific achievement would have been tantamount to giving an unruly child an extra helping of dessert.

Robert Altman left behind an extraordinary body of work, one of the most impressive filmographies of any filmmaker who ever lived. But Nashville remains his masterpiece, a movie that continues to inspire and amaze audiences even today. It’s the closest to a cinematic equivalent of a novel I’ve ever seen. Like a good book, it’s worth revisiting again and again.

Nashville is available on Blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

An Honor To Be Nominated: Barry Lyndon

THE CONTENDER: Barry Lyndon (1975)

Number of Nominations: 7 – Picture, Director (Stanley Kubrick), Adapted Screenplay (Stanley Kubrick), Cinematography (John Alcott), Art Direction-Set Direction (Ken Adam, Roy Walker, Vernon Dixon), Original Song Score and/or Adaptation (Leonard Rosenman), Costume Design (Ulla-Britt Soderlund, Milena Canonero)

Number of Wins: 4 (Cinematography, Art Direction-Set Direction, Original Song Score and/or Adaptation & Costume Design)

After the success of 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968, Stanley Kubrick turned his complete attention to a mammoth epic based on the life of Napoleon. He spent years researching both the man and the period, going into meticulous detail. In his notes, he modestly claimed it would be “the best movie ever made.”

As the proposed budget for Kubrick’s Napoleon went ever higher, Sergei Bondarchuk’s Waterloo starring Rod Steiger as Napoleon was released. The big-budget epic flopped at the box office, causing Kubrick’s financiers to back out of his project. Kubrick went on to make A Clockwork Orange but Napoleon remained a dream project. The entire story can be found in the beautifully designed book Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon: The Greatest Movie Never Made from Taschen.

All that research didn’t go to waste, however. It would inform a different period epic, 1975’s Barry Lyndon. Based on a novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, the film follows an Irish cad (played by Ryan O’Neal) as he makes his way in the world by any means necessary. The movie was not an immediate success but today is widely considered one of Kubrick’s most underrated works.

As usual, Kubrick kept the production shrouded in secrecy. Ryan O’Neal seemed an odd choice for a Kubrick project but it wasn’t as if the director had much choice. One of Warner Bros.’ only conditions for bankrolling the project was the casting of an A-list star in the lead and the studio provided Kubrick with a very short list of names. After Robert Redford passed, Kubrick turned to O’Neal, riding high after the blockbuster success of Love Story.

Apart from casting suggestions, the studio was so eager to keep Kubrick in the Warner Bros. family that they let him go and hoped for the best. Principal photography stretched on to a whopping 300 days and the film’s budget eventually hit $11 million. When executives visited Kubrick in London to prepare for the marketing campaign, the filmmaker refused to show them any footage but assured them Oscars were in their future.

As it turned out, Kubrick was right. The film essentially swept the technical awards in 1975, a decision that even the movie’s harshest critics wouldn’t be able to argue with. Barry Lyndon is undeniably gorgeous, featuring some of the most sumptuous set and costume design you’ll see in any period film.

But if anyone deserved their Oscar, it was cinematographer John Alcott. Despite popular belief, it isn’t true that no artificial light was used during filming. However, it is true that the candlelit interiors were shot using only the light provided by the hundreds of candles. Not only did this require the development of special super-fast lenses and experimentation with film stock, it also prohibited much movement on the part of the actors during these scenes. The entire film is simply astonishing to look at. Kubrick more than succeeded at capturing the look of 18th century painters like William Hogarth.

Even though everyone agreed that Barry Lyndon was a remarkable technical achievement, critics and audiences weren’t entirely convinced it succeeded as a movie. The film is slow-moving and the usual arguments that Kubrick was too cold and detached a filmmaker to make a movie about actual human beings were rehashed.

But I’m often surprised how many people fail to see the comedy in Barry Lyndon. Thackeray was first and foremost a satirist and the film succeeds in capturing that, particularly through the droll narration of Michael Hordern. But another element that captures the book’s wit is the oft-criticized performance of Ryan O’Neal.

True, O’Neal is a bit of an empty canvas in the film and his Irish brogue is indifferent at best. But Barry is a character who never quite fits in with his surroundings. He’s an opportunist but not a particularly ambitious or active one. He’s a man in constant need of a patron or a protector. In many ways, O’Neal is the perfect actor for the part. He grows into the role as the film goes along and thanks to him, Barry never seems too weak or too unlikable.

Barry Lyndon has received a critical reappraisal since its release in 1975. In 2005, Time Magazine listed it as one of the 100 best films ever made and Kubrick fans have latched on to it as one of the director’s best works. Barry Lyndon isn’t an easy movie to embrace but it’s impossible not to admire. The first time you see it, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by its technical genius. But the second or third time, you’ll likely get caught up in the strangely charmed life of Barry Lyndon.

Barry Lyndon is currently available on Blu-ray and DVD from Warner Home Video. It is due to be re-released on both formats October 17, 2017, as part of The Criterion Collection.

An Honor To Be Nominated: Dog Day Afternoon

THE CONTENDER: Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

Number of Nominations: 6 – Picture, Actor (Al Pacino), Supporting Actor (Chris Sarandon), Director (Sidney Lumet), Original Screenplay (Frank Pierson), Film Editing (Dede Allen)

Number of Wins: 1 (Original Screenplay)

When Sidney Lumet died back in 2011, there was a sense among the online film community that the filmmaker had never quite received the recognition he deserved. While many of his greatest successes came from the 1970s, he’s rarely mentioned in the same breath as Scorsese, Coppola, and other greats from the decade.

In large part, this is simply because Lumet wasn’t of that generation. He’d been working steadily in the business since the ’50s, making his feature film debut with 12 Angry Men in 1957. Lumet was of the generation that produced such filmmakers as Robert Altman and Blake Edwards, directors who crossed over into features from television. But Lumet was not the fierce iconoclast that Altman was. And while Edwards dabbled in multiple genres early on, he eventually became synonymous with comedy. Lumet could never quite be pigeonholed in that way.

Sidney Lumet was an active filmmaker virtually right up until his death. His final film, Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, was released in 2007. His work was never as flashy as many of his contemporaries and there are those who would argue that he wasn’t as consistent. But at his best, Lumet was able to sink his teeth into the meat of a story, grounding his films in reality and getting some of the all-time best performances from the biggest actors in the world.

Dog Day Afternoon re-teamed Lumet with Al Pacino, the star of his 1973 cop drama Serpico. Inspired by a true story, Dog Day Afternoon must have been a risky choice for Pacino. He hadn’t been a leading man for long and now he was playing a bumbling, bisexual criminal robbing a bank to get money for his lover’s sex change operation. It was a risk that paid off handsomely.

The film allowed Pacino to show a lighter, more vulnerable side. One of the great pleasures of the movie is how unexpectedly funny it is. But Lumet refuses to simply turn the movie into a comedy of errors. As the robbery spins out of control, the events are both funny and fraught with tension. Pacino’s nervous energy is both dangerous and touching. It’s a brilliant performance and one I always turn to when I need to be reminded of how great an actor Pacino can be.

The other nominated performance in the film belongs to Chris Sarandon as Pacino’s lover, Leon. Sarandon is undeniably excellent but the movie’s real chemistry is between Pacino and John Cazale as Sonny’s partner-in-crime, Sal. Cazale made just a handful of films before his death in 1978 but made a huge impression in each. Remarkably, Cazale was never nominated for an Oscar, despite his unforgettable work in the first two Godfather films and The Deer Hunter. Not to take anything away from Sarandon, but Cazale surely deserved recognition as well.

On Oscar night, Dog Day Afternoon ran into the unstoppable juggernaut of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Ironically, the movie’s only trophy went to Frank Pierson for his screenplay, a script which had really just provided a structure for the actors to improvise upon. It wasn’t the first time one of Lumet’s films had been an Oscar bridesmaid and it wouldn’t be the last.

Lumet had been nominated for Best Director for his very first film, 12 Angry Men. He’d be nominated in the category twice more, in 1976 for Network and 1982 for The Verdict, but the only award he received was an honorary Oscar in 2005. But over the course of his career, Lumet directed an amazing 17 actors to Oscar-nominated performances, from Katharine Hepburn in Long Day’s Journey Into Night to River Phoenix in Running On Empty.

Today, Dog Day Afternoon is remembered as one of the undisputed classics of the 1970s. Sidney Lumet left behind a rich film legacy ripe for rediscovery, from acknowledged masterworks like Network to underrated gems like Prince Of The City. His work wasn’t consistently brilliant but it was rarely less than interesting. Lumet is a filmmaker who truly earned his honorary Oscar, a well-deserved tribute to a director who had been overlooked for too long.

Dog Day Afternoon is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Warner Home Video. Also available and highly recommended is Sidney Lumet’s 1996 memoir, Making Movies.

An Honor To Be Nominated: Jaws

THE CONTENDER: Jaws (1975)

Number of Nominations: 4 – Picture, Sound (Robert L. Hoyt, Roger Heman, Earl Madery & John Carter), Original Score (John Williams), Film Editing (Verna Fields)

Number of Wins: 3 (Sound, Original Score & Film Editing)

If you look over all the films that have ever been nominated for Best Picture, you’ll find at least one common thread. Every year, there’s at least one movie whose reputation has faded since its release, that’s been virtually forgotten, or simply wasn’t very good to begin with. Every year, that is, except one: 1975.

That year’s winner, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, had to compete against some of the most acclaimed films and filmmakers of the 1970s: Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon, Robert Altman’s Nashville, and Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Whether or not Cuckoo’s Nest deserved to win is another debate. But if your knee-jerk response is of course it didn’t, you probably haven’t seen Cuckoo’s Nest recently.

Somehow, the Academy got it right in 1975. Since every one of these films is worthy of attention, I thought I’d spend the next four installments of An Honor To Be Nominated looking at each one. And with summer in full swing, it seems appropriate to kick things off with the movie that changed summer blockbusters forever, Jaws.

Jaws was never supposed to be an Oscar nominated film. In fact, during the tumultuous making of the movie, many doubted it would even be watchable. Steven Spielberg was just in his late 20s when he was hired to direct the film. He came from television, where he’d helmed episodes of Night Gallery and Columbo as well as the acclaimed TV-movie Duel. His only theatrical film, the Goldie Hawn vehicle The Sugarland Express, had been positively received by critics but hadn’t exactly set the box office on fire.

The screenplay for Jaws was in a constant state of flux, even during shooting. Peter Benchley, the author of the original novel, bowed out early on. Most of the shooting script was eventually written by Carl Gottlieb (who also appears in the film as the editor of the local newspaper) and John Milius, who did not receive screen credit for his work.

Considering the electricity generated by the three leads, it’s surprising to realize that not one of the actors was the production’s first choice. Spielberg originally offered the role of Chief Brody to Robert Duvall, who passed on the project. Roy Scheider was interested but Spielberg had to be persuaded that he was right for the part. For Hooper, both Jon Voight and Jeff Bridges were considered. Richard Dreyfuss initially rejected the part but eventually changed his mind. Quint is today considered Robert Shaw’s most iconic role but Spielberg first pursued Lee Marvin and Sterling Hayden for the part.

The production on Martha’s Vineyard went notoriously awry. The expensive mechanical sharks, dubbed “Bruce” by the crew, steadfastly refused to do what they were supposed to do. It proved to be a blessing in disguise, as Spielberg honed the script and rethought how to tell the story while waiting for the sharks to work. Eventually, the movie went over-budget and 100 days over schedule. By the time principal photography was over, Spielberg was convinced his career was finished before it had even begun.

But when Jaws was released on June 20, 1975, it changed Hollywood forever. Until then, most films were given a platform release, slowly expanding into different markets and allowing word of mouth to build. Jaws opened wide, so to speak, following a previously unheard of promotional blitz. It became a nationwide phenomenon, becoming the first film in history to make over $100 million in domestic box office.

Despite its popular success and critical acclaim, Jaws was hardly a shoo-in for a Best Picture nomination. The Academy has never given genres like horror and science fiction much respect. The Exorcist had managed to finagle a Best Picture nomination a couple years earlier but it was a more serious-minded type of horror film. Jaws was considered a straight-up popcorn movie that just happened to catch on.

That didn’t stop Steven Spielberg from feeling bitterly disappointed when the nominations were announced and he discovered that while his movie was up for the big prize, he himself was not. While Kubrick, Lumet, Altman, and Milos Forman were all nominated for Best Director, the Academy decided to honor Federico Fellini for his work on Amarcord instead of the new kid. Even so, Jaws won three of the four categories it was up for and Spielberg himself would receive his first Best Director nomination just two years later for Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.

Over 35 years later, Jaws remains one of the few films that’s as good today as it was at the time of its release. Almost all of this is due to the fact that things did not go as planned. Spielberg was forced to show his shark as little as possible due to the malfunctioning effects, making the impact of the shark’s on-screen appearances all the more potent.

But what really makes the film special is the work of Scheider, Dreyfuss, and Shaw. Spielberg excels at telling stories of ordinary people caught in extraordinary circumstances and Jaws may be his crowning achievement in this realm. These three characters are vivid, well-rounded, and thoroughly believable. The chemistry between them is palpable. These three actors sell the story much more effectively than any mechanical shark ever could.

It’s little wonder that Jaws remains a touchstone film for movie fans of my generation. It’s scary, funny, breathlessly exciting, and entirely relatable. Despite almost four decades of pop culture ubiquity, including countless parodies and the transformation of John Williams’ Oscar-winning score from effective film music to iconic audio shorthand, it has yet to lose its power. Most movies that enter our pop culture subconscious become overly familiar. Jaws is somehow immune to that. Every time someone watches it for the first time, someone new thinks twice about going back in the water.

Jaws is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Universal Studios Home Entertainment.

An Honor To Be Nominated: Skippy

THE CONTENDER: Skippy (1931)

Number of Nominations: 4 – Picture, Actor (Jackie Cooper), Director (Norman Taurog), Writing, Adaptation (Joseph L. Mankiewicz & Sam Mintz)

Number of Wins: 1 (Director)

This week, Comic-Con International 2014 invades San Diego for another year. So I thought it would be appropriate to take a look at a Best Picture nominee with roots in the world of comics. The Dark Knight was famously passed over but I thought perhaps something based on a graphic novel, like Road To Perdition or A History Of Violence, might have snuck in.

In fact, only one movie based on a comic book, comic strip or graphic novel has ever been nominated for Best Picture and you need to go all the way back to 1931 to find it. Skippy was based on a comic strip by Percy Crosby than ran from 1923 to 1945. Today, it’s almost forgotten, save for the peanut butter that continues to bear its name. But its influence runs deep and can be felt in virtually every kid-centric comic strip that followed, from Peanuts to Dennis The Menace to Calvin And Hobbes. At its peak, the strip was wildly popular, inspiring books, scads of merchandise, and a radio show. A feature film was a no-brainer.

For the title role, Paramount nabbed young Jackie Cooper, who had been making a positive impression in Hal Roach’s Our Gang shorts. Indeed, Skippy often feels like an extended Our Gang episode with added pathos.

Skippy is a mischievous lad who, despite stern warnings from his doctor father (Willard Robertson), enjoys hanging out with the poor kids in Shantytown. He befriends a new boy, Sooky (Robert Coogan), whose mutt is soon captured by a cantankerous dog catcher. The bulk of the film consists of Skippy and Sooky’s attempts to raise the three dollars it’ll take to get Penny the dog out of lock-up.

Director Norman Taurog had a unique method of getting the performance he wanted out of young Cooper. When he refused to cry during a key scene, Taurog, who was also the boy’s uncle, told a crew member to take Cooper’s dog out and shoot him. The nine-year-old broke down sobbing and Taurog got the shot. Borderline child abuse aside, it worked. Cooper not only got a title for his 1982 memoir, Please Don’t Shoot My Dog, he scored an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, becoming the youngest person ever nominated in a leading category to this day. Taurog himself won the award for Best Director.

Despite all this, Skippy remains one of the most obscure films ever nominated for Best Picture. In fact, a glance at the complete list of 1930-31 nominees reveals a lineup shocking in its banality. The winner, Cimarron, is one of the most tedious Oscar winners you’ll ever punish yourself by sitting through (yes, it’s even more boring than The English Patient). The other nominees included The Front Page, which would be overshadowed a few years later by its remake, His Girl Friday; the adventure movie Trader Horn; and East Lynne, a melodrama I had never even heard of before starting to write this article.

What happened? Were these really the five best movies the Academy could find? If so, they weren’t looking very hard. Among the other films eligible but not nominated were such classics as Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, the gangster films Little Caesar and The Public Enemy, and Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel starring Marlene Dietrich. I’m not saying Skippy is a bad movie. It’s cute and fairly charming. Jackie Cooper does give a remarkably confident performance for his age. But Best Picture material it is not.

Comics and graphic novels have long since gained the respect and admiration they were denied for so many years. But it’s remarkable that no film based on a comic has been nominated for Best Picture since Skippy. They’ve done well in other categories, primarily technical ones although several have garnered screenplay nominations, including American Splendor and Ghost World. But the Academy seems reluctant to invite them into the biggest category of them all. Frankly, I can’t say that I blame them.

Comics have grown up but with rare exceptions, the movies based upon them have not. For now, Hollywood seems content to milk the superhero genre for all its worth. Iron Man may boast Oscar-caliber visual effects but, as entertaining as it is, no one would take it seriously as a Best Picture candidate. The Dark Knight has come the closest, but even that was a flawed movie. Many felt it was unfairly overlooked at Oscar time but I think it received exactly what it deserved: lots of technical nominations and a posthumous salute to Heath Ledger.

There are hundreds of non-superhero comics just waiting to be adapted into feature films. The graphic journalism of Joe Sacco could provide the basis for an extraordinary war movie, while Eric Shanower’s Age Of Bronze could become an stunning epic in the vein of Gladiator. All it takes is the right filmmaker to connect with this raw material. One day, another movie based on a comic will receive a Best Picture nomination. When that day comes, I’ll be thinking about Skippy and I’ll be smiling.

Skippy has never been made available on DVD. It does turn up on TCM from time to time and Netflix has had it on their streaming service in the past, although it is currently unavailable. But the entire film is available in ten-minute segments on YouTube, which is how I watched it. If you’re curious, here’s part one to get you started.


An Honor To Be Nominated: A Serious Man

THE CONTENDERA Serious Man (2009)

Number of Nominations: 2 – Picture, Original Screenplay (Joel Coen & Ethan Coen)

Number of Wins: None

For all their talk about the grand tradition of the Oscars, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has never been shy about shaking things up. Many people don’t realize that there were essentially two Best Film categories at the very first ceremony. The Best Production award, what we know today as Best Picture, went to Wings. The Artistic Quality of Production award was given to F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise. It seems that even in 1927, voters didn’t entirely understand the difference between the two categories. It would be the first and last time the Artistic Quality of Production award was given.

In 2009, the Academy announced that the number of Best Picture nominees would increase from five to ten, returning to a system that had been abandoned, presumably for a good reason, back in 1944. Most everyone viewed this as a shameless grab for ratings and a response to the perceived snubbing of The Dark Knight in the category the year before.

A few populist favorites did get nominations that first year, including Avatar and The Blind Side. But critics complained that the rule change allowed movies to sneak in that didn’t deserve to be there. So after just two years, the Academy changed the rules again. Starting in 2011, there would be no fewer than five and no more than ten nominees in the Best Picture category.

During the 2009 awards season, one of the films most commonly considered a beneficiary of the ten-film rule was Joel and Ethan Coen’s A Serious Man. It received just one other nomination, tying it with The Blind Side as the least-honored nominee of the year. Most critics were impressed with the film but it was a far cry from the popular favorites the Academy had unofficially hoped would benefit from the new arrangement. Indeed, even by the Coen Brothers’ standard, it remains one of the most divisive movies of their career.

The Coens have never been easy to pin down, which is exactly what makes them such vitally important filmmakers. They have never courted popularity but popularity has occasionally agreed to meet them on their own terms. Movies like Fargo and O Brother, Where Art Thou? go against every commonly held belief of what a mainstream success should be, yet that’s exactly what they were. Occasionally, audiences need time to catch up to their work. The Big Lebowski is now one of the biggest cult movies of the last quarter century, but critics and audiences alike didn’t know what to make of it in 1998.

A Serious Man is unlikely to ever reach that level of pop culture ubiquity. But dismissing it entirely is a mistake, especially for anyone looking for a deeper understanding of the Coens’ entire body of work. This is one of their most personal films, although you shouldn’t necessarily mistake “personal” with “autobiographical.” Like Fargo, A Serious Man is set in their home state of Minnesota, but I would argue that the fundamental difference between the two is that Fargo is based on what they observed while growing up, while A Serious Man is rooted in what they lived.

Stage actor Michael Stuhlbarg stars as Larry Gopnik, a physics professor in 1967 Minnesota. His wife has been having an affair with Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed) and is demanding not just a divorce but a get so she can remarry in the Jewish faith. His troubled brother Arthur (Richard Kind) is facing criminal charges. Larry is also up for tenure, but the voting committee has been receiving anonymous letters slandering him. With the stress piling on, Larry turns to his faith for guidance and meaning but the various rabbis he meets with confuse him even more.

The Coens are famous for ambiguous endings, as in Barton Fink and No Country For Old Men, but A Serious Man infuriates even their most devoted fans. Here, both the opening and closing scenes are open to interpretation. The movie opens with a completely unrelated prologue about a dybbuk set in a Polish shtetl fifty years earlier. The Coens are notoriously coy in interviews but they’ve said this prologue really doesn’t have anything to do with the rest of the movie other than to set the tone. But it’s hard not to read more into it. Is it a parable or part of Larry’s ancestral back story or simply an elaborate bit of misdirection?

As for the ending, Larry receives some bad news from his doctor while at the exact same time, his son Danny faces down a massive tornado that’s barreling toward his school. The end. Not only do you not get any answers, you’re not even entirely sure what the questions are supposed to be. And that, I believe, is exactly the point.

A Serious Man has its roots in the Old Testament, particularly in the story of Job. But to me, it’s not so much a religious movie as it is a movie about religion. It’s the Coens’ interpretation of what it felt like to grow up Jewish in the Upper Midwest. Larry feels alienated from everyone, Jews and Gentiles alike. Judaism is as much a mystery to him as any other belief system. He was taught that it should provide meaning and solace, but instead it’s a baffling, closed-off labyrinth of puzzling stories and arcane traditions.

It probably is true that A Serious Man would not have received a Best Picture nomination under the five-film rule. Based on this year’s snubbing of Inside Llewyn Davis, it probably wouldn’t have even been nominated under the current five-to-ten setup. Even so, I believe A Serious Man absolutely deserved its nod. This is a dense, difficult film. It’s dark, funny, and deeply philosophical in its own strange way. The Coens have never been particularly interested in meanings. Instead, they’re fascinated by the search for meaning and how it affects people differently. It’s a recurring theme in their work and A Serious Man may well be their most heartfelt expression of it. It disappoints me to see how many Coen fans have dismissed this extraordinary film. I’ve returned to it again and again, each time finding myself thoroughly engrossed and fascinated over the endless questions it raises.

A Serious Man is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Universal Studios Home Entertainment.

An Honor To Be Nominated: Sunset Blvd.

THE CONTENDER: Sunset Blvd. (1950)

Number of Nominations: 11 – Picture, Actor (William Holden), Actress (Gloria Swanson), Supporting Actor (Erich von Stroheim), Supporting Actress (Nancy Olson), Director (Billy Wilder), Writing, Story and Screenplay (Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder & D.M. Marshman, Jr.), Cinematography, Black and White (John F. Seitz), Art Direction/Set Decoration, Black and White (Hans Dreier, John Meehan, Sam Comer & Ray Moyer), Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture (Franz Waxman), Film Editing (Arthur Schmidt & Doane Harrison)

Number of Wins: 3 – Writing, Story and Screenplay; Art Direction/Set Direction, Black and White; Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture

There’s no business like show business and of all the myriad branches of entertainment, none is as magical or inspiring as the motion picture industry. Don’t take my word for it. Just ask the people who work in the motion picture industry.

Since the silent era, one of Hollywood’s primary missions has been the creation and promotion of its own self-aggrandizing myth. Hollywood loves to make movies about itself but just to prove they’re good sports, they’re willing to laugh at themselves, too. More often than not, this comes in the form of softball gags pushing the notion that all actresses are vain, all actors are a bit dim, producers and directors are locked in a constant battle over art and commerce, and writers are the overlooked underclass that everyone would prefer to forget. Feel free to have a laugh at these stereotypes but never forget that you’d do anything to be one of them yourself.

Every so often, a truly great, audacious filmmaker will slip a knife into the hand that’s supposed to be patting Hollywood on its back. Arguably the greatest of these dark Hollywood movies is Billy Wilder’s 1950 classic Sunset Blvd., a film so far ahead of its time you may wonder how it got made in the first place.

According to Mason Wiley and Damien Bona’s invaluable reference Inside Oscar, Wilder was Paramount’s golden boy. His work had been so successful that he was able to begin production without even turning in a script. At story conferences, Wilder told the Paramount brass that he was making a movie called A Can Of Beans and gave them phony plot points, all of which were complete fabrications. Once shooting began, Wilder would lock up the script in his office to make sure no one caught on.

Finding the right cast also proved difficult. Today, it’s impossible to picture anyone as faded silent film star Norma Desmond other than Gloria Swanson. Try to imagine how different the film would have been with Wilder’s first choice, Mae West. West turned it down, claiming she was too young, and after considering such luminaries from the silent era as Mary Pickford and Pola Negri, Wilder found the perfect choice in Swanson.

For Joe Gillis, the washed-up screenwriter who becomes Norma Desmond’s pet companion, Wilder originally cast Montgomery Clift. But the movie hit a bit close to home for Clift. At the time, he was in a relationship with an older woman, singer Libby Holman, who threatened to commit suicide if Clift did the picture. He dropped out and Wilder approached several other actors, including Fred MacMurray, before settling on William Holden. Holden wasn’t much more than a B-movie star at this point and Joe Gillis was an unlikely role to catapult anyone to stardom. But it was the beginning of a fruitful collaboration between Wilder and Holden, leading to other classics like Stalag 17 and Sabrina.

It’s fair to say that Sunset Blvd. was one of the strangest films nominated for Best Picture up to this point. The movie exudes a weird menace from the moment Joe Gillis drives up to Norma Desmond’s eerie, dilapidated mansion. Joe is at first mistaken for an undertaker, scheduled to deliver a coffin for a recently deceased monkey. After Norma learns he’s a writer, she forces him to stick around and read the epically long script she’s written for her “return” (don’t call it a comeback), an overwrought adaptation of Salome. Desperate for cash, Joe agrees to help her edit the pages into something resembling a script. But little by little, he finds himself losing what few morals he had left and settles into a new role as a gigolo.

Even by film noir standards, the characters in Sunset Blvd. are a dark and twisted lot. Norma Desmond is a recluse clinging to her past glory, unwilling or unable to believe that her beloved fans have abandoned her. Joe Gillis may have had a glimmer of talent at one time but it was snuffed out long ago by his pursuit of money. As Norma’s devoted butler Max, the great, embittered silent filmmaker Erich von Stroheim is lost in his own mad attempts at preserving Norma’s illusions. It’s not entirely surprising that von Stroheim always spoke derisively of the film, waving it off as “that butler role.” The casting is particularly poignant in a scene with Norma showing Joe one of her old films. The movie, projected by Max, is actually Queen Kelly starring Swanson and directed by von Stroheim.

Despite receiving multiple nominations, the odds of Sunset Blvd. actually winning the Best Picture Oscar were always fairly remote. The film was greeted enthusiastically by critics but Wilder’s dark indictment of Hollywood infuriated many within the industry itself. Mogul Louis B. Mayer went so far as to demand that Wilder be “tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood.” Sure enough, the big prize went to a slightly more veiled backstage drama, All About Eve, while Swanson lost out to newcomer Judy Holliday for Born Yesterday.

Still, the movie did pick up a few justly earned trophies. Wilder and his longtime collaborator Charles Brackett shared the writing award with D.M. Marshman, Jr. Franz Waxman’s sweeping gothic noir score nabbed a music award, while the team responsible for the look of Norma Desmond’s cluttered mansion won the Art Direction/Set Decoration award. It’s worth pointing out that at this time, the awards for technical and design awards like cinematography were divided into two categories: black-and-white and color. The categories would keep the distinction alive until 1957.

More than sixty years after its release, Sunset Blvd. remains one of the most indelible and timeless films ever nominated for Best Picture. It’s very much a movie of its time, perfectly capturing the state of the film industry in 1950, and yet nothing about it feels dated. It’s a breathtaking example of what a great filmmaker can do when given absolute creative freedom and doesn’t give a damn about the consequences.

Sunset Blvd. is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Paramount Home Entertainment.

An Honor To Be Nominated: The Godfather, Part III

THE CONTENDER: The Godfather, Part III (1990)

Number of Nominations: 7 – Picture, Supporting Actor (Andy Garcia), Director (Francis Ford Coppola), Cinematography (Gordon Willis), Art Direction/Set Direction (Dean Tavoularis & Gary Fettis), Original Song (“Promise Me You’ll Remember,” music by Carmine Coppola, lyrics by John Bettis), Film Editing (Barry Malkin, Lisa Fruchtman & Walter Murch)

Number of Wins: Zero

(WARNING: This article contains spoilers for a movie that’s over twenty-five years old. You’ve had your chance.)

Time can do strange things to a movie’s reputation. Case in point: Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part III. While there are those who consider it an underrated masterpiece, it’s more often remembered as one of the most unnecessary and disappointing sequels of all time. And yet it was nominated for seven Oscars including Best Picture. Did the members of the Academy see the word “Godfather” on their ballots and just vote for it out of habit? Or is the film worthy of its accolades and deserving of a reevaluation?

The early 1990s found Coppola at a crossroads in his career. He’d spent most of the previous decade gambling and losing on expensive, risky, personal projects like One From The Heart and his utopian independent film studio, Zoetrope. The closest he’d come to commercial success was the fantasy-comedy Peggy Sue Got Married, a work-for-hire gig he’d stepped into at the last minute. Paramount had been trying to convince him to return to the Corleone family for years and Coppola had turned them down flat every time. But after the financial failure of Tucker: The Man And His Dream in 1988, Coppola was no longer in a position to say no. He needed to recoup his losses and a new Godfather movie was the closest thing he had to a sure bet.

Things didn’t get any easier once Coppola signed on. He and Mario Puzo were given just six weeks to put together a script, which then had to be substantially rewritten when Robert Duvall refused to reprise his role as Tom Hagen over salary demands. Winona Ryder was cast as Michael Corleone’s daughter Mary, then dropped out after arriving on set. Her doctor had diagnosed her with exhaustion after shooting several back-to-back films. Instead of delaying the production to find a replacement, Coppola simply cast the nearest warm Italian body he could find, namely his own daughter, Sofia.

Considering all the drama behind the scenes, it’s a bit of a miracle that The Godfather Part III is even watchable. And to be fair, Coppola himself had created a legacy that was virtually impossible to live up to with the first two Godfather films. Still, it’s no accident that most of the nominations for Part III were in technical categories (all of which were richly deserved…this is a beautiful looking film).

Perhaps the biggest shock came when Al Pacino was snubbed in the Best Actor category. Instead, the Academy recognized him in the Best Supporting Actor slot for his work in Dick Tracy, a nomination that may have influenced Pacino’s decision to become increasingly cartoonish in the years that followed. This put him in competition with Part III’s only acting nominee, Andy Garcia. Both lost to Joe Pesci in GoodFellas.

There are redeeming qualities to The Godfather Part III, notably Garcia’s performance as the hot-headed son of James Caan’s hot-headed Sonny Corleone. But the movie stumbles badly in many key areas, most notably in Coppola and Puzo’s script. They can’t seem to decide which story they want to tell. Much of the movie is concerned with Michael’s attempt to gain a controlling interest in a European conglomerate but there are digressions involving other mafia dons unhappy with Michael’s decision to go legit, Michael’s declining health, his children, and on and on, none of which gel to form a cohesive whole.

Of course, the most savage critical remarks were directed at Sofia Coppola. It’s true, her performance is pretty bad, but it’s impossible to not feel a little sorry for her. In many shots, she looks like exactly what she was: a girl doing a favor for her dad that’s taking much, much longer than she expected. For a family-first guy like Francis Ford Coppola, the critical beating Sofia took must have been especially painful. But it was irresponsible of him to cast her in such a prominent role, both as a parent and as a filmmaker.

Sofia Coppola isn’t the only actress adrift in Part III. Diane Keaton waltzes in and out of the movie as Michael’s now ex-wife Kay but she’s given almost nothing to do. Bridget Fonda has a thankless role as a journalist who falls into bed with Garcia, then vanishes from the rest of the picture. She’s on screen just long enough for you to think, “Hey, that’s Bridget Fonda” and later, “What happened to that journalist I thought we were supposed to pay attention to?”

Coppola attempts to tie Part III to the previous films but his methods are heavy-handed and self-conscious. There are quite a few flashbacks (in other words, recycled footage) and like the first one, Part III opens with a lengthy celebration at the Corleone home. But the biggest misstep is saved for the final moments. After his daughter is accidentally killed, taking a bullet meant for him, Michael has a heartrending breakdown. We then cut to an unspecified time in the future, where an aged Michael dies alone in Sicily. The shot is clearly meant to echo Marlon Brando’s death in the original, but it’s so abrupt and lacking in context that it turns into a joke. I half suspect that Pacino and Coppola decided to film this just to get it out of the way so they wouldn’t have to make Part IV.

After The Godfather Part III, we should have learned not to expect too much when filmmakers revisit their past triumphs. Movies are products of their time and consciously attempting to reconstruct magic too often results in a chaotic mess. The Godfather Part III certainly isn’t as egregiously terrible as the Star Wars prequels or the most recent Indiana Jones misadventure. But the series deserved a better coda than this rambling, intermittently engaging epilogue.

The Godfather Part III is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Paramount Home Entertainment.

An Honor To Be Nominated: The Turning Point

THE CONTENDER: The Turning Point (1977)

Number of Nominations: 11 – Picture, Actress (Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine), Supporting Actor (Mikhail Baryshnikov), Supporting Actress (Leslie Browne), Director (Herbert Ross), Original Screenplay (Arthur Laurents), Cinematography (Robert Surtees), Art Direction/Set Direction (Albert Brenner & Marvin March), Sound (Theodore Soderberg, Paul Wells, Douglas O. Williams & Jerry Jost), Film Editing (William Reynolds)

Number of Wins: None

Pop quiz, hotshot. Which movie was the biggest loser in Oscar history, winning none of the multiple awards it was nominated for? If you answered The Color Purple, you’re only half right. Spielberg’s movie is actually tied for this dubious honor with Herbert Ross’s The Turning Point. But while most remember the Academy’s shut-out of The Color Purple as a form of highway robbery, no one really blinked an eye when The Turning Point lost, even at the time.

Some of the reasons for this are fairly obvious. For one thing, there’s nothing even remotely controversial about The Turning Point. For another, Steven Spielberg’s reputation has only increased since The Color Purple lost out. Today, the idea of a Steven Spielberg film is so ingrained in pop culture that Super 8 can be simply described as an homage to Spielberg and audiences immediately know what to expect.

Herbert Ross, who passed away in 2001, is most often remembered as a capable craftsman but not a filmmaker with his own distinctive style. He began his career as a Broadway choreographer and many of his best known films were musicals, including Funny Lady, Pennies From Heaven, and Footloose. He also frequently helmed comedies, often written by Neil Simon, including California Suite and The Sunshine Boys. In fact, Ross had two films up for Oscars in 1977: The Turning Point and Simon’s The Goodbye Girl, for which Richard Dreyfuss won Best Actor.

In the immediate aftermath of the awards, the media had a lot to talk about, all of which was more interesting than the fact that The Turning Point hadn’t won anything. Woody Allen won several awards for Annie Hall and literally could not have cared less. Not only did he not attend the ceremony, he didn’t even bother watching it on TV. He was busy playing clarinet at Michael’s Pub in New York, as he usually did on Mondays.

However, the evening’s biggest brouhaha came when Vanessa Redgrave won Best Supporting Actress for her role in Julia. Redgrave’s nomination had been picketed by members of the Jewish Defense League, upset over her very vocal support of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. After she won, she used her acceptance speech to rail against the “Zionist hoodlums” gathered outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. In light of all this, the fact that a ballet movie had just lost more Oscars than any other film in history didn’t really matter all that much.

My mother took me to see The Turning Point back in 1977, presumably because she couldn’t find a sitter. I remembered nothing about it other than my physical presence in the theater. Of course, I was an eight-year-old boy at the time, probably upset that my mom was dragging me to a ballet movie when Star Wars was most likely still playing right next door. So I was curious to see The Turning Point again for the first time, hopefully from a slightly more mature perspective, to see how it held up. Unfortunately, it doesn’t hold up all that well.

The movie is really a cliché-ridden soap opera with MacLaine and Bancroft as two old friends who used to be friendly rivals in the American Ballet Company. When MacLaine became pregnant with her first child, she dropped out to marry and raise a family. Bancroft went on to become a star, touring the world and becoming a legend. After MacLaine’s oldest daughter (Leslie Browne) is accepted into the company, old jealousies reignite. MacLaine resents Bancroft’s stardom, Bancroft becomes a surrogate mother to Browne, and every dramatic beat of the story can be recited by heart by anyone who’s ever seen an episode of Days Of Our Lives.

Even so, it’s not hard to understand why The Turning Point garnered so many nominations in spite of, or perhaps because of, its familiarity. Hollywood loves a backstage drama and this one revels in all the old tropes. MacLaine and Bancroft do the best they can with the melodramatic dialogue they’re forced to deliver. After Natalie Portman won her Oscar for Black Swan, there was a minor, pointless controversy over how much dancing she actually did herself. The Turning Point sidesteps this issue by barely showing Bancroft on stage at all, leaving the dancing to trained professionals.

In fact, there really is only one reason to watch The Turning Point and that’s Mikhail Baryshnikov. It’s hard for me to imagine that some may now know Baryshnikov primarily through his stint on Sex And The City. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, he was a big deal and watching The Turning Point, it’s easy to see why. He moves with an almost preternatural grace, spinning, twisting, and leaping in a way that seems to defy gravity. When Ross turns his cameras on Baryshnikov and the company, the movie truly does come alive.

If you liked Black Swan, I encourage you to check out The Turning Point. It may not be as good a film but in some ways, it may be the better ballet movie. At least here, the dancers look like they’re enjoying themselves. Compare their faces to those in Black Swan, where everyone acts as though they’ve been condemned by a vengeful god to painfully contort their bodies for all eternity. In Darren Aronofsky’s film, it’s almost as if the dancers are driven to do something they hate. In Ross’ world, we see them doing what they love. But when they stop dancing and start talking, you realize that this time, the Academy got it right.

The Turning Point was available on DVD from Anchor Bay (under license from 20th Century Fox) but that release is now out of print. For those with region-free players, there are several import options available, including a Danish Blu-ray release.