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.