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: 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: 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.