An Honor To Be Nominated: The Blind Side

THE CONTENDER: The Blind Side (2009)

Number of Nominations: 2 – Picture, Actress (Sandra Bullock)

Number of Wins: 1 (Actress)

When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences increased the number of Best Picture nominees from five to ten back in 2009, it was supposed to increase the likelihood of audience-pleasing blockbusters getting into the race. It was a move intended to boost the ceremony’s dwindling viewership by giving Joe Sixpack and Suzy Chardonnay a horse in the race. It wasn’t necessarily a terrible idea, although it hasn’t really worked out that way in practice. This year’s highest-grossing nominee, The Martian, was only the 8th biggest hit of 2015. That’s certainly respectable but not the kind of fanbase that inspires the Titanic-level passion AMPAS was counting on. Viewership for last February’s telecast was down from last year, ranking as the least-watched Oscar ceremony since before the rule change went into effect.

But the new rule did actually seem to have the desired effect that first year. Viewership went up, with almost 42 million Americans tuning in (as opposed to about 34 million this year). The year’s highest-grossing movie did indeed secure a Best Picture nod (although, to be fair, Avatar probably would have received it anyway), as did Pixar’s Up, which is still one of their biggest hits. But arguably the biggest beneficiary of Oscar’s bigger tent that year was the feel-good smash The Blind Side.

Movies like The Blind Side very rarely get nominated for Academy Awards. On the surface, this belongs to the subgenre of inspirational real-life sports dramas that became increasingly popular in the 2000s. Disney practically created an algorithm dedicated to cranking them out, from The Rookie (also directed by Blind Side’s John Lee Hancock) to Miracle to Glory Road to the more recent Million Dollar Arm. As much as Oscar is a sucker for a good biopic, it doesn’t seem to have a lot of use for sports movies (unless that sport happens to be boxing for some reason).

Even more unusual than its subject matter, however, is its politics. People have complained about Hollywood’s “liberal agenda” for so long that it’s no longer even a cliché. It’s now simply an assumed fact. But The Blind Side is unabashedly a Red State movie, even if its politics are more implicit than explicit. The closest the movie gets to party politics is a moment when Kathy Bates, interviewing for the job of tutor to Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron), cautiously tells Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock) that she’s a Democrat as though she were confessing that she’s a convicted felon.

Hancock never foregrounds the movie’s conservative nature, an approach that works for the most part and is often refreshing. The Tuohy family’s Christian faith is neither denied nor overly emphasized. Too often, movies treat religious belief in either a condescending manner or, in the case of the increasing number of faith-based features, as a means to proselytize. Here, it’s simply an inherent part of their lives, as it is for most people of all faiths.

Even a later moment that invokes a more contentious Republican issue works in context. Leigh Anne responds to a threat from a street-level drug dealer (Irone Singleton) by warning him, “I’m a member of the N.R.A. and I’m always packing.” That line is a lot more loaded today than it was even seven years ago. But in the context of the movie, it works. It’s less a pro-gun sentiment than an anti-bullying one, displaying Leigh Anne’s protective, maternal instincts. It’s an important, effective moment precisely because of how underplayed and matter-of-fact it is. Standing up to this guy is not a big deal or a supreme act of courage for Bullock’s character. It’s simply the way she goes through her life every day.

The Blind Side does a lot of things well, especially in its depiction of Leigh Anne Tuohy and her family. And that’s great but it also ends up turning Michael Oher into an observer to his own story. A lot could be said about where this movie fits in to the long history of “White Savior” films. But the fact that this is based on a true story makes that a trickier landscape to negotiate. I have no doubt that Michael Oher loves his family very much. But I’m also quite confident that his rise to football stardom wasn’t just the result of genetics and a puppy-dog-like devotion to protecting the people he cares about, which is essentially what the movie suggests.

Quinton Aaron plays Oher as a sweet, shy, instantly likable guy. With his soft eyes and wounded expression, he may be the least intimidating 6’8” giant in movie history. And for all the adversity and hardship Oher had to overcome as a kid, almost none of it is actually in the movie. Literally everybody likes him to some degree, even the dealers and addicts in his old neighborhood. They only threaten him after he loses his temper on them defending his new adopted family. If The Blind Side has any bad guys, it’s just the abstract concepts of Ignorance, Poverty and Racism.

In many ways, race is The Blind Side’s blind side. Apart from Aaron, practically the only people of color are the people who live below the very clean and art-directed poverty line on the other side of the tracks. Which is odd, considering that Oher is brought to Wingate Christian School by an African-American mechanic trying to enroll his own son as well as Big Mike. The school’s board of admissions quickly approves the other boy but he’s never seen or heard of again. The film goes to great, almost absurd lengths to isolate Michael when it really doesn’t need to. What it ought to do instead is put us in his head so we can feel the drive and survival skills he clearly possessed. He’s far too passive for too much of the film.

But the filmmakers clearly decided early on that they weren’t making The Michael Oher Story. This is The Leigh Anne Tuohy Story but even there, it’s only marginally successful. Sandra Bullock’s nomination (and win) for Best Actress was considerably less of a surprise than the movie’s Best Picture nod. Here was a very well-liked movie star in a juicy role that played to all of the strengths and attributes that made her an audience favorite in the first place. The Oscar was practically a foregone conclusion. But it’s a bit of a curious role in that it doesn’t really have a dramatic arc. Bullock nails the character and is extremely effective and moving in moments tamping her emotions down beneath her all-business exterior. But when one of her ladies-who-lunch friends comments, “You’re changing that boy’s life,” her response (“No. He’s changing mine.”) feels more like it was dictated by the Screenwriter’s Bible than a genuine reply. By the end of the movie, she seems like pretty much the same person she was to begin with, only now she has an adopted son.

Had it been released a year earlier, The Blind Side would probably not have received a Best Picture nomination (although Bullock would certainly still have been a contender in her category). While it’s hard to argue with the movie’s crowd-pleasing success, John Lee Hancock isn’t a particularly inspired or challenging filmmaker. There are important issues to deal with inside The Blind Side but the movie itself is uninterested and incapable of addressing them. And maybe that’s OK. After all, there are plenty of other movies capable of taking a more nuanced look at these themes and ideas. But there’s nothing inherently wrong with a movie that simply wants its audience to be a little bit more compassionate toward each other.

The Blind Side is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Warner Home Video.

An Honor To Be Nominated: A Touch Of Class

THE CONTENDER: A Touch Of Class (1973)

Number of Nominations: 5 – Picture, Actress (Glenda Jackson), Original Screenplay (Melvin Frank & Jack Rose), Original Song (“All That Love Went To Waste,” music by George Barrie, lyrics by Sammy Cahn), Original Score (John Cameron)

Number of Wins: 1 (Actress)

In box office circles, you’ll occasionally hear talk of the “Oscar bump”, the supposed lift in a movie’s revenue after it’s nominated for Academy Awards. It’s a temporary effect, of course, but it’s curious just how short-lived the Oscar bump can be. You might think that an Oscar win would give a film some kind of immortality but it isn’t true. Case in point: the almost-forgotten Best Picture nominee and Best Actress winner A Touch Of Class.

I’m an active user of Letterboxd, the movie-lover’s social network, and one of the features I enjoy is learning who else has seen a particular film. When I watched A Touch Of Class, I was surprised that only 105 other people had seen it. Not 105 of my friends, 105 Letterboxd users period. By comparison, 5,839 people have watched that year’s Best Picture winner, The Sting. What makes that low figure even more of a shock is the fact that A Touch Of Class was actually a pretty good-sized hit back in 1973, riding a wave of popularity to those five nominations.

The movie itself is a trifle and, like the dessert, it hasn’t aged particularly well. George Segal stars as an American insurance adjuster living in London with his wife and family. He has a chance encounter with Glenda Jackson, a fashion designer and divorced mother of two. Sparks fly and soon the two of them are off to Spain for an illicit affair. After a rocky start that almost has them calling the whole thing off before it even gets started, the pair begins to fall in love. Returning to London, they decide to keep the affair going, renting a cheap flat in a shady part of town (all the girls who live in the building have the surname “French”) and getting together for secret trysts whenever possible.

A Touch Of Class was co-written and directed by Melvin Frank, a member of the old guard in Hollywood who cut his teeth writing for Bob Hope and Danny Kaye vehicles. On the surface, A Touch Of Class seems very modern and sophisticated. But deep down, it’s a resolutely old-fashioned movie that only works as well as it does thanks to Segal and especially Jackson.

George Segal was at the height of his popularity in 1973, coming off of such hits as The Owl And The Pussycat. Glenda Jackson, on the other hand, was actively looking to change her image. She’d already won an Oscar a few years earlier for her role in Ken Russell’s Women In Love and was nominated again for John Schlesinger’s Sunday Bloody Sunday. In other words, she was considered a very capital-S Serious Actress. With A Touch Of Class, she was making a bid for more mainstream commercial success.

Segal and Jackson have an undeniable chemistry and that rapport makes it easy to gloss over some of the movie’s bumpier patches. Because it’s fun to watch their banter, you can almost overlook the fact that Segal’s character is a fairly unlikable cad, eager to cheat on his wife for no good reason. We don’t see a lot of his wife but she seems perfectly nice and inoffensive. It never seems like there’s trouble at home or friction in their relationship, so Segal’s really just a bastard, albeit a charming one.

At least Jackson is fairly upfront about her desires and expectations. She’s looking for something less than a relationship but something a little more than a one-night stand. She seems to realize that the smart play would have been to end things after the trip to Spain. The fact that she keeps seeing Segal anyway doesn’t make her seem stupid or weak, just human. On screen, Glenda Jackson had a presence that always made her seem much smarter than everybody else in the film (probably because she really was). Her work in A Touch Of Class probably wasn’t the most-deserving performance up for the Oscar that year. Personally, I would have given the award to Ellen Burstyn for The Exorcist. Perhaps a more appropriate award for Jackson would have been Most Valuable Player.

Even at the time, A Touch Of Class was an unlikely Oscar contender. It would be a similar situation twenty years later when the fluffy Four Weddings And A Funeral found itself battling it out for the top prize with heavyweights Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction. There have certainly been worse movies nominated for Best Picture than A Touch Of Class but very few as inconsequential.

A Touch Of Class is available on DVD from Warner Home Video.

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: The Color Purple

THE CONTENDER: The Color Purple (1985)

Number of Nominations: 11 – Picture, Actress (Whoopi Goldberg), Supporting Actress (Margaret Avery & Oprah Winfrey), Adapted Screenplay (Menno Meyjes), Cinematography (Allan Daviau), Art Direction/Set Direction (J. Michael Riva & Linda De Scenna), Original Song (“Miss Celie’s Blues (Sister),” music by Quincy Jones & Rod Temperton, lyrics by Jones, Temperton & Lionel Richie), Original Score (Quincy Jones & a host of others), Costume Design (Aggie Guerard Rodgers), Makeup (Ken Chase)

Number of Wins: Zilch

In 2010, Tyler Perry found himself the center of controversy yet again, this time over his film For Colored Girls. A number of people suggested Perry, best known for donning wig and dress to perform a caricature of a sassy black woman, might not be qualified to adapt Ntozake Shange’s 1975 play for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf, a landmark work of African-American feminist theatre. So Perry did what any filmmaker would do in that situation: he went on TV to get Oprah’s blessing. It seemed to work. The controversy died down, the movie opened to Perry’s usual mixture of faint praise and scathing notices, and the whole affair was forgotten in a matter of days.

If anyone could sympathize with Perry, it’s Steven Spielberg. In 1985, he was in a similar spot over his adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Color Purple. But while there was certainly concern over whether or not a nice white Jewish boy from Southern California could take on this story, there were also more general questions raised about his ability as a filmmaker. No one doubted his skill at crafting thrilling boys’ adventure stories featuring sharks, UFOs, and Nazi-fighting archeologists. But this movie was actually supposed to be… you know, about something. Was he up to the challenge?

Spielberg also had Oprah in his corner but not as the Queen of All Media she would become. At this point, her sphere of influence only went as far as the greater Chicago area, which is where co-producer Quincy Jones saw her and persuaded Spielberg to give her a shot. It was a smart move. She really is terrific in the movie. Too bad about the TV thing. She could have been a first-class character actress. The movie helped her, too. Oprah’s talk show star was already on the rise but that Oscar nomination certainly didn’t hurt when it went into national syndication in 1986.

When the movie was finally released, it was predictably met with protests from organizations such as the NAACP, who complained about perceived stereotypes as well as Spielberg’s involvement. But when the Oscar nominations were announced, two movies dominated: Out Of Africa and The Color Purple. There was one big omission, however. Spielberg himself was left out of the best director race.

Spielberg was never shy about his desire to win an Oscar. Publicly, he kept quiet, going off on vacation after the nominations were announced but the snub must have hurt. When the big day finally arrived, The Color Purple won none of the categories it was eligible for. By this time, of course, the film was a box office success, so the NAACP, who had been so critical earlier, now focused their wrath on the Academy, calling the shut-out “a slap in the face.”

Did the Academy get it wrong? Personally, I think The Color Purple is a better film than that year’s winner, Out Of Africa. But it still didn’t necessarily deserve to win. (For the record, my own choice for the best picture of 1985, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, wasn’t even nominated in the category.) Spielberg has never been a particularly subtle filmmaker. His tendency to go big when a quieter moment might be more powerful occasionally works against the film, especially when it comes to moments of comic relief. There’s a recurring gag with Harpo falling through a roof he’s trying to repair that’s especially cartoonish and out of place. Still, Spielberg and his cast make it easy to engage emotionally with these characters. If you do that, it’s possible to overlook the film’s weaker, schmaltzier elements.

The Color Purple is rarely mentioned in current discussions of Spielberg’s work. It’s been overshadowed both by the long reach of his early classics and later films that did win, such as Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, but it remains a key film in his career. Spielberg has referred to it as his first mature film, a characterization I don’t necessarily agree with. Many of his earlier films have deeply moving and even profound moments, especially Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, but the success of The Color Purple gave Spielberg the confidence to move beyond what most people consider popcorn movies, even if he didn’t have a little gold statue to prove it.

The Color Purple is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Warner Home Video.