Oscar Snubs and Best Picture Fiascos, Past and Present

January 24, 2015 § 1 Comment

This One Won Best Picture

This One Won Best Picture

This One Didn't

This One Didn’t

The recent hand wringing over the lack of nominations for “Selma” beyond Best Picture was surprising, given the fact that most of the people writing about it should know that nominations are not given out of fairness or merit. (Profitability is also beside the point, otherwise at least one “Fast and Furious” or “Spiderman” movie would have been nominated for Best Picture by now.) It’s as if they’ve forgotten that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is not some sort of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval-giving organization but a by-invitation-only private club whose members (according to a recent LA Times poll) are:

94% white
77% male
86% fifty or older, median age 62

Not exactly a picture of diversity, yet over the years these members have nominated a raft of offbeat choices for Best Picture, films like “The Tree of Life,” “Pulp Fiction,” and this year’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” Winning is another matter: although other nominations come from the corresponding branches, every eligible member votes for the Best Picture nominations, which explains why the directors of Best Picture nominees aren’t necessarily nominated for Best Director. Given the size and occupational variety of the AMPAS electorate, the Best Picture winner is often not so much a matter of what everyone loves most as what everyone hates least. Accordingly, the winners are usually bland and sometimes the worst of the bunch. Does anyone really think “Crash,” is a better film than “Brokeback Mountain”? That “Forrest Gump” is better than “Pulp Fiction”? That “Dances with Wolves” is better than “Goodfellas”? Yet all the former won Best Picture; the latter lost.

My all-time favorite undeserving Best Picture winner is 1980’s “Ordinary People,” a family melodrama that even at the time of its release looked less like a feature film than a middling TV Movie-of-the-Week. But it starred Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore and was directed by Robert Redford, all formidable stars near height of their powers, so it beat not one but three vastly superior films: “Raging Bull,” “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” and “The Elephant Man.” (If that weren’t enough, the voters gave the Best Director award to Robert Redford, who beat not only Martin Scorsese but David Lynch and Roman Polanski for the award. Did anyone really think Redford was the best director of the group?) Never mind: history determines the real winner. Today “Raging Bull” is considered one of the greatest films of all time, while “Ordinary People” is remembered mainly as the movie that introduced Timothy Hutton, whose Best Supporting Actor win is the apex of his career so far.

Whichever nominee wins this year’s award for Best Picture, the real best picture winner won’t be determined for at least a decade. How will we know? It’ll be the movie we’re still watching and thinking about. If the past is any indication, it won’t be the one with the Oscar.

Alfred Hitchcock’s “The White Shadow”: A Chronicle of Genius Foretold

September 25, 2011 § 1 Comment

Courtesy The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Last Thursday night’s long-awaited AMPAS screening of the previously lost and newly restored “The White Shadow” (1924) surpassed my expectations, which were very high. Though incomplete–only three of its reels were recovered–the film is impressive, so much so that it is still running in my head, days later.  Any serious filmgoer should jump at the chance to see it.

The earliest surviving film work of Alfred Hitchcock, who is credited as writer, editor and assistant director, “The White Shadow” provides ample evidence of an already sophisticated visual style. (Though Graham Cutts is the credited director, Hitchcock’s contribution is thought to have been far greater than his. Speaking of their five films together, Hitchcock said that he was  “running even the director.”) The fact that Hitchcock was only 24 years old at the time speaks volumes about his talent.

In an era where films were often shot on the fly, “The White Shadow” appears to have been carefully storyboarded. Shots are framed and lit beautifully, and actors are positioned in a manner more painterly than haphazard. My favorites include Betty Compson (excellent as twins, one good and one bad) playing poker, her eleborate hat wreathed in cigarette smoke, and the shot that introduces The Cat Who Laughs, the nightclub where she plays. Instead of opening with a shot of the club, Hitchcock shoots its logo, a cat’s face medallion on the grillwork of an interior balcony. In the background, we glimpse the stockinged legs of  the club’s female patrons–a sight that conveys more information than any conventional establishing shot.

Betty Compson in "The White Shadow"/Courtesy http://www.filmpreservation.org

In making the most of  a beautiful country estate and a Parisian nightclub, Hitchcock provides a fascinating preview of later films like “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” “North by Northwest,” and “Vertigo,” whose locations were of the utmost importance. Unlike many silent films, which seem set-bound, “The White Shadow” makes good use of the outdoors. Part of the missing section was shot in Switzerland, and would have been fascinating to see.

The audience at the screening was captivated, not only by the film but by the excellent musical accompaniment, composed by Michael Mortilla and performed by him and Nicole Garcia. So wrapped up were we that its abrupt ending, at a particularly dramatic juncture, was met with a collective groan–and huge regret that the rest of the film would never be seen (though it was described–by Eva Marie Saint, no less). Still, “The White Shadow” is amazing. See it if you have the chance.

Courtesy Mary Mallory

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Early Films, Now Restored, to Have New Premieres at AMPAS This Month

September 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

From "A Trip to the Moon," by Georges Meliese

Several early films (including some from from the New Zealand Film Archive), freshly restored, will reach new audiences with special showings at the Academy this month.

On Tuesday, September 6th at 7:30pm, comes “A Trip to the Moon,” (1902), Georges Meliese’s hand-colored fantasy film. After a complete restoration at Technicolor in Los Angeles, a new soundtrack was composed for the film by Air, the French band. The film’s restoration was sponsored by Lobster Films, the Groupama Gan Froundation for Cinema and the Technicolor  Foundation for  Cinema Heritage. Also on the bill are “A Trip Down Market Street,” (1906) which depicts San Francisco just days before the earthquake and fire that destroyed the city, early 3D versions of Melies films and turn-of-the-century sound films.  For tickets ($5 general admission, $3 Academy members/students, go to www.oscars.org)

On Thursday, Sept. 22 at 7:30pm, the Academy will screen Alfred Hitchcock’s “The White Shadow,” whose restoration was sponsored by the Academy Film Archive, George Eastman House, the Library of Congress, the Museum of Modern Art, and UCLA Film and Television Archive. Also on the bill are “Won in the Closet” (1914), Mabel Normand’s dirctorial debut, and “Oil’s Well” (1923), a Monty Banks comedy. For tickets ($5 general admission, $3 Academy members/students, go to www.oscars.org)

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“Upstream” Premieres at the Academy Wednesday, Sept. 1: John Ford’s Lost Silent Film, Restored

August 31, 2010 § Leave a comment

One of the 75 rediscovered films from the New Zealand Film Archive, “Upstream,” makes its first appearance in 80 years tomorrow night at the Academy. (For more on these films, see my post https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2010/06/07/a-treasure-trove-of-silent-film-resurfaces-in-new-zealand/)

A love triangle from 1927, the film shows the influence of F. W. Murnau, the great German director (“Sunrise”) who at the time was also directing at Fox. There will be live musical accompaniment as well as the trailer of Ford’s 1929 “Strong Boy,” the only surviving footage from that film.

Tickets are only $5 and still available at www.oscars.org


A Treasure Trove of Silent Film Resurfaces in New Zealand

June 7, 2010 § 2 Comments

Lois Weber/Courtesy http://www.davidbordwell.net

Today’s news–that 75 films from the Silent Era are being returned from the national film archive of New Zealand to the United States, their country of origin–is a bright spot in a depressing time. Not only were these films presumed lost, along with 80% of the fragile nitrate films of the period, but none have been viewed publicly in 80 years. Among the highlights of the collection are John Ford’s “Upstream” (1927), which is said to have been influenced by F. W. Murnau’s techniques. (Murnau was the German director of “Sunrise,” [1927] which won the first Academy Award for Best Picture in 1929.) Also eagerly anticipated is “Won in a Cupboard,” (1914) the earliest surviving film directed by Mabel Normand, the great Mack Sennett comedy star.  In “Maytime” (1923), another huge star of the era, Clara Bow, plays an atypical costume role.

Among the less familiar names in the collection are Al Christie and Lois Weber, who in their day were famous both as directors and producers. Christie was one of the most prolific directors of the Silent Era, while Weber, who directed over 40 films, had her own studio and was the highest-paid woman director of her time. (For more on Weber, see my post “Before Kathryn Bigelow: Women Directors in 20th Century Hollywood [March 8, 2010].)

Why New Zealand? Apparently it was the end of the distribution line, so films stayed there after their commercial run. The studios apparently didn’t want their prints back; at any rate, they wouldn’t pay the shipping costs. So projectionists and other film buffs kept the reels; eventually, through heirs, the films made their way to the New Zealand Film Archive.

It wasn’t until last year that an American film preservationist, Brian Meacham of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), visited colleagues at the New Zealand Film Archive while on vacation and saw a list of American films in the collection. One thing led to another, and arrangements were made for the return of 75 titles.

Amazingly, given the fragility of nitrate stock, three-quarters of the films have good image quality, though all are in need of restoration. Twentieth Century Fox, whose predecessor made John Ford’s “Upstream,” is restoring that film. It will have its first showing in eight decades at the Academy this fall and is certain to be a sensation.

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