Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Oscar Catches a Kingfish

Olivia de Havilland:
Best Actress for
The Heiress

The 22nd Academy Awards went back to its proud American roots.  After seeing the British film Hamlet overrun the Oscars, the Academy chose a tale of the sordid South as its top film of the year.  A good of this year's Oscars deal with corruption of some kind: political or social. 

A curious side note is that this would be the last year all five Best Picture nominees would be in black-and-white.  From now on, that style would be fading to black, as color soon dominated the Best Picture prize.  After 1960's The Apartment, there would be only two black-and-white Best Picture winners (and one of them, Schindler's List, would have some color scenes, while the other, The Artist, was pure black-and-white).

Curiously, this year I don't find myself in disagreement with almost all of the Academy's choices.  This doesn't mean I think the winners were themselves the very best, merely the best of their fellow nominees (something different).  

As always this is just for fun and should not be taken as my final decision. I should like to watch all the nominees and winners before making my final, FINAL choice. Now, on to cataloging the official winners (in bold) and my selections (in red). Also, my substitutions (in green).



Through A Long and Sleepless Night from Come to the Stable
It's A Great Feeling from It's A Great Feeling
My Foolish Heart from My Foolish Heart
Baby, It's Cold Outside from Neptune's Daughter
Lavender Blue from So Dear to My Heart

About the only song that comes close to taking out Baby, It's Cold Outside is the sweet, charming, and nostalgic Lavender Blue.  What is interesting is that Baby, It's Cold Outside is considered a Christmas song, but it has nothing to do with Christmas.  It doesn't even have anything to do with winter.  It's a metaphorical number, describing a man's wish that the woman he fancies stay just a little bit longer (for her own good, of course).  Why Baby, It's Cold Outside (which I think might be the first duet to win Best Original Song) has become a Christmas standard when the song isn't about Christmas or set at Christmas and Neptune's Daughter has nothing to do with Christmas (as far as I know) is therefore a bit of a curiosity.
One thing that Baby, It's Cold Outside does have is how interpretation can make or break a song.  In the Ricardo Montalban/Esther Williams version, it's a song of seduction (albeit a charming, light version).  When Red Skelton and Betty Garrett sing it (with Skelton being the one protesting he must go and Garrett being the aggressive one) it becomes a comical number.  Either rendition works so well (Neptune's Daughter being at heart, a romantic comedy of mistaken identities like Romance on the High Seas or Top Hat, and to a lesser degree, something like While You Were Sleeping), and it has become a standard in American music.

Still, just like The Ten Commandments is not an Easter movie, Baby, It's Cold Outside is not technically a Christmas song.

Still, we'll overlook that. 


Joseph L. Mankiewicz: A Letter to Three Wives
Carol Reed: The Fallen Idol
Robert Rossen: All the King's Men
William A. Wellman: Battleground
William Wyler: The Heiress

I'm awful tempted to give it to Wyler because you've got some real good pieces of acting in The Heiress.  The reason I'm opting for Mankiewicz however is because he had the difficult task of keeping the audience guessing as to which of the three wives is the one who will find herself without a husband.  We also have essentially different stories tied together, almost anthology-like.  That, for me, for the moment, pushed Mank higher. 

Joseph L. Mankiewicz and his brother Herman were talented.  As for their descendants Josh and Ben...

John Ford: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
Joseph L. Mankiewicz: A Letter to Three Wives
Carol Reed: The Fallen Idol
Raoul Walsh: White Heat
William Wyler: The Heiress

That being said, we had some real extraordinary films and filmmakers coming our way this year.  I'm choosing Raoul Walsh, underappreciated, for White Heat, one of the best noir/gangster films made.  We know what's going on long before most of the characters, and Walsh brought out the best in people like Edmond O'Brien, Virginia Mayo, and James Cagney in what really is one of not just his greatest performances, but one of the greatest performances captured on film. 


Ethel Barrymore: Pinky
Celeste Holm: Come to the Stable
Elsa Lanchester: Come to the Stable
Mercedes McCambridge: All the King's Men
Ethel Waters: Pinky

Well, looky here.  We got two women from the same film (Pinky) and two other women from the same film (Come to the Stable), with the winner being the outlier.  I kind of lean towards Waters' sympathetic turn as the black grandmother to a biracial woman 'passing' for white.  Certainly Pinky was an interesting topic for the time, but for the moment I'm keeping with the shrewd Southern political operative who finds herself trapped in the seedy world she tried to manipulate.

Mary Astor: Little Women
Betty Garrett: On the Town
Virginia Mayo: White Heat
Mercedes McCambridge: All the King's Men
Ethel Waters: Pinky

It's a pity that comedy isn't as well-regarded as drama by the Academy (though to be fair, I found Eddie Redmayne's performance quite comedic, and he ended up winning).  It looks like Betty Garrett's forte was in man-hungry roles, where she went after her fellow and was unafraid to show it.  Somehow, her turn as the cabbie with her eyes on Frank Sinatra always struck me as a performance that was properly supporting.  She wasn't the lead, but her scenes were played correctly: light and funny.

Granted, her own life wasn't all laughs: wife to Larry Parks (whom you might remember from The Jolson Story, which earned him a Best Actor nomination in 1946), Garrett herself, like Parks, had been a member of the Communist Party.  Her career wasn't as affected as Parks (which was all but destroyed) but she still had damage to her name.  That she survived is a wonder.


John Ireland: All the King's Men
Dean Jagger: Twelve O' Clock High
Arthur Kennedy: Champion
Ralph Richardson: The Heiress
James Whitmore: Battleground

This is really the only category with which I disagree with the Academy's choice.  I think both Dean Jagger and Twelve O' Clock High are pretty much forgotten.  I can't say that the choice was bad, but I can't work up enthusiasm for either.  For a while I had John Ireland's newspaper man turned political hatchet man as my choice, but was persuaded to instead choose Ralph Richardson's cold patrician father in The Heiress, a man who doesn't shrink from insulting his daughter (even as he is right about the golddiger she's found). 

Kirk Douglas: A Letter to Three Wives
John Ireland: All the King's Men
Dean Jagger: Twelve O' Clock High
Edmond O'Brien: White Heat
Ralph Richardson: The Heiress

Out of all the performances nominated, I still struggle with including Dean Jagger.  I'm throwing him in just in case later on I find I did miss something (but don't hold your breath).  However, it's Edmond O'Brien as the double-agent keeping tabs on the gangster Cody Jarrett that impressed me more.  O'Brien would go on to actually win an Oscar for The Barefoot Contessa (and curiously, as far as I know the only person to win an Oscar for playing someone named 'Oscar'). 


Jeanne Crain: Pinky
Olivia de Havilland: The Heiress
Susan Hayward: My Foolish Heart
Deborah Kerr: Edward, My Son
Loretta Young: Come to the Stable

Few performances really stand out as real tour de force, but de Havilland (still with us at 99 as of this writing) in The Heiress has to be among the greats.  de Havilland is among the greatest actresses of all time, and while I don't put much stock in 'the last of' whatever, de Havilland can truly be said to be among the last true pure actresses.  As the plain daughter of a wealthy man done in by love who enacts her own revenge on the man who had 'grown greedier with time: first for her money, then for her love', her final scene is chilling and brilliant.

Jeanne Crain: Pinky
Olivia de Havilland: The Heiress
Susan Hayward: My Foolish Heart
Katharine Hepburn: Adam's Rib
Loretta Young: Come to the Stable

Bolt the door, Mariah.  We have an undisputed winner.


Broderick Crawford: All the King's Men
Kirk Douglas: Champion
Gregory Peck: Twelve O' Clock High
Richard Todd: The Hasty Heart
John Wayne: Sands of Iwo Jima

I'm a little surprised that of all the John Wayne filmography, the Academy chose to single him out only twice: in the future for True Grit, and for this war film.  Again, I find myself not being a Gregory Peck fan, but from all the nominees it's Crawford's Huey Long-type Southern politician, one who starts out as a true people's champion only to be corrupted himself by power, that is the best performance out of the nominees.

As far as I'm concerned, Broderick Crawford blew the other nominees away for his Willie Stark, whom we start out admiring and cheering on, only to find ourselves horrified and disgusted by how power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  It's almost to where we're happy he gets his just desserts, though a bit of us still remembers the honest and good Willie Stark, and mourn.

James Cagney: White Heat
Montgomery Clift: The Heiress
Broderick Crawford: All the King's Men
Ralph Richardson: The Fallen Idol
John Wayne: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon

Again, I think Wayne was a much better actor than even his fans give him credit for, and where was Clift's beautiful schemer who found himself locked out of heart and home?  Still, let's face it: James Cagney's Cody Jarrett, deranged evil gangster and unabashed mama's boy, is THE performance of performances.  I think that this role is Cagney's greatest screen performance, better than his George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy (and that one's pretty awesome itself).

I took it for granted that Cagney had been nominated for White Heat and was shocked and astonished to find he hadn't been.  Many years later, his White Heat costar Virginia Mayo said that the Academy would never nominate him for a 'gangster' film, that you'd have to be in something like Mr. Skeffington or something outrageous like that to get nominated (for the record, Mayo never received an Oscar nomination).  Up to a point, I agree: the Academy tends to favor dramas, and costume dramas in particular.  However, I don't think there's anything particularly wrong with Mr. Skeffington, and why she picked on the film (and by extension, Claude Rains, my all-time favorite actor) I can only guess. 

Still, to ignore Cagney as the psychopathic killer with a mommie complex is an embarrassment to the Academy (up there with Eddie Redmayne's cold and calculated Oscar-bait being awarded a prize).  The scene where Cagney learns his dear Mama is dead...frightening, brilliant (and exactly the same reaction that my brother/best friend Gabe, Lord of Packer Nation, had when he heard that Brett Favre was going to play for the Minnesota Vikings).

Despite their best efforts, he made it...TOP OF THE WORLD!   


All the King's Men
The Heiress
A Letter to Three Wives
Twelve O' Clock High

I'm tempted to pick The Heiress, for I have a weakness for costume films myself.  It's also extremely well-acted, and has the benefit of an Oscar-winning score by American master Aaron Copland.  That is as far as I can tell the only real competition to the film I think was the best of the bunch: the sordid story of a good man corrupted to the core.  All the King's Men is based on the life of Huey P. Long, Governor and Senator from the great State of Louisiana (though in the film the state's name is never mentioned).  The Kingfish, as he was dubbed, was a good man at first, a real people's champion.  As time went on however, and as he amassed so much power that the Pelican State became virtually his own fiefdom, The Kingfish started getting out of control, crushing opposition by means not mentioned in polite society.  He had ambitions to higher office, dreaming of removing President Roosevelt and instituting his "Share Our Wealth" plan for massive wealth redistribution. 

As a side note, the descendants of Share Our Wealth are still very much alive in certain circles.  I'll leave you to figure out where politically such ideas flourish.

All the King's Men
The Fallen Idol
The Heiress
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
White Heat

However, while I won't argue that the nominated films are bad (Twelve O' Clock High being perhaps the outlier), I do think we could have gotten a better slate of candidates.  At the top of my list is White Heat, one of the best examples of a gangster film.  For me, White Heat is not exactly film noir, but a very close cousin.  It also is interesting in that the gangster film had pretty much fallen by the wayside after World War II, but White Heat didn't get the message.

White Heat was Cagney's last gangster role, a fitting farewell to an iconic genre and the man who made it so.  It's also my choice for the Best Film of 1949.

Next Time: The 1950 Academy Awards.  

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