Sunday, March 15, 2009

Opening the Oscar Files

Unlike the rest of the movie-geek blogosphere, I am a total lightweight in the Oscar completism stakes. For job purposes, I catch all the new stuff, but let it be known that I have not seen a single Best Picture nominee from 1955, 1956, 1963 (admittedly, iffy-looking years) or 1927-9. Shame on me. Also unlike hardcore Oscar addict pals, I don’t keep a percentage tally of how many nominees I’ve seen across the history of the awards, because I’m pretty sure it would consign me to a failing grade in every category. If such things are meant to be a point of pride, why humiliate myself?

Still, you can’t accuse me of not being keen to catch up and join the cool gang; if a critical awareness of, say, Stuart Erwin’s performance in Pigskin Parade (Supporting Actor, 1936) is what’s required to gain access to this inner circle of movie-trivia mastery, then I’m jolly well going to hunt it down, sooner or later. Armed with my trusty copy of The Academy Awards Handbook -- New and Updated 1996 edition (Pinnacle Books, John Harkness, with my yellow highlighting everywhere and a Supporting Actress error on page 74) I have recently trawled through, year by year, and added every unwatched movie I can possibly find on Region 2 DVD to my lovefilm queue: a not unlaborious process which kept me up to 3am a few nights ago. Said queue now has 302 titles on it, all but a tiny handful on medium priority, so they will arrive through my letterbox in more or less random order. I’ve cheated with a few high priorities to kick things off, because I’m really keen to see, say, The Ruling Class and The Snake Pit, whereas it will be a blue day in the Robey household when Charly turns up, and an even bluer one when I have to subject myself to The Alamo. No pain, no gain, as they say.

You’ll be able to see from the newly added sidebar that it’s been a mixed but mostly positive start to this mad endeavour. I completely loved Martin Ritt’s Hud, so sinewy yet tender, and sensationally acted, to the point where it’s made an instant sally into the bottom reaches of my top 100. I certainly can’t say I was expecting this, though I somehow knew I’d flip for Patricia Neal in it. Richard Rush’s cracking game of filmmaking metaphysics, The Stunt Man, wasn’t far behind – delirious mayhem with its own crazy-wonderful syntax, a suitably imperious O’Toole performance, and the sexiest heterosexual screen couple (Barbara Hershey and Steve Railsback, who both deserved nominations) that I’ve seen cop off since young Mel and Sigourney lit up The Year of Living Dangerously. Massively enjoyable, as was Mamoulian’s Jekyll and Hyde, for which the quite brilliant and unusually physical Fredric March bagged a shared Best Actor award in 1931-2. We head down, qualitatively speaking, through William Wellman’s 1937 version of A Star is Born, which I found less full-blooded than the Cukor remake, though it has plenty of impressive acting, nostalgia value, and fine photography, colourised or no. Then there was Joan Crawford going mental from a broken heart in the tastily overripe Warners melodrama Possessed – a hoot from the first crashing piano arpeggios over the credits, which sound as if someone got a midget to sprint up a Steinway.

What else? William Wyler’s moony stab at Wuthering Heights was a multiple nominee in 1939, though quite rightly not for Merle Oberon as its stiff and prissy Cathy; it qualifies as a frustrating muddle despite the general veneer of class, and I couldn’t believe Geraldine Fitzgerald got a competent-ingenue Supporting Actress nod rather than the truly deserving Flora Robson, easily the most focused presence in the movie as the watchful housekeeper. Taking a big leap down, I rolled my eyes with almost painful frequency through the gormless and lazily-made Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman, for which Susan Hayward got her first citation, in part because it looked like it was going to be just as pleasurably trashy as the same year’s Possessed. Instead, it was thoroughly tedious: Dorothy Parker’s script is full of on-message tosh about the music industry and being married, Hayward (as an alcoholic train-wreck chanteuse: how could this go wrong?) gave a performance dominated by staring crossly into her whisky before downing it, and after three renditions of a sudsy lullaby to her darling, innocent child, I was all but throwing things at my bedroom TV set. Still, a D was possibly a little harsh: there’s one proper claws-out catfight to recommend it.

Speaking of Wyler disappointments, today’s viewing was Detective Story, a four-time nominee in 1951, and borderline bad, if you ask me. It’s not strictly Wyler’s fault – his camera prowls around this New York cop shop quite nimbly – but that of the thumpingly crude source material, a dull, dull play by Sidney Kingsley built around the mindblowing notion that crime shouldn’t just be seen in black and white. Kirk Douglas is the huffy maverick detective who becomes straw man in this thesis when we witness his failure to compromise: he sticks to his guns, determined to lock up backstreet abortionists and small-time embezzlers alike, and throw away the key. Wyler would have needed a Brando to make this guy’s sentimental redemption work, and Douglas, unlike Brando, is a much better actor when he’s embodying decency – somehow, when he’s playing mean, you sense he’s just biding his time before the niceness kicks in. William Bendix, completely belonging here as his weary-wise colleague, is the unheralded pick of this cast, otherwise given to strained “gritty” character work -- did 1940s NYPD guys really pronounce the word “quirks” like “quoiks”, or have they just been watching too much Daffy Duck? Eleanor Parker plays Douglas’s wife, a spotless sort (she’s called Mary) who turns out to have a Sexual History (Kirk doesn’t like this) and got a Best Actress nomination, presumably for the dubious “bravery” of this subplot rather than her profiscient, teary, but unexceptional performance. Lee Grant, as a flibbertigibbet pickpocket hanging around the station, got nominated for twitching, smiling, staring at the cops, and generally being quoiky. Hey-ho. Not every Wyler movie can be Dodsworth or The Little Foxes, but I was at least hoping for a Desperate Hours.