12 Years a Slave, and Twelve Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2013 and only two others, Best Supporting Actress (Lupita Nyong’o) and Best Adapted Screenplay; Gravity got seven Oscars, the most for that year. There were eight other films in contention for Best Picture: American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity, Her, Nebraska, Philomena and The Wolf of Wall Street. I have seen none of them, though Gravity is next on my list as it won both the Hugo and the SFWA Ray Bradbury Awards.

I have seen very few other films from that year. The only one I sat through with my full attention was The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. I have been in the same room as small children watching Frozen. And I got halfway through Saving Mr Banks before something distracted me and I never got around to finishing it. IMDB users rank 12 Years a Slave 6th best film of the year on one ranking, but only 30th on the other. The Wolf of Wall Street tops both rankings, and Prisoners and The Man of Steel are both ahead of 12 Years a Slave on both. Of my limited sample of the year, I like 12 Years a Slave best.

Here’s a trailer.

A number of actors who appeared in previous award-winning films, starting with the star himself, Chiwetel Ejiofor, who in Solomon Northrup here and was the Operative in Serenity.

Not as high up the list, but Sarah Paulson is the gruesome wife of plantation owner Epps here, and was also in Serenity as Dr Caron, who gets gruesomely killed by the Reavers.

Dwight Henry, as Uncle Abram, and Quvenzhané Wallis, as Solomon’s daughter Margaret, return from last year’s Bradbury winner Beasts of the Southern Wild, where they played the key protagonists, father and daughter. Both films of course are mostly set in Louisiana. Unlike last year, they don’t share any scenes together this time.

Going further down the list, Scoot McNairy is Brown, one of Solomon’s captors, here; last year, with less facial hair, he was Joe Stafford, one of the fugitive diplomats in Argo.

And finally Garret Dillahunt, the treacherous Armsby here, was deputy sheriff Wendell in No Country for Old Men, again with much less facial hair but with a similar hat.

Apart from the above, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender and Brad Pitt also play significant roles, Cumberbatch and Fassbender as bad guy slaveholders and Pitt as the good guy who eventually gets Solomon freed. This was also Lupita Nyong’o’s first significant role as Patsy.

After many many entries in which I have castigated Oscar winners for their racism, including as recently as last year’s winner, Argo, this is a film entirely about the African American experience of slavery, which goes a little way towards expiating the Academy’s past faults. Closely based on an autobiographical account, it is the story of a free African-American from New York state who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841, and endures twelve years of horrible treatment on cotton and sugar plantations in Louisiana before finally regaining his freedom by getting a message to friends back north. It is gripping stuff.

As usual, however, I’m going to start with the elements of the film that I did not like as much, before going on to its virtues. The thing I liked least about the film was unfortunately at its very core, and the film could not have been the same without it. The violence is graphic and disturbing. I had to fast-forward through the scene where Solomon is forced to flog Patsey (I had already read the book, so I knew what was coming; it’s 4 minutes and 46 seconds in a single take). It’s not possible to make an honest film about slavery without depicting grim, horrible and repeated violence, but it is not something I enjoy watching. Accounts from the set indicate that the actors were psychologically affected by it too.

My other (much less serious) case of side-eye is the casting of actors playing antebellum Americans. Benedict Cumberbatch is English. Michael Fassbender is Irish. Lupita Nyong’o’s family is from Kenya (the other side of Africa), though she also has Mexican citizenship and was educated in Massachusetts so perhaps it’s a less clear case (she still isn’t Southern, though). The star of the film, Chiwetel Ojiofor, is English and sounds totally London when not acting:

Maybe it’s not such a big deal, but I do think it is unfortunate that none of the lead Southern parts is played by a Southern actor. (And Chiwetel Ojiofor is playing a Northerner.)

Apart from that, the film has a good and important story to tell, and tells it very well. There is no sugar-coating the horrors of slavery, or its shameful endorsement by the forces of the state and the church. (Christianity does not come out well in this film.) There is little Hollywoodisation of the facts – the film has stuck pretty closely to the book it is based on (rare enough), and is probably a better film as a result (even rarer). Although Solomon is freed in the end because he was born a freeman, we are left in no doubt that the continuing enslavement of his fellow workers is an appalling injustice. It skips a little over the formalities of how he was freed, but we know what has happened.

I thought the cinematography and film editing were very good, and look forward to seeing Gravity which won the Oscars in those categories that year. And I don’t usually comment on this, because I am rather fashion-unconscious, but I thought the costuming was superb. I did scratch my head at first at how clean everyone’s clothes generally are, but goin back to the source material, I realised how important cleanliness is to people who have otherwise lost most of their dignity, and indeed how important it was for slave owners to put on a good show.

Unusually, the music is a mixture of diegetic and incidental. Solomon Northrup is a talented violinist, both free and enslaved. One of the most memorable scenes is the singing of the spiritual “Roll, Jordan Roll” by the slaves picking cotton.

The acting is top-notch. I grumbled a bit about the casting of Ojiofor, Nyong’o, Cumberbatch and Fassbender earlier. I have no grumbles about their performances, or about anyone else’s. The slaveholders are flawed human beings rather than caricatures. The slaves are individuals who have been placed in awful circumstances. It is of course a didactic story, but it’s at least as much a story about people.

I would have liked to place this higher in my rankings, but the violence really did squick me, so I’m putting it just over a third of the way down my list, in 26th place, just below Oliver! and above Unforgiven.

Next up in the list of Oscar winners is Birdman, but I’ll watch Gravity and Guardians of the Galaxy first.

I also read the original book on which the film is based, Twelve Years a Slave, by Solomon Northrup but edited by David Wilson. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

The light admitted through the open door enabled me to observe the room in which I was confined. It was about twelve feet square—the walls of solid masonry. The floor was of heavy plank. There was one small window, crossed with great iron bars, with an outside shutter, securely fastened.

I have previously read a number of slavery narratives – Frederick Douglass, Olaudah Equiano, Harriet Ann Jacobs, the research of Rebecca Hall and the close observations of Fanny Kemble – and they are all interesting in different ways. Douglass and Jacobs were born into slavery, and Equiano born in Africa, so Northrup’s account is unusual in being that of a man born free in the USA but then enslaved. It’s also unusual in the relatively neutral presentation of the means and motivation of the slave owners – these are evil people, sure, but their evil is an inevitable consequence of the system.

I also found it really interesting in the precision of the geography where everything happened – I found myself googling the Williams slave pen in Washington DC, and Bayou Boeuf in Louisiana. Northrup is also very detailed and convincing about the precise techniques of employing slave labour for both cotton and sugar cane farming. And of course he is crystal clear about the brutality of the slavery system.

Not surprisingly, there have been Northrup denialists since 1853, just as there have been Anne Frank denialists since a century later. But the level of verifiable detail about named individuals and places is tremendously convincing. It’s also fairly short, and well-written (as is normal for any mid-nineteenth-century writer). You can get it here.

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014)

Argo

Argo won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2011 and only two others, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Film editing; Life of Pi got four Oscars, the most for that year. There were eight other films in contention for Best Picture; I have seen Les Miserables, but not Amour, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Django Unchained, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook or Zero Dark Thirty.

The Hugo that year went to The Avengers, and SFWA’s Ray Bradbury Award to Beasts of the Southern Wild. The other films that I have seen from that year are The Hobbit part 1, The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, Les Miserables, Brave, Wreck it Ralph and Total Recall. Also, I haven’t yet sat down and watched the whole film, but the Bollywood dance scene set in Dublin from Ek Tha Tiger is a classic.

Sorry about that. I’m just obsessed.

Anyway, back to Argo. IMDB users rate it 10th and 20th film of the year on the different rankings, which is not brilliant but not as bad as last year’s The Artist. Ahead of it on both rankings are Django Unchained, The Dark Knight Rises, The Hobbit 1, The Hunger Games, The Avengers, Skyfall and The Amazing Spider-Man. I would also have put it middle of the pack, but some serious issues came up that bump it to a much lower position in my ranking.

Here’s a trailer.

Returning from previous Oscar winners (and one Hugo winner): first and foremost, Ben Affleck, the star and director here, was Ned Alleyn in Shakespeare in Love.

John Goodman, who is prosthetics expert John Chambers here (the man who invented Spock’s ears, received a special Oscar for Planet of the Apes, and also did Richard Harris’s chest for that scene in A Man Called Horse), was producer Al Zimmer in The Artist last year.

From a previous Hugo winner, Alan Arkin is Hollywood producer Lester Siegel here, and was paterfamilias Bill in Edward Scissorhands back in 1990. (Like many of us, he had more hair then.)

Finally, the Canadian ambassador is played by Victor Garber, who is genuinely Canadian, but I flagged him up previously for his role as the only identifiably Northern Irish character in an Oscar-winning film – Thomas Andrews, the designer of Titanic.

This is the fairly incredible story, Based On True Facts, of how the CIA with help from Canada exfiltrated six American diplomats from Tehran shortly after the seizure of the US Embassy in 1979, by posing as a Canadian film crew looking for locations to make a film version of Roger Zelazny’s great novel Lord of Light.

There are lots of things to like here. But I was dismayed to discover from the memoir by Tony Mendez, the CIA guy behind it all, that the film is significantly more white and male than the real events on which it is based. One of the trapped diplomats, Cora Lijek (who prefers Cora Amburn-Lijek) is a Japanese-American in real life; here she is with the very non-Japanese Clea DuVall who portrays her in the film. (Not that the role is very demanding; the trapped diplomats are basically peril monkeys.)

The film has only one Canadian diplomat, Ambassador Ken Taylor, and his wife Pat, who is also Asian and at least is portrayed by Chinese-Australian actor Page Leong. But in real life, the chief immigration officer and deputy Canadian ambassador, John Sheardown, played a crucial role, along with his wife Zena who is from Guyana. Here she is hosting the fugitives in her house, including Cora Amburn-Lijek on the left.

Almost everyone involved in the story on the US government side was, of course, a white man. But in the book, Mendez is very clear that one memorable meeting – where he made a remark about abortion that is preserved in the screenplay – was chaired by “an undersecretary of state, a dignified woman who was very much in charge.” It took very little research to work out that this must have been Lucy W. Benson, the first woman appointed as US Undersecretary of State; she had left office before the diplomats were successfully extracted from Iran, but would have necessarily been involved with the initial approval process. In his book, Mendez refers respectfully several times to her interventions in the crucial meeting. But on screen, everyone in the room at that meeting is male.

According to Wikipedia, when asked how he felt about being portrayed by Ben Affleck, who is non-Hispanic, Mendez (who was born in Nevada) noted that losing his father when he was young meant he did not learn Spanish nor much of his father’s culture. He said, “I don’t think of myself as a Hispanic. I think of myself as a person who grew up in the desert.” Which is fine; but Affleck did not grow up in the desert either, and his character in the film tells us that he is from New York (Affleck is from Boston), rather than Nevada. A smaller point, but Mendez in real life has three children, a daughter and two sons. In the film he has only one child. Would you like to guess… Yep.

Tony Mendez (the real one) meets President Carter

So basically, Argo whitewashes the protagonist, whitewashes one of the two significant Asian women in the story, erases the most significant black woman in the story, erases the most politically important woman in the story, and even erases the protagonist’s daughter in favour of her brother. Affleck is entitled to make the film he wants to make, and to make the artistic choices that seem right for the story he wants to tell; I too have the right to point out that a lot of these choices go in one direction and not the other, and that the story he tells is much more about white guys vs brown guys than the True Facts that it is Based On. Whitewashing, and erasing women’s agency, are par for the course in Hollywood adaptations, but I can’t remember anything this extensive since All The King’s Men removed the entire African-American population of Louisiana.

It should also be noted that the Canadians dispute the centrality of the CIA to the story, arguing that a lot more of the heavy lifting was done in Ottawa and especially by their embassy in Tehran. And it’s also clear from Mendez’ published memoir that the last-minute hitches portrayed in the film – mission almost cancelled by cold feet in Washington, Iranian security deducing the plan and storming the air traffic control tower in a futile attempt to prevent the departure – are pretty fictional. I’m more forgiving of these changes; it’s a drama, not a documentary, after all. But the Canadians do have a right to feel miffed. (As do the shades of Roger Zelazny and Jack Kirby.)

Apart from that, I quite enjoyed it. I was particularly impressed that the opening sequence described the historic relationship between Iran and the United States in detail, giving context to the hostility that led to the capture of the embassy and the imprisonment of the hostages. Those who were around at the time will remember the apparent impotence of the Carter administration, and the impact of the crisis on his prospects for re-election; for Middle East experts, of course, the 1953 coup orchestrated by the CIA had already set the pattern for US involvement in the region for seventy years. After that opening sequence, the narrative of the film is very one-sided, with frothing Iranians vs innocent Westerners, but credit where it’s due – this political context was crucially missing from the Vietnam films I’ve watched in this sequence, and from The Hurt Locker.

The filmography is particularly good, with hand-held cameras among the crowd storming the embassy bringing it into focus, and the Hollywood, Washington and Tehran locations convincingly depicted. The music is suitable and not oppressive – in the hands of another director we’d have had dramatic chords all the way through to tell us what to feel.

A relatively small element of the film, but I was very struck by the story’s very cynical take on Hollywood, especially after last year’s dewey-eyed The Artist, which also featured John Goodman. The parallel between the make-believe world of Movieland and the deception of espionage is well drawn, and also Arkin and Goodman play the Hollywood scenes for just the right amount of laughs to offset the serious subject matter of the rest of the story.

Chambers: [after hearing plan to exfiltrate the house guests] So you want to come to Hollywood and act like a big shot…
Mendez: Yeah.
Chambers: …without actually doing anything?
Mendez: No.
Chambers: You’ll fit right in.

The film was enjoyable, but the erasure is so shocking that I am bumping it way way down my list to eighth last, just above All The King’s Men and below Forrest Gump.

I also read the original Wired article by Joshua Bearman which inspired the film (paywalled) and Mendez’ memoir Argo. The third paragraph of the Wired article is:

At first, the Lijeks hoped the consulate building where they worked would escape notice. Because of recent renovations, the ground floor was mostly empty. Perhaps no one would suspect that 12 Americans and a few dozen Iranian employees and visa applicants were upstairs. The group included consular officer Joseph Stafford, his assistant and wife, Kathleen, and Robert Anders, a senior officer in the visa department.

It tells much the same story as film and book, with maybe a little more emphasis on the experience of the fugitive diplomats.

The second paragraph of the third chapter of the grandly titled Argo: How the Cia and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History, by Antonio J. Mendez and Matt Baglio is:

From the beginning, the Carter administration faced a number of challenges. When Khomeini and the Revolutionary Council threw their support behind the takeover, there was basically nobody for the U.S. government to negotiate with. Carter tried sending two emissaries, but Khomeini refused to allow them to even enter the country. With overt diplomacy off the table, Carter then turned to his military planners, who gave him a similarly bleak assessment. If the United States were to launch a retaliatory strike, the Iranians might execute the hostages. The chance of rescue also seemed remote. Geographically, Iran was extremely isolated and the U.S. embassy compound was located in the heart of the capital city. It appeared there would be no way to get the rescuers in and back out without the Iranians knowing.

Strictly speaking, the film was based on the relevant parts of Mendez’ earlier memoir, Master of Disguise, which were then extracted, expanded and updated as the book Argo to capitalise on the film. This updating was not complete. John Chambers’ identity is concealed behind a pseudonym in the book, even though the film uses his real name and anyway he had been dead since 2001, so it hardly mattered by 2012.

But it’s a satisfying read, if obviously partisan. The book is clear about the fact that the protagonist (played by a white actor in the film) is from a Hispanic background, even if he doesn’t choose to identify in that way; that one of the fugitive diplomats was Asian-American (also played by a white actor in the film); that one of the key people on the Canadian side was a black woman (erased entirely from the film); that the senior US official who authorised the plan was a woman (erased entirely from the film); that the protagonist had a stable marriage with two sons and a daughter (rather than the broken relationship and one son portrayed in the film) and that the last-minute hitches depicted in the film are entirely fictional.

The book also gives useful context about Mendez’ previous experience of disguise and exfiltration, including various capers in Iran itself, in other Middle Eastern countries and in south-east Asia. He is frank about the shortcomings of the USA’s governmental wiring diagram and comments approvingly that the Canadians with a lighter government structure were able to make things happen much more quickly than the Americans. And even without the fictional last-minute threats to the success of the mission, the truth is quite dramatic enough. You can get it here.

Next up: that year’s SFWA Bradbury winner, Beasts of the Southern Wild.

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014)

The Artist

The Artist won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2011 and four others, Best Director (Michel Hazanavicius), Best Actor (Jean Dujardin), Best Costume Design, and Best Original Score. There were eight other films in contention for Best Picture; I have seen Hugo, which was also confusingly a Hugo finalist, but not The Descendants, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, The Help, Midnight in Paris, Moneyball, The Tree of Life or War Horse.

The Hugo that year went to the first series of Game of Thrones (I was an early adopter of this idea) but I watched the film finalists as well: Hugo (as previously noted), Captain America: The First Avenger, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 and Source Code. The other four films that I remember seeing from that year are The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, The Iron Lady, Coriolanus, and half of the Iranian film A Separation.

IMDB users rate The Artist a lowly 43rd on one system and a dismal 125th on the other, compared against other 2011 films. We’ve had several others that were in the low 40’s on one ranking, but were much higher on the other – Cavalcade, Shakespeare in Love, Million Dollar Baby and Crash, I think. The 125th place ranking is by far the lowest we have had on either metric, and it’s not even like 2011 was a remarkably good year for films. I too was not hugely impressed by it.

Here’s a trailer.

I counted a couple of actors who had been in Hugo-winning films, and one who had been in a previous Oscar-winner (no crossovers with Doctor Who). The first is Malcolm McDowell, credited here as “the butler” (though his role is actually someone waiting for an audition) and the star of A Clockwork Orange 39 years ago.

Missy Pyle is the mistreated co-star Constance here, and eleven years ago was Lailari the Thermian in Galaxy Quest.

Finally, Beth Grant, Peppy’s unnamed maid here, was the equally unnamed Woman At The Farm House in Rain Man in 1988.

The Artist is entirely in black and white, and almost entirely “silent”, ie the sound track is mostly incidental music, becoming diegetic briefly about 31 minutes in and then for a longer spell at the very end. The last largely black and white film to win the Oscar was Schindler’s List (1993), and the last entirely black and white film to do so was The Apartment (1960, more than fifty years earlier). The only other silent film to win was the very first, Wings, way back in 1927.

The Artist is also generally cited as the only French film to have won an Oscar, but as a patriotic Belgian, I have to point out that the Belgian company uFilm were one of the co-producing companies, utilising a Belgian tax scheme, and the music was recorded in Flagey by the Brussels Philharmonic and the Brussels Jazz Orchestra. French Wikipedia calls it “une comédie romantique muette et en noir et blanc franco-belgo-américain” (surely “-américaine”?).

It is about two actors in the early days of sound in the movies; Paul Valentin, who is on his way down because (as we discover at the end) he can’t get hired for the talkies because of his French accent and because he’s generally an asshole, and Peppy Miller, on her way up as she catches the Zeitgeist. He falls on hard times, and she rescues him and finds him some redemption. He also has a cute dog.

I was not very impressed. Before I get to the specifics of plot and cinematography, it’s the most shockingly racist Oscar winner for years. Everyone is white, even in the crowd scenes, apart from some African warriors who turn up on a film set and later in Paul’s delusions. This really is not representative for Hollywood in 1930, or even for France in 2011 when the film was made.

Most of the plot elements have been done before and better (most notably in Singin’ in the Rain and All About Eve). I found it derivative and pastiche rather than integrated. The good bits were not new and the new bits were not very good. Paul is such an unpleasant person at the beginning that it’s difficult to be very pleased by his redemption at the end.

Another point that really grated is that although a lot of attention was paid to make-up for Jean Dujardin as Paul, and for the main women actresses, it wasn’t really done for the extras and it looks like what it is, a lot of twenty-first century people pretending that they are in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Two of the first five Oscar winners in the list below (The Broadway Melody and The Grand Hotel) are actually set in that time period because it was when they were made, and The Artist just sits wrong.

A further complaint is that Bérénice Bejo as Peppi is frankly too old for the part. As written, Peppy is clearly in her mid-20s at most; Bejo was 35 when the film was made. For the record, I have complained on this score in the past about men as well as women playing roles that were the wrong age (Laurence Olivier in Rebecca, Leslie Howard in Gone with the Wind; also Mary McDonnell in Dances with Wolves.) Bejo is a good performer in the role, but again it just sits wrong.

Despite not feeling attracted to the character, I did think that Dujardin gave a convincing portrayal of Paul.

And the dog is very cute.

Finally, as a patriotic Belgian, I did like the music.

I’m putting this a long way down my list of Oscar-winners, just outside the bottom ten, below No Country for Old Men, whose protagonist was more awful but more compelling, and above American Beauty which was much more skeevy.

Next up, from 2012: The Avengers (Hugo winner), Argo (Oscar winner), Beasts of the Southern Wild (Bradbury winner).

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014)

George VI’s last appearance; and The King’s Speech

I had planned to publish this post today anyway, after watching the film two weeks ago, but Thursday’s news makes it all the more appropriate. I’m not especially a royalist – I decided not to renew my British passport in 2017 – but there are some parts of the story that fascinate me on a human level. For instance, let me take you to the other end of the late Queen’s reign: here is the determinedly upbeat newsreel reporting the departure of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip for Kenya on 31 January 1952, the start of a world tour that was intended to last for months.

This was the last public appearance of King George VI. He looks, frankly, in awful shape. He had turned 56 the previous month, and lost a lung earlier in the previous year. There is dark apprehension on his face throughout the entire three minutes of the newsreel, culminating in his bleak gaze at the plane taking his daughter away from him at the end. His death less than a week later may have come as a shock to the wider world, but watching the film, and knowing what we do now, it’s difficult to avoid the impression that he himself was aware at some level that he would never see Elizabeth again.

My project of watching the Oscar-winning films in sequence takes us from the historical closure of George VI’s reign to the fictional treatment of its beginning, The King’s Speech won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2010 and three others, Best Director (Tom Hooper), Best Actor (Colin Firth) and Best Original Screenplay (David Seidler), tying with Inception for four statuettes on the night. There were nine other films in contention for Best Picture; I have seen Hugo finalists Inception and Toy Story 3, but none of the others, which were 127 Hours, Black Swan, The Fighter, The Kids Are All Right, The Social Network, True Grit, and Winter’s Bone. In fact, apart from the Hugo finalists, I don’t think I have seen any other films made in 2010.

IMDB users rank it 8th on one system but only 41st on the other. I must say that I love it, and, to cut to the chase, I am putting it right at the top of my personal ranking of Oscar winners, in third place, after The Sound of Music and Casablanca, but before An American in Paris. I like it much more than Inception, or any of the year’s other Hugo finalists.

There are several actors returning from previous Oscar winners. Colin Firth, the King here, was Kirstin Scott Thomas’s husband Geoffrey Clifton in The English Patient.

The other male lead, Geoffrey Rush, playing Lionel Logue here, was Philip Henslowe in Shakespeare in Love.

Guy Pearce is George VI’s brother Edward VIII here, and last year was Thompson, they guy who gets blown up at the start of The Hurt Locker.

The royal parents, George V and Queen Mary, both appeared in Doctor Who episodes that same year, 2010. Claire Bloom played the mysterious character in The End of Time, David Tennant’s swan song shown on Christmas Day 2009 and New Year’s Day 2010, who is identified by Russell T. Davies as the Doctor’s mother.

Michael Gambon, George V here, played the bad guy in Matt Smith’s first Christmas special, A Christmas Carol, shown at the end of 2010. He was also doing a lot of Dumbledoring around this time.

The only actor here to have managed both Doctor Who and another Oscar-winning film is Derek Jacobi, here Archbishop Lang, previously Senator Gracchus in Gladiator, and Professor Yana and briefly the Master in Doctor Who.

There’s a few more Doctor Who crossovers (Andrew Havill, David Bamber, Patrick Ryecart, possibly others) but let’s move on.

The film is about the relationship between Bertie, Duke of York, who had a difficult speech impediment, and his speech therapist, Lionel Logue, an unqualified Australian. Bertie unexpectedly becomes King George VI when his brother abdicates after their father’s death, and overcomes his stammer to unite Britain and the Empire in the face of Nazi Germany and the Second World War. It is loosely (see below) based on historical events, with the flow of history interrupted by the channels of artistic licence.

I love most of this film, but I don’t love Timothy Spall as Winston Churchill. In real life Churchill was not prime minister until after the film ends and was out of government for most of the period it covers; there is no way that he would have been at most of the events and conversations he is depicted as having here. Yeah, yeah, I know, you can’t make a movie about the (origins of the) Second World War without somewhat over-Churchilling it. But I felt that this went a bit far. On top of that, Spall’s depiction is pretty much caricature, compared even to Ian McNiece in that year’s Doctor Who, let alone John Lithgow more recently in The Crown.

My historian’s soul twitches at other truncations of history. Most obviously, the film starts in 1925 and ends in 1939, yet the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret do not age, and in general you feel that it is set over a period of weeks and months rather than years. As I discovered from reading the book, the relationship between the Duke/King and Logue was much smoother going in real life, with most of the tension between them invented for the screen. Of course, the makers of fictional drama do need to insert drama somewhere.

And Myrtle Logue knew about it all along, which means the single best and funniest scene of the film, when she comes home early to find the queen of England in her living room, is completely fictional. In reality the Logues started to attend palace events from 1928; by the time this scene is set, in 1937, she would have known the new queen for almost a decade.

Logue did attend and assist King George VI for his radio broadcasts during the war, so the climactic final speech at the start of the war on 3 September 1939, accompanied by the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, with Logue conducting his articulation, is a bit closer to history. In fact the Director-General of the BBC was there too – those were the days when a DG knew how to fix a mike – but the music probably was not.

And that takes me to two of the things I particularly love about the film, the music and the cast. I am easily pleased by respectful and appropriate use of some of my favourite classical pieces; Beethoven’s Seventh has been mentioned, also his Emperor Concerto, Mozart’s Overture for the Marriage of Figaro and his Clarinet Concerto (though cutting off just before you get to the clarinet). Purists may sneer that these are just exactly the classical pieces that you would put into a film to easily please the crowds, but I am not ashamed of being pleased.

I’ve identified most of the key cast above, Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, and so on, and they are all brilliant (with one exception, which has been noted). But the one I haven’t mentioned so far is Helena Bonham-Carter, whose great-grandfather was the prime minister who appointed Winston Churchill to his first cabinet job. She’s one of my favourite actresses anyway (not quite at the level of Juliette Binoche, but who could be?) and I think this is one of her absolute top performances, as the Duchess of York / Queen Elizabeth. Helena Bonham-Carter is less than a year older than me, so must remember the real Queen Mother well – she lived to 2002 – and has done a fantastic job of catching her mannerisms and investing them with more depth and character, if I dare say it, that the original may have had. (Freya Wilson as the young Princess Elizabeth is delightful too.)

Incidentally, Helena Bonham-Carter and Juliette Binoche appear never to have acted in the same film. Spooky or what?

I’ve saved the thing I like most about the film until last, because it’s much more personal to me. There is a big gulf between the disabilities in my own immediate family and the speech impediment suffered by George VI. But I have become acquainted with speech therapists, and I love the fact that the film makers didn’t tell a story about a man being “cured”; they told the story of him learning to live with disability, and getting on with his life, and coping with it as an extra burden when circumstances called on him to do extraordinary things. Sure, he was immensely privileged, but the film makes it very clear that that is not sufficient. Yes, I’m sometimes a sucker for sentimentality.

I read the book on which the film was loosely based less than ten years ago, so I’m not going to reread it this time. Its title is The King’s Speech: How One Man Saved the British Monarchy, which ever-so-slightly overpromises. The second paragraph of its third chapter is:

It was only by chance — and another of the spontaneous decisions that shaped his life — that Logue, by then employed as an instructor in elocution at the Perth Technical School, had found himself aboard the Hobsons Bay. He and a doctor friend had planned to take their families away for a holiday together. The Logue family’s bags were packed and their car ready to go when the telephone rang: it was the doctor.

In 2015, I wrote:

A nice little book to go with the film, though this is not a novelisation but a biography of Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue by his grandson (who never knew him) and a Sunday Times journalist. It’s a fascinating and intricate story of reverse migration – at a time when Australia was still absorbing newcomers from Britain, Logue and his family went in the opposite driection, to try and carve out a career in a new field for which he had no professional qualifications; and he succeeded, and what’s more, he made a lot of people’s lives better, one of whom unexpectedly became King of England.

The film, of course, telescoped the time line and injected dramatic elements to the story where they were needed. One of the most cheering things to find out was that Logue and the Duke of York were friends pretty much from the start; the plotline of the duke needing to be convinced that Logue’s therapy was worth trying was more or less invented for dramatic licence. It is, however, true that Logue was in attendance for the new king’s first radio speeches from Sandringham. It was also rather heartwarming to read their continued warm correspondence even after the king no longer needed Logue’s professional services.

I thought I spotted a Northern Ireland link, but it turned out to be bogus: in the mid-1920s the comptroller of the Duke of York’s household was one Captain Basil Brooke. Was this, I wondered, the future Prime Minister of Northern Ireland? Wikipedia seemed to indicate a gap in his political career in the mid-1920s which was just the right fit; also his highest military rank, achieved in 1920, was Captain. However, further digging revealed that the comptroller was a navy man (and in fairness an exalted naval captain is a more likely candidate for uch a post than a humble army captain), who was Rear Admiral Sir Basil Brooke by 1928. Wikipedia lists two Royal Navy officers of that name and roughly the right age, one born in 1882 and one born in 1895, but neither of them seemed quite right – certainly neither was a Rear Admiral in 1928. It turns out that the royal official was yet another naval Basil Brooke, the first cousin once removed of the future Northern Ireland Prime Minister, born in 1876 and living until 1945. His wife Olave is the subject of a painting by Australian artist George W. Lambert, The Red Shawl.

Next up in this sequence is the Oscar-winning film The Artist; the Hugo and Bradbury awards both went to 2011 TV shows rather than films (Game of Thrones and The Doctor’s Wife) so I’ll be skipping them.

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014)

The Hurt Locker

The Hurt Locker won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2009 and five others, Best Director (Kathryn Bigelow, the first woman winner), Best Original Screenplay (Mark Boal), Best Film Editing, Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing. The other nominees for Best Picture were Avatar, The Blind Side, District 9, An Education, Inglourious Basterds, Precious, A Serious Man, Up and Up in the Air. Amazingly enough, I have seen none of them as yet (this was not a year when I watched the Hugo finalists). The Hugo that year went to Moon, and the Ray Bradbury Award (replacing the Nebula) to District 9.

kinopoisk.ru

IMDB lists it as a 2008 film, 13th on one ranking and 19th on the other. However Oscar procedures took it as a 2009 film. The other 2009 films that I have seen (so far) are Watchmen, Star Trek, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Coraline, and I think that’s it.

Here’s a trailer.

I found a couple of returnees from previous Oscar winners, the most visible being Ralph Fiennes as the short-lived British officer. He previously had the title role in The English Patient, and played the lead Nazi in Schindler’s List.

Anthony Mackie, now of course more famous as Falcon, is Sanborn here and was Shawrelle in Million Dollar Baby.

And we have a Doctor Who crossover: Sam Spruell is Contractor Charlie here, and was Swarm in last year’s Flux season of Who.

This is yet another war film. I knew nothing about it going in, but my heart sank as I realised that it was about American soldiers in Iraq; Platoon is my least favourite Oscar winner of them all, and I braced myself for another two hours and eleven minutes of sympathy for soldiers in an occupying army, unleavened by much consideration for the people they were shooting at. In fact it was not quite as bad.

As usual, I’ll start with the things I did not like about the film. As with Platoon, the presence of American soldiers in hostile territory is presented as an unfortunate accident of circumstances which puts our protagonists in danger, rather than the deliberate result of US government policy. (That’s as far as the script goes; but see below for a caveat.)

The US Army is shown as multi-ethnic, with Mackie’s Sanborn the second lead. But apart from the football-loving, DVD-selling kid, the only perspective that we get from actual Iraqis is that they are terrified of the Americans, or trying to kill them, or both. In reality, Iraq is a real country, with real people in it, but you would not know it from The Hurt Locker.

Given that it’s a film about bomb disposal, there is a lot of gore, including a particularly unpleasant scene with a booby-trapped corpse which may have been dramatically necessary but which I found very unpleasant to watch. Lots of shooting and a couple of beatings.

As with many (but not all) war films, it is very male. There is an Iraqi woman who is terrified of the Americans and says so loudly. The protagonist’s wife, played by Evangeline Lilly who deserves much better, appears in the last few scenes as someone for him to talk to. She has a total of one minute and thirty-seven seconds in the movie.

I’m sufficiently familiar with the methods of military bomb disposal to wince at the procedural inaccuracies as portrayed on screen. Sure, our hero is a maverick, but there are a number of basic safety things that we learned as kids in Belfast and were drummed into me again in Bosnia that you just don’t do, even as an expert. This spoiled some of the most suspenseful scenes for me.

What I did like, rather to my surprise, was the fact that the protagonist, Sergeant First Class William James as played by Jeremy Renner, is a real asshole. I think most of us have worked at some time or another with people like him – determined to be the hero, and/or the clown, and/or the rule-breaker. This transposition of a very familiar workplace dynamic into the horrors of a combat zone actually did a lot to humanise the story, more so perhaps than any of the other war movies that I have seen in this sequence. James is not a naïve young man sucked into a conflict that he cannot comprehend; he is a hardened and unpleasant veteran, who is transformed by the suffering that he witnesses, and sometimes causes.

I also really appreciated the filmography, and I am a little surprised that few other reviewers seem to have picked up on this. The whole thing was filmed on location in Jordan, literally next door to Iraq, and the urban scenes in particular conveyed what the script did not: a society devastated by conflict caused by outsiders, with a traumatised population doing their best to pick up the pieces. The desert scene with the British soldiers was a bit gratuitously Lawrence of Arabia, but well done for all that. The effects were also impressive, when I could bear to look at them.

So I’m putting it just below the three-quarter mark in my ranking of Oscar winners, in 63rd place out of 82, just below Ordinary People and just above The Departed.

The next Oscar winner is The King’s Speech, but before that I will look at District 9, Moon and Inception.

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014)

Slumdog Millionaire; and Q&A, by Vikas Swarup

Slumdog Millionaire won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2008 and seven others, Best Director (Danny Boyle), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score and Best Sound Editing. The other films up for Best Picture were The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, Milk and The Reader, none of which I have seen. The Hugo and Nebula that year both went to WALL-E.

Slumdog Millionaire is 4th on one IMDB ranking but only 26th on the other, with The Dark Knight, WALL-E and Iron Man ahead of it on both lists. Along with Hellboy II: The Golden Army, those were the Hugo nominees and I saw them all. Weirdly enough I watched Mamma Mia! for the first time also last weekend; apart from the, the only other 2008 film I have seen is The Duchess, based on half a chapter of Amanda Foreman’s book.

For the second time in a row (after No Country for Old Men), I found no credited actors in common with other Oscar-winning films, Hugo or Nebula winners, or Doctor Who; perhaps a bit less surprising in this case, as almost all of the cast are from India and have made their careers there, and the kids in the flashback scenes have in general not become actors now that they have grown up.

It’s a film about a boy from the slums who wins the Indian equivalent of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? because his life experiences happen to mesh with the questions. As the film starts, he is arrested just before the final question is asked on suspicion of cheating, and explains his knowledge to a sceptical policeman, once they have finished torturing him, providing a series of flashbacks which tell the story of his life.

So, to start with the bits I didn’t like, as usual. I did not like the torture scenes. What can I say. I am squeamish. It’s weirdly out of tone with the rest of the film. They’re in the book as well, but there is a lot more violence in the original novel, so it’s less dissonant, and also you don’t have to watch it on paper.

It’s probably the least white film to have won an Oscar so far in my watching, but it’s very male. There is one female lead character, Latika, played as an adult by Freida Pinto. Again, the book is better on this – it memorably features a faded actress, a washed-up princess, a sex worker with a heart of gold, and crucially the framing narrative has the protagonist telling his story to a woman lawyer rather than a male police inspector.

It reduces Indian society to 1) the struggle of the poor and 2) the dynamic between the protagonist’s Muslim origins versus the forces of nationalism and/or the state, as specifically experienced in Mumbai. That’s an important story of course, but once again the book has a lot more diversity – it is set in New Delhi and Agra as well as Mumbai, and we encounter Indian Christianity, Sikhs, and quite a lot of stupid white people.

And I must say I twitched when the credits flashed up and there was only one Indian name (Loveleen Tandan) among a host of Brits in the senior production team. Somehow this mattered less for Gandhi, which was as much as anything about the relationship between India and the outside world, especially Britain. Slumdog Millionaire purports to be an Indian story about Indian people, but it isn’t.

Having said all that, I did generally enjoy the film. To be grim about it, the interrogation of poverty and social division is a crucial driver of the narrative, and is firm and not subtle. The story starts with the protagonist’s mother being killed in sectarian riots, and life in the slums is vividly depicted.

To be more positive, Dev Patel is great as Jamal, and all of the cast basically glow. I liked the comfortable bilingualism of the script (thanks to Loveleen Tandan apparently). I love quiz shows. I also love the interweaving of narratives where the past unexpectedly informs the present. It’s nice that a crucial plot point depends on The Three Musketeers, a novel which I like more than it really deserves. It looks fantastic and colourful in all the right ways. There is a happy ending. And the music is good.

I’m putting it just above the halfway point in my ranking of Oscar-winners, below It Happened One Night and above Gigi.

Next on my Oscar list is The Hurt Locker, which I have managed to maintain utter ignorance of since it came out (also in 2007, but it won a 2008 Oscar).

As noted above, I read the original book, Q&A, by Vikas Swarup. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

I don’t read the Maharashtra Times. In fact, I don’t read any newspaper. But I occasionally pilfer a copy from Mr Barve’s rubbish bin. It is useful for stoking the fire in the kitchen, and sometimes, when I have nothing else to do, I flip through its pages as a time pass before they are reduced to ash.

Some repetition below because I’ll be posting this section of the blog post independently to Goodreads and LibraryThing, in due course.

The central concept is the same as the film: a boy from the slums who wins a quiz show because his life experiences happen to mesh with the questions. The book is more violent. It has more sex and more female characters – as noted above, it has a faded actress, a washed-up princess, a sex worker with a heart of gold, and crucially the framing narrative has the protagonist telling his story to a woman lawyer rather than a male police inspector.

It’s also a broader look at India and its interactions with the outside world. The protagonist, Ram Mohammed Thomas, can pass as Muslim or Hindu, or indeed Christian; there’s a memorable chapter where he works for an Australian diplomat (the author is himself an Indian diplomat) and another where he makes a living taking tourists around the Taj Mahal. He also looks at the darker side of Bollywood, and of war heroes.

And at the very end there are a couple of pleasing plot twists, which I might have found rather contrived if the rest of the book had not put me in a generally good mood. You can get it here.

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014)

No Country for Old Men (film and book)

This is the first in my series of posts about Oscar-winning films since I switched this blog to its new home; so an awful l0t of faffing with internal linked to make it all work a bit more nicely.

No Country for Old Men won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2007 and three others, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay, which both went to the Coen brothers, and Best Supporting Actor which went to Javier Bardem. The other films up for Best Picture were Atonement, Juno, Michael Clayton and There Will Be Blood, none of which I have seen. The Hugo that year went to Stardust (the Nebula effectively skipped that year due to their weird nominations cycle).

No Country for Old Men is the top 2007 film on one IMDB ranking and second to Cleaner on the other. I saw very few films from that year, which was at the time that we were having the worst difficulties with our oldest daughter. The ones I have seen are Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Stardust, Alvin and the Chipmunks, the Zemeckis Beowulf, and 2 Days in Paris; we have Persepolis on the shelf but haven’t watched it yet (I love the books though). Here’s a trailer.

I usually start these reviews by looking at the cast’s other roles in previous Oscar, Hugo or Nebula winners, or in Doctor Who, but despite the big names on the list I didn’t find any. I have, however, had a close personal encounter with Javier Bardem, when I helped him set up the showing of his film “Sons of the Clouds” in the European Parliament; for a fleeting moment I appear in the crowd welcoming him.

It’s a film about an opportunist chap in Texas who tries to get away with a vast amount of stolen cash from a drugs shoot-out, and the nasty guy who comes after him, and the sheriff trying to catch up with them both. Frankly, it did not appeal to me; I think I admired it a bit without really liking it much. To go through my usual list:

Almost all the speaking characters are white men. Lots of Mexicans get killed without a chance to do anything much. Chigurh, Bardem’s character, is the epitome of evil and is coded as definitely foreign and probably not-quite-white. The law enforcers never do anything wrong. I found it quite shockingly racist. A separate but related issue: I was also left very unclear about Chigurh’s means and motivation.

I also did not care for the fetishisation of violence in the movie, the camera lingering over mutilated bodies and emphasising the brutal effects of the gunfire. For people who like that sort if thing it must be almost pornographic. It does not work for me.

A couple of women come into the story as spouses but have zero agency, though I always like seeing Kelly McDonald, a very long way from Edinburgh here.

I will say that the music is good, that all of the cast (especially Bardem) deliver good performances of their unpleasant and unconvincing characters, and that the landscape and atmosphere of Texas are very effectively evoked (which is impressive given that most of the film was made in New Mexico and Nevada).

But I’m afraid I’m putting this way down my list, just outside my bottom ten, between two flawed winners from a few years before, American Beauty (which is just that bit skeevier) and A Beautiful Mind (which is trying just a little harder to be pleasant).

As usual I tracked down the book and read it. The second paragraph of third chapter (in italics in the original, not sure how it will come through here) is:

This other thing I dont know. People will ask me about it ever so often. I cant say as I would rule it out altogether. It aint somethin I would like to have to see again. To witness. The ones that really ought to be on death row will never make it. I believe that. You remember certain things about a thing like that. People didnt know what to wear. There was one or two come dressed in black, which I suppose was all right. Some of the men come just in their shirtsleeves and that kindly bothered me. I aint sure I could tell you why.

This is one of the most faithful adaptations of book to screen that I have come across, and given that the book was originally written as a screenplay, it’s not very surprising. There are a few minimal changes, of which the most drastic is that a cute teenage hitch-hiker in the book (a female character with potential) disappears from the film. However the racism of the viewpoint characters is even less leavened in the book. You can get it here.

So, that’s another ten years of Oscars in the bag; only fifteen more to go. Since this time last year I was writing about the 1992 winner, and I’ve just covered the 2007 winner, I should wind this project up around this time next year, a bit more than five and a half years after I started in September 2017. I will skip Hugo and Nebula winners which I have written up in the last few years.

My totally definitive, authoritative and final ranking of the first 80 winners of the Academy Award for Best Picture (or equivalent) is as follows:

80) Platoon (Oscar for 1986)
79) The Great Ziegfeld (1936)
78) Cimarron (1930-31)
77) Cavalcade (1932-33)
76) Wings (1927-28)
75) The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
74) All the King’s Men (1949)
73) Forrest Gump (1994)
72) Patton (1970)
71) Braveheart (1995)
70) American Beauty (1999)
69) No Country for Old Men (2007)
68) A Beautiful Mind (2001)

67) Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
66) The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
65) Crash (2005)
64) Tom Jones (1963)
63) Gone with the Wind (1939)
62) The Departed (2006)
61) Ordinary People (1980)
60) Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
59) Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)
58) Annie Hall (1977)
57) Going My Way (1944)
56) The French Connection (1971)
55) My Fair Lady (1964)
54) Gladiator (2000)
53) How Green Was My Valley (1941)
52) Mrs. Miniver (1942)
51) On The Waterfront (1954)
50) The Godfather, Part II (1974)
49) In the Heat of the Night (1967)
48) Grand Hotel (1931-32)
47) The Life of Emile Zola (1937)
46) Marty (1955)
45) The Deer Hunter (1978)
44) Rocky (1976)
43) Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
42) The Last Emperor (1987)
41) Titanic (1997)

40) Out of Africa (1985)
39) Dances With Wolves (1990)
38) Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
37) Gigi (1958)
36) It Happened One Night (1934)
35) You Can’t Take It with You (1938)
34) The Lost Weekend (1945)
33) Hamlet (1948)
32) From Here to Eternity (1953)
31) Around the World in Eighty Days (1956)
30) Ben-Hur (1959)
29) The English Patient (1996)
28) Chicago (2002)
27) The Sting (1973)
26) The Godfather (1972)
25) Unforgiven (1992)
24) Oliver! (1968)
23) The Apartment (1960)
22) All About Eve (1950)
21) The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
20) Amadeus (1984)
19) Gandhi (1982)
18) West Side Story (1961)
17) A Man for All Seasons (1966)
16) Midnight Cowboy (1969)
15) Terms of Endearment (1983)
14) Shakespeare in Love (1998)
13) Rain Man (1988)
12) The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
11) One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
10) The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
9) Million Dollar Baby (2004)

8) The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
7) All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30)
6) Rebecca (1940)
5) Schindler’s List (1993)
4) Chariots of Fire (1981)
3) An American in Paris (1951)
2) The Sound of Music (1965)
1) Casablanca (1943)

This has not been the best decade, with half of the last ten winners in my bottom quartile, though I did like three of them enough to put them in my top 20%.

Seven of the most recent ten were set in the United States of America, two of them in Los Angeles (Crash and much of Million Dollar Baby) and a third elsewhere in California (American Beauty), with none in New York, which had traditionally been the main setting for US-based plots in Oscar-winning films – the closest we get is Princeton, in A Beautiful Mind. The other three were set in Tudor England, Ancient Rome and Middle-Earth.

No Country for Old Men is the only one of the last ten based on a novel. The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King is based on a third of a novel, Million Dollar Baby on a short story, The Departed is a remake of an earlier film, Chicago is based on a musical, Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind on factual books, and the other four were original screenplays. Again this is very different from the previous seven decades, in which novels predominated as source material, bolstered by written fiction, apart from the outbreak of musicals in the 1960s (and one of those was based on a novel).

Next up is Slumdog Millionaire, but before that, Stardust and WALL-E. And it’s Hugo season so I am taking the past winners more slowly.

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014)

The Departed

The Departed won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2006, and three others: Best Director (Martin Scorsese), Best Film Editing (Thelma Schoonmaker), and Best Adapted Screenplay Writing (William Monahan). The other Best Picture nominees were The Queen, which I have seen, and Babel, Letters from Iwo Jima and Little Miss Sunshine, which I haven’t. The Hugo and Nebula that year both went to Pan’s Labyrinth.

The Departed ranks 2nd and 4th on the IMDB lists of 2006 films, with The Prestige ahead of it in both cases (I really must try and see that). Others from that year that I have seen: Casino RoyaleHappy FeetThe Last King of ScotlandThe Queen, as mentioned;  Charlotte’s WebBarnyardStarter for 10, which is probably my favourite. Here’s a trailer.

A fair number of big names here, starting with Leonardo Di Caprio, who we last saw in Titanic (1997) as Jack; here again he is the top billed male actor, double agent Billy.


After a long interval, we get Jack Nicholson again, here crime lord Costello, three decades earlier the randy astronaut in Terms of Endearment (1983) and the hero McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest .


Martin Sheen is of course forever President Bartlett for me. But here he is police captain Queenan, a quarter century after his role as a reporter in Gandhi (1982).


There are a couple of others – David O’Hara was in Braveheart, Mark Rolston was in Aliens, I’m sure there are more – but I don’t have the energy to track them all down now.

This I think the first Oscar-winner to be set in Massachusetts, or even in New England. (The most popular location for Oscar-winning films is New York, though we haven’t had one there since Kramer vs Kramer). It’s a crime story (we’ve had more of those), in which the a police agent played by Leonardo di Caprio is planted by Sheen’s character inside the criminal organisation led by Nicholson’s character, while another character played by Matt Damon does the same in reverse, as Nicholson’s character’s mole within the police.

I admired this film without really liking it all that much. As usual, starting with the points against: it’s two and a half hours long, and I really have better things to do with my weekends. It’s very much a white men’s film – in the credits, the first woman credited is in seventh place (Vera Farmyga, whose character’s purpose is to get romantically engaged with both the leads); and the first non-white actor is in eighth place, Anthony Anderson, leading the alphabet of second-stringers.

Lots of people get killed. None of the characters is especially likeable. The Boston Catholic community is nicely depicted as a backdrop, though you would get the idea that all Irish-descended Bostonians are either cops or criminals (or both).

The central theme of identity, involving two double agents operating in opposite directions, is fascinating and well executed. John Le Carre developed a whole subgenre about spies with conflicted loyalties, well established by the time Scorsese transplanted it to Boston cops.

Eveyone who has seen the Hong Kong film this was based on, Infernal Affairs, tells me that the original is better. Unfortunately I have not been able to track it down, but I’ll keep looking.

Next up, Pan’s Labyrinth and No Country for Old Men.

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014)

Million Dollar Baby (aka Rope Burns), by F.X. Toole

Second paragraph of third story (which as it happens is “Million Dollar Baby”, on which the film was based):

The voice of Frankie Dunn pierced. In the same sentence it could climb high and harsh or loop sweet as a peach, like Benny Goodman playing “Body and Soul,” or go on down deep as a grizzly’s grunt. It could move sideways on you and then curl back on itself, but always the voice pierced the mind with images that stuck, because the sound out of the old man painted pictures that became part of you, made you hear his voice when he wasn’t even there. When Frankie Dunn told a fighter how to move and why, the fighter could see it through Frankie’s eyes, and feel it slip on into his own flesh and down into his bones, and he’d flush with magic of understanding and the feeling of power. Some called the old man Doc, some called him Uncle Frank. Old-time black fighters and trainers called him Frankie Dunn Frankie Dunn, repeating his name with a nod or a smile. Frankie loved warriors.

In my sequence of Oscar/Hugo/Nebula film-watching, I generally try and read the books on which films are based in the week and write them up at the same time. This collection of short stories is long out of print, and it took me a lot longer to source than I had expected, so I’m finally getting around to writing it up now, some time after watching the film.

The story of the book is a little sad: the author, whose real name was Jerry Boyd, published the book in 2000 at the age of 70, after many rejections from publishers, and died in 2002, just a few weeks after learning that Clint Eastwood wanted to make a film based on it. The original DVD release included paperback copies of the book in every box (which makes it really weird that it was so difficult to track down a copy). But there you go.

These are six nice short pieces, all of them acutely observed from the perspective of an Irish-American who lived in California. Being stories about boxing, they are mainly about men, with the obvious exception of “Million Dollar Baby”. Most of them have rather downbeat endings; in one memorable case, almost all of the main characters die horribly.

There is a lot of fighting; it’s interesting that the Clint Eastwood film cuts Maggie’s brother from the plot of “Million Dollar Baby”, therefore also losing the crucial physical confrontation in a hospital car park between him and Clint’s character Frankie. But there is a lot of character and human observation as well.

Personally, I’m not at all a fan of fighting, but this did bring me a certain amount of empathy with those who are. If you are lucky, you can get it here.

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014)

Crash

Crash won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2005, and two others, Best Original Screenplay and Best Film Editing, losing in another three. Three is a rather low tally of Oscars for a Best Picture winner, and three other films also won three Oscars that year, Brokeback Mountain, King Kong and Memoirs of a Geisha. The Hugo and Nebula that year both went to Serenity.

As mentioned last time, IMDB counts Crash as a 2004 rather than 2005 film; users rate it 16th on one ranking and 40th on the other for that year. The other 2005 Best Picture nominees were Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Good Night, and Good Luck and Munichhave seen, it’s mainly sf: Batman Begins, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, Madagascar, Serenity, The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, possibly The Curse of the Were-Rabbit though I’m not sure, possibly also the Icelandic Beowulf and Grendel. Johnny Depp as Willie Wonka left the most enduring impression. Here’s a trailer for Crash with Barber’s bloody Adagio for Strings yet again:

A stellar cast, but only two of them have been in previous Oscar or Hugo winners. Michael Peña is Daniel the locksmith here (almost the only interesting character in the film) and was also (with more hair) Omar in Million Dollar Baby.

A bit more obscurely, Alexis Rhee is Kim Lee here, and twenty-two years ago in Blade Runner she was the woman on the walls.

Crash is about the intersecting lives of a bunch of people in Los Angeles, and about racism. It thinks its heart is in the right place, and the cast are all people who know (or ought to) what they are doing. It left me rather cold. I didn’t think it was completely awful, though a lot of people really do think it was completely awful, and one of the worst Best Picture winners ever, if not indeed the worst (see two such lists here and here). I’ll give you in evidence Ta-Nehisi Coates:

I don’t think there’s a single human being in Crash. Instead you have arguments and propaganda violently bumping into each other, impressed with their own quirkiness. (“Hey look, I’m a black carjacker who resents being stereotyped.”) But more than a bad film, Crash, which won an Oscar (!), is the apotheosis of a kind of unthinking, incurious, nihilistic, multiculturalism.

Clarisse Loughrey in the Independent:

The film’s treatise on modern racism avoids anything that might make its audience feel uncomfortable or, heaven forbid, complicit. Crash’s characters aren’t relatable. They’re limp puppets, posed in various moral scenarios, with all the unsubtle airs of an afternoon school special.

Sean Mulvihill:

…resoundingly ham-fisted in everything that it does, carrying its story of overt racism with all the nuance of a cheap political cartoon … Crash wallows in countless crude racial stereotypes without anything resembling social commentary – Asians are bad drivers, not all Latinos are Mexican, black people don’t like be viewed as criminals even when they are violent criminals, and the job of a police officer will make you a racist even if you start out as an idealist.

Alex Russell has devoted an entire series of blog posts to watching every Best Picture winner, and deciding if they were better or worse than Crash. Spoiler: he still thinks Crash is the worst.

The first thing you notice when you watch Crash is just how quickly it is… stupid. Calling a movie “stupid” is a simple criticism that should generally be reserved for much more base subject matter, but Crash starts off with an onslaught of some of the most asinine and insulting dialogue ever put to film. The first five minutes has dozens and dozens of slurs. You are struck, as a viewer, at how this not only isn’t the best movie of 2004, but how it barely feels like a movie at all. It feels more like a play written in a creative writing class full of teenagers.

Paul Haggis, who directed the film, is not exactly vigorous in its defence (in a 2015 interview whose original text is no longer online, but these words were widely quoted):

Was it the best film of the year? I don’t think so. … You shouldn’t ask me what the best film of the year was because I wouldn’t be voting for ‘Crash,’ only because I saw the artistry that was in the other films. … Is it a great film? I don’t know.

So that’s what other people don’t like about it. I’ll sum up what I didn’t like about it:

The music. I love a good soundtrack, and I don’t usually notice a bad soundtrack. But here the swelling of angel choirs in the background means you’re about to see something Very Significant happening on screen. It’s doing its best to make up for:

The cinematography. I’m astonished that this won an Oscar also for Best Film Editing. At several crucial moments, the camera angles are so badly chosen that it’s not at all clear what is going on. Some find that enigmatic and mysterious, but I found it incompetent.

The racism. For a movie that’s supposed to be all about consciousness-raising, there are a lot of sour notes. Most of the characters are, as noted above, complete stereotypes. Why is it the Iranian character who attempts an irrational vindictive revenge murder? Why does it come as a surprise to Thandie Newton’s character that the police sometimes do bad things to black people?

The acting. Apart from Michael Peña, what are any of them doing? Especially Sandra Bullock?

The weather. Snow? It’s symbolical.

At the same time, however ham-fisted the presentation and leaden the acting, it’s not actually boring, and I did keep watching to see how all the various different plotlines would tie up (though I sighed in disbelief when it turns out who the long-lost brother is). I am putting it four fifths of the way down my own rankings, just below Tom Jones and above The Greatest Show on Earth.

Next up is The Departed, of which I know nothing; before that, Serenity and Howl’s Moving Castle.

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014)

Million Dollar Baby

Warning: this review contains massive spoilers for a film that came out in 2004

I mean it. If you have not seen Million Dollar Baby, and think you might watch it some day (and I really recommend it, one of the best Best Picture winners), stop reading now.

Anyway.

Million Dollar Baby won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2004, and three others: Clint Eastwood for Best Director, Hilary Swank for Best Actress and Morgan Freeman for Best Supporting Actor. The Aviator actually won five Oscars on the night, and I might make that my next viewing. The Oscar for Best Picture the following year was won by Crash, which was actually released before Million Dollar Baby. I don’t make the rules, I just report them. The Hugo that year went to The Incredibles, and the Nebula to the previous year’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.

The other Oscar nominees were The Aviator, Finding Neverland, Ray and Sideways, and I haven’t seen any of them. The only other films from 2004 that I have seen are The Incredibles, as noted last weekEternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, though I fell asleep half way through; Harry Potter and the Prisoner of AzkabanDownfallBefore Sunset, the sort of romance that I love; The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, many many times; and the Steve Coogan / Jackie Chan Around the World in 80 Days, which is truly dismal, including Arnold Schwarzenegger as an oriental prince. IMDB users put Million Dollar Baby 4th on one ranking but only 43rd on the other, one of the weirdest splits I have seen. Personally, I would rank it alongside Downfall as my favorite film of the year, just ahead of Before Sunset. (Crash, by the way, is 16th on one ranking and 40th on the other.) Here’s a trailer, which impressively barely hints at the denouement.

 

There are a couple of actors from previous Oscar Winners. Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman are the two male leads here, as  and were also the two male leads twelve years ago in Unforgiven, which like Million Dollar Baby was directed by Eastwood.

Freeman of course also drove Miss Daisy three years earlier.

A much more obscure returning face is stuntman Ted Grossman, most famously the first person killed by the shark in Jaws, who is one of the ringside doctors here, was a Peruvian porter in Raiders of the Lost Ark and a deputy sheriff in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. None of the shots I could get of him was much good.

The film is about a woman boxer, Hilary Swank’s Maggie, and her relationship with Eastwood’s Frankie, an embittered Irish-American boxing trainer who has lost all the women in his life, with commentary and sidekickisms from Freeman’s Scrap. Fighting really is not my thing, but I know a little about women fighters in that my old friend Rosi Sexton, who I have known since she was 16, was at one stage Britain’s leading woman Mixed Martial Artist (or cage-fighter if we want to be casual) – this after her first-class degree in maths from Cambridge and her computer science PhD. She retired from fighting in 2014 and was the runner-up in the 2020 leadership election of the Green Party of England and Wales. So any preconceptions I may have once had about professional fighting being an exclusively male preserve were long since knocked out of me by her (though not literally). Rosi was one of two women fighters profiled in a BBC documentary in 2009.

 

I’ll just also note that Frankie is learning Irish (“Gaelic”), which is one of the relatively few times we hear a language other than English in any Best Picture winner (having said which, we recently had Hungarian in Chicago, and Elvish in The Return of the King) and I suspect the only time we will hear Irish in any Oscar-winning film at all. However, Eastwood’s/Frankie’s pronunciation is really terrible; he seems to be learning exclusively from a book, without any coaching from people who actually speak the language; and his stage name for Maggie, “Mo Cuishle”, is wrong – it should be “Mo Chuisle”, though the “s” is indeed pronounced “sh”.

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OK, now we get to the massive spoilers. You have been warned.

The first two thirds of the film are about the gradual maturing of the relationship between Frankie and Maggie as she erodes his reluctance to become her trainer and manager. It’s beautifully done. The chemistry between Eastwood and Swank is among the best depictions of a quasi-parental relationship that we have seen in one of these films. The world of boxing is shown unromantically, including through a number of subplots involving other boxers and managers, and we cheer for Maggie as she overcomes these obstacles and achieves success in various places (which, er, all look rather similar but with different decorations on the walls to try and suggest that they may be in different parts of America or Europe). If the film only consisted of the first hour and a half, it would still be a lovely character study.

But two-thirds of the way through, the story takes a massive swerve. In the most important fight of her career, Maggie’s neck is broken by a foul blow from her opponent, and she is paralysed from the neck down for the rest of her life. Frankie continues to care for her, and eventually, at her request, assists her death. The two threads here are Maggie’s courageous accommodation to her new circumstances (incluing a dramatic showdown with her deadbeat biological family), and Frankie’s internal debate about euthanasia (there’s a tremendous scene with a priest, who Frankie has been baiting throughout the film). Here in Belgium, euthanasia has been legal since 2002, but we are ahead of the game. Legal or not, this is an awful subject, and although of course a film treatment needs to sensationalise it a bit for the drama, I felt that Eastwood carried it off tactfully and well here.

I got a lot more out of Million Dollar Baby than I was expecting to, and I’m putting it in my top ten Oscar winners, just ahead of last year’s Return of the King and behind The Bridge on the River Kwai. Next up is Crash, of which I know nothing except that the screenplay is by the same writer, Paul Haggis.

The film is based on one or possibly several short stories in a book by F.X. Toole, which I have had difficulty in getting hold of – it is long out of print, and new EU import regulations complicate the process of acquiring it from most of the English-speaking world. I have ordered it, and will report back when I do read it.

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014)

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

So, my sequence of Oscar-winning, Hugo-winning and Nebula-winning films has intersected, uniquely, with The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. It won eleven Oscars altogether, tying with Titanic and Ben-Hur for the most in history; in fact it did not lose in a single category in which it was nominated, thus also exceeding the nine-strong clean sweeps of Gigi and The Last Emperor. As well as Best Picture, it also won Best Director (Peter Jackson), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Original Song, Best Sound Mixing, Best Art Direction, Best Makeup, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, and Best Visual Effects. It did not get a single nomination in any of the acting categories (the tenth Best Picture winner out of 76 where this was the case).

The other Oscar nominees were Lost in Translation, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Mystic River and SeabiscuitFinding Nemo and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, which I have seen, and 28 Days Later and X2: X-Men United, which I haven’t. Because of the (then) weird Nebula rules, the other contenders for Best Script were all from the following year, 2004: The Incredibles, The Butterfly Effect and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless MindTerminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Underworld and American Pie: The Wedding. I would very happily put The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King at the top of my list for the year, as Hugo voters, Nebula voters and Oscar voters all did.

 

We have the Hugo figures, and I can tell you that it got nominations from more than 82% of those who nominated in this category, and romped home on the first count of the final ballot with 69% of the first preferences. I don’t know of any other winner in any category that has done quite as well for the regular Hugos (for the Retros there have been some pretty skewed results).

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I’m not going to go through the returnees from previous Hugo, Nebula or Oscar-winning films because it’s the same as last time. (There are a couple of actors in RotK who were not in the previous films, but don’t have a track record with other award winners either.)

I love this film too. It has a lot packed in – as noted last time, the last 20% of Book 3 and the last 30% of Book 4 were not in The Two Towers and were saved for here. The result is that we lose some stuff – Houses of Healing, Scouring of the Shire, various other bits and pieces. To be honest we can live without them. The major innovation in the film is the rift in the relationship between Frodo and Sam. Like a lot of the additions made by Jackson, the fairly blatant goal is to create more dramatic tension. But unlike the temporary mislaying of Aragorn or the flip-flopping of Faramir on whether to bring the Ring to Minas Tirith, this actually works very well; I would even go so far as to say that by making Frodo a somehat more flawed character than he is in the book, the story becomes more interesting. And the fact that it’s done as a result of Gollum’s manipulation makes him more interesting too.

Incidentally this is the only time since the Hugo Dramatic Presentation category was split that both awards went to the same franchise, Gollum winning the Short Form category for his MTV acceptance speech.

 

I’m really tired today because of weird and disreputable events happening in DC, so I won’t go on at great length about how much I love this film. But I will give you two bits that I particularly love. F, who has not read the book, was completely transfixed by the scene with Shelob. So was I, and I’ve been having nightmares about it roughly since I was nine. It’s a superb bit of animation.

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And when I first saw it in 2003, I was overwhelmed by the lighting of the beacons. It’s not quite as good on the small screen as it was in the cinema, but still pretty good.

 

And the ending gets ever more bittersweet as the years pass.

Also I love the music.

In my running tally of Oscar-winning films, I’m putting this in my top ten, below The Bridge on the River Kwai and above One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I’m putting it even higher up my list of Hugo and Nebula winners, in second place, behind Alien and ahead of the original Star Wars. Next up are The Incredibles (Hugo winner – there was no Nebula for any film made in 2004) and Million Dollar Baby (Oscar winner)

Of course I went back and finished rereading the book. The second paragraph of the third cahpter of Book 5 is:

Day was waning. In the last rays of the sun the Riders cast long pointed shadows that went on before them. Darkness had already crept beneath the murmuring fir-woods that clothed the steep mountain-sides. The king rode now slowly at the end of the day. Presently the path turned round a huge bare shoulder of rock and plunged into the gloom of soft-sighing trees. Down, down they went in a long winding file. When at last they came to the bottom of the gorge they found that evening had fallen in the deep places. The sun was gone. Twilight lay upon the waterfalls.

Again, I practically know it by heart, but I had forgotten the funny bit with the senior healer in the Houses of Healing. And again the ending hits me harder each time I read it. A welcome re-engagement with a dear old friend.

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014)

Chicago (2002)

Chicago won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2002, and five others: Best Supporting Actress (Catherine Zeta-Jones, beating fellow cast member Queen Latifah), Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing and Best Sound. It lost in another six categories, two of them to Roman Polanski’s The Pianist. That year’s Hugo and Nebula winner, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, also won two Oscars that year.

The other four Oscar nominees were The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, which I have of course seen, and Gangs of New York, The Hours and The Pianist, which I haven’t. This was a year when I was settling into a new job and preparing for our third child’s arrival; the only other 2002 films I have seen are Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Minority Report, Die Another Day, Men in Black II, Austin Powers in Goldmember and Scooby Doo. Naming no names, I know someone who watched Scooby Doo in late pregnancy and laughed so much that she went into labour. I think they are all entertaining enough but none stands out for me. IMDB users rank Chicago 25th on one ranking and 28th on the other, behind most films mentioned above. Here’s a trailer.

 

Slightly surprisingly, none of the cast had been in previous Oscar-winning or Hugo/Nebula-winning films, or (less surprisingly) in Doctor Who.

It is a story about murderesses awaiting trial in 1920s Chicago. In some ways it is a blast from the past. Four of the eight winners from 1961 to 1968 were musicals; this is the first one since then. Seven of the eight from 1967 to 1974 were about crime and law enforcement; the only other one since then was The Silence of the Lambs.

I have a bad case of COVID, so I’m not going to go into my usual depth. I did enjoy Chicago. However the erotic and sexualised dancing was somewhat lost on me last week; I think my libido has not been lower since I hit puberty. I was really struck at how well the old classics All That Jazz and Razzle-Dazzle were integrated into the script, and then discovered that both songs actually originated with the 1975 stage show of Chicago. They must have penetrated popular culture really quickly; I am sure I remember Morecambe and Wise doing a routine to at least one of them, which must have been very soon after. The West End show ran from 1979 to 1980.

 

The other song that really made me sit up was the Cell Block Tango:

 

Renee Zellweger as the main character gets only one really good song, with Catherine Zeta-Jones:

 

Also shoutout to Queen Latifa, Lucy Liu and John C. Reilly for their roles.

Sure, Toronto doesn’t look much like Chicago, and one may object that in real life, no woman was executed by the state of Illinois between 1845 and 1962. But that’s beside the point. The film is not at all subtle in calling out the celebrification of criminals and the flaws of a justice system driven by showmanship. Watching it in the week of the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict, I felt the point just as relevant today as in 2002, or when the musical came out in 1975, or when the original play was written in 1926.

I’m putting it about a third of the way down my ranking, just below that other Chicago-set film, The Sting, and ahead of The English Patient.

Next up is the only film to win Oscar, Hugo and Nebula. (But first, The Two Towers.)

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014)

A Beautiful Mind

A Beautiful Mind won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2001, and three others: Best Director (Ron Howard), Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress (Jennifer Connelly as Alicia) It lost in four categories, two of them to that year’s Hugo and Nebula winner, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, which also won four Oscars that year.

The other four Oscar nominees were The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, which I have of course seen, and Gosford Park, In the Bedroom and Moulin Rouge!, which I haven’t. The other 2002 films I have seen are Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone, Donnie Darko, Monsters Inc, Not Another Teen Movie and Storytelling. I love FOTR, have affection for Not Another Teen Movie, but am not especially wowed by any of the others, including A Beautiful Mind. IMDB users rank A Beautiful Mind 2nd on one ranking and 11th on the other, behind FOTR both times. Here’s a trailer.

 

We have no actors here who have appeared in Doctor Who, but several returnees from previous Oscar and Hugo/Nebula winners, most notably Russell Crowe, the central character John Nash here, and also the title character of last year’s winner Gladiator.


There’s been a somewhat longer gap since we last saw Christopher Plummer, here psychiatrist Dr Rosen, as Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music – 36 years, which is the longest interval I’ve so far seen between top billed roles.


Ed Harris, the sinister Parcher who is the product of Nash’s delusions here, was the equally sinister Cristof in The Truman Show two years ago.


Judd Hirsch, mathematician Helinger here, was the psychiatrist in Ordinary People, 21 years ago.

Victor Steinbach is Professor Horner here and was Mikolaj Ternovsky in 2010, but you know what, I have COVID and I’m not able to find pics of him in either role quickly.

I confess that I was not hugely impressed by A Beautiful Mind. It is a biopic of mathematician John Nash, who suffered from schizophrenia for much of his life; a story of romance triumphing over adversity, but you won’t learn much from it, or indeed you may learn the wrong things from it, about mental illness, mathematics, John Nash, or Alicia Nash. Film makers, even makers of biopics, are not obliged to stick rigidly to the historical record. But a lot of Truth here has been sacrificed for Art, leaving only a basic glurge plot about love triumphing over health issues, with some special effects for the central character’s delusions.

As so often, my biggest problems with the film include race and gender, combined in the depiction of Alicia Nash. Jennifer Connolly certainly deserved her Oscar as the only interesting character in the film. But the fact is that in real life Alicia Nash was from El Salvador, and spoke English with a Latin American accent. There is no hint in the film whatsoever that she was anything other than a WASP. We have not had such an egregious example of white-washing in an Oscar winner since All the King’s Men eliminated the entire African-American population of the state in which it was set. And Alicia was herself a gifted mathematics student, but we see nothing of that here.

(And I don’t think there is a single non-white speaking part; Princeton has had at least a handful of black students from the 1940s onwards.)

The real John Nash’s love life was just a little more complicated than is depicted on screen. He had long running affairs with several other men, and had a child by another woman before he met Alicia. He was once arrested for indecent exposure. He and Alicia formally divorced before getting back together again. Apparently the film makers felt that it would be too difficult to depict his bisexuality without implying that it was linked to his mental illness (a link which was mistakenly made by many of those who treated him). They certainly did not even try to do so.

It’s difficult to put mathematics into a mainstream drama. But again, the film-makers did not try very hard. There are a couple of mutterings about game theory, but otherwise it’s an activity done by white men behind the scenes, except when Nash starts writing on windows. I think that A Theory of Everything did it rather better, though I will also admit that perhaps Stephen Hawking’s theories are more telegenic than Nash’s.

Schizophrenia cannot in general be cured by the treatment portrayed in the film. Nash struggled with it for decades. He himself felt that the natural hormonal changes of aging eventually enabled him to reject his delusions; be that as it may, a recovery such as his is unusual. And while the manifestation of those delusions in the personalities of the sinister Parcher, friendly English Charles and Charles’ niece Marcee is compelling cinema and well executed, it really isn’t the lived experience of most people with schizophrenia and wasn’t the lived experience of Nash himself.

Nash’s hallucinations were much more of voices and weird ideas about politics, which is fairly “normal” for his condition. Rain Man wobbled a bit on the reality of autism, but was basically honest about it. A Beautiful Mind, again, went for Art rather than Truth, leading to heaven knows how many ignorant and stressful conversations between well-meaning people who think they know all about schizophrenia from having seen the film, and desperate people who are actually trying to manage its effects in their own lives.

I am not going to totally dump on the film. The acting is good, the music is good, and the cinematography is great – in particular Princeton emerges as something of a character in its own right. (Though again, Nash’s professional life included many stops other than Princeton – but not the Pentagon.)

 

Incidentally, I make this the seventh biopic to win the Oscar, the first for 24 years, and I would put it in the lower half, after Gandhi, Lawrence of Arabia, The Last Emperor and The Life of Emile Zola, but ahead of Patton and The Great Ziegfeld. Overall I’m putting it in the bottom 15% of my list, after Mutiny on the Bounty but ahead of American Beauty.

Next up is Chicago, of which I have higher hopes.

The film is based on a prize-winning biography with the same title by Sylvia Nasar, the second paragraph of whose third chapter is:

What he saw was a genteel, prerevolutionary village surrounded by gently rolling woodlands, lazy streams, and a patchwork of cornfields.2 Settled by Quakers toward the end of the seventeenth century, Princeton was the site of a famous Washington victory over the British and, for a brief six-month interlude in 1783, the de facto capital of the new republic. With its college-Gothic buildings nestled among lordly trees, stone churches, and dignified old houses, the town looked every inch the wealthy, manicured exurb of New York and Philadelphia that, in fact, it was. Nassau Street, the town’s sleepy main drag, featured a row of “better” men’s clothing shops, a couple of taverns, a drugstore, and a bank. It had been paved before the war, but bicycles and pedestrians still accounted for most of the traffic. In This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald had described Princeton circa World War I as “the pleasantest country club in America.”3 Einstein called it “a quaint, ceremonious village” in the 1930s.4 Depression and wars had scarcely changed the place. May Veblen, the wife of a wealthy Princeton mathematician, Oswald Veblen, could still identify by name every single family, white and black, well-to-do and of modest means, in every single house in town.5 Newcomers invariably felt intimidated by its gentility. One mathematician from the West recalled, “I always felt like my fly was open.”6
2 See, for example, Rebecca Goldstein, The Mind-Body Problem (New York: Penguin, 1993); Ed Regis, Who Got Einstein’s Office? (Reading, Mass.: Addison Wesley, 1987); and recollections of Nash’s contemporaries, including interviews with Harold Kuhn and Harley Rogers and letter from George Mowbry, 4.5.95.
3 F. Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise (New York: Scribner, 1920).
4 Albert Einstein, quoted in Goldstein, op. cit.
5 As recalled by her niece Gillian Richardson, interview, 12.14.95.
6 Donald Spencer, professor of mathematics, Princeton University, interview, Durango, Colorado, 11.18.95.

I got a lot more out of the book than the film. It is honest where the film is not about Alicia’s origins, John Nash’s sexuality and the nature and course of his illness and career. It goes a bit into the mathematics without trying too hard; in the end, the non-specialist has to take the word of the specialist that this was all Really Important Stuff.

But where the book excels is in its examination of the social and political construction of the environment where Nash worked. It had not occurred to me that the Princeton of Einstein (and Nash) was very different from the Princeton of Woodrow Wilson, just a few decades before. Nasar maps out very carefully how the decision of a few intellectual centres of excellence to invest in mathematics – or rather, in mathematicians – was driven by wider political and social currents, including McCarthyism and antisemitism  (Nash himself also lurched into antisemitism, and not only when deluded). Her behind-the-scenes account of how Nash almost didn’t get the 1994 Nobel Prize is one of the most gripping things I’ve ever read in a scientific biography. (Yeah, I know it’s not technically a Nobel Prize. Sue me.)

Some of Nash’s friends queried whether the biography was ethical, given that it was written without his consent or cooperation. In fact his attitude was studiedly neutral, and Nasar clearly had full cooperation from his colleagues and lovers, which he could presumably have deterred if he had really wanted to. He was apparently pleased enough with it in the end, and enjoyed the film too, though he commented (rightly enough) that it wasn’t really about him.

Here’s a lovely short video of Russell Crowe talking to John and Alicia Nash when they visited the set. Unfortunately we can’t hear what they are saying. The Nashes died in a car accident in 2015, returning from the ceremony where he had been awarded the Abel Prize

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014)

Gladiator (2000), and Those About to Die

Gladiator won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2000, and four others: Best Actor (Russell Crowe), Best Costume Design, Best Sound and Best Visual Effects. It lost in seven categories, three each to Traffic and to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which won both Hugo and Nebula that year.

Of the other four Oscar nominees, I have not seen Traffic, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Erin Brockovich, though I have seen Chocolat. 2000 was a difficult year for us, and apart from Chocolat, the only other 2000 films I have seen to the end are Almost Famous, Chicken Run and The Dish, all of which I really like, probably more than I liked GladiatorO Brother, Where Art Thou and Bring It On. IMDB users rank Gladiator as the best film of the year on both rankings. Here’s a trailer.

Two actors here have returned from previous Oscar-winners. Most notoriously, Oliver Reed, as gladiator trader Proximo, actually died of alcohol poisoning partway through making the film; way back in 1968 he was bad boy Bill Sykes in Oliver!


More recently, Tommy Flanagan, who is our hero’s loyal servant Cicero here, was also a close ally of the doomed hero of Braveheart in 1995.


There are a fair number of Doctor Who crossovers as well, starting of course with Sir Derek Jacobi, Senator Gracchus here and six years later Professor Yana and briefly the Master in Utopia:


Tony Curran is one of the assassins who fail to kill our hero, and also was Vincent van Gogh in Vincent and the Doctor (2012).


David Scholfield is Falco here and went on to be Odin, leader of the Mire, in The Girl Who Died (2015).


I could not find good Gladiator shots of David Bailie, credited as the engineer operating the catapults in the opening battle scene, and also of course Dask in Robots of Death (1978), or of Alun Raglan, here a Praetorian guard, and Mo Northover in the 2010 story The Hungry Earth / Cold Blood.

So. Before I start, the opening titles greatly amused me:

That’s “Northern England”, or, as the locals call it, “Scotland”. (Subsequent social media discussion revealed that the Antonine Wall has a bit of a marketing problem.)

The film is the story of Maximus, chosen successor of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who is displaced by the Emperor’s horrible homicidal son Commodus. Maximus escapes Commodus’ assassination attempt, but is captured by slavers in Spain and sold into slavery in North Africa. He comes to Rome as a gladiator, wins all his battles and challenges Commodus for power in Rome. They both die. It’s great to look at, especially if you are the sort of person who likes to see acres of rippling male flesh (limited appeal for me, I’m afraid). But I think we had a rather similar plot with a happier ending 41 years ago.

The scenes set in Africa, like Casablanca, have a notable lack of actual Africans, apart from Djimon Hounsou as Juba, our hero’s ally and the black guy in the film.

I thought Connie Nielsen was very good as Commodus’ elder sister Lucilla, even though she is given very little to work with and has the only female speaking part to have more than one scene. (Later to appear as Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons, in Wonder Woman.)

The core performances of Richard Harris as Marcus Aurelius, Joaquin Phoenix as Commodus and Russell Crowe as Maximus are all solid and carry the story. (And Oliver Reed and Derek Jacobi, already noted, are good too.)



The filmography is good and the music really good.

 

But at the same time there isn’t really much there there. I’m putting it two thirds of the way down my list of Oscar winners, ahead of My Fair Lady, which may have more parts for women but is much more sexist, and behind How Green Was My Valley, also a spectacular landscape film but with a bit more of a human heart.

Its influence is undeniable, of course, and I can’t resist posting the stunning 2004 Pepsi commercial starring Britney Spears, Beyoncé and Pink and the music of Queen:

 

The film is supposedly based on Those About to Die, a 1958 book by Daniel P. Mannix IV, which starts off as a historical survey of Roman games and then becomes two short stories, the first longer than the second, about men who worked in and around the arena. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

The greatest naumachia of all time was the naval engagement staged by Claudius. As Augustus’ lake was too small, the mad emperor decided to use the Fucine Lake (now called the Lago di Fucino) some sixty miles to the east of Rome. This lake had no natural outlet and in the spring it often flooded many miles of surrounding county. To overcome this trouble, a tunnel three and a half miles long had been cut through solid rock from the lake to the Litis River to carry off the surplus water. This job had taken thirty thousand men eleven years to finish. For the dedication of the opening of this tunnel, Claudius decided to stage a fight between two navies on the lake. The galleys previously used in such engagements had been small craft with only one bank of oars. For this fight, there were to be twenty-four triremes (three banks of oars), all regulation ocean-going warships — and twenty-six biremes (double bank). This armada was divided into two fleets of twenty-five ships each and manned by nineteen hundred criminals under the command of two famous gladiators. One fleet was to represent the Rhodians and the other the Sicilians and both groups wore the appropriate costumes.

In fact the book is much less about gladiators and more about the people who arranged fights with animals in the arena, particularly the arrangements for torture and execution by damnatio ad bestias. Mannix has a bit of a fixation with the unpleasant things a trained animal can do to a woman prisoner. But he also makes interesting comparisons with the showmanship of the twentieth century, and although it’s really not all that interesting a subject he covers it breezily enough.

The next Oscar-winning film is A Beautiful Mind; but before we get there, it’s going to be Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Fellowship of the Ring.

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014)

American Beauty

American Beauty won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1999, and four others: Best Director (Sam Mendes), Best Actor (Kevin Spacey), Best Original Screenplay (Alan Ball) and Best Cinematography (Conrad Hall). The Nebula that year went to The Sixth Sense, and the Hugo and the next year’s Nebula to Galaxy Quest.

I have not seen any of the other four Oscar nominees, which were The Cider House Rules, The Green Mile, The Insider and Hugo-winner The Sixth Sense. IMDB users have it 4th on one ranking and 8th on the other, respectable enough, with Fight Club, The Matrix and The Green Mile ahead of it on both.

1999 was the year that our second child was born, and I saw very few films. One of them, oddly enough, was American Beauty, which I caught in early 2000 on a visit to Budapest. It’s one of very few Oscar winners that I saw in a cinema soon after original release – the others are Chariots of Fire, Gandhi and The Return of the King. The other films from that year that I have seen are The Matrix, American Pie, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, Cruel Intentions, Sunshine and Never Been Kissed. I will admit that American Beauty is a well-made film, but I probably like it the least of the lot. Here’s a trailer.

 

I normally start off these reviews by listing the actors who have been in earlier Oscar-winning or Hugo/Nebula-winning films, or in Doctor Who. This time there aren’t any. Amused to see Alison Janney, shortly before her breakthrough as C.J. in The West Wing, as the traumatised Mrs Fitts, and Scott Bakula, of Quantum Leap and Enterprise, as one of the two Jims.

As I said, I will admit that American Beauty is a well-made film, but I just don’t like it very much. All of the (100% white) characters are just awful people, with the exception of the central characters’ daughter Jane Burnham, who (rightly) hates her parents, and the two neighbouring Jims, whose healthy relationship is a bitter contrast with the heterosexual couples at the centre of the story. The script tries to make us sympathise with Lester Burnham as he goes through a mid-life crisis, but really he generates a lot of his own misfortunes, and we are invited to share his very creepy male gaze; though admittedly it’s hardly his fault that the next door neighbours are all psychopaths.

When almost every character is so awful, it’s difficult to be interested in what happens to them. The cinematography almost pulls this off, but I wasn’t really fooled when first watching it in Budapest in 2000 and I was even less fooled this time. I’m putting it very low down my list, only just shy of the bottom ten, below Mutiny on the Bounty, which is also about awful people but at least has good scenery, and above Braveheart for not taking its dreadful protagonist quite as seriously.

But the cinematography is very good, and the music also compelling. The theme tune is particularly haunting.

 

But the whole thing left me feeling rather icky.

IMDB trivia points out that this was only the second Oscar winner of the 1990s to have a contemporary setting (after The Silence of the Lambs). It’s closer in spirit to the winners of twenty years before, Kramer vs Kramer and Ordinary People (which I didn’t like) and Terms of Endearment (which I did).

Next up is Gladiator, of which I know nothing except the title. But before that, I look forward to watching The Sixth Sense and Galaxy Quest, and seeing what Hugo and Nebula voters thought was better than The Matrix, which is my favourite of the 1999 films that I have seen.

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014)

Shakespeare in Love

Shakespeare in Love won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1998, and six others – Best Actress (Gwyneth Paltrow), Best Supporting Actress (Judi Dench, who is only on screen for 8 minutes), Best Screenplay, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design and Best Original Musical or Comedy Score. The Hugo that year went to The Truman Show.

I have not seen any of the other four Oscar nominees, which were Elizabeth, Life Is Beautiful, Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line. That was the year I lived in Bosnia and then Croatia, so I have seen very few films from 1998; apart from the Oscar and Hugo winners, I have watched There’s Something About Mary, Sliding Doors, Primary Colors, Bulworth, Playing by Heart and that’s it. I like all of these, Bulworth least and, I’ll be honest, Shakespeare in Love most.

IMDB users, as so often, take a different view, ranking it only 15th on one ranking and an incredibly low 44th on the other, which is a worse aggregate ranking than any Oscar winner since Cavalcade (slightly worse than Tom Jones). The Big Lebowski and Saving Private Ryan top the two counts. Among the allegations about Harvey Weinstein is the story that he lobbied mercilessly to get Shakespeare in Love its nomination and win ahead of Saving Private Ryan, but to be honest it’s entirely in character for Oscar voters to go for the big warm-hearted romantic tale ahead of a gritty reality-based war film. (I admit that they have sometimes made the other choice.)

Here’s a trailer.

 

Because this is a film made with mainly British actors in 1999, loads and loads of the cast have also been in Doctor Who, one of whom was also in an Oscar-winning film. That one is Simon Callow, here the randy Master of the Revels, previously impresario Emanuel Schikaneder in Amadeus, and also of course Charles Dickens in The Unquiet Dead, the third episode of New Who.



The only representative of Old Who is Martin Clunes, here Richard Burbage, previously the spoiled aristocratic Lon in an early appearance in the Fifth Doctor story Snakedance.


Mark Williams, the stuttering tailor Wabash here, went on to be Rory Williams’ father in several Eleventh Doctor stories.


Barnaby Kay is Nol here and went on to be the Viking Heidi in The Girl Who Died:

And Nicholas Boulton is the actor Condell here and the Businessman in the Tenth Doctor story Gridlock.


I love Imelda Staunton, the nurse here and the invisible voice of the computer in The Girl Who Waited.

As noted above, this film is far from most people’s top ten films of 1999, and you may not have seen it. It’s a romantic comedy – the first comedy to win Best Picture since Annie Hall, more than twenty years before – set in Merrie England, which was the setting of a spate of Oscar-winners in the 1960s but has since been visited only for parts of Chariots of Fire (which is perhaps too late to be Merrie). The plot is that beautiful (and completely fictional) Viola de Lesseps is in love with young playwright William Shakespeare, disguises herself as a man in order to join his theatre company, and the two of them end up playing the lead roles in the first ever performance of Romeo and Juliet. This is surely the first Oscar-winning film about the writer of a previous Oscar-winning film. The two leads, played by Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes, are tremendously watchable, and I think there’s more sex in this film than in all the previous 70 Oscar-winning films combined.

(I’m going to pause to recommend the Arkangel audio of Romeo and Juliet. Romeo is Joseph Fiennes (who plays Shakespeare himself in Shakespeare in Love) and Juliet is Maria Miles (Elfine in Cold Comfort Farm). But both are somewhat overshadowed by three excellent supporting performances: Clive Swift (who has been in Doctor Who three times over the years) doubling up as both Friar Laurence and the Chorus; Elizabeth Spriggs (who was, among other things, one of the cannibalistic old ladies in Paradise Towers) as Juliet’s Nurse, and best of all, Mercutio is played, in his native Scottish accent, by David Tennant. You can get it here.)

I guess I should try and do my usual thing of going from the bits I didn’t like to the bits I did, but really, there’s very little to dislike here. Historical purists will complain that it’s hugely inaccurate in terms of what people wore, said and did in England in the 1590s, and I would add (as I must) that there actually were non-white people in London then and had been for centuries. Fine. It’s entertainment, not education. It’s very funny and the music is great.

 

As mentioned, Judi Dench is only in it for 8 minutes, but my god does she dominate those 8 minutes.

I think one has to admit that Paltrow and Dench somewhat overshadow Fiennes and the other male actors, good as they are. Again, fine. Too many romances portray the woman as lacking agency; Viola here challenges convention and while she is not ultimately completely successful, the point has been made.

I’m surprised by how far up my ranking I’m putting this – just outside the top ten, below Rain Man but above Terms of Endearment.

Next up is American Beauty, which I actually saw in the cinema when it came out.

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014)

Titanic

Titanic won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1996, and equalled both the record of fourteen nominations set by All About Eve, and the record of eleven wins set by Ben-Hur. The other ten were: Best Director (James Cameron), Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Original Dramatic Score, Best Original Song, Best Sound, Best Sound Effects Editing and Best Visual Effects. Kate Winslet and Gloria Stuart were nominated in Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress respectively, but did not win. (At 87, Gloria Stuart remains the oldest ever nominee for Best Supporting Actress.) The Hugo that year went to Contact.

I have not seen any of the other four Oscar nominees, which were As Good as It Gets, The Full Monty, Good Will Hunting and L.A. Confidential. I have seen nine other films made in 1998: Men in Black, Starship Troopers, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, Contact, Wag the Dog, The Peacemaker, Spice World, The Man Who Knew Too Little, Mrs Brown and Fools Rush In. These are all enjoyable films, especially Spice World, and to be honest I’d rank Titanic somewhere in the middle. IMDB users are much more wowed than me, and put it top of both rankings. Here’s a trailer.

 

Three of the cast of Titanic also appeared in the Whoniverse. First off, David Warner, Spicer Lovejoy here, went on to pay Professor Grisenko in the 2013 episode Cold War. He was also the unpleasant Bilfil in Oscar-winning Tom Jones, way back in 1963.


Martin Jarvis plays Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon here, and has been in Doctor Who three times: as the Menoptra leader Hilio in the 1965 story we now call The Web Planet, the villains’ sidekick Butler in 1974’s Invasion of the Dinosaurs, and the Governor of Varos in the 1983 Vengeance on Varos.


On rather a different scale, there’s Derek Lea, who is stoker Frederick Barrett here and played an alien posing as a paramedic in the 2008 Torchwood episode Sleeper.

There’s a couple of overlaps with Hugo-winning films also directed by James Cameron. The versatile Jenette Goldstein shows up here as the Irish mommy, having previously been John Connor’s foster mother Janelle Voight in Terminator 2 and tough-as-nails Vasquez in Aliens.


Also in Aliens was Bill Paxton, here treasure hunter Brock Lovett, there Sergeant Hudson.

A couple more Hugo-winner appearances: Elsa Raven is Ida Straus here and was the Clocktower Lady in Back to the Future.

Mark Capri is one of the Stewards here and was imperial comms officer M’Kae in The Empire Strikes Back.

And, getting to the end, there are two more crossovers with previous Oscar-winners apart from David Warner. Frances Fisher is Rose’s mother here, and was Strawberry Alice, the brothel manager, in Unforgiven.

Last but not least, Bernard Hill plays Captain Smith here, having previously been Sergeant Putnam, the soldier on the railway station roof, in Gandhi. We will be seeing him again.

Before we get into the meat of it, there’s an interesting linguistic quirk that caught my attention (and probably won’t catch anyone else’s). Thomas Andrews, the engineer who designed the ship, is played by Canadian actor Victor Garber, who I don’t think I have seen in anything else. He’s the very first character in 70 Oscar-winning films to be explicitly from Northern Ireland. Garber gives him a bit of a lilting brogue, to signal to the audience that he is vaguely Irish.

There are no surviving recordings of Thomas Andrews’ voice, as far as I know. But his brother, John Miller Andrews, was interviewed when he became Prime Minister of Northern Ireland in 1940, and as you can hear he has a much more distinctly Ulster twang in his voice. (He lasted only two and a half years, becoming the first but not the last Unionist leader to be ruthlessly ditched by a rebellion in the ranks.)

Anyway. As if you didn’t know, the film is about the 1912 sinking of Titanic, the largest ship in the world at the time, on its maiden voyage. My great-grandmother, born in 1887, told me when I was a child that she had seen it pass along Belfast Lough as it emerged from the Belfast shipyard where it was made, and it’s not difficult to imagine how this massive man-made object would have briefly dominated the natural landscape as it went by.

Belfast has a slightly ambivalent relationship with the ship and the story; there is a massive and impressive museum dedicated to the disaster on the site of the dock where the ship was built, and a big memorial in the grounds of the City Hall. But for a city which has since acquired a strong relationship with tragedy – twice as many were killed in the Troubles as died on Titanic – it’s not a comfortable bit of heritage. The final exchange with the doomed ship is very poignant.

A friend of mine lost her father on the Estonia in 1994Van Ling (also briefly in Terminator 2).

The only other film I’ve seen Leonardo di Caprio in is the 1996 Romeo + Juliet. Sorry to be heretical, but I don’t think he’s a particularly good actor. His part in Titanic doesn’t have much to it, but I don’t feel he brings much to it either. I think he particularly fails to connect smirking self-confident Jack to sensitive artistic Jack. It’s just about plausible that Rose falls for him on the ship, especially given the awfulness of the alternative, but I can’t believe she would have stayed with him for long.

Those are the only two negatives, though. The music teeters on the edge of being annoying, but just about manages not to be. Only five Oscar-winning Original Songs were also in the Best Picture or equivalent; before “My Heart Will Go On” we had “Swinging on a Star” in Going My Way, and “Gigi” in, er, Gigi; we’ll get to the two others in due course. Just in case you had forgotten, here’s Celine Dion.

Kate Winslet on the other hand has a great part and does it well. Rose is one of those rare leading women characters with a serious and interesting arc. The sequence of her wielding the axe is tremendous.

And the film does a traditional story-telling job very well – introducing us to a bunch of very human people, some of them more interesting than others, and then hitting them with a disaster that many of them do not survive. The core narrative is not original but very competently executed, and tying it back to the present day with Gloria Stuart’s brief but impressive performance as older Rose gives it a firm sense of grounding and relevance.

And the effects of course are spectacular. Cameron has set a high bar with his previous work, and just about exceeds it. The sense of scale of the sinking ship, and the subsequent horror of the slow deaths of the shipwrecked, are particularly effective.


So, I thought it was good but not superb. I’m putting it just under halfway down my list of Oscar winenrs, ahead of The Last Emperor which also look good but has no attractive characters, and behind Out of Africa which also looks good but does have interesting men as well as women.

That takes me to 70 Oscar-winning films. The most recent ten have had four really good, four medium (The English Patient is very medium, but I gave it extra marks for having Juliette Binoche) and two awful, which I guess is not too bad. Here’s my full ranking.

70) Platoon (Oscar for 1986)
69) The Great Ziegfeld (1936)
68) Cimarron (1930/31)
67) Cavalcade (1932/33)
66) Wings (1927/28)
65) Broadway Melody (1928/29)
64) All The King’s Men (1949)
63) Forrest Gump (1994)
62) Patton (1970)
61) Braveheart (1995)
60) Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
59) The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
58) Tom Jones (1963)
57) Gone With the Wind (1939)
56) Ordinary People (1980)
55) Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
54) Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)
53) Annie Hall (1977)
52) Going My Way (1944)
51) The French Connection (1971)
50) My Fair Lady (1964)
49) How Green Was My Valley (1941)
48) Mrs Miniver (1942)
47) On The Waterfront (1954)
46) The Godfather Part II (1974)
45) In the Heat of the Night (1967)
44) Grand Hotel (1931/32)
43) The Life of Emile Zola (1937)
42) Marty (1955)
41) The Deer Hunter (1978)
40) Rocky (1976)
39) Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
38) The Last Emperor (1987)
37) Titanic (1997)
36) Out of Africa (1985)
35) Dances With Wolves (1990)
34) Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
33) Gigi (1958)
32) It Happened One Night (1934)
31) You Can’t Take It With You (1938)
30) The Lost Weekend (1945)
29) Hamlet (1948)
28) From Here To Eternity (1953)
27) Around The World In Eighty Days (1956)
26) Ben-Hur (1959)
25) The English Patient (1996)
24) The Sting (1973)
23) The Godfather (1972)
22) Unforgiven (1992)
21) Oliver! (1968)
20) The Apartment (1960)
19) All About Eve (1950)
18) The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
17) Amadeus (1984)
16) Gandhi (1982)
15) West Side Story (1961)
14) A Man for all Seasons (1966)
13) Midnight Cowboy (1969)
12) Terms of Endearment (1983)
11) Rain Man (1988)
10)
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
9) One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
8) The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
7) All Quiet on the Western Front (1929/30)
6) Rebecca (1940)
5) Schindler’s List (1993)
4) Chariots of Fire (1981)
3) An American in Paris (1951)
2) The Sound of Music (1965)
1) Casablanca (1943)

Just for fun, I’ve broken down the 70 Oscar-winning films by main date and time of setting. (Obviously some straddle timelines and locations – I’m calling the two Godfather films as set in New York, as that’s where their hearts are, and calling All the King’s Men as set when it was made although it is based on real events that happened between the wars.) Five of the eleven “Other Europe” films are set in France.

Time of settingNew YorkOther USAGreat BritainOther EuropeAsiaAfricaOcean/Other
After WW2Midnight Cowboy
West Side Story
The Apartment
The Godfather
Marty
The Godfather, Part II
On The Waterfront
The French Connection
Annie Hall
Gentleman’s Agreement
Kramer vs. Kramer
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
The Silence of the Lambs
Rain Man
Terms of Endearment
All About Eve
Driving Miss Daisy
Rocky
The Deer Hunter
In the Heat of the Night
Ordinary People
The Greatest Show on Earth
Forrest Gump
All The King’s Men
 An American in Paris
Gigi
Platoon  
Around WW2The Lost Weekend
Going My Way
The Best Years of Our Lives
From Here To Eternity
Mrs MiniverSchindler’s List
The Sound of Music
Patton
The Bridge on the River KwaiCasablanca
The English Patient
 
Inter-warYou Can’t Take It With You
Broadway Melody
The Great Ziegfeld
The Sting
It Happened One Night
Rebecca
Chariots of Fire
How Green Was My Valley
Grand HotelGandhi
The Last Emperor
Out of Africa 
WW1   All Quiet on the Western Front
Wings
Lawrence of Arabia  
1800-1914 Unforgiven
Dances With Wolves
Gone With the Wind
Cimarron
My Fair Lady
Cavalcade
The Life of Emile Zola  Titanic
Around The World In Eighty Days
Before 1800  A Man for all Seasons
Oliver!
Tom Jones
Braveheart
Amadeus
Hamlet
Ben-Hur Mutiny on the Bounty

The next Oscar-winning film will be Shakespeare in LoveContact.

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014)

The English Patient

The English Patient won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1996, and eight others: Best Director (Anthony Minghella), Best Supporting Actress (Juliette Binoche), Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Original Dramatic Score and Best Sound. That year’s Hugo went to the Babylon 5 episode Severed Dreams.

I have not seen any of the other Oscar nominees that year; they were Fargo, Jerry Maguire, Secrets & Lies and Shine. I have seen eight other films made in 1996: the three Hugo finalists, Independence Day, Mars Attacks and Star Trek: First Contact, and five others: Trainspotting, Multiplicity, Brassed Off, Michael Collins and My Fellow Americans. They’re all good, apart from Multiplicity, but The English Patient is the only one that has Juliette Binoche.

So, actors in The English Patient who were in previous Oscar or Hugo winners, or in Doctor Who, do not include Juliette Binoche.

The do include Willem Dafoe, who is Carravaggio here and was Sergeant Elias in Platoon ten years before.

Clive Merrrison is Fenelon-Barnes here, but only one of his scenes was not cut from the film and I could find only one half-decent shot of his face. He is not seen on-screen with Juliette Binoche. He was also in two Doctor Who stories, Tomb of the Cybermen (Second Doctor, 1967) as crewman Jim Callum, and Paradise Towers (Seventh Doctor, 1987) as the unnamed Deputy Chief Caretaker.

There’s another Whovian: Lee Ross is Spalding, the soldier at the booby-trapped statue, here, another scene that for some reason does not have Juliette Binoche in it, and went on to be the Boatswain in The Curse of the Black Spot (Twelfth Doctor, 2011).

And although Juliette Binoche won an Oscar for her performance here, she has not been in any other Oscar-winning or Hugo-winning films, or in Doctor Who. (Did I say that already?)

I’m afraid that I didn’t really get The English Patient, even though it has one of my favourite actors in it. (You’ll never guess who that is.) It scores better than some Oscar winners in that one of the lead characters is Indian, Kip the sapper, played by Naveen Andrews, and he actually has an interracial relationship with Juliette Binoche’s character.

The title character is of course male, but the two women who interact with him get a lot of agency, both Katharine, played by Kristin Scott-Thomas, and Hana played by, who is it again, oh yes that’s right, Juliette Binoche.

There are some lovely landscape scenes, particularly in the desert (though these do lose a bit by not having Juliette Binoche in them).

I liked the intercutting timelines, even though only one of them has Juliette Binoche.

And Ralph Fiennes’ make-up as the horribly burned English Patient is very impressive.

But I confess that the film as a whole didn’t grab me by the feelings as I had expected it might. Maybe I was just too tired. Still, because I particularly like one of the actors – you’ll never guess who, I’m keeping that as my special secret – I’m putting it just under a third of the way down my ranking, below The Sting but above Ben-Hur.

Edited to add: Elaine’s take.

I also of course read the original book. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

Cats slept in the gun turrets looking south. English and Americans and Indians and Australians and Canadians advanced north, and the shell traces exploded and dissolved in the air. When the armies assembled at Sansepolcro, a town whose symbol is the crossbow, some soldiers acquired them and fired them silently at night over the walls of the untaken city. Field Marshal Kesselring of the retreating German army seriously considered the pouring of hot oil from battlements.

I found it really evocative of the times and places of the settings, and liked the integration of the plotlines as representing the healing of the protagonist. But again I found myself curiously unmoved by it. I am a bit surprised that the book won the Booker and the film the Oscar. But there’s no accounting for taste, and I know mine is sometimes a minority opinion.

Next up: Titanic. I wonder what that’s about?

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014)

Braveheart, and Blind Harry’s Wallace

Braveheart won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1995, and four others: Best Director (Mel Gibson), Best Cinematography, Best Make-up, and Best Sound Effects Editing. It lost in five categories, two to Apollo 13. The Hugo that year went to the Babylon 5 episode The Coming of Shadows.

I have seen very few films made in 1995, a year when my PhD and my brief political career were simultaneously peaking. Of the other Oscar nominees, I have seen Apollo 13 and Babe, but not Il Postino or Sense and Sensibility. Other 1995 films that I have seen: Goldeneye, The American President, Johnny Mnemonic (which is set in 2021), the wonderful Tank Girl, the brilliant Ian McKellen Richard III, and I think that’s it. Apart from Johnny Mnemonic, I liked all of them more than Braveheart. IMDB users disagree with me and have it third on one ranking and fourth on the other, behind Se7en in both cases.

Edited to add: My sister writes in to remind me that I did in fact see Sense and Sensibility at the time and told her that to my own surprise I liked it. She also points to this piece about Sense and Sensibility which includes a reflection on the contrast with Braveheart.

Here’s a trailer.

 

This being the sort of film it is, there are loads of actors who have also been in Doctor Who, but I’m going to start with one who wasn’t. Edward Longshanks, aka King Edward I of England, is played here by Patrick McGoohan, much more famous as The Prisoner.


There are a couple of Whovians. The biggest Who name is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-huim moment in Braveheart, where Bernard Horsfall asks Mel Gibson a pointed question about the Balliol claim to the Scottish throne. (In real life Wallace was on Balliol’s side rather than the Bruces’.) Horsfall was in several Doctor Who stories,  in The Mind Robber (Second Doctor, 1968), a Time Lord in The War Games (Second Doctor, 1969), Taron in Planet of the Daleks (Third Doctor, 1973) and Chancellor Goth (possibly the same Time Lord as previously) in The Deadly Assassin (Fourth Doctor, 1976).



Rupert Vansittart plays rapey Lord Bottoms here; he went on to be General Asquith (or rather the Slitheen disguised as General Asquith) in the 2005 Doctor Who story Aliens of London / World War Three.


Michael Tierney here is the evil magistrate who kills Braveheart’s girl; a few years earlier he was an assistant to Honor Blackman in the 1986 Doctor Who story Terror of the Vervoids.


I spotted one actor who had been in a Hugo-winning film: Michael Byrne is Michael Tierney’s sidekick here, and was the main Nazi in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.


Noting also that Brian Cox, playing Argyle Wallace here, provided an Ood voice in Doctor Who but was not on screen. (I’m a little surprised that Alun Armstrong has never been in Who.)

OK folks, I’ll be brief: this is a violent and also silly film. Clichés abound. Great use of (mostly Irish) scenery, gallant (but occasionally treacherous) Scots, repulsive English, seductive French women, funny Irish sidekick, sanguinary combat, swirling music, culminating in Wallace’s Christ-like martyrdom. I’m rating it ahead of Platoon, my worst Oscar winner ever, because at least the characters are distinguishable and nearly interesting. I can see how it appeals to those Americans who like historical parallels to how they imagine their own revolution, and to anyone who likes a good romantic nationalist tale (which sometimes even includes me, which is why I’m not putting it at the very bottom of my list; I am neutral veering to positive on Scottish independence). But really, it’s the most utter tosh. I’m putting in 59th place out of 68, two places above last year’s Forrest Gump, just above Patton, which is more boring, and just below Mutiny on the Bounty, which carries off its clichés better.

(My observation that a parallel can be drawn between Wallace and the American War of Independence is not at all original, and was probably not original when Robert Burns invoked Wallace in his Ode on General Washington’s Birthday in 1794.)

Incidentally this is the first Oscar-winning film since Chariots of Fire, fourteen years before, to be set in Britain and the first mainly set in Scotland (Chariots of Fire of course had a number of Scottish scenes; we had Wales back in 1941). Since then we’ve had three in Asia (Gandhi, Platoon and The Last Emperor), two in Continental Europe (Amadeus and Schindler’s List) and Out of Africa. I’ll do an overall tally when we reach #70 in the sequence.

This is the second Oscar-winning film to be based on a work of epic poetry. (The first, fifty years earlier, was The Best Years of Our Lives.) The original 15th-century text of Blind Harry’s The Actes and Deidis of the Illustre and Vallyeant Campioun Schir William Wallace is readily available online, but like most people these days I satisfied myself with the 18th century translation by William Hamilton of Gilbertfield, available in a nice edition introduced by Elspeth King with impressive woodcut illustrations by Owain Kirby. You can get it here.

The opening sentence of Book III, Chapter II of Hamilton’s version is as follows, cross-referenced with the lines it is adapting from Blind Harry’s original.

When Wallace now had vanquish’d in the Field
The Traitor false, that had his Father kill’d,
And Brother also, that brave and worthy Knight,
With many more, that all were Men of Might;
He caus’d provide, and distribute their Store,
To go on new Exploits, and purchase more.
In Clyde’s Green-Wood they did sojourn three Days;
No South’ron might Adventure in those Ways,
Death did they thole, durst in their Gate appear;
And Wallace’ Word did Travel far and near.
Quhen Wallace had weyle wenquist to the playne
The falss terand that had his fadyr slayne;
His brothyr als, quhilk was a gentill knycht,
Othir gud men befor to dede thai dycht;
He gert dewyss, and prowide thar wictaille;
Baith stuff and horss that was of gret awaille,
To freyndis about preualye thai send,
The ramanand full glaidlye thar thai spend.
In Clydis wode thai soiornyt twenty dayis,
Na Sothren that tyme was persawyt in thai wais,
Bot he tholyt dede that come in thar danger:
The worde of him walkit baith fer and ner.

King warns in her introduction that “As far as the battle scenes and the incidents of killing are concerned, Braveheart is a work of restraint and good taste when compared to Blind Harry’s original text.” She’s not wrong. I must admit that the poem has a cracking pace, even with some unfortunate McGonagallisms. Like the film, it’s a bit vague on geography, but very clear about who the good guys and the bad guys are. Unlike the film, it’s mercifully discreet about Wallace’s horrible death. I’m afraid it did read like one incident of biffing the English followed by another of biffing traitorous Scots and so on, but I can see why people liked it.

Next up: The English Patient.

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014)

Forrest Gump

Forrest Gump won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1994, and five others: Best Actor (Tom Hanks), Best Director (Robert Zemeckis), Best Visual Effects, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Film Editing. It lost in seven categories, two each to Ed Wood and Speed. The Hugo that year went to the final episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

For once – I think uniquely – I have seen all of the other nominees for Best Picture. They were Four Weddings and a Funeral, Pulp Fiction, Quiz Show and The Shawshank Redemption. I have also seen Star Trek: Generations, Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult, The Madness of King George, the great Macedonian film Before the Rain, Kate Beckinsale’s gorgeous debut Uncovered, and Peter Capaldi’s Oscar-winning Franz Kafka’s It’s A Wonderful Life. I liked all of these much more than I liked Forrest Gump. IMDB users show a rare unity between the two ranking systems, with both lists putting Forrest Gump third after The Shawshank Redemption in first place and Pulp Fiction in second, followed by Léon: The Professional in fourth and The Lion King in fifth (they diverge after that). Here’s a trailer.

 

A huge cast, but I spotted only no actors who had been in Doctor Who or previous Oscar winners, and a couple from Hugo winner, one a pretty big one: Robin Wright is the female lead, Jenny Curran, here, and seven years ago had the title role in The Princess Bride.


The other was Brett Rice, here the college football coach, four years ago a reporter in Edward Scissorhands.


I’ll be brief. The film is about Alabama-born Forrest Gump, who has a learning disability but gets into hilarious scrapes including encounters with three American presidents and much of the counter-culture of the 1960s, before getting back together with the girl he has always loved, who promptly dies. The end. Perhaps because of my family situation, I don’t find learning disabilities particularly funny, and perhaps because I am Irish, I don’t like people’s accents being used as markers of their stupidity, as Gump’s deep Southern drawl is here.

The film is not as sound on race as it thinks it is. Sure, Gump’s best friend Bubba is black, and Gump himself plays a sympathetic role in the integration of the University of Alabama. I noticed however that the population of his home town of Greenboro seemed to be entirely white, and Bubba’s family are in another part of the state. I also felt that a false equivalence was being drawn between the excesses of the Left and Right during the 1960s, where my heart is firmly with the former. I also thought the sequence of Gump running across America near the end was pointless and frankly not very good cinema, apart from the excuse to have some nice landscape shots.

Tom Hanks is OK as the lead, but as noted above I did not really appreciate the character. I thought Gary Sinise was very good as his friend Lieutenant Dan Taylor. (The following year, both were in Apollo 13, Hanks the lead again, Sinise as Ken Mattingly who gets bumped off the flight at the last moment.)

Now that I’ve got to Sinise, the one thing about the film which I thought superb: the special effects. Sinise’s character’s legs are amputated; the actor’s legs were not, but were removed from every frame in post-production. 1500 extras were filmed several times over to provide a crowd stretching along the National Mall. Forrest Gump meets three presidents, and John Lennon. I thought this was audacious and successful.






But it did not salvage the rest of the film for me. I’m putting it way down at the bottom of my list, 60th out of the 67 Oscar-winners I have seen so far, just below Patton and just above All The King’s Men.

As usual, I read the original novel as well. It is mercifully short. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

All this was durin the month of August, which in the state of Alabama is somewhat hotter than it is elsewhere. That is to say, that if you put a egg on top of your football helmet it would be fried sunnyside up in about ten seconds. Of course nobody ever try that on account of it might get Coach Bryant angry. That was the one thing nobody wish to do, because life was almost intolerable as it was.

I thought the book even worse than the film (with the exception that the ending is a bit better, Forrest and Jenny don’t actually get back together and he makes his peace with that). A particularly offensive section involves him being recruited for NASA for a space mission with a woman astronaut and an orang-utan; they crash on a tropical island where they are nearly eaten by cannibals. The film made some odd choices but leaving this out is understandable.

Next up is Braveheart, which is the second Oscar-winner to be based on a work of epic poetry.

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014)

Schindler’s List

Schindler’s List won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1993, and six others: Best Director (Steven Spielberg), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score (John Williams), Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography and Best Art Direction. It lost in another five categories, all to different films, including one to that year’s Hugo winner, Jurassic Park.

That year’s other Best Picture nominees were In the Name of the Father and The Piano, which I have seen, and The Fugitive and The Remains of the Day, which I haven’t. Apart from the two just mentioned, I had seen another six films made that year: Jurassic Park, Groundhog Day, Philadelphia, The Three Musketeers, Much Ado About Nothing and Dave. I must say I really like them all, but I do think that the Oscar voters made the right choice. IMDB users rate Schilndler’s List top film of 1993 on one system and second to, bizarrely, Dazed and Confused (a film I don’t think I had even heard of) on the other. Here’s a trailer.

 

I spotted no actors who had previously been in a Hugo-winning flm, or in Doctor Who, and only one actor who had previously been in an Oscar winning film. It is Ben Kingsley, here the most prominent Jewish character, accountant Yitzhak Stern, and eleven years ago in the lead role in Gandhi.


In case you didn’t know, it’s the story of Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist during the second world war, who rescued over a thousand Jews from extermination at Auschwitz. It is based on a Booker Prize-winning novel. I think it is the only Booker winner to also be an Oscar winner; I count four based on Pulitzer winners (You Can’t Take It With You, Gone With The Wind, All the King’s Men, and Driving Miss Daisy).

It’s also almost entirely in black and white. The last film in black and white to win the Oscar was The Apartment in 1960. Schindler’s List is the most expensive black and white film of all time, and also the highest earning. It’s a tremendous device to make us feel simultaneously distanced and involved in the action, especially combined with the handheld camera documentary style filming. Life happened in colour in the 1940s, of course, in Eastern Europe as everywhere else. But our historical memory of the period in general is in black and white. The colour Nazis of Spielberg’s earlier films Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade are a bit comical. These Nazis are not, just as the black and white Nazis of Casabalanca are not. And the film’s exceptions to the black and white rule are all the more memorable as a result.

I have to say that it’s a rather male film. The women are not as central to the action as the men. I was interested that one vivid incident, when the engineer Diana Reiter is shot dead for offering structural advice, was based on fact. It is also interesting that the real Diana Reiter was 40 when she died, and she is played by 26-year-old Elina Löwensohn.

We’ve had several Oscar-winning films which looked at Jewish identity and anti-semitism in different times and places. (The Life of Emile ZolaGentleman’s AgreementBen-HurAnnie HallChariots of FireDriving Miss Daisy; the word “Jew” is not mentioned in Casablanca, but the subtext is very present.) Schindler’s List is at its heart the story of Schindler and his antagonist Goeth, and only then of the people he saved, but it is such a long and wide film that we get a much much better exploration of these issues than in any of the others. The story is brought home to us directly at the very end, where the real survivors saved by Schindler, accompanied by the actors we have just seen playing them on film, honour Schindler’s grave in Jerusalem.

Apart from that caveat, the film is indeed a masterpiece, telling a grim story at length (still leaving out a lot of what’s in the book), exploring the ambiguity of Schindler who did things that are normally considered bad (fraud, theft, forgery) to ameliorate something much worse (genocide). The settings are convincing. The music is unforgettable. Here’s Itzhak Perlman playing it in concert.

 

It’s also carried by Liam Neeson in the central role. Schindler is complex but I think not ambiguous; he enjoys the pleasures of life, but is also shocked and repelled by what is happening to the people around him, and is in the position where he can make a small difference to some.

It’s difficult to know what else to say. I’m putting it right at the top of my rankings, in fifth place overall, just behind Chariots of Fire, but ahead of Rebecca.

I also went and read the novel by Thomas Keneally, first published as Schindler’s Ark and then retitled Schindler’s List to capitalise on the film. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

With some hundreds of other captured Polish officers from Przemyśl, Pfefferberg was on his way to Germany when his train drew into his home city of Cracow and the prisoners were herded into the first-class waiting room, to remain there until new transport could be provided. His home was ten blocks away. To a practical young man, it seemed outrageous that he could not go out into Pawia Street and catch a No. 1 trolley home. The bucolic-looking Wehrmacht guard at the door seemed a provocation.

It’s a great book, and the great film that was made from it inevitably cut out some important details. The core of the story is still the same – the sensualist Schindler, who succeeds in saving a few lives, with perhaps more of an emphasis on the people he saved as well as the people he opposed and the women he loved. But the book has time to show us the overall context. There’s an interesting cameo in an early chapter from a policeman who complains that the entire railway system is being diverted to transporting Jews, rather than the soldiers who might actually help win the war. It made me wonder briefly if the Germans could have won the war if it had not been accompanied by a policy of genocide. But of course, if there had been no policy of genocide, there would probably have been no war.

There’s another interesting moment in the book when Schindler goes to Budapest to brief the Jewish Relief Organization on what was happening to Jews in Poland. This again is based on fact. In these days of instant news, which I guess we’ve had more or less since the 1960s, we forget just how difficult it was to get information, even about mass murder to which there were hundreds or thousands of witnesses. By 1943, the first reports were already out there – the New Republic broke the story in December 1942, rumours had reached Anne Frank and her family in hiding a few months before that. But Schindler was able to provide a dangerous and direct link between the Zionist relief funds and the surviving Jews in his part of the world. I find this particularly brave. Budapest was not home territory, the Zionists were not people who he knew, in the same way that Poland and the Sudetenland were.

But the most striking difference between book and film is the detail of suffering which the book can describe but the film cannot. Actors in 1992 were able to convincingly portray the terror and trauma of fifty years earlier. They could not portray malnutrition and disease. It’s a comprehensive and convincing account of what life was like both inside and outside the camps, when horror and tragedy were everyday occurrences. Really very much worth reading, whether or not you see the film. You can get it here.

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014)

Unforgiven

Unforgiven won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1992, and three others: Best Director (Clint Eastwood), Best Supporting Actor (Gene Hackman) and Best Film Editing. It lost in five other categories to five different films (including Clint Eastwood’s nomination for Best Actor)

That year’s other Best Picture nominees were The Crying Game and Howard’s End, which I have seen, and A Few Good Men and Scent of a Woman, which I haven’t. I had not seen Unforgiven before, but I had seen a dozen other films made that year: Basic Instinct, Batman Returns, Wayne’s World, Sister Act, The Crying Game, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Player, Howard’s End, Damage, Bob Roberts, Noises Off… and Peter’s Friends. Apart from Batman Returns, which really lost me by trying to make a large number of penguins look menacing, I really like them all, including Unforgiven, though I would not put it at the top of my list. IMDB users rate it second and seventh on the two systems, Reservoir Dogs ahead of it in both cases. Here is a trailer.

 

We have several actors returning from previous Oscar-winning films, and one who was also in two Hugo winners (one of which also won the Nebula). We’ll start there, with Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman as Little Bill, the nasty sheriff, and Ned Logan, the nice black cowboy.

It’s a while since we’ve seen Gene Hackman, but he was Lex Luthor in Superman (1978), the blind man in Young Frankenstein (1975) and one of the lead cops in The French Connection (Oscar 1971). He has aged well.


We saw Morgan Freeman only three years ago as the guy who was Driving Miss Daisy:

It’s a lot longer since we last saw Anthony James, who is brothel-keeper Skinny Dubois here and was the killer in In the Heat of the Night (1967). (Sorry for spoilers, but the film has been out since the year I was born, and it’s my 54th birthday on Monday.)


When first drafting this I missed the first woman of colour to be in two Oscar winners. Morgan Freeman’s character’s wife, Sally Two Trees, is played eloquently and silently by Cherrilene Cardinal, who as Tantoo Cardinal was also Black Shawl in Dances with Wolves.


I see a couple of other returnees in the smaller parts too, though none of the women.

Unforgiven is the third Western to win the Best Picture Oscar, after Cimarron (1930-31) and Dances With Wolves (1990), and the first one that I really enjoyed. Yes, it has its flaws, but this time I found the good points outweighing the bad points. I’m putting it a third of the way down my list, between two other films about crime and law in the USA with historical settings – ahead of The Sting, but below The Godfather.

So, on the negative side: it’s still a pretty violent film. Only nine people are actually killed, but it starts with the horrific mutilation of Anna Thomson’s Delilah and ends with a bloody shootout, with Richard Harris’s English Bob getting beaten out of town and Morgan Freeman’s Ned tortured to death in the meantime. Sure, this drives the narrative, but I don’t have to like it.

And while it’s only one of the three Westerns to have a major role for a black actor, and Morgan Freeman is really really good, one cannot help but feel that it somewhat sanitises the African-American experience of the West – yes, even with his grisly end.

Apart from Sally Two Trees, the other women characters are all sex workers, which is the first time we’ve seen that profession on screen since The Deer Hunter (1978) and the first time they’ve had a positive portrayal since One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). There is a debate about whether Unforgiven passes the Bechdel test: the first two steps are easy, but in the one scene where the women are all talking together, they are discussing raising money to get revenge on the men who hurt Delilah, so I think that is a fail. Still, the plot is driven by women who collectively plan and fund a mission, even if the focus of the story is on the men who implement that mission.

As usual with Westerns, the scenery is breath-taking (and my eye cannot detect the difference between Canada and Wyoming); and the music is good too, without being distracting.

 

I also enjoyed the subplot with English Bob’s top-hatted biographer, W.W. Beauchamp, played by Saul Rubinek, reminding us that most of what we think we know about the West is romanticised fiction.

But what carries the film is of course the performances of Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman. (I was actually a little less swept away by Gene Hackman, though Oscar voters were more impressed.) My most recent memory of Clint was his frankly embarrassing performance at the 2012 Republican National Convention, where (in case you have forgotten) he talked to an empty chair pretending that it was President Obama. It’s good to be reminded that he was a really great actor in his day, twenty years earlier. And as I mentioned already, while I have some difficulty with the way Freeman’s character is written, I have none at all with the way he performs. One has the sense of fully rounded personalities, real people in a real environment dealing with real life, as opposed to the cruder dichotomy of Dances with Wolves (and the confused truncation of Cimarron).

So basically I enjoyed this a lot more than I had expected.

The Hugo that year went to “The Inner Light”, from the fifth season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The other finalists were Aladdin, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Batman Returns (the only one I have seen) and Alien3. But in this project I am covering cinematic releases only, so we will skip the Hugos this year and go straight on to Schindler’s List. I may take a weekend off.

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014)

The Silence of the Lambs

The Silence of the Lambs won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1991, and four others: Best Director (Jonathan Demme), Best Actor (Anthony Hopkins), Best Actress (Jodie Foster) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Ted Tally). It lost Best Film Editing and Best Sound, the latter to Hugo winner Terminator 2: Judgement Day. So far it is the third and last film to win Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Screenplay, after It Happened One Night (1934) and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

That year’s other Best Picture nominees were Beauty and the Beast, Bugsy, JFK and The Prince of Tides. I have not seen any of them, and had not seen the winner before either, the first year since 1970 for which that is the case. I have seen thirteen other films made that year, listed here roughly in IMDB order: Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Cape Fear, Thelma & Louise, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, The Fisher King (actually only got part way through this one), The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear, The Commitments, Highlander II: The Quickening (there should have been only one!), Soapdish, Operation Condor (a Jackie Chan film which I watched because the female co-lead, Eva Cobo, is my twin), Enchanted April and Prospero’s Books. I liked all of these except The Fisher King and Highlander II, but I think The Silence of the Lambs is a worthy Oscar winner in that company.

Unusually, IMDB users rate the film top on both systems. (The last film to top both lists was Alien, from 1979; the other Oscar-winners to top both lists were One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975, Casablanca back in 1943 and All Quiet on the Western Front way way back in 1929/30.)

Here’s a trailer.

 

None of the cast had been in Hugo-winning films or in Doctor Who. There is a surprise crossover with a previous Oscar-winner: Roger Corman, much much better known as a director and producer. Here he plays the Director of the FBI; seventeen years ago, in The Godfather, Part II, he was one of the senators ineffectively quizzing the Corleones. He turned 95 last Monday. (Trivia: the office where he is filmed as FBI Director was at the time the real-life office of Elizabeth Dole, the U.S. Secretary of Labor.)

This is a film about the relationship between novice FBI Agent Clarice Starling, played by Jodie Foster, and imprisoned serial killer Hannibal Lecter, played by Anthony Hopkins. The actual plot is barely relevant, but it concerns Starling’s pursuit, advised by Lecter, of another serial killer, and Lecter’s concurrent escape from custody. We had four Oscar-winners in a row in the 1970s which were about crime and law enforcement (The French Connection, The Godfather, The Sting and The Godfather, Part II), but this is the first one since then.

I really liked it. Thrillers are not my genre in general. I find screen violence very icky. There are some other problems which I will get to below. But its’s well-made, well-paced and looks and sounds utterly convincing. I’m putting it in tenth place in my overall league table of Oscar winners, ahead of Rain Man (which has a less convincing plot) and behind One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (which is a little less icky).

Having said that, there are problems. Trans (and indeed queer) people can justifiably feel aggrieved that the killer who Starling is chasing is depicted as a man trying to become a woman. The script mumbles that real trans people are not like that at all, but I fear that point will be lost on most viewers. (The book is a lot clearer on this.) However, as I said before, the actual hunt for the serial killer is background to the central business of Starling and Lecter.

All the main characters are white, but there are a sprinkling of black actors, most notably Kasi Simmons as Starling’s best friend Ardelia Mapp. Simmons has gone on to a very successful career as a director.

I thought Howard Shore’s music was pretty good. We will be hearing from him again when I get to The Lord of the Rings.

 

The supporting actors are all good – I’ve called out Kasi Lemmons above, but also worth noting Scott Glenn as Clarice’s boss Jack Crawford, Anthony Heald as Lecter’s banal guardian Chilton, and Brooke Smith as potential victim Catherine Martin.

But the film is utterly made by the dynamic between Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins in the four (only four!) scenes that they have together. Hopkins is a convincing monster, always several steps ahead of the game, compellingly horrible. (More trivia: with twenty-four minutes and fifty-two seconds of screen time, Hopkins’ performance in this movie is the second shortest to ever win an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role, with David Niven in Separate Tables (1958) beating him, at twenty-three minutes and thirty-nine seconds.)

And Jodie Foster is impossible to take your eyes off as Starling. A neat directorial trick: when characters are talking to her, they often talk directly to the camera, but when she is talking to them, she is always looking slightly off-camera, meaning that we directly experience her point-of-view, but not theirs, hence encouraging us to more readily identify with her. She carries the weight of the narrative; we learn lots about her and perhaps also reflect about how we would react when put into a similarly stressful situation. She is completely fascinating.

The film’s key moments are the four conversations between the two, which are just masterpieces of acting and cinematography. This is the last of them.

 

I had not seen this film before, but it’s been one of the better discoveries of this project.

As usual, I read the book as well. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

Dr. Hannibal Lecter himself reclined on his bunk, perusing the Italian edition of Vogue. He held the loose pages in his right hand and put them beside him one by one with his left. Dr. Lecter has six fingers on his left hand.

It’s impossible to read the book now without seeing Foster and Hopkins in your mind’s eye, but this is not necessarily a bad thing of course. A couple of plot points which are really important did not make it to the screen – the illness and death of Crawford’s wife, much of Starling’s back story, Lecter’s pun on the colouring agent for feces, and the explanation of the serial killer’s psychology and strategy. Starling is if anything an even more three-dimensional character on the page. It’s just as well paced, and if anything it’s even better than the film. You can get it here.

Next up is that year’s Hugo winner, Terminator 2: Judgement Day.

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014)

Dances with Wolves

Dances With Wolves won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1990, and six others: Best Director (Kevin Costner), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, and Best Sound Mixing. That year’s Hugo winner, Edward Scissorhands, was nominated in one category, Best Make-up, where it lost to one of the two other contenders.

That year’s other Best Picture nominees were Awakenings, Ghost, The Godfather Part III and Goodfellasthink I’ve seen The Godfather Part III but don’t remember much about it. IMBD users rank Dances With Wolves top on one system but only 9th on the other, behind Goodfellas, Home Alone, Edward Scissorhands, Back to the Future Part III, The Godfather: Part III, Die Hard 2, Total Recall and Pretty Woman.

I’ve seen twelve films made in 1990, The Godfather: Part III and Dances with Wolves, also (in rough IMDB order) Edward Scissorhands, Pretty Woman, Total Recall, The Hunt for Red October, Wild at Heart, Presumed Innocent, Postcards from the Edge, Cyrano de Bergerac, Truly Madly Deeply and Nuns on the Run, which has a particular place in my heart because it was filmed around where my aunt lived in Chiswick. I also have a deep love for Red October and Total RecallDances With Wolves. Anyway, here’s a trailer.

 

None of the cast had been in previous Oscar, Hugo or Nebula-winning films, or in Doctor Who.

To cut straight to the point: this is, as Anne succinctly put it, worthy but dull. It maybe didn’t help that I ended up watching the 4-hour extended version (almost as long as Gone With the Wind) rather than the original 3-hour theatrical presentation. But all the white people except our hero are bad, all the Pawnee are bad, and all the Sioux are good and if they do happen to do bad things it’s for very understandable reasons. I mean, it should go without saying that the exploitation, displacement and mass murder of the original inhabitants of the Americas by European-descended settlers is a terrible thing. But I think it might be possible to tell a more interesting story about it, and Costner and Blake have not tried very hard.

It’s a better film than Cimarron, the only other Western (so far) to win the Best Picture Oscar, but that’s not saying a lot. One area where Cimarron does score better is that at least its women characters have some agency (even if most of the feminism of the original book has been surgically removed). Here Mary McDonnell in the lead female role just smoulders a bit. You can tell she is smouldering, because unlike all the other women, she doesn’t do much with her hair.

I should not be too unfair to her, but I will note that the role was surely intended for a younger actor; McDonnell is the same age as the actors playing her adoptive parents. But I guess the same is true of Costner’s own role, and he was hardly going to recast himself.

I am going to grumble about two more things, and then I will say a couple of nice things too. First, Costner’s voice-overs of Dunbar’s diary entries are crashingly monotonous and dull. It’s rather surprising, given how much the film was obviously a labour of love, that he slipped up on this rather crucial element. Maybe delivering those lines so boringly was intended to distract attention from the implausibility of the diary as a plot device, but if so it doesn’t work.

Second, I’m sorry, but as soon as the wolf appears, we know a) that it symbolises Dunbar’s coming into harmony with the pre-European environment and b) that it’s going to be killed by another white man at the end.

OK, to be positive. I often whine about the music for these films but this time it seemed a good fit with the spectacular scenery. (And the scenery really is spectacular.) So, good marks there.

 

The film is about a white guy getting to grips with a non-white culture, but it’s an honest effort to portray that culture as real and valuable, and perhaps better than what replaced it. And I think it’s really worth acknowledging the fact that a large part of the dialogue is in Lakota. I see a scurrilous story that Lakota is a gendered language and that only the female version was taught to the actors, with the result that grizzled warriors are engaging in girl-talk, to the amusement of real Lakota speakers. TBH that seems a bit too good to be true, and even if it is, I’m giving Costner full marks for trying: it’s important for native English speakers to be reminded that other languages are not necessarily foreign.

So, all in all, I’m putting it just ahead of the halfway mark in my list, above Out of Africa but below Lawrence of Arabia, films with which it shares some common themes.

The film is ostensibly based on a book, which I also read. Here’s the second and third paragraphs of the third chapter:

Had it not been for the lettering, crudely gouged in the beam over Captain Cargill’s late residence, Lieutenant Dunbar could not have believed this was the place. But it was spelled out clearly.
“Fort Sedgewick.”

The book was actually written with a view to making a film out of the story, which is why the film cleaves more closely to the original plot than almost any other adaptation. The biggest difference is that the Good Indians are Comanche in the book but Sioux in the film, apparently for production reasons. I found the prose pretty clunky, especially in the early chapters, but it is a mercifully quick read. You can get it here (in omnibus with its sequel).

OK, next up is The Silence of the Lambs, but before that, Edward Scissorhands.

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014)

Driving Miss Daisy

Driving Miss Daisy won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1989, and three others: Best Actress (Jessica Tandy as Miss Daisy, at 81 the oldest ever winner), Best Makeup, and Best Adapted Screenplay. It lost in five categories, all to different films; that year’s Hugo winner, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, won one (Best Screen Editing) and lost two.

That year’s other Best Picture nominees were Dead Poets Society, which I have seen, and Born on the Fourth of July, Field of Dreams and My Left Foot, which I haven’t. IMDB users rank Driving Miss Daisy 16th on one system and 32nd on the other, which is a tick worse than Out of Africa and the lowest aggregate placing for any Oscar winner since Tom Jones.

I have seen 13 other films made in 1989, as final year studies and student politics started to sap my time. They are (in rough IMDB order): Dead Poets Society, Batman, When Harry Met Sally, Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Ghostbusters 2, Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Henry V, Shirley Valentine, Scandal, The Tall Guy and Jesus of Montreal. I have to say I’d rank Driving Miss Daisy behind all of them except the woeful Star Trek V.

None of the cast had been in previous Oscar, Hugo or Nebula-winning films, or in Doctor Who.

Well, this didn’t especially grab me and I don’t have a lot to say about it. There’s nothing particularly wrong with it, and a couple of things that are right, but I’m putting it a bit below half way down my league table, below The Last Emperor but above Rocky. It’s a gentle character study of an old lady and her slightly less old chauffeur, over the years from 1948 to 1973, set in Atlanta; she’s Jewish and he is black. (NB this is the second Oscar-winning film largely set in Georgia; the first of course was Gone With the Wind.)

I felt it slightly pulled its punches on social commentary; Hoke has witnessed a lynching, long ago; the Werthans’ synagogue is bombed; he is deeply offended by the manner in which she invites him to hear Martin Luther King speak; but these are two people (three counting her son, who is played by Dan Aykroyd and is the other major character) who are destined to get along, without massive drama or, frankly, much of a character arc. The soundtrack is particularly annoyingly upbeat and would have been appropriate theme music for a not-too-taxing soap opera.

So, on the more positive side, this is the first Oscar-winning film with an African-American lead since In the Heat of the Night, 22 years earlier, which makes it, er, the second ever. (We’ve had two Oscar-winning films with Asian leads in the last decade, in 1982 and 1987.) Morgan Freeman is always watchable and delivers a solid and convincing performance here. It’s also worth noting that it’s one of the least funny roles in Dan Aykroyd’s career, and he too carries it off well.

The movie belongs to Jessica Tandy, who is engagingly sympathetic even at her most crotchety, and particularly in her fading final scene, and deserved her Oscar.

I went and found the original play by Alfred Uhry. The opening of the third scene is:

Lights fade on them and come up on Daisy, who enters her living room with the morning paper. She reads with interest. Hoke enters the living room. He carries a chauffeur’s cap instead of his hat. Daisy’s concentration on the paper becomes fierce when she senses Hoke’s presence.
Mornin’, Miz Daisy.
DAISY: Good morning.
HOKE: Right cool in the night, wadn’t it?
DAISY: I wouldn’t know. I was asleep.
HOKE: Yassum. What yo’ plans today?
DAISY: That’s my business.

The play is a three-hander with Daisy, Hoke and Boolie the only visible characters, so we lose Boolie’s wife Florine, the cook Idella, etc (they and others are referred to but not seen). This of course makes for a tighter script, but I feel that the film built solidly on what was already a decent enough (and Pulitzer-winning) story, and of course could show us what Atlanta actually looks like in a way that can only be conveyed less directly on stage. Apart from that, all the good lines from the film are here, and I think it’s possibly the script least changed from the original material of any of the films I have seen. You can get it here.

I’ve already done this year’s Hugo winner, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, so it’s Dances With Wolves next. I thought it was was a load of rubbish when I first saw it; let’s see if I have mellowed in the last 30 years.

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014)

Rain Man

Coincidentally, it was an appropriate week to watch Rain Man, as it turned out. On Thursday, we had a brief court hearing, done informally and swiftly but none the less fully official, to assign guardianship rights for U to us, now that she has turned 18 – six years, almost to the day, after we done the same for B. Belgian law used to have a concept of prolonged minor status for people in the same position as us and our daughters; as a result of a European Court of Human Rights ruling, it has been changed to guardianship, where the court gives us full responsiblity for exercising all decision-making power for the girls. They are both legally adult, and it’s reasonable to have a proper process for depriving them of the rights that most adults have, but which they will be unable to exercise. First time around in 2015, the magistrate (like us) was new to the process and navigated his way through it with care; six years on, he is an old hand and knew exactly what to do.

When I first watched Rain Man, soon after it came out, autism was not a particularly well known issue and of course I had no idea of how it would affect my own life. Once it did become part of my life, the legacy of Rain Man both was and wasn’t helpful; on the one hand, it gave people a cultural reference point when I explained about our family situation; on the other hand, the specifics of Raymond Babbitt as portrayed often raised expectations that our daughters might have savant-type mathematical skills, or even just be able to talk. Still, on balance the existence of the film has been more helpful than not.

Rain Man won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1988, and also three others: Best Director (Barry Levinson), Best Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen (Barry Morrow and Ronald Bass) and Best Actor (Dustin Hoffman). That year’s Hugo Winner, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, also won four (one a special award), beating Rain Man for Best Film Editing. (I’ll get to it next.)

That year’s other Best Picture nominees were The Accidental Tourist, which I have not seen, and Dangerous Liaisons, Mississippi Burning and Working Girl, which I have. IMDB users rank Rain Man 2nd on one system and 11th on the other, with Die Hard ahead of it on both lists.

I have seen 17 other films made in 1988, not quite as many as last year. They were: Beetlejuice, Die Hard, Big, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Naked Gun, A Fish Called Wanda , Mississippi Burning, Dangerous Liaisons, Working Girl, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Big Blue, Earth Girls Are Easy, Gorillas in the Mist, Without a Clue (1988) and The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey. I have fond memories of most of these, though I don’t really get the general love for Beetlejuice.

Here’s a trailer for Rain Man.

There is only one returning actor from previous Oscar-winning films, but it’s a big one: Dustin Hoffmann won his second Best Actor Oscar here, his first being for Kramer vs Kramer and having just missed in Midnight Cowboy. The three roles are utterly different from each other, and all three are great performances.

Incidentally, I was struck by how many of the smaller parts are played by people who have no other film appearances recorded in IMDB.

In case you didn’t know, it’s the story of self-centred young Charlie Babbitt from the Midwest, living in LA, who discovers that his dead father has left most of his estate to the autistic older brother who he had completely forgotten. They journey across America together and Charlie finds redemption. I have complicated feelings about this film for reasons that should be fairly obvious.

To start with the usual, there is precisely one significant black character, Ray’s main carer Vern, who is clearly his main relationship in his residential home, played by Michael D. Roberts.

And the plot, we have to admit, is a bit contrived. If I were running a place like Walbrook, I’d have put some security protocols in place to decrease the chance of relatives turning up out of nowhere and absconding with the residents. Ray’s autism is finely tuned to get them where they need to be. The least realistic part of his portrayal is the way in which Charlie is able to calm him down very very quickly when he has a meltdown; if only it were that easy in real life! The other very atypical part is Ray’s ability to count cards in Las Vegas, which wins Charlie just exactly enough money to pay off his debts and get luxury hotel rooms for them both. (Hoffman’s insistence on the character having savant skills apparently led to the original director quitting the film.)

It’s a film about two white brothers, so not surprisingly it’s a Bechdel fail; there are several named women characters, but I don’t think we see them talking to each other at any point. However, Valeria Golino is lovely as Charlie’s girlfriend Susanna, who calls him on his selfishness and also finds ways to connect to Raymond.

The music by Hans Zimmer, who went on to The Lion King, is atmospheric and haunting.

It also gave The Belle Stars a lift when their song Iko Iko, a favourite of Hoffmann’s, was included in the soundtrack.

While I have my concerns about the plot, I don’t have so many about the two leads. Tom Cruise was only 26, but had already achieved stardom with Top Gun. It’s actually quite rare to have an Oscar-winning film with such a strong arc for the main character; I think the last was The Godfather. The scenes where he makes the connection between Raymond and his own childhood memories are very moving.

But the film belongs to Dustin Hoffmann. Having complained above about some aspects of the scripting of his character, he performs beautifully and convincingly. He particularly catches the way many autistic people carry themselves, with hands clutched protectively close; and he catches the disjointed speech and thought patterns of those who are a bit more able than our girls very well as well. Despite the problematic aspects, it’s a brilliant portrayal.

So, it’s going in my top ten, just behind One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which deals with similar issues but I think has a better constructed plot, and ahead of Terms of Endearment which has slightly less oomph.

Next up is Driving Miss Daisy, but before that it’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014)

The Last Emperor, and Puyi’s autobiography

The Last Emperor won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1987, and also eight others: Best Director (Bernardo Bertolucci), Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Sound and Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium. This was a clean sweep of all the categories in which it was nominated; I have not checked but I don’t think there are many Best Picture winners for which that is that case. That year’s Hugo winner, The Princess Bride, was nominated in one category (Best Original Song) and lost (to “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” from Dirty Dancing, a good call by the voters).

That year’s other Best Picture nominees were Fatal Attraction, which I have seen, and Broadcast News, Hope and Glory and Moonstruck, which I haven’t. IMDB users rank The Last Emperor 19th on one system and 20th on the other, which is pretty poor for an Oscar winner.

1987 is my best year yet for films, no doubt reflecting the fact that it was my first calendar year as a student with a steady girlfriend. I count 23 films made that year that I have seen, in IMDB order roughly as follows: Predator, The Untouchables, Dirty Dancing, RoboCop, Spaceballs, The Princess Bride, Raising Arizona, Empire of the Sun, Fatal Attraction, The Living Daylights, Good Morning Vietnam, The Witches of Eastwick, The Last Emperor, Three Men and a Baby, Roxanne, WithNail and I, Babette’s Feast, Cry Freedom, 84 Charing Cross Road, The Dead, The Belly of an Architect, Wish You Were Here and A Month in the Country. I have positive memories of almost all of these, but like IMDB users I don’t find The Last Emperor particularly standing out from the crowd. Here’s a trailer.

Chinese actors here play Chinese characters and Japanese actors play Japanese characters (we have not always been so lucky). This does limit the number of returning faces from previous Oscar- or Hugo-winning films; in fact I think there is precisely one, but it’s a significant one, Peter O’Toole as Reginald Johnston, twenty-five years after Lawrence of Arabia.

This is a gorgeous film to look at, but I did not always find it easy to follow exactly what was happening. The core narrative is sound – a little boy who has incomprehensible power thrust upon him, but grows up to find that his power is limited and that he is in fact the pawn in others’ political games; and he then achieves some personal redemption after losing everything. But the plot is delivered more in spectacle than in emotion; it’s quite difficult to relate to Puyi (and indeed this is partly the point). I certainly lost track of the intricacies of the short-lived state of Manchukuo, and the role of the Japanese was not completely clear. And Puyi’s love life is told rather than shown; he gets cute girls as his wives and concubines, but it’s never very clear what he makes of them or what we are supposed to make of them. I do have a soft spot for Joan Chen as the number one wife, whose love life is more interesting than his; she shares my birthday (though a different year).

I think the (Oscar-winning) music is OK but not great – it feels liek what non-Chinese audiences expect Chinese music to be like (actually written by a Japanese composer of course).

But I have to concede, as I said earlier, that it’s a glorious film to look at: the imperial scenes, contrasted with the fake glamour of Manchukuo and the gritty reality of the People’s Republic, are a real feast for the eyes. It’s not surprising that it did so well in the more technical Oscar categories. The Chinese authorities allowed Bertolucci to film in the Forbidden City itself, and it was a good investment.

This is the sixth biopic to win an Oscar (I’m no longer counting A Man for All Seasons in that category), and I rate it third after Gandhi and Lawrence of Arabia, but ahead of The Life of Emile Zola, Patton and The Great Ziegfeld.

After some deliberation, I’m putting The Last Emperor almost exactly half way down my list of Oscar winners (and these are mostly very good films, so half way down is still not bad). My totally definitive listing of the first 60 (the most recent decade in red) is as follows:

60) Platoon (1986)
59) The Great Ziegfeld (Oscar for 1936)
58) Cimarron (1930/31)
57) Cavalcade (1932/33)
56) Wings (1927/28)
55) Broadway Melody (1928/29)
54) All The King’s Men (1949)
53) Patton (1970)
52) Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
51) The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
50) Tom Jones (1963)
49) Gone With the Wind (1939)
48) Ordinary People (1980)
47) Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
46) Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)
45) Annie Hall (1977)
44) Going My Way (1944)
43) The French Connection (1971)
42) My Fair Lady (1964)
41) How Green Was My Valley (1941)
40) Mrs Miniver (1942)
39) On The Waterfront (1954)
38) The Godfather Part II (1974)
37) In the Heat of the Night (1967)
36) Grand Hotel (1931/32)
35) The Life of Emile Zola (1937)
34) Marty (1955)
33) The Deer Hunter (1978)
32) Rocky (1976)
31) The Last Emperor (1987)
30) Out of Africa (1985)
29) Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
28) Gigi (1958)
27) It Happened One Night (1934)
26) You Can’t Take It With You (1938)
25) The Lost Weekend (1945)
24) Hamlet (1948)
23) From Here To Eternity (1953)
22) Around The World In Eighty Days (1956)
21) Ben-Hur (1959)
20) The Sting (1973)
19) The Godfather (1972)
18) Oliver! (1968)
17) The Apartment (1960)
16) All About Eve (1950)
15) The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
14) Amadeus (1984)
13) Gandhi (1982)
12) West Side Story (1961)
11) A Man for all Seasons (1966)
10) Midnight Cowboy (1969)
9) Terms of Endearment (1983)
8) One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
7) The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
6) All Quiet on the Western Front (1929/30)
5) Rebecca (1940)
4) Chariots of Fire (1981)
3) An American in Paris (1951)
2) The Sound of Music (1965)
1) Casablanca (1943)

A somewhat meh decade, with half of them better than average and half worse; a new entry for the bottom 10 for the first time since 1970; but four out of ten in the top quartile, and two in the new top ten.

Next up in this sequence is Rain Man.

I also read Puyi’s autobiography, published as The Last Manchu: The Autobiography of Henry Pu Yi, Last Emperor of China. The second paragraph of the third chapter of my English translation (translator unattributed, interestingly) is:

我虽然有过这么多的母亲,但并没有得过真正的母爱。[…] 我六岁时有一次栗子吃多了,撑着了,有一个多月的时间隆裕太后只许我吃糊米粥,尽 管我天天嚷肚子饿,也没有人管。But even though I had so many “mothers” I never knew any motherly love. One day when I was five I ate too many chestnuts and developed stomach trouble. For over a month, Lung Yu allowed me to eat only a thick congee soup. Even though I cried for more solid food and said I was hungry, no one paid any attention.

(The English translation omits a couple of sentences in the Chinese text about the young Puyi’s bowel movements, which I think is not unreasonable.)

I generally enjoy biographies and autobiographies, and this was no exception. Obviously we lack the visual texture of the film, but we get a lot more political analysis and also some more interesting characters – Puyi’s father is a major if ineffectual presence in the earlier part, for instance, and Yasunori Yoshioka, Puyi’s Japanese minder during the Manchuria period, is devastatingly depicted. (They communicated in English, as Puyi spoke no Japanese and Yoshioka’s Chinese was poor.) Interesting to note that Reginald Johnston was not yet 40 when hired by the imperial household; Peter O’Toole was 55 in 1987.

One really important point that is left out of the film entirely: Puyi and his family were Manchu rather than Han. This is a major source of tension between the imperial court and the rest of China for the first half of the twentieth century, and then weirdly provides Mao with a good reason to keep the former emperor and his family around rather than eliminate them, in order to keep the border tribes happy.

It’s also interesting that Puyi is a much less pleasant character in his own book than in the film. (Though even the book omits his worst behaviour.) Of course, this is partly because as a result of his process of reorientation (what we might now call brainwashing), he felt the need to admit to his former faults as a human being. The film needs to portray him as an innocent to whom things happen; the book makes it clear that to the extent that this was true, he found it deeply frustrating.

You don’t get many autobiographies by former emperors, and you can get this one here. It’s not clear to me if this was ghost-written – I’ve seen attributions to Puyi’s brother Pujie, and also to Lao She, author of Cat Country; but actually I have little difficulty in accepting that he probably wrote most of it himself – he writes a lot about writing, which suggests that it was an activity he enjoyed and was possibly good at. Edited to add: I really did not dig very far on this point; it’s fairly well recorded that the ghostwriter was Li Wenda of the People’s Publishing Bureau, although Puyi’s widow successfully sued him for the full copyright on the book (it had originally been split between ex-emperor and ghostwriter). Pujie (who lived to 1994) and Li Wenda were brought in as advisers for the film.

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014)

Out of Africa, film (1985) and book (1937)

Out of Africa won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1985, and also five others, Best Director (Sidney Pollack), Best Screenplay – Based on Material from Another Medium, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score (John Barry) and Best Sound. Meryl Streep and Klaus Maria Brandauer lost in the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor categories. That year’s Hugo winner, Back to the Future, got four Oscar nominations and won one (Best Sound Editing, where it beat Out of Africa).

The other Best Picture nominees were The Color Purple, Kiss of the Spider Woman and Prizzi’s Honor, which I have not seen, and Witness which I have. IMDB users put it pretty low down for an Oscar winner, 15th on one ranking and 32nd on the other, which is the lowest for any Oscar winner since Tom Jones. Other films I’ve seen from that year (in rough IMDB order, which largely coincides with my own rating): Back to the Future, The Breakfast Club, Brazil, A Room With a View, Witness, Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment, National Lampoon’s European Vacation, Spies Like Us, Revolution, Defence of the Realm. Like IMDB users, I would rank Out of Africa on a par with Witness, and agree that Back to the Future is the best. Here’s a trailer for Out of Africa (I actually think it’s not a very good trailer):

Well, we have a few returnees from earlier Oscar-winning films, and also a couple of actors who appeared in Doctor Who over the years. Top of the list, obviously, is the film’s star, Meryl Streep, playing Karen Blixen on whose memoirs the film is based. She was Joanne Kramer in Kramer vs. Kramer in 1979, and Linda in The Deer Hunter in 1978.

And next up is Robert Redford as her lover Denys Finch-Hatton, who we previously saw in front of the camera as Johnny Hooker in The Sting in 1973, but he also directed Ordinary People in 1980.

Michael Gough is Lord Delamere here, and had been in Doctor Who twice, as the celestial Toymaker in the 1966 First Doctor story that we now call The Celestial Toymaker, and as Time Lord Councillor Hedin in the 1983 Fifth Doctor story Arc of Infinity. (He was also married to Anneke Wills.)

Going back a bit further, Rachel Kempson, who is Lady Belfield here, was Squire Allworthy’s sister Bridget in Tom Jones in 1963.

Graham Crowden, here her onscreen husband Lord Belfield, was High Priest Soldeed in the notorious 1979-80 Fourth Doctor story The Horns of Nimon.

Shane Rimmer, the decaying estate manager Belknap, has been in an Oscar-wining film (Gandhi, as a news reporter), two Hugo-winning films (the original Star Wars and Dr Strangelove, both times as a pilot), and Seth Harper in the 1966 First Doctor story that we now call The Gunfighters. In sf lore he is of course best known as the voice of Scott Tracy in Thunderbirds.

There are a couple of others who I cannot quite believe were never in Oscar- or Hugo-wining films, or in Doctor Who: Klaus Maria Brandauer, Leslie Phillips, Michael Kitchen (whose character’s African partner is played by Iman, later to marry David Bowie).

Well. I was not blown away by Out of Africa, and I’m ranking it just below the halfway mark in my listing, below Lawrence of Arabia but ahead of Rocky. The biggest problem with it is the racial portrayals: this is a drama about white people in Africa, and the actual Africans are basically scenery. The non-white communities are barely differentiated – the original book makes a point of distinguishing between the Kikuyu, Masai and Somalis, plus of course the Indian community, and it’s clear that Nairobi is a very mixed community; all Africans are the same on screen, and anyone who matters in Nairobi is white. 10 minutes in, we get a gratuitous shot of four young topless African women; Meryl Streep’s body remains decorously covered throughout her love scenes. Malick Bowens, as the protagonist’s right-hand man Farah, is given higher billing in the credits than several of the names I mentioned above, but not given very much to do.

I have to say that I thought the plot and script were also rather dull. Girl meets boy, girl marries his brother and then meets another boy, the last boy dies. There are no real surprises; you know that the Blixens’ marriage is going to be a disaster because we are told so in the third of 160 long minutes in the film, and as soon as Robert Redford appears you pretty much know his character arc.

But I have to give it better marks on gender. I have a poor track record with Meryl Streep’s films, but she is a good performer, and Karen Blixen is an impressive heroine who deals with men on her own terms and runs the coffee plantation single-handed. She defends herself with firearms and flies a plane. The film even passes the Bechdel test, with a couple of educational conversations between Karen and her young neighbour Felicity.

John Barry’s music is rather good, and the cinematography justly deserved an Oscar; the physical landscape is breathtaking anyway, but somehow they have caught it at its most attractive, and the music (which is frankly a bit gushy for the romantic scenes) is well suited to rolling landscapes.

But again, it goes on for 160 minutes, and there is not really enough plot to sustain that length. The makers clearly bet correctly that enough viewers would salivate at the thought of Robert Redford and/or Meryl Streep and/or both to make it a commercial success; but the IMDB voters of today have not sustained the verdict of the Oscar voters of 1986.

I was fully aware that the film is based on more than one book, again because we are told so very early in the credits.

However, it was marketed as a dramatisation of Blixen’s original memoir with the same title from 1937, which I found a quick and very absorbing read. The second paragraph of the third part is:

When Denys Finch-Hatton came back after one of his long expeditions, he was starved for talk, and found me on the farm starved for talk, so that we sat over the dinner-table into the small hours of the morning, talking of all the things we could think of, and mastering them all, and laughing at them. White people, who for a long time live alone with Natives, get into the habit of saying what they mean, because they have no reason or opportunity for dissimulation, and when they meet again their conversation keeps the Native tone. We then kept up the theory that the wild Masai tribe, in their Manyatta under the hills, would see the house all afire, like a star in the night, as the peasants of Umbria saw the house wherein Saint Francis and Saint Clare were entertaining one another upon theology.

Blixen is no anthropologist, but she makes a serious effort to engage with Kenya and the people on their own terms and to describe it respectfully to her European audience. She goes fairly deeply into religion, which is not mentioned on screen at all. As already noted, she carefully distinguished between the different African and non-African groups, and it’s clear that her Kenya is very racially mixed, and that the days of white rule, only a few decades old, are already numbered.

It’s not actually a novel. It’s a collection of short reflective pieces, all of course linked, four of the five sections pursuing their own internal thread (though the penultimate sections is a grab-bag of vignettes). I think perhaps a third or a quarter of what’s in the book made it to the screen. The core plot of the film, her romance with Finch-Hatton, is not at all explicit in the book, though it’s pretty obvious what is going on from the number of times his name is mentioned, and it’s almost a shock when her husband is mentioned for the first time on page 193 of 283. There is not a lot explicitly about racism, but here’s one of the short pieces in full:

The Elite of Bournemouth

I had as neighbour a settler who had been a doctor at home. Once, when the wife of one of my houseboys was about to die in childbirth, and I could not get into Nairobi, because the long rains had ruined the roads, I wrote to my neighbour and asked him to do me the great service of coming over and helping her. He very kindly came, in the midst of a terrible thunderstorm and torrents of tropical rain, and, at the last moment, by his skill, he saved the life of the woman and the child.

Afterwards he wrote me a letter to say that although he had for once, on my appeal, treated a Native, I must understand that he could not let that sort of thing occur again. I myself would fully realize the fact, he felt convinced, when he informed me that he had before now, practised to the élite of Bournemouth.

And there is some gorgeous description, especially of the landscape. Here’s the description of her first plane flight with Finch-Hatton (the subject of the film clip I used to illustrate the music above):

We flew in the sun, but the hillside lay in a transparent brown shade, which soon we got into. It did not take us long to spy the buffalo from the air. Upon one of the long rounded green ridges which run, like folds of a cloth gathered together at each peak, down the side of the Ngong mountain, a herd of twenty-seven buffalo were grazing. First we saw them a long way below us, like mice moving gently on a floor, but we dived down, circling over and along their ridge, a hundred and fifty feet above them and well within shooting distance; we counted them as they peacefully blended and separated. There was one very old big black bull in the herd, one or two younger bulls, and a number of calves. The open stretch of sward upon which they walked was closed in by bush; had a stranger approached on the ground they would have heard or scented him at once, but they were not prepared for advance from the air. We had to keep moving above them all the time. They heard the noise of our machine and stopped grazing, but they did not seem to have it in them to look up. In the end they realized that something very strange was about; the old bull first walked out in front of the herd, raising his hundredweight horns, braving the unseen enemy, his four feet planted on the ground – suddenly he began to trot down the ridge and after a moment he broke into a canter. The whole clan now followed him, stampeding headlong down, and as they switched and plunged into the bush, dust and loose stones rose in their wake. In the thicket they stopped and kept close together: it looked as if a small glade in the hill had been paved with dark grey stones. Here they believed themselves to be covered to the view, and so they were to anything moving along the ground, but they could not hide themselves from the eyes of the bird of the air. We flew up and away.

There’s also a lovely anecdote about a young Swede teaching her Swahili, who is embarrassed by the fact that the Swahili for “nine” (tisa) sounds like the Swedish for “pee” (tisse), and convinces her that there is in fact no number nine in Swahili until someone puts her straight. I sympathise a little. I have known a number of baronesses in my time, and I don’t recall ever saying the word “pee” in front of any of them.

One other point that I noted while researching this post: they were all younger than we see on screen, the men much younger. When Karen married Baron Blixen in 1914, she was 28 and he was 27. She first met Denys Finch Hatton in 1918, when she was 33 and he was 31. Meryl Streep was 36 when the film was made, Klaus Maria Brandauer 42 and Robert Redford 49. Knowing the real ages of the protagonists does change the way you understand the story, I think.

Kenya is not a country I know much about – I changed planes in Nairobi three times in my South Sudan days, with long stopovers but no tourism each time, and the only other books I’ve read that explore it in any detail are also autobiographies, by Barack Obama and Vince Cable. Unlike the other two, this book made me want to know more. You can get it here.

My next Oscar-winning film is Platoon, but I’ll watch Aliens first.

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014)

Amadeus

Amadeus won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1984, and also seven others, Best Director (Milos Forman), Best Actor (F. Murray Abraham as Salieri beating Tom Hulce as Mozart), Best Adapted Screenplay (Peter Shaffer), Best Costume Design, Best Art Direction, Best Makeup and Best Sound, losing in Best Cinematography and Best Editing to The Killing Fields. That year’s Hugo winner, 2010, got five Oscar nominations but lost all of them (two to Amadeus).

The other Best Picture nominees were A Passage to India, which I have seen, and The Killing Fields, Places in the Heart and A Soldier’s Story, which I haven’t. IMDB users put it 3rd on one ranking but only 12th on the other. Other films I’ve seen from that year (in rough IMDB order): The Terminator, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Ghostbusters, Dune, This Is Spın̈al Tap, Beverly Hills Cop, Police Academy, Romancing the Stone, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, 2010, Streets of Fire, Repo Man, The Woman in Red and A Passage to India, fourteen of them, the most for any year so far. I have particular nostalgia for Beverly Hills Cop, which was the first film I went to see with an actual girlfriend. But really The Terminator is the most memorable film of that year, up against some tough competition. Here’s a trailer for Amadeus.

It’s the story of the rivalry between Antonio Salieri, court composer to Emperor Joseph II, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, told as flashbacks from Salieri’s old age in a mental hospital, reflecting on his responsibility for Mozart’s early death. It’s based on a famous stage play, which I actually saw in Belfast in 1983 – the Birmingham Repertory production, starring Keith Michell as Salieri, Siôn Tudor Owen as Mozart and Kay Adshead as Constanze.

I didn’t find any actors here who had been in previous Oscar-winning films. There is one who has been in three Hugo-winners, but wihtout his face being visible in any of them: this is Kenny Baker, who played R2D2 in the orginal Star Wars trilogy, recognisable for once.

There’s also a fairly major Doctor Who crossover, Simon Callow, who plays impresario Emanuel Schikaneder here (and was in fact Mozart for the original theatrical run of Amadeus), and came to the third story of New Who, The Unquiet Dead, in 2005 to play Charles Dickens.

And it’s not my usual fandom – in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever watched an episode of the show – but Lorl, the Mozarts’ maid who is really working for Salieri, is played by 18-year-old Cynthia Nixon, later to achieve fame and fortune as Miranda in Sex and the City (and more recently a candidate for Governor of New York).

To begin with the usual, I think I actually did see a couple of black faces in the background, which if so is better than Terms of Endearment, Ordinary People, Kramer vs. Kramer or Annie Hall, all of which are set in times and places which were a lot more ethnically diverse than 18th-century Vienna. (Vienna has had African migrants, if sometimes not many, since it was founded by the Romans two thousand years ago.)

It’s a story about two men, and a very male play; it’s notable that in many of the court scenes, women are completely absent, and barely speak when they are present. However I’ve noted the young Cynthia Nixon above, and the third biggest role is definitely Constanze, here played by the glowing Elizabeth Berridge. I’m sorry to say that I found her accent grating on me at first, but I got into it by the end, and she gives depth to a part that is more complex than it first seems.

The whole thing looks gorgeous. 18th-century Vienna is a rich setting to begin with; Communist-era Prague, where it was filmed, still looked plausibly enough like a cityscape of the period; as well as the imperials court itself, you have several theatrical performances which are in and of themselves well over the top; generally it’s the best feast for the eyes since Oliver!.

And of course, the film is sustained throughout by the music of Mozart, performed by Neville Marriner and the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, glorious two hundred years ago and glorious now.

As mentioned above, it’s the story of two men. Mozart teeters on the verge of being to self-centred and vulgar to be really interesting (and my vague memory of the Belfast performance in 1983 is that it fell off this particular cliff-edge). The film makes more of his relationship with his father than the play did, and perhaps that gives him a bit more depth. And anyway, the film isn’t about Mozart as much as it is about Salieri’s obsession with him, culminating in the scene where Salieri helps the dying Mozart write the Requiem.

And F. Murray Abraham richly deserved his Oscar; his Salieri is fundamentally a monster, but knows it and struggles with the guilt of it. Elizabeth Berridge has a couple of fantastic scenes with him too, of which this is the more SFW.

So in general, I’m putting it quite high up my ranking – not quite in the top ten, but just behind Gandhi and ahead of The Best Years of Our Lives.

I got hold of the current version of the play script as well – not the original one, or the film screenplay; Peter Shaffer explains at length in a foreword how he has repeatedly reworked the final scene between the two protagonists. The opening of the third scene, with the start of Salieri’s monologue, is:

[Music sounds softly in the background: a serene piece for strings by Salieri. SERVANTS enter. One takes away the dressing-gown and cap; another places on the table a wig-stand bearing a powdered wig; a third brings on a chair and places it at the left, upstage.
At the back, the blue curtains rise and part to show the 
EMPEROR JOSEPH II and his COURT bathed in golden light, against a golden background of mirrors and an immense golden fireplace. His Majesty is seated, holding a rolled paper, listening to the music. Also listening are COUNT VON STRACK; COUNT ORSINI-ROSENBERG; BARON VAN SWIETEN; and an anonymous PRIEST, dressed in a soutane. An old wigged COURTIER enters and takes his place at the keyboard: KAPELLMEISTER BONNO.]

SALIERI: [In a young man’s voice: vigorous and confident]. The place throughout is Vienna. The year – to begin with – 1781. The age still that of the Enlightenment: that clear time before the guillotine fell in France and cut all our lives in half. I am thirty-one. Already a prolific composer to the Habsburg court. I own a respectable house and a respectable wife- Teresa.

[Enter TERESA: a padded, placid lady who seats herself uprightly in the upstage chair.]

(Teresa doesn’t get much in the stage play, but doesn’t appear in the film at all.)

The biggest difference between film and play is the framing device. The film is told as a flashback from Salieri’s time in a mental hospital, immediately following his suicide attempt; the framing for the play is set immediately before. Also the stage Salieri talks much more to the audience, and is attended by the Venticelli, two characters who seem to dance in and out of the margins between Salieri’s imagination and the real world. And I think the idea that The Magic Flute critically annoyed the Masons is soft-pedalled in the film. It’s a gripping script, though I think challenging and expensive to perform. You can get it here.

Next film is 2010, that year’s Hugo winner; next Oscar winner is Out of Africa, of which I know nothing.

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014)