Monday, July 27, 2015

Sins of Omission: Actors Snubbed by the Academy

We all know that the Academy Awards are more political than a presidential race, but we keep watching every year, and that's why when we fill out ballots (that is if we're really into it) we have a separate ballot for whom we secretly hope will win that we know will not because they're not in good standing with the committee, because the competition is too fierce, or they dropped too many F-bombs. Whatever the case may be, perhaps George C. Scott got it right when he straight up refused to show up to pick up his golden idol for his bravura performance in Patton and when it was mailed to him he mailed it back. 'It ain't nothing but a meat parade' he said. And it's sad but true that for the most part, actors especially are not given awards based on the actual merit of their performance, but for circumstance. Here's a list of some of the most grievous sins of omission in Oscar history. There are way too many for me to cover the entire spectrum so let's just focus on the acting categories...for now. By the way, this is just the tip of the iceberg, there are countless others, these are just the first ones that come to mind. In no particular order...

Anna Magnani got her start as an icon of Italian Neo-Realism, and made her transition into American films with the help of her #1 fan; Tennessee Williams who adapted his play The Rose Tattoo to film specifically for her. And to impress Tennessee Williams is no small accomplishment. But going back to Italian neo-realism, one has to really be something beyond method and dig into the depths of their soul so roughly that there’s nothing to do but suffer and cry through your performance so that your audience can fully understand your struggle. 

Gena Rowlands could be the greatest actress of all time second only to Meryl Streep. I would go as far as to say she’s perhaps even better, and with her director being her genius husband John Cassavetes, he worked her like a horse in a mine so that she could turn out the most heartbreaking and nuanced performances that touch on the female condition without beating you over the head with her plight. She embodied every part she played, and some were so down right complicated and layered that a ‘regular’ actress would be doomed to mess up. She is so intelligent as an actress that she knows exactly how to peel open all of those complex layers and get to the heart of her character. 

Leonardo DiCaprio was first nominated at 19 for his role in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, since then he’s turned in some amazing performances, and some not so much performances; (We all remember The Beach) Oh you don’t? It’s because no one saw it, but as good as Matthew McConaughey’s performance was in Dallas Buyer’s Club, I think we can all agree that DiCaprio’s ballsy, spared no expense take on Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street should have given him unquestionable rights to that golden statue. 

Joaquin Phoenix seems to be the one that’s always robbed because of politics. The Academy just doesn’t like him no matter how brilliant he can be on screen, and I’m not just talking about his Johnny Cash. Working with Gus Van Sant throughout his youth definitely gave him the right training, and even in his teens, his performances were intelligent, thought provoking, and full of swagger. This culminated with his masterful performance in (excuse the pun) The Master, but he was upstaged by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the same film. Even though no one won for that film that year. Another oversight. 

Judy Garland won some kind of fake Oscar for ‘Most Promising Juvenile Performer’ or something like that which has since been omitted (thank god), but seriously? Judy? No Oscar? I object! Not only is she a screen legend, and an icon not only of cinema but of culture itself, it seems almost criminal that this unbelievably talented shooting star never got her golden statue. 

Naomi Watts is an actress that has time, but in my opinion has already proved herself worthy of a golden statue. She was introduced to us with one hell of a bang in Mulholland Drive, and has been going strong ever since. The problem with her is that her performances, no matter how en pointe, are just not Oscar fodder. Her two nominations for The Impossible and 21 Grams are great examples of what this woman is capable of. She’s very much on her way, and she’s on the Meryl Streep track. I expect great things of her in the future, and hopefully the Academy will eventually recognize that too. 

Jake Gyllenhaal is very young and also has plenty of time, but to only have one nomination for Brokeback Mountain, and getting completely overlooked for his incomparable performance in Nightcrawler is just plain wrong. I’m sure he’ll garner a few in his career to come, but it still seems like a huge oversight. As brilliant as Heath Ledger was in the former mentioned film, I would argue that Gyllenhaal’s bare soul performance was perhaps even better. He shines in everything he undertakes. Hopefully this will get noticed very soon. 

Cary Grant was another that has that ‘thank you for your body of work’ Oscars, which is basically let’s give them one before they kick the bucket kind of awards. You’re probably thinking this is a mistake but look it up, even the iconic Cary Grant who was Hitchcock’s favorite collaborator has 0 under his belt. One of his wives once said she thought that he played the same role in every movie, and who cares? He played facets of Cary Grant; that deserves an Oscar in my opinion.

Montgomery Clift was perhaps the greatest actor of all time never to receive an Oscar, and he made no point in hiding how much he wanted one. He was ‘a serious actor’ if ever there was a more perfect example, and from his first film to his last, he turned out absolutely flawless performances. He was trained by the Lunts as a child on Broadway, then studied the method with Strassberg before employing his own personal acting coach, just like Marilyn Monroe had. But his self-destructive behavior sadly overshadowed his intense raw talent. All you have to do is watch his 6-minute role in Judgment at Nuremberg (his last film) to see the absolute raw talent of this man. 

Marilyn Monroe has 1 Golden Globe for Best Comedic Performance by a Woman in Some Like It Hot and that’s it. You might want to disagree with me here because she’s known for playing dumb blondes, but that’s only half of it. Marilyn, wanting desperately to be taken seriously as an actress, and already being established, did something totally unexpected and moved to New York to start over, mastering her craft under the watchful guidance of Lee Strassberg who later became her mentor. Watch her performances in Bus Stop and The Misfits; those are performances. They aren’t just Monroe on screen. 
Below...clips and trailers. 

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Happy Kubrick Day!

Kubrick was a prodigy from the age of two. At 20 he had achieved more than most hope to do in a lifetime, and none of us were prepared for what he had up his sleeve next. 
Every once in a while someone comes along and changes the scope of the entire industry in which they practice. I honestly don't think there will ever be someone more unique and important to the landscape of cinema than Stanley Kubrick. On this day in 1928, in a poor neighborhood in Brooklyn, Stanley was born to well-to-do middle class parents. He was a bit of a genius from the word go, and though he never excelled in school (in fact would regularly cheat off of his fellow classmates because as he said 'he just wasn't interested) he was a prodigy. By 18 he had quit school and was hustling chess in Washington Square Park, and eventually made enough to buy his own camera. On April 12, 1945, when the world mourned the loss of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Stanley, at 16 captured one of the world's most famous photographs. A newspaper vendor sitting in his kiosk hear the West Village surrounded by the headline that one of the greatest presidents was no more. This catapulted his career, and by 19 he was working for Life magazine. He was taking some of the most beautiful and timeless photos that usually it takes a few degrees and decades to achieve in terms of talent. 
The photograph Kubrick took at 16 that landed him a job with Life Magazine.
By his mid-twenties, his parents sold their life insurance and coupled with his chess winnings, Kubrick was finally able to afford to make his first film; a boxing caper called The Day of the Fight. It was pretty abysmal as a freshman filmmaking effort but started to get him noticed and within two years he was signed to a small but reputable production company for which he made Killer's Kiss, The Killing, and Fear and Desire. Now, I know these films sound like nothing you've heard of. I'd like to think they were basically Stanley in training. But it they were instrumental in getting him noticed by Hollywood and they hired him to direct the much troubled production of Spartacus starring Kirk Douglas. Stanley would later say it was the most difficult experience of his life (second only to Lolita) because he was so stagnated by the studios, and being a child prodigy and an unquestionable genius, it wasn't easy for him having everyone else tell him what to do, especially when he was the director. 
Every image Kubrick put on screen has become iconic and unforgettable. This is the infamous still from Lolita when Delores Hayes is first introduced. 
The pain paid off and gave him license to finally do what he wanted on his own terms, and thus starts what we now know as Kubrick the auteur. His next film, was also arguably his most controversial, adapted from the equally controversial novel by Vladimir Nabokov; Lolita and ending with the insanely polarizing Eyes Wide Shut. There's my history lesson for ya'll. If I start blabbing on about Kubrick I'll never stop, so in the interest of saving time I'd like to touch upon just one of his films how ever hard that might be for me because every single one is so unbearably brilliant and creative, it literally hurts my soul that I can't talk about all of them. But as I always say, the films speak for themselves, so after you read this, go ahead and rent 2001: A Space Odyssey, Full Metal Jacket, or my personal favorite, Barry Lyndon and do yourself a favor. 
The film I've chosen to talk about is Eyes Wide Shut. I wanted to challenge myself and not gush about a film that I'm deeply in love with nor indulge in the aesthetic brilliance of Dr. Strangelove. I'll just speak from the heart on this one. 

The masks we were as adults, quite literally translated in Eyes Wide Shut with haunting imagery.
Eyes Wide Shut was Kubrick's last film, and also arguably his most polarizing, and what a way to go. It was released posthumously, and my dad and I snuck in to a packed theater and sat on the stairs to watch it in 1999. Now, I know it's the last film you want to see with your parents, and at first I have to say the 16-year-old me didn't really dig it, what 16 year old would? One time, an ex-boyfriend of mine once asked; 'what's that film about?' I kind of ignored that question because how can that be answered without a full on dissertation? I think Scorsese describes it best; it's a film about illusion. The way it's photographed suggests that everything might not be in happening in the conscious world. It seems like New York, but it's surreal in a way, it seems like your wife, but what is she hiding behind that smirky stare, what is she trying to tell you? It's that dingy grey area that we all ignore within a relationship. It's not just secrets and lies, and its not disillusion with the person that you once fell in love with. It's us as human beings and that very grey area as to whether we are inherently good or bad. Do we act upon urges? Do we almost? Is that almost just as bad? That's just scraping the tip of the iceberg. Let's talk about aesthetics. 
Both Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman as principal actors gave the performance of their careers, and were basically put through hell in order to do so. I'm sure that considering those two were still married at the time went home at the end of every day and asked themselves those very questions that they had to explore as the fictional Dr. and Mrs. Hartford. It's not an unraveling or a disillusion of marriage; in fact it's quite the opposite. In the end the two decide to stay together for what reason? It's something we can't possibly rationalize or reconcile, all of which is in tune with the whole mystery aspect of every choice each character makes. We don't know why Bill Hartford goes to that infamous sex party. Perhaps it was because his manhood was threatened, perhaps it was in retribution to his wife telling him that she once lusted after a stranger even while having sex with him. But the truth of the matter is that we don't know. Kubrick is not one to give you easy answers or a way out. 
In my opinion, Kubrick is telling us that we will never be perfect people, and in fact there is no such thing, and even though we think we might lead the ideal life; be a good wife to a successful husband, live in opulence comfortably on the Upper East Side, and on the surface have everything we might ever want or need, below the surface is a festering stench of mendacity, insincerity, and frustration with all of that perfection. Perhaps he's saying that we are all inherently bad people, and we don't act on those impulses that we desperately want to because of one reason or another; in this case it's to save a marriage, but the irony is, the marriage is not even one worth saving. 

Kubrick slowly meditates on this static image of Alice Hartford (Nicole Kidman) as if to scream at his audience; what exactly is behind that devilish smile of hers??
My favorite scene is when Bill and Alice (Cruise and Kidman respectively) smoke pot and she in a haze of anger and frustration fueled by a drug-induced frenzy finally tells her husband exactly what she thinks of him, and of the life that they've built together. 'If you men only knew' she bellows. And the expression on Bill's face says it all; he finally realizes that he was never a husband, and barely even a man and has no right to pontificate about the human condition.
Back to aesthetics, because Kubrick started out as a photographer, he knew exactly how to window dress the mise-en-scene with clever lighting so that everything would appear ominous and somehow dreamlike.  Bill and Alice weren't living a dream, they were living a nightmare which interspersed itself constantly with their waking life of banal dinner parties, small talk, and that daughter of their that neither of them really pay attention to, and once the two worlds collide, the truth comes out. Anyway, that's my half baked theory. And the beauty of the Kubrick catalogue, everyone has one. Watch Room 237; it's a documentary about everyone in the woodworks that has some kind of weird theory about The Shining. And considering it was made in 1980 and people are still arguing about it today as if it was the holy gospel, that shows you how timeless and untouchable every single one of his films was. That's the genius of Kubrick, and that is why his presence in cinema changed its history. Happy birthday sir. Instead of shy away from controversy, he embraced it. And in doing so was met with a great deal of opposition, but in the end we can all acknowledge that he was the one who won. From a satire about the Red Scare to a romantic interpretation of a love story between a middle aged man and a 12 year old girl, Kubrick found the beauty, the comedy, and the pathos in every story he retold. There are a lot of imitators, but there will always only be one.

Below...clips to drive my point home.


Friday, July 24, 2015

A Tribute To A Real Genius

Every once in a while, every other generation or so, we get a gift from the acting gods to grace the silver screen with their incredible and versatile talent. And more often than not, those wonders get taken from us far too quickly. In the past decade we've had more losses than we know what to do with, and the landscape of film has become lacking no matter how many surprisingly good performances Jennifer Lawrence turns out. 
The most obvious that comes to mind is last year's loss of comedy icon Robin Williams. It hurt particularly because he dedicated his life to making people laugh and in this world there is no more a noble profession, with the exception of Doctors Without Borders. But I'm speaking about entertainment here. 
For me personally, a day I will never forget was January 22nd, 2008. My mom called me around 8pm New York time to tell me that Heath Ledger was found dead in his SoHo penthouse. I didn't have a TV, so I hadn't heard, but made it over there in time just to watch the camera crews surrounding his building pack up for the night. It didn't take me long to realize the gravity of that loss. Heath Ledger was very much on his way to being our generation's Marlon Brando, and to die so tragically without even peaking at the young age of 28, without all of us seeing what more he could have given us, fresh off of his performance in Brokeback Mountain, none of us in the film community were ever the same again. 

Arguably his best performance in the rather flawed epic The Master working with frequent collaborator, P.T. Anderson as egomaniacal cult leader Lancaster Dodd.
Just when we had begun the healing process, we had another enormous blow; last year in February when one of the most talented people to ever gift the acting community with his presence lost his life; Philip Seymour Hoffman. Yesterday was his birthday, and instead of dwell on the fact that we will never have another brilliant Hoffman performance, I'd like to remember some of the best that he left us with. Unlike Ledger, Hoffman left behind an indelible legacy of stellar performances that will always be iconic and always be studied, analyzed, and used as basis and inspiration for others. As a true actor's actor, Hoffman had such a profound understanding of his craft and an even bigger respect for it. In every role he played, he brought to it heart, sincerity, and immeasurable depth. There will never be another Hoffman, but at least we have his legacy that generations upon generations of actors will look to when building themselves as masters of their craft. 

Hoffman so brilliantly embodied Truman Capote that his pastiche would be just as good to show someone if you were trying to tell them about who Capote was. It wasn't an interpretation, and it wasn't an impression. It was bringing someone back to life. 
I would go out on a limb and say that there is not a bad performance in his repertoire. From flimsy films like Along Came Polly to bravado like The Master, Hoffman never missed a beat. I personally will always remember his performance as Rusty, the down on her luck drag queen in the teeny Joel Schumacher film Flawless, opposite Robert DeNiro, as well as the awkward boom operator for a porn producer in Boogie Nights, as well as of course, his second to none almost carbon copy of Truman Capote in Capote, for which he won a well-deserved Oscar. Then there was Lester Bangs in Almost Famous, and perhaps my personal favorite; the blocked introverted novelist-turned-screenwriter in State and Main. No matter how small the role, or how small the film, Hoffman took it upon himself to elevate his role in the project and basically carried a lot of the films towards their successes. I don't know what the scope of cinema would be today without him, I would imagine very different. This was a man who could literally do anything, and was such a absolute master of his craft that he raised the bar for everyone else. So on his birthday (one day late, forgive me) I salute you sir. There will never be another, and you will always be missed. Thank you for sharing your gift, and even from a snarky sarcastic cynical person like me, I truly mean it. 

Below, some of the performances mentioned. All of which, unforgettable. 

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Most Self Indulgent Blog Post Imaginable: My Top 10

As some of you know, I have a definitive top 250 films list. And as less of you know, I'm a fickle bitch and I change it whenever I have time. But the top 10 remain the same somehow. Because I have no life, this is something I'm constantly tweaking and would like to share it with you now, not all 250 that's just rude, but how about just the top 10. I'm sure everyone who loves films have their own, and hey if A.O. Scott can put one out every year why not me? Because he works for the New York Times is why. Hurray for free blogging! Here we go. Remember it's totally subjective, but also very real. Before we go any further, I'm a film snob, so be forewarned. 

1.     La Regle du jeu "The Rules of the Game" (Jean Renoir) 1939 
Jean Renoir could perhaps be the greatest filmmaker of all time, he’s not my personal favorite, but this puckish satire about the Euro-upper class in between the two world wars is a subtle masterpiece in artistry, writing, and a scathing commentary on the human condition. A comedy of manners if you will, with brilliant performances and with Renoir at the helm, it’s nothing short of a masterpiece. It's a timeless commentary on how decadence, self-indulgence, and arrogance is inevitably the end of our souls, but when clouded by money and cocktails, we can go on not caring forever.

2. The Third Man (Carol Reed) 1949 
On the heels of Citizen Kane, Orson Welles put in arguably his best performance on screen, in what he referred to as a ‘star role’. His character doesn’t appear until the end of the third act, but is talked about throughout the entirety of the film. Set against the bleak backdrop of Vienna right after World War II, he’s teamed up with his bestie Joseph Cotton who acted opposite him in Kane in one hell of a mystery caper with one of the best twist endings of all time.

3. Some Like it Hot (Billy Wilder) 1959 
I just blogged about Wilder, so what can I say. All of his films found a place on my top 250, but this one ranks highest because I’ve never in my life experienced such a perfect comedy. It’s a constant stream of set-up to punch line, and not one time is it not funny. From the writing to the indelible performances from Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe, it is consummate in its perfection.

4. Fanny och Alexander "Fanny and Alexander" (Ingmar Bergman) 1982
 As with Wilder, there are quite a few Bergman films on my list. I honestly don’t know why I prefer this one above the rest, it’s of his later catalogue, where most would say he started slipping, but it’s so deeply personal and so artfully crafted that I believe it to be his best. And if you have 5 hours and about 130$, you can watch the unedited version on Criterion.

5.  8 1/2 (Federico Fellini) 1963 
What can I say about Fellini, Wilder may be my favorite director, but Fellini is whom my heart really belongs to. Here’s a man who said, what does it matter, it’s only life. A man who’s films reflect not his reality but the endless bizarre nature of his imagination. This film is his most self-indulgent considering it’s basically about him not being able to figure out what to direct next, so he wrote a film about it. But with Fellini, it never feels self-indulgent. His attitude is so carefree and whimsical towards filmmaking, though on set he’s known as a bit of a dictator, that every thing he directs seems like a gift.

6. La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc "The Passion of Joan of Arc" (Carl Theodore Dryer) 1928
This film was band in almost every country upon release and the director died thinking the last print had been burned and his greatest masterpiece never to be seen again until by some miracle it was found in the insane asylum closet in Holland. Turns out the doctors had ordered it when it was still legal, and forgot about it. Historians and archivists slaved to not only put it back together but to restore it so that we could all bask in its glory. I have no idea what the film community today would be without it. It’s more than a film; it’s a piece of history.

7. A Woman Under the Influence (John Cassavetes) 1974 
John Cassavetes is perhaps the one director whom I think anyone should aspire to be like. Known as the paragon of the American independent film, this actor turned director would take no salary, and work on improve with his wife Gena Rowlands and his small group of acting buddies on a story that they would later film in his apartment. This story of a woman quietly unraveling is so gut wrenching that it absolutely eats away at your core even if you can’t relate to it. To be able to do that is what separates the hacks from the artists. Besides, if I didn't put this film on the list, my mother (who is Gena Rowlands' #1 fan) would kill me. 
8. Cabaret (Bob Fosse) 1971

Yay! A musical. Me personally, I worship the ground Bob Fosse walks on. This was his first feature and has become iconic since. Films like Chicago, Burlesque, basically any musical that exists today borrow from its aesthetic. Fosse was the first one to use editing to free the dancer from gravity rather than shooting them on a presidium arch like we see in the 50’s. Taking place in the troubled Weimar Republic of Berlin between the two wars, it concerns a lowly cabaret performer (Liza Minelli) but really is a social commentary on people’s desperate need to remain ignorant, coupled with some of the most memorable choreography and musical numbers in film history. It’s definitely my favorite musical of all time, and though there will never be another Fosse, it’s fun to watch people try. 
9. Ladri dei biciclette "The Bicycle Thieves" (Vittorio De Sica) 1948 
If you went to film school, read critic blogs or know anything about the catalogue of classic films, this film usually is seen as #1. It’s the birth of the Italian Neo-Realist movement, telling the heartbreaking story of a desperate father in post-war torn-apart Italy who just wants to be able to take care of his family. If the world was ending and we had only one film to put into a time capsule so the mutants in silver jumpsuits would know what cinema was, we would throw a copy of this one into it. 
10. Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock) 1946

I know I’ve said that Rebecca is my favorite Hitchcock film, but this is in my opinion his ‘best’. Best and favorite are vastly different. It stars two of his favorite collaborators; Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant as star-crossed lovers in a spy thriller that with it’s signature Hitchcockian flair will put you on the edge of your seat. This is the film that in my opinion defines Hitchcock as the Master of Suspense and cements his status as an auteur. 
Below some clips to drive my points home...