Sunday, January 30, 2011

William Shakespeare and Laurence Olivier

Here's an interesting stat that, while I have not confirmed it, I defy anyone to prove me wrong - William Shakespeare is the most credited writer in film/television history. IMDb credits the bard with 831 titles, dating all the way back to an 1899 short film.

Shakespearean best picture nominees include A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935), Romeo and Juliet (1936), Henry V (1946), Hamlet (1948), Julius Caesar (1953), and Romeo and Juliet (1968). Hamlet won best picture. As did 1961's musical West Side Story based on Romeo and Juliet and 1998's Shakespeare in Love with Joseph Fiennes depicting the struggling young playwright as he writes Romeo and Juliet.

Arguably (or undoubtedly) the most famous writer in world history, his influence is undeniable. Acclaimed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa earned a best director nomination for Ran (1985) a version of King Lear staged as a samurai war epic. Kenneth Branagh earned the same for his 1989 version of Henry V.

I have now seen all of the bard's best picture nominees having recently watched the 1936 version of Romeo and Juliet and Laurence Olivier's Henry V.

George Cukor (who directed several best picture nominees) helmed Romeo and Juliet and did an excellent job playing up the humorous moments in the play without sacrificing the emotion of the famous tragedy. I would say that appreciation of Shakespeare grows greatly with familiarity, both on the whole and with individual works. I'm so used to the story of Romeo and Juliet that I had no trouble following the dialogue of the entire thing. I think the biggest hurdle in enjoying Shakespeare is simply how the shades of meaning of so many words have changed (or become obsolete altogether) in 400 years . For instance, Olivier's Henry V was harder to follow as I haven't seen Branagh's version in over 15 years and, aside from the St. Crispin's Day speech, I didn't remember much at all.

Olivier, for all his talents, is remembered first and foremost as a Shakespearean actor. Of his ten Oscar acting nominations, four of them were for playing Shakespeare heroes (including Othello). Olivier's lone acting win was for Hamlet, although he also earned TWO honorary Oscars. The first "for his outstanding achievement as actor, producer, and director in bringing Henry V to the screen" in 1947 and a second in 1979 for life-time achievement.

In addition to Henry V and Hamlet, Olivier starred in four other best picture nominees: Wuthering Heights (1939), Rebecca (1940's best picture winner), 49th Parallel (1941), and Nicholas and Alexandria (1971). He also, fittingly, did the narration of the 1968 Romeo and Juliet.

Above is a picture I took last summer in London of a statue of Olivier.

80 to go...

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Class of 2010

The Oscar nominations were announced yesterday morning and in true movie nerd fashion, I had already seen all ten nominees for best picture. So my quest to see every nominee ever remains uninterrupted (though the total number seen just went up ten). Here's a quick commentary on this year's crop. Several are currently in my top ten of the year, which I'm still waiting to post until I see a few more contenders.

127 Hours - I haven't heard of anyone who went into this movie not knowing what happens. I keep wondering how it will be viewed a generation from now (over even in ten years) when new viewers can watch it cold. James Franco's acting nomination is well deserved and he's probably the only one who can upset Colin Firth.

Black Swan - The acting is great. The direction is great. The story is... okay. Portman should win, but in all other categories, this is an also-ran.

The Fighter - As of right now, this is my favorite movie of the year. Though I do have to confess that I don't consider this an exceptionally strong year. My top three from last year (500 Days of Summer, Inglourious Basterds, and Hurt Locker) would all rank ahead of it AND my top three from 2008 (The Dark Knight, Milk, Slumdog Millionaire) would all rank ahead of 500 Days of Summer. Okay, now it just sounds like I'm ragging on The Fighter, which is definitely not the case. The acting is great (see the three Oscar nominations and the two GG wins). The story is compelling. There is tons of fighting both verbal and physical in the ring and out yet the film contains no real villains. Even when you get mad at some of the characters, you still empathize with their motivations. That is a feat all too rarely pulled off in movies today.

Inception - For those of you keeping score at home, Christopher Nolan is working on a Kubrick-caliber batting average. He has directed seven movies and five of those are in the IMDb Top 250 (8 of Kubrick's 11 from 1956 until is death are in the Top 250... Spielberg sucks). Is Inception flawed? Sure. It is one of the most innovative movies of the last decade? You bet your ass it is. And it's always been my belief the point is to reward films that advance the art of film making. Unfortunately, Nolan is becoming something of a Jim Carrey with the Oscars. Despite having just earned his THIRD Director's Guild Nomination (Memento, Dark Knight) he has still yet to earn an Oscar nomination.

The Kids Are All Right - This was a good show, but so far from Oscar good that I find myself rooting against it. It's very well-done and entertaining, I just didn't think it was anything that special. If Annette Bening beats Portman for best actress I may just throw something heavy through something fragile, especially since it's Julianne Moore who really shines here.

The King's Speech - I've ranted before about most years having a token British nomination (The Queen, Atonement, and Gosford Park can all go suck a collective egg). So I went into The King's Speech more than a little apprehensive. I loved it. Colin Firth is starting to look like one of the safer bets to win gold next month and the movie leads the field with twelve nominations and may dethrone Social Network as the favorite heading in to Oscar night. The Fighter may have my vote out of the ten, but if it has to come down to King's Speech and Social Network, I'm behind King's Speech all the way.

The Social Network - Similar reaction for me as to The Kids Are All Right. It's really well done. I just don't think it's special enough for all the attentions it's receiving. That said, unlike Kids, I do currently have Social Network in my top ten and don't really disagree with any of its nominations. And I'll be rooting for Aaron Sorkin to pick up his first Oscar here.

Toy Story 3 - It should be obvious to everyone by now that Pixar long ago sold their souls to ensure that every movie they made would be great. That said, while I liked Up last year, I didn't think it deserved the best picture nomination. I have no such reservations about Toy Story 3. It probably stands behind only Return of the King on the list of greatest third installments of all-time.

True Grit - I loved this movie until the final 10-20 minutes. I guess I now understand how some people felt about No Country for Old Men. Also, can someone explain to me how Hailee Steinfeld is in the supporting category when she's in every scene in the entire film (I may be exaggerating, but not by much - I'd lay even money that she has more screen time than Jeff Bridges who is up for lead actor)?

Winter's Bone - This one was just a big swing and a miss for me. I did not like it. I almost shut it off thirty minutes in. It rang completely false to me. I don't claim to know their world and the book was written by someone who does know that world. But, living one state west of Missouri, I will claim to know that world better than a director from New York and a screenwriter from Seattle. And that may not even be the real problem. This is a dark, depressing thriller - fine. But there is not one break from it the entire time. I don't remember one laugh, one smile. I know they have it rough, but you still joke with your family at least 0.001% of the time.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Song of Bernadette (1943)

A naive, young French girl, who struggles with her Bible verses, sees a vision of what she can only describe as a beautiful woman dressed in white. It is those around her who begin claim Bernadette must be seeing the Virgin Mary.

Non-violent battle lines are drawn between those who flock to the site of Bernadette's vision (in the city dump, no less), and those who wish to discredit her, including members of the local clergy.

Jennifer Jones stars as Bernadette in her first role in which she is credited by her stage name (she was born Phylis Isley). She won the Oscar for best actress here, completely convincing as the innocent-beyond-reproach Bernadette. She would go on to earn another four nominations during her career.

The film also features a 32-year-old Vincent Price.

82 to go...

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Claudette Colbert

This was an actress I already knew by name but always struggled not to confuse with other actresses of the era. I just watched three movies with her as the lead, so hopefully I can keep her straight from now on. Those three were Cleopatra (1934), Imitation of Life (1934), and Since You Went Away (1944), all best picture nominees.

1934 was a big year for Ms. Colbert. She starred in three best picture nominees. In addition to the two listed above was It Happened One Night, one of the best movies ever made. And that's not just my opinion. It was #35 on AFI's original top 100 list, #8 on their all-time comedy list, and currently ranks #140 on IMDb . The film won best picture and was the first to sweep the five major categories: best picture, best writing, best director (Frank Capra), best actor (Clark Gable), and best actress (Claudette Colbert). It was to be her only Oscar win, but she was also nominated for Private Worlds (1935) and Since You Went Away.

As successful and beautiful as she was, my brief research shows her to be rather insecure. According to IMDb, she "was so convinced that she would lose the Oscar to write-in nominee Bette Davis that she didn't attend the ceremony originally." And once she gained clout, she insisted on being filmed only from her left side and constantly worried about proper lighting, the effects of colorization, etc. (wikipedia).

Cleopatra was a fairly accurate, if rushed, account of Cleopatra's life and death with respect to her role in Roman affairs, specifically her relationships with Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony. It made one major omission however - the son she had with Caesar is never shown or mentioned in any way. The Egyptian queen must do what is best for herself and her kingdom while sincerely (at least within this film) falling in love with these Roman leaders.

In Imitation of Life, Colbert plays an entrepreneurial widow who strikes it rich with the help of the secret pancake recipe of her black house keeper. The movie is interesting in that there is no one single plot thread through the entire film, but it still works as a slice of life in the 1930s. Colbert juggles raising her daughter, running a business, and nurturing a social life. Her house keeper fights for the love her own daughter who, as a very light-skinned black, wishes to live the much easier life of a white person (keep in mind this is 1934).

Colbert showed great range in 1934. In her three Oscar nominated films of that year, she played a runaway heiress, a successful business woman, and the Queen of the Nile.

Ten years later, she played the mother of two teenage girls in Since You Went Away. It is the middle of WWII and her husband has just enlisted and shipped out. He is never seen the entire movie except for in two photographs at the beginning, not surprising given the film's title. The focus is on the home front and we see the family trying to make ends meet, dealing with their various romances, and constantly on edge about any correspondence regarding the war.

In total, Claudette Colbert was in five best picture nominees. In addition to the four I've discussed here, she also starred with Maurice Chevalier in The Smiling Lieutenant which I have already mentioned in this blog. In the photograph above she sits between Frank Capra and Clark Gable.

83 to go...