Looking Back at Oscar, #55

For the next LBaO feature, we’re looking back at the Picture + acting Oscar nominees of the year 2012:

Best Little Whorehouse in Texas
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
Frances
Gandhi
Missing
My Favorite Year
Officer and a Gentleman
Sophie’s Choice
Tootsie
The Verdict
Victor Victoria
World According to Garp

For my full length reviews of the following films, click here to see my Top 20 of the year post:
E.T.
Missing
Tootsie
The Verdict
Victor Victoria

Now for the rest! I did give a few of the following films some positive attention in my 1982 Year in Review post.

Best Little Whorehouse In Texas
For a movie that banks on having lots of goodwill (for Dolly Parton, and Burt Reynolds, and um…) and maybe one small thrill (…I guess prostitution? Apparently they had to censor the title when advertising which is embarrassing on several levels), The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas really is a little bitty pissant country musical. It’s the kind made by the sort of liberals who advocate for prostitution to be legal and then take delight in making it both sanitized (you will never believe anyone in the cast has ever had sex with each other) and vaguely slut-shamey (why is the sequence where the radio shock job exposes a woman’s breasts treated as comedy?) The male cast is pretty uniformly awful, with Burt Reynolds playing every line like he’s the Lone Ranger, and Dom De Luise/Jim Nabors are both utterly atrocious and don’t shy away from making their irritating comic relief as hammy as possible. Charles Durning is the highlight of the group, with his little sidestep being the closest the film comes to intelligence. On the women’s side of things, there’s pretty much just Parton (who is lovely and charming but doesn’t get much to do despite being the lead) and her employees, a bunch of interchangeable women given no personality traits (although there’s one token black prostitute who of COURSE winds up with the only African American football player). Really, the movie’s most emotional sequences come in the oddest shapes-there’s the incredibly homoerotic football team scene that has to be seen to be believed, and after a legitimately saddish ending where Dolly decides to leave the county and says goodbye to the whorehouse’s cook (the third of exactly three black people who appear in Best Little Whorehouse and get reduced to stock parts)…we get a motherfucking montage of the funniest moments in the film set to a song. Which happens to include the scene where the one hooker’s breasts are exposed by De Luise. Any charitable feelings that I managed to scrape up for this movie, which at least features a few songs that do get stuck in the head (I can’t resist Parton’s And I Will Always Love You) and is so fucking bizarre that I kind of love that it was such a big hit at the box office, evaporated after that. Texas had this film filmed in it! Lord have mercy on us all.

Frances
My brief Year in Review piece for Frances: Such a bizarre mix of highs and lows that I wouldn’t know where to start. Lange and Stanley are highlights, with the former being a ball of fire that outshines everything else, particularly since her character’s intelligence is respected by the script even if the direction adds things like a fictional lobotomy to undercut it.

My expanded review: Where does one begin with a movie that is such a mixed bag but I very much appreciate anyway? We can start with the one thing about this biopic that unambiguously can be considered an asset: Jessica Lange as Frances Farmer herself. Lange radiates a certain brand of fiery intelligence in all her roles, even when she’s stuck doing Ryan Murphy garbage, and this was arguably the role she was born to play even if her best work took place in another film from the same year. The titular character is a rarity in Hollywood films, a woman who is relatably intelligent and where we understand HOW she thinks as opposed to what she is thinking like in other biopics about great scientific figures or some such thing. For a film that has deep feminist leanings in certain scenes, one can’t escape the utter strangeness of things like the fictionalized lobotomy, a grossly exploitative movement that still works as the ultimate crime, for Frances Farmer can no longer think. Moments like that are the sort of thing that convince me that this is the best movie where the crew had no idea what was good about it (outside of the leading performance of course). You can sort of project the movie’s flaws into a form, and that form would most likely resemble Kim Stanley as our star’s abusive mother. It’s the sort of performance that would never get nominated nowadays unless it was done by Meryl Streep, because of how goddamn bizarre it is. There’s one long pause between someone inviting her to dance and then yelling “HOT DOG!” standing out in my mind as I write this. But something about her perpetually being on the verge of self-awareness but never quite breaking through is haunting. Some of the other things about Frances the film that I think I appreciate but I can never be quite sure if I like are: why do we never see Frances herself acting, and how on Earth did she become a star when she’s so utterly dismissive of everyone who can’t match her wits? Perhaps it’s weird obfuscations like these that really make the Lange performance and the film so interesting within my mind, for there’s something to be found deep within both Frances the film and the actress…or maybe it’s just something I think I can find, a Rosetta stone that doesn’t actually exist.

Gandhi
So, in a year where the Best Picture slate consisted of two movies I wouldn’t change at all and two very strong pieces of work, the winner is…Gandhi? The three hour biopic with Ben Kingsley…well, that makes sense actually. And I can’t take away anything from Kingsley, who thankfully understates everything and gives a performance that I very much appreciate even though I don’t love it and it’s ultimately just another long piece of the Academy’s biopic mimicry puzzle. While Richard Attenborough’s film has a lot of things going for it, such as the funeral with countless extras that is genuinely impressive spectacle even today, and the absolutely horrifying massacre scene, the bulk of the film is essentially a Star Wars prequel, with endless political discussions that practically scream in their demands to be appreciated as the works of a Great Man. Let’s not get started on whichever scene it is where Gandhi himself is talking and we see people in the audience nodding their heads in agreement, never questioning anything he says, for he is a flawless human being. I don’t wish to take away from the real Mohandas Gandhi, a truly great man, but this movie isn’t a character study, it’s a hagiography. Far more troublesome is the constant presence of white men in our hero’s presence, as if Attenborough absolutely must emphasize just how racial barriers are constantly being crossed at all times. Except in reality, it’s just vaguely racist, and this technique would’ve worked better if they had grown in numbers throughout the film. But we must never forget that Gandhi could never do anything wrong! Any humanity to be found here can solely be pulled out of Kingsley, whose reactions to tragedies like the massacre of the Indians feel like the reactions of a person who just happens to be involved in politics and views the events that are happening around him as hugely significant, and not the glowing god in a Wikipedia article that the movie tries to make us view him as. Most irritating of all is the movie essentially turning the fasts into Gandhi’s attempt to guilt trip white racists and writing his wife as his most devoted and beloved servant, when the former was done out of genuine penance and the latter was his equal who he wanted liberated. Even the director himself felt that E.T. was the deserving Best Picture winner of that year, so don’t take my word for it!

My Favorite Year
My brief Year in Review piece for My Favorite Year: A typical 80s comedy, with O’Toole’s take on himself and divas dragging it out of its worst moments of Jew jokes.

My expanded review: I can’t help but feel the concept of having a favorite year is a little ridiculous since it’s impossible to maintain perfection for that long, but no matter, let’s run with the opening lines of Benjy Stone’s (Mark Linn-Baker, adequate) favorite year being 1954 because it was when On the Waterfront won Best Picture (I couldn’t resist throwing that in there) and it was when he met his idol, in the form of Peter O’Toole playing a drunken actor slash movie star with the suitably primadonna name of Allan Swann. There’s not much to say about this film in terms of things like technique. The script occasionally indulges too much in “my wacky Jew family” jokes (which I don’t have a problem with because they’re offensive-they are totally harmless-but because they get old) but is otherwise a lovely little romp that inspired the Get Him to the Greek remake (a very stupid movie that deserves props for not ripping this movie off wholesale). I also have to wonder just how much this movie’s 30 Rockefeller Plaza setting had an influence on a certain television show, with their similar madcap screwball senses of humor revolving around a primadonna actor (“I’m not an actor, I’m a movie star!” was probably not an original line even at the time, but it’s still funny). I can definitely see something like Swann’s tearaway suit for his most drunken nights appearing on 30 Rock, and it’s definitely the gag that stuck with me the most from this (that probably says more about me than the film, which is ultimately the good kind of disposable fluff). At the end of it all, though, the film is just a star vehicle for O’Toole, and he rises to the occasion with gusto. He’s a colorful New York character, but not garish. There’s a lot of appeal in watching him hurl himself through whatever situation the movie sees fit to throw at him, and whenever My Favorite Year feels the need to stop being comedic and try being dramatic (never its best mode), he does the sort of dramatic acting he could probably do in his sleep by that point, before zipping back into Errol Flynn mode. He’s never as charming as Flynn could be but it’s hard to reject his attempts or the film trying to sell it, for they come close enough to get bonus points for trying.

Officer and a Gentleman
My brief Year in Review piece for Officer: Movie shines the most when we get to see the cast play their characters and reveal a bit about their psyches rather than engage in the military drill scenes or attempt to have chemistry with Debra Winger. Certain B plots are the highlight.

My expanded review: An Officer and a Gentleman is simultaneously at its best and worth when it focuses on the romantic nature of the women who want to get men to stay with them just to escape their horrible lives at the factory near the training base, for the subplot of David Keith losing his heart to a girl even with his family putting ridiculous amounts of pressure on him, and then killing himself when it all backfires and he loses everything, is beautifully handled. I actually think I would have liked An Officer and a Gentleman more if the film had focused on him, but he can’t overcome the part being rather underwritten and his early attempts at being funny strike false notes. So instead, we focus on the primary storyline we actually get. The bulk of the focus here is on Richard Gere and Debra Winger. They have pretty much no chemistry even when the movie takes an unusually authentic stance towards sexuality and people’s different needs, but the failure here is entirely on Winger in my eyes, who makes her way through her lines like someone is holding her paycheck off camera and threatening to tear it up if she doesn’t say something sweet. Her Oscar nomination for looking pretty in what could’ve been a top tier lineup exhausts me, and that scene of her being carried out of the factory has never worked for me. Still, the military training sequences, while cliched standard (we know full well that anyone who gets an ounce of development will probably pass and learn something about themselves), are given some heft thanks to Louis Gossett Jr.’s performance, which does good work riding the line between professionalism and a genuine attachment. Him giving one trainee CPR is a standout. While the character arcs are obvious stuff that gets heavily foreshadowed, it’s handled with authenticity, and even this most standard of love stories with leads that aren’t all that exciting when they’re together somehow, bizarrely, works. I wish it were all a bit more subtle but it’s the sort of thing that would be inherently more interesting if it was filmed in black and white and giving a stirring orchestral score to fit the old Hollywood mood that it winds up encapsulating, for this is a movie straight from that kind of corporate machine. If you’re going to wallow in emotions, go big or go home.

Sophie’s Choice
My brief Year in Review piece for Sophie’s Choice: Occasionally demands a bit too much from the cast in making the ridiculous shit they do at times believable, but Streep/Kline more than rise to the occasion. MacNicol, not so much.

My expanded review: Sophie’s Choice represents Alan J. Pakula’s descent into insanity and tediousness after making fascinating films like Klute, but it’s a movie that I find hard to resist even if critics with valid points frequently come down to pick it apart from the raggedy seams that hold it together. I certainly agree that Peter MacNicol as Stingo is dreadful (and is thankfully mostly kept out of the way of Sophie and Nathan’s psychological warfare/has his writing treated as a joke), the Holocaust is used to justify a coming of age story with a muddled dramatic arc, and it’s too long. Yet I find myself very easily getting through whatever bullshit portion of the movie has too much Stingo in it when Streep and Kline are this raw. I would never call Streep’s performance the greatest ever as so many people are fond of doing, but in terms of performances that won the Oscar it’s definitely in the upper echelons. She’s chilly, but when the horror bursts out of her during the titular choice scene every bit of distance she tries to put up becomes all the more unsettling. Kline, meanwhile, is so full of life that much like my actual pick for Supporting Actor that year, you can sense the burnout on the horizon, although it’s definitely a glamorization of mental illness that his brother explains in the most incompetent way possible. The film isn’t much interested in conveying visual life, with almost every scene being devoid of colors that are pleasing to the eye, but this works for me as a way of making us identify with Sophie rather than the men who treat her badly, ranging from her lovers to the Nazis. This is continued at Auschwitz, where an infrequently seen perspective (a non-Jew who is in the house of a commandant) gains both the benefits and the problems of an even more hideous griminess. I’ll admit that all these moderated compliments make the film sound silly and tedious, and I can’t deny that it’s not a piece of work I feel inclined to rewatch, but even when it’s crass, Sophie’s Choice is a grim march to an ending we all know about but which explodes with new insights each time I watch that part. And if nothing else, the lead performance is a keeper, with the only visual we need being Meryl Streep’s face in an icy blue closeup.

World According to Garp
My brief Year in Review piece for World According to Garp: A movie with so much misogyny baked into it from the book that it’s a wonder that any of the women come across as human beings. But they do, with most of the direction being so off the beaten path despite the cliches it indulges in that it feels warmly familiar.

My expanded review: The World According to Garp is not really a book that I’m inclined to say should have been turned into a movie, for the entire premise is so filled with misogyny (with a rather shiny, quirky surface to boot) that I am consistently shocked that things like Glenn Close raping an unconscious man to produce a child and be a single mother can come off in a way that only rankles me a little, and the Ellen James Society is so inherently absurd that I don’t think anyone would take it seriously as an example of how feminists supposedly act…right? (Naive, I know.) Robin Williams safely plays Garp, a man who tries to be a writer but is overshadowed by his mother (Close, who is warm but reads off every syllable like there’s a period following it). And then he becomes friends with a trans person (a lovely, melancholy John Lithgow), and other things happen that I can’t really explain without rewatching to unravel the yarn. This is a truly bizarre form of the character study, even with the fact that it’s a comedy factored in. It’s very much a film that feels like a standard book to movie adaptation where you just throw the dialogue and plot points into a screenplay, with no real adaptation and adjustments going on except to make the women less unpleasant, and that comes down to the performances more than the script. Things like time jumps of several years at a time are more frequent than they should be and there’s not a whole lot of flow between the dramatic and the comedic parts. Still, the movie is actually tremendously empathetic in a very strange way, and I do tend to laugh a lot while watching it just for how the movie like to laugh at sadness, which is one of my favorite comedy topics. Everyone in the cast besides our protagonist is actually tremendously normal and he is the insane one, but since the film comes through his perspective, everything is heightened, complete with a freeze frame to represent the climactic car accident rather than just showing someone going through a windshield. The World According to Garp frequently gets insufferable but the cast finding the actual people underneath the caricatures gives the movie some much needed oxygen, which is badly needed when it starts to condense everything despite already being over 2 hours long.

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