There’s something that all of you need to know about For Science. Perhaps you’ve already picked this up. This column — a new favorite among readers, I’m told — was born out of the need for two things. The first is a dedication to investigative journalism. This includes, of course, the consuming of several pounds of Chicken McNuggets while watching Morgan Spurlock eat himself stupid in Super Size Me. This first type of article is a lot of fun, as you get to watch myself or members of the FSR team do things that no human should ever do, all in the name of good journalism or well, science.
There is a second need that For Science fills, one which exists on a more personal level for yours truly. In the years that I have been writing about film, there is one common thread that has always bothered me — I haven’t seen enough movies. This doesn’t mean that I can’t write intelligently about them, or that I’m any less of a man (there are other reasons for that, I’m told). It simply means that I have some learnin’ to do. And every so often, For Science is the forum in which I will discuss those learnings. Of course, it will also mean that such learning will come with a marathon of movies, all watched in one day — an endurance test in its own right. It’s less about being able to endure though, and more about experiencing something new, coming to terms with the gaps in my cinematic knowledge, and sharing said experiences with all of you. You should know this kind of thing up front, especially with this week’s column.
With the Academy Awards right around the corner, I’ve had history on the brain. Ever since I bought my mom The History of Oscar in the 11th grade (she’s a lover of Hollywood’s big night), I’ve been curious about Best Picture winners. What made something the Best Picture of its particular year, and how has the criteria for such an award evolved over the years? In an effort to start this journey, I sat down this weekend with four best pics from an era long before my time, spanning from 1944 to 1957. They were all films that I had not previously seen, and I decided to watch them in chronological order. Below you will find my account of what I saw in these four very different, great films. In the interest of brevity, here are my brief, experience-focused reviews.
Going My Way (1944)
While I would have liked to have started with the film with the longest run time (the last film on this list), I certainly did start in the most upbeat way possible. In Leo McCarey’s seven-time Oscar winning musical, Bing Crosby plays Father Chuck O’Malley, a young, energetic priest who has been sent to a failing church to help it get back on its feet again. He meets resistance from the church’s elder pastor, Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald), who sees O’Malley’s methods as a little too out of the ordinary. But after seeing that these methods might help bring a community of Catholics together for ole’ St. Dominics, he begins to warm to the young whippersnapper.
There’s something very easy about the experience of Going My Way. Crosby is charismatic and full of life, be it in song or in interaction with one of the film’s many interesting side characters. And the musical elements are truly beautiful. Not to mention the great on-screen chemistry shared by Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald. It’s a classic generational gap tale, one that we’ve seen a thousand times, made interesting through performance — I’ll be damned if Bing Crosby wasn’t magnetic. It’s just a delightful story, all the way to the tear-inducing end. Perhaps it was the emotional impact of such an ending that drove votes from the Academy. Perhaps it was that this film was simply so delightful. And late in World War II, people probably needed something to lift their spirits — a story of saving the old church and doing right by others, starring a dynamite baritone if there ever was one. As I mentioned, I couldn’t have started with a more delightful film.
Lawrence Olivier’s Hamlet (1948)
How did I go from something that makes me want to whistle and save homeless puppies to one of the most tragic, heavy stories of all-time? Perhaps I’m a closet sadist. We all know the story of Hamlet (one would assume): his father dies, his uncle moves in on his mom and the throne, he sees his father’s spirit who tells him that he was murdered, and he sets out to enact revenge. It all ends very tragically, I assure you. There are few stage tales more famous, perhaps there are none. And with Lawrence Olivier’s film — grittied in black and white and shot with a gracefully moving, ever-present camera (stunning for a film made in ’48) — we get the full effect of the stage. The storytelling is theatrical in every sense, from Ophelia’s oddly empty bedroom (where did she sleep, seriously?) to the booming melodrama in the voice of the title character. Hamlet was at times a real prick, and at others quite mopey, so it is a testament to great storytelling that we’re ultimately rooting for him when he takes up arms against Laertes (Terence Morgan).
What sticks out most to me about this film is that it’s incredibly difficult to take in, especially for a modern moviegoer. That’s not to say that it is boring or that I couldn’t follow the story. I had no problems there. It’s just a simple language barrier, similar to watching a film in another language. Old English — really fucking old English — is not something we’re used to, no matter how many Shakespearean Cliff’s Notes we read in college. As well, we see so few films these days that are so deeply rooted in the world of stage performance. Yet despite the roots in the stage, Olivier achieves to much with the movement of his camera. It is alive and present, a great early example of camera-as-character, something that has become very popular lately. It helps us — we the plebes who don’t follow the 340 words of dialog it takes to tell Hamlet to get over his sorrow — feel the emotional weight of his journey, and see the large, looming figures that he must face (his dad’s ghost, the new king, all those winding stairs). It’s a matter of perspective, and performance. A performance that, for Olivier, seems like a vanity experiment — everything about his direction highlights his own grande performance. But hey, the guy was a pretty good actor, I say we give him his moment.
On the Waterfront (1954)
Every time I sit down to watch a series of films For Science, something unexpected happens. I don’t ever plan for this to happen. In fact, I didn’t even pick these movies — Dr. Cole Abaius picked them for me as part of his work on Old Ass Movies. I just watch them and document. And what I’ve documented in the move from Olivier’s Hamlet to Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront is the difference (and thus, great deal of similarity) in the leading performances. Hamlet was Olivier showing off his stage presence, and On the Waterfront is a young Marlon Brando showing off his authenticity. Real, gritty, American underdog authenticity. He coulda been a contender, you know.
Despite the obvious quotability of On the Waterfront, a film I’ve taken far too long to see, there’s something telling about the choice of story. It is an essential American story of oppression, poverty and life on the mean streets, down by the docks. It is also one of those tumultuous love stories that we don’t see so much anymore, the good girl (in this case, the gorgeous Eva Marie Saint) falling for the rough-and-tumble thug (Brando). Where do you think the ‘girls only love bad boys’ cultural theme came from, anyhow? The key in all of this is Brando, who is magnificent. He’s the ultimate tough guy whose layers are peeled back over the course of the two hour narrative to reveal a hero. There’s something beautifully innocent about his toughness, his great defense mechanism. He’s the heart and soul of a gritty story, one about striking out for what is good and right. And did I mention his motivation of getting to canoodle with the super-hot Ms. Eva Marie Saint? Yeah, I’d go down to da docks and take a beating for her, too.
Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
It probably wasn’t the best idea to save this two and a half hour war epic for last, but them’s the rules. However, despite the gigantic runtime of this film, there was no gap in attention — even for a child of the ADD generation. Why? Because there’s something so fascinating about the film’s central storyline. No, not the story about the American soldier (William Holden) who escapes captivity only to come back with his sights set on destroying the enemy’s big bridge. And no, not the story about the British soldiers held captive by the Japanese, who are forced to do the seemingly impossible and build a big bridge for the enemy. I’m talking about the gentlemanly rivalry between the commander of the British, played by Alec Guinness, and Japanese Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa).
Ever other ounce of this movie — the epic scope, the beautiful scenery, the awesome explosions — all exist only to serve as fodder for the chess match happening in the commandant’s quarters. It is such intimate, quiet and polite discourse that it feels like a small element within the story — the Brit wants to follow the rules of war, but the Japanese colonel says this is war, there are no rules. It what makes this movie so resonant, the power of principle. That, and the fact that Alec Guinness was a fine actor. His character is one of the toughest sonofabitches that I’ve ever seen in a movie. And all for a matter of decency, a matter of principle.
Another strong takeaway that I had, just as my will to watch movies for the day was beginning to drain, is that Bridge on the River Kwai is made even more entertaining with humor. It’s a pretty funny movie, in the end. From the matter-of-fact nature of Guinness in the dinner time cultural showdown to the strange British major who wears rolls of plastic explosives around his neck, there are more than a few laughs to be had. It makes the great emotional weight of Guinness’ characters journey that much easier to take. He is a tragic figure, after all.
Bringing It All Together
All day I spent watching movies, and all day I spent search for a theme, a common thread with which I can tie all four of these multiple Oscar winners together. There is the obvious. The well-crafted and layered narratives, the high level of technical proficiency. But perhaps it’s even more simple than that. Perhaps it has something to do with the rise of an era, an era of iconic leading men. Each of these films centered on a great performance from an actor with an uncanny ability to take over. From Crosby to Olivier to Brando to Guinness, there’s not a mediocre moment in the bunch. They are dynamic, charismatic and hold an authenticity that supersedes the world in which their characters exist. They were the essential leading men.
It calls in to question what we see today. If we look at this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Picture, the remnants of the great leading man are still there. The Hurt Locker has its rogue cowboy (Jeremy Renner), Avatar has its middling underdog hero (Sam Worthington) and Up in the Air features on of the last great movie stars (George Clooney). But are any of these movies truly defined by their central characters? Not exactly. They’re environmental (they created great environments, not that they’re tree hugger movies) films, stories of tension and heartbreaking reality. And these leading men are part of the system, not quite the elevating factors that we see with the men of the four films mentioned above. In fact, one could argue that all three of the contemporary films I mentioned are more products of their respective directors than the performances of their leading men. Products of good writing, or great special effects, rather than simply stunning performance. Maybe that’s just a sign of the times. It doesn’t make it bad, it just makes it different. A difference that I didn’t really know about, until I watched a few old movies.