Thursday, March 23rd, 2017

A public service announcement about the Oscars

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Tonight a bunch of overpaid actors and actresses are going to engage in an orgy of self-congratulations about how wonderful they are. Many of them will forget their actual place in the world to take the opportunity to make political statements, irritating half the country that voted for Donald Trump, and even many of us who didn’t.

I haven’t watched the Oscars since that awful movie Shakespeare in Love won best picture*. If the director had any integrity, he would’ve burned every print available and thrown himself on the pyre before allowing Miramax to distribute it. That it won the year after the even more awful American Beauty won best picture was the final straw.

If you truly love the movies, TCM has two great films back-to-back tonight:

The Thin Man with William Powell and Myrna Loy is adapted from Dashiell Hammett’s novel of the same name. It’s a very sophisticated take on husband-and-wife mystery solving, with the advantage of being a pioneer of the genre. Powell’s performance as Nick Charles would carry a lesser film.

The late Roger Ebert wrote, “William Powell is to dialogue as Fred Astaire is to dance. His delivery is so droll and insinuating, so knowing and innocent at the same time, that it hardly matters what he’s saying.”

But Myrna Loy’s performance from her splash entrance to the comic ending makes the film a must-add to any film lover’s collection. The chemistry between Loy and Powell inspired five sequels. As Ebert described it,

One of the movie’s charms is the playfulness with which Nick and Nora treat each other, and life. During one ostensibly serious scene, Nick pretends to find a piece of lint on her blouse, and then flicks her on the nose when she looks down; she jabs him in the side; he pretends to be about to sock her, and then they both try to put on serious faces. On Christmas morning, Nick tests the new air-rifle he got as a present by firing at the balloons on their Christmas tree. Nick throws a dinner party for all of the suspects, with plainclothes cops as waiters, and Nora tells one of them: “Waiter, will you serve the nuts? I mean, will you serve the guests the nuts?”

What was intended as a B-movie (it was filmed in two weeks) became one of the studio era’s greatest films. It’s one of my personal favorites, and not just because of the martinis.

The Third Man stars Joseph Cotton, Orson Welles and Trevor Howard, all giving great performances. But the real star of the movie is how the film looks. Shot in postwar Vienna, the dark lighting and shadows under the direction of Carol Reed, along with the zither music in the score, give the texture to Graham Greene’s screenplay. I would argue the film should be in every top five all-time list. (My top five: Casablanca, Citizen Kane, The Godfather, The Third Man, and Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.)

Here’s what Ebert had to say about it:

This movie is on the altar of my love for the cinema. I saw it for the first time in a little fleabox of a theater on the Left Bank in Paris, in 1962, during my first $5 a day trip to Europe. It was so sad, so beautiful, so romantic, that it became at once a part of my own memories — as if it had happened to me. There is infinite poignancy in the love that the failed writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) feels for the woman (Alida Valli) who loves the “dead” Harry Lime (Orson Welles). Harry treats her horribly, but she loves her idea of him, he neither he nor Holly can ever change that. Apart from the story, look at the visuals! The tense conversation on the giant ferris wheel. The giant, looming shadows at night. The carnivorous faces of people seen in the bombed-out streets of postwar Vienna, where the movie was shot on location. The chase through the sewers. And of course the moment when the cat rubs against a shoe in a doorway, and Orson Welles makes the most dramatic entrance in the history of the cinema. All done to the music of a single zither.

I don’t want to give away the ending if you haven’t seen it, but Hollywood should re-watch Reed’s perfect ending (he overruled David O. Selznick and Greene) and learn from it.

So spare yourself the Oscars, the political correctness, the preening, the virtue-signaling and the celebration of films that will be just a trivia question in a year that nobody can answer. If you want to watch something truly Oscar-worthy, watch the classics. The best picture debate will be a lot more fun.

* Here’s how ridiculous that pick was. It beat The Big Lebowski, Elizabeth, Saving Private Ryan, There’s Something About Mary, Rounders, and the brilliant The Last Days of Disco. No, it wasn’t a great year for film, but even Elizabeth was far superior.

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