Wednesday, 11 May 2011

On Any Other Year: Vivien Leigh vs. Katharine Hepburn

The 1951 film adaptation of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire would live and die on the actors chosen to portray Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski. Plenty of stage adaptations have faltered by casting a Stanley who wasn't raw and animalistic enough. Many more have suffered with a Blanche who lacked a unique enigmatic and alluring quality. The film adaptation nailed its casting.

On Any Other Year will focus on Marlon Brando's Stanley Kowalski in the next post, but today Filmstubs is looking at the 1952 Best Actress category. Just a year after the award was presented with an extraordinary array of competition, two of the era's greatest actresses went into direct competition in the category. Vivien Leigh had perfected Blanche DuBois in Streetcar. In a film filled with career defining performances, hers was the most extraordinary. Blanche is incredibly difficult to get right, but Leigh's charm and fragility, along with her portrayal of a woman beginning to lose her sanity, was utterly convincing.

As remarkable as the performance was, Leigh's Oscar was no foregone conclusion. She was up against an acting titan who the Academy loved like no other; Katharine Hepburn had just put in one of her most memorable performances in The African Queen. Like Leigh, Hepburn was playing a woman who finds herself placed in a situation with a man she believed was beneath her; a classy lady stuck with a slovenly and unkempt alcoholic. Whilst the chemistry between Leigh and Brando is raw and destructive, the equally engaging combination of Hepburn's Rose and Humphrey Bogart's Charlie is reluctant and classically love-hate.

Charlie is not the brute that Stanley Kowalski is, nor is the initially frigid Rose a Blanche DuBois, so their relationship in far more restrained and slow-burning. The chemistry is there for all to see, however. The African Queen is made great by the interplay between Hepburn and Bogart, who spend long stretches of the film alone together on the boat. Only great actors can carry a film in such a way, and Hepburn and Bogart's charisma shines through.

Ultimately, we were left with two greats of the golden age, both Oscar winners already, competing for the ultimate prize again in 1952. Vivien Leigh won, I would say deservedly so, but 1952 was a ceremony that pitted two extraordinary women at the peak of their powers against each other. It was a rare and great moment for the acting community.

Tomorrow, I will look at the same ceremony, this time focussing on the Best Actor category and the two men who played opposite Leigh and Hepburn that year - Marlon Brando and Humphrey Bogart.

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Tuesday, 10 May 2011

On Any Other Year: The 1951 Battle for Best Actress

The performances of Bette Davis in All About Eve and Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd. have been drawing comparisons for all of the 60 years since the films were released. Two classic films, each focussing on ageing actresses desperately trying to cling to former glories, make the parallels impossible to avoid. In reality, however, the performances were very different. The jealous outbursts of Margo in All About Eve have little in common, character-wise, with the dangerously deluded Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd. Their eventual fate demonstrates this; Margo eventually reclaims her dignity, Norma Desmond only reclaims the illusion of dignity.

Where the two performances should draw parallels is in their brilliance. Some found Swanson's performance to be over-the-top but in the case of Sunset Blvd. it was perfectly fitting. A once-glorious and adored silent movie actress, used to over-annunciated and exaggerated gestures, Swanson's portrayal of Norma Desmond is exactly how I'd expect such an actress to behave. The same goes for Bette Davis in All About Eve; witty and talented, she is used to being adored. The transformation of Margo as Anne Baxter's Eve has an ever-increasing influence on her life is remarkable. Davis is brilliant early on as the effortlessly cool diva, but her increasingly confrontational style as her jealousy towards Eve grows is even better.

But enough about these two performances. They didn't win the Oscar after all. Anna Baxter also lost out for the titular role in All About Eve. She had proved more than a match for Bette Davis in the film, evolving from the picture of sweetness and innocence to a conniving and ruthless manipulator with remarkable and wholly believable skill. In fact, one could argue, if they had not effectively split each other's votes by appearing in the same film, either one of them would have deservedly walked away with the top prize.

They didn't, however. The honour went to Judy Holliday for her performance in Born Yesterday. It is a fine performance, with Holliday playing a former showgirl being educated to fit in with high society. At most Academy Awards in the era she would have won the Oscar easily but, of the four actresses, her role is perhaps the least well remembered. That is not because there was anything wrong with it, on the contrary, but because this was a particularly fine year for female actresses and time would look more favourably on All About Eve and Sunset Blvd. (though Born Yesterday is still a very good film).

If I were to choose a winner now I would probably go for Bette Davis, though her cause wasn't helped by the fact she had already won two Oscars at this point and been nominated many times. Baxter also had an Oscar to her name, though Swanson would never win, with this being her final nomination. All the roles have gone down in history, however, and this remains one of the strongest years for the Best Actress category in history.

On Any Other Year will return next time to examine the Best Actress category once more. This time, the focus will be on 1952, and Vivien Leigh's performance in A Streetcar Named Desire going up against Katharine Hepburn in The African Queen.

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Friday, 6 May 2011

On Any Other Year: The 1941 Best Picture Battle

On Any Other Year is a new series of short articles for Filmstubs covering the Academy Award moments when voters were faced with a dilemma worthy of Sophie's Choice. 

Often, from the moment the Oscar nominees are announced, we know the clear frontrunners. This is particularly true of the acting categories. This year, for instance, not many people were under the illusion that anyone other that Colin Firth or Natalie Portman would walk away with the top prizes. Very occasionally however, the Academy will be presented with two or more nominees so deserving of winning a certain category that it seems a sin to see one lose out.

Most (though by no means all) Oscar-nominees are good, but sometimes a year will throw together several works of greatness, be it in film-making or acting and force them to fight it out for top spot. Hence "On Any Other Year:" the nominees that would have cantered to the Oscar in a lesser year but lost out to greatness.

We start with 1941, and one of the strongest Best Picture fields the Academy has even witnessed. Then, like now, the Best Picture award was made up of ten nominees. In this particular year, the nominees were a mixed bag of neglected greats (Foreign Correspondent, The Letter) and so-so films that had gained popularity at the time (Kitty Foyle, Our Town). There were, however, four stand-out nominees: Rebecca, The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Dictator, and The Philadelphia Story. All of these films occupy places in the IMDb top 250, 70 years after their release.

Rebecca would go on to claim the Academy Award. Few would argue that it didn't deserve it. This was a film that showed a different side of Alfred Hitchcock and the extent of his talent. It was a masterful film, superbly shot and acted. It remains, to this day, one of the greatest literary adaptations made on film.

However, pretty high on the list of great literary adaptations would the The Grapes of Wrath. John Ford brilliantly captured John Steinbeck's classic Great Depression tale and was graced with great performances from his cast. The themes of the film are the sort of thing the Academy loves, and it did, giving the film seven nominations. It says a lot about the quality on display that year that The Grapes of Wrath only gained two awards.

The Great Dictator was altogether something different. An incredibly enduring comedy and biting piece of satire, its timing, as America debated whether to enter the Second World War, was impeccable. As a satire of Nazi Germany it was more effective than any propaganda film the industry could produce. That is not to say it has not remained relevant; anyone with a passing knowledge of history can easily pick up on the themes. If not Charlie Chaplin's greatest work, it is certainly his most accessible.

Finally, we have The Philadelphia Story, probably my least favourite of the four, but perhaps the film that best captures Hollywood's Golden Age. The unbeatable combination of Cary Grant, James Stewart, and Katharine Hepburn give this the class and wit that so many romantic comedies of the era seem to ooze. It remains much loved, and is the only film that James Stewart would ever win an acting Oscar for.

So there you have it: four films, all of which would have richly deserved a Best Picture Oscar. They've all aged incredibly well, but it is only Rebecca that is a Best Picture winner. In my view, of the four, Rebecca was the film that deserved the prize, but I would certainly not begrudge any of the others winning.

On Any Other Year will return to examine the 1951 battle for Best Actress. 

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Monday, 2 May 2011

So when does Ben Affleck stop being the butt of the joke?

The Academy Awards, 1998. Two young best friends triumphantly hold their Oscars aloft, having come together to write the electric screenplay for one of 1997's most successful and critically lauded films. Before they were barely recognisable, now they stood with the world at their feet.

Fast-forward five years and one of those young men, Matt Damon, was well on the way to fulfilling that potential and becoming one of the biggest stars on the planet. He had just starred in The Bourne Identity, which would go on to be one of the defining franchises of the early twenty-first century. His acting career was taking off, but the creative promise he had shown as a writer for Good Will Hunting was yet to develop; his only other writing credit, 2002's Gerry, was far less impressive and successful than his Oscar-winning effort.

At the same stage of his career, Ben Affleck, co-writer of Good Will Hunting, was in trouble. In 2003 he starred in three films: Daredevil, Gigli and Paycheck. All of them were regarded as dismal failures, with Affleck getting a huge chunk of the blame. His high profile relationship with Jennifer Lopez and their abysmal performances alongside each other in Gigli had made him a laughing stock. That Affleck could be an Oscar-winning writer began to draw snorts of derision from his critics. A whispering campaign began that soon morphed into a common pop culture assumption: Matt Damon was the driving force behind Good Will Hunting and Ben Affleck was just along for the ride.

That assumption remains strong in 2011, and Affleck still retains an army of critics. However, the doubters and hecklers have started to be drowned out by the growing number of Affleck's defenders and supporters. For every film fan that feels Affleck has committed unforgivable crimes against cinema, there is one that feels he is a talented man that has made some bad decisions. Just as he had become a star off the back of work he had done off-screen, he has been rebuilding his reputation in the same way. Gone are the days of ill-conceived blockbusters and unfunny comedies, Affleck is now a writer-director whose first two films, Gone Baby Gone and The Town  have been brilliantly crafted, critically acclaimed and purely entertaining. Suddenly that whispering campaign seems far less credible.

Affleck has shown his eye for a story and maturity in delivering grown-up tales with challenging themes. He can draw great performances from his stars (both Gone Baby Gone and The Town received Oscar-nominations in acting categories). This maturity has seen his own acting ability develop dramatically, whether it be directing himself and convincing as a leading man in The Town, or offering great support in political thriller State of Play. The simple fact of the matter is that Ben Affleck just isn't a joke any more. The people that still feel he is are clinging to an image of Affleck that is half a decade old.

Half a decade is a long time in movies.

So, what about Good Will Hunting? Well the simple truth is that two young friends got together and co-wrote a great screenplay and lived the dream. Their careers may have taken different paths but the talent they showed has never gone away. Most people in the know see Ben Affleck as having a great future behind the camera. Matt Damon's future in front of it is assured but it would come as no surprise if he chose to have a crack at directing at some point in the future. He'd be good at it, too.

Maybe it's time Matt Damon and Ben Affleck collaborated again...

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