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Style? …or Substance?

May 10th, 2011 No comments

It’s been a little while, but the victory of “The King’s Speech” over “The Social Network” at the Academy Awards in February for Best Picture and Best Director has gotten us thinking: is there such a thing as a ‘style over substance’ bias at the Oscars?

The Academy Award Best Picture victory of “The King’s Speech” (along with Best Director, Tom Hooper, as well as best original screenplay by David Seidler) over its notable competitor “The Social Network,” directed by David Fincher (although “The Social Network”‘s screenplay, adapted by Aaron Sorkin from Ben Mezrich’s book, also won), says a lot about Academy voters. They like an underdog, it seems, even when the Directors’ Guild or the Writers’ Guild feel otherwise. Stylish films (or films which emphasize direction over story) from first-time directors have scuttled Oscar hopes for master director Martin Scorsesetwice. And other great directors (ever heard of Steven Spielberg? Stanley Kubrick?) have had their hopes dashed by ‘flashy’ entrants in the Oscar race.

 

This Year’s Model

It’s not hard to see why “The King’s Speech” won the Best Picture Oscar over “The Social Network,” since Toby Hooper’s ‘Speech’ is playful, studied and gimmicky. Audiences love that in a movie, and the Academy, despite their above-average member age, usually loves audience favorites. Besides, the story behind David Seidler’s truth-based script is practically a movie on its own: a stutterer himself, Seideler got the Queen Mother’s permission to write her husband’s story, on the condition that he wait until after her death to sell it – and she then proceeded to live to the ripe old age of 101! (In the process, Seidler became the oldest winning screenwriter in Academy Award history.)  Sorkin’s adaptation of Ben Mezrich’s book “The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal” served as the basis of Sorkin’s adaptation, “The Social Network,” under David Fincher’s direction. Although both pictures were nominated for Best Picture, screenplay and director, Fincher’s coolly calculated, challenging evocation of the Silicon Valley start-up explosion and birth of Facebook lost out to Hooper’s frenetic and occasionally slapstick historical tale. Although both pictures did well at the box office, it’s a good bet that 20 years from now more people will be citing the influence of Fincher’s work in “The Social Network” (or his previous film “Zodiac,” which similarly evoked a recent period setting with astonishing effect) than will be pointing to “The King’s Speech” and its effect on film. 

Freshman curse?

It sure seems like veteran film director Martin Scorsese has been the victim of this Academy ‘Style vs. Substance’  bias. Multiple times. He finally got his Best Director Oscar in 2007 for “The Departed,” but was nominated (and, of course, lost) 6 times previously. I was at the Academy Awards in 1981 when Scorsese lost to the first of three first-time directors, Robert Redford, who won for “Ordinary People” over Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” (argued by many cinephiles to be the best film of the 80s). Scorsese would go on to lose (with “Goodfellas”) to Kevin Costner and “Dances with Wolves” in 1990, and again to first-time feature director Rob Marshall, whose “Chicago” beat “The Aviator” in 2005. It was only after his 7th nomination, for “The Departed,” that Scorsese defeated this ‘freshman curse.’ Even still, his ‘loser’ films like “The Last Temptation of Christ,” “Raging Bull” and “Gangs of New York” are considered ‘winners’ in the pages of film history.

Always the Bridesmaid…

 Martin Scorsese isn’t alone in terms of being a powerhouse director with an empty shelf full of near-misses at the Oscar ceremony. Steven Spielberg has been nominated 9 times, and won three of those Oscars (he won for Best Picture and Best Director in 1994 for “Schindler’s List,” but in 1998 had to settle for Best Director only for “Saving Private Ryan”). The Oscar for Best Picture of 1998 went to John Madden’s “Shakespeare in Love,” which many in Hollywood attributed to a savvy “For Your Consideration” Academy Award trade publication advertising campaign. Again, regardless of “Shakespeare in Love”‘s wit and frothiness, its importance to film history is bound to be overshadowed by its losing Best Picture competitor “Saving Private Ryan.”

How about Light versus Dark?

Although 2010’s Best Picture battle underscored the ‘style versus substance’ debate in Hollywood, it’s really nothing new. The Academy has been choosing between light entertainment and heavy drama since its inception. In 1951, Elia Kazan’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” lost to “An American in Paris” at the box office. Vincente Minnelli’s popular musical film beat Kazan’s gritty drama that year (although Kazan – and ‘Streetcar’ star Marlon Brando – would win golden statuettes a few years later for their work together on “On the Waterfront” ). A similar situation would arise 14 years later when “My Fair Lady” faced down “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb” as Best Picture at the Academy Awards in 1965. Despite its vaunted place in film history (and multiple Oscar nominations), Stanley Kubrick’s apocalyptic black comedy lost to George Cukor’s refined adaptation of the Lerner and Loewe classic, which practically swept the 1965 Oscar ceremony. Even still, I don’t know of many people whose ‘desert island movie collection’ would leave out ‘Dr. Strangelove.’ Can’t say I know a lot of people who would include ‘My Fair Lady,’ either, but that’s just me…

Doesn’t visionary count? 

Finally, one of the more obvious ‘style over substance’ choices for Best Picture has to come from 1976, in which heavyweight Hollywood dramas “All the President’s Men,” “Bound for Glory,” “Taxi Driver” (there’s that hapless Scorsese again!) and the late Sidney Lumet’s classic “Network” (from Paddy Chayefsky’s original Oscar-winning screenplay) all lost to John Avildsen’s “Rocky,” which clealy struck a chord with underdog-lovers everywhere. A tremendously-successful independent film, “Rocky” spawned five sequels.  “Network,” on the other hand, predicted the rise of reality TV, ratings wars and global media, not to mention airwave-hogging ideologues. So there is that

Who says it’s just style or substance?

While discussing the subject of style versus substance, a friend asked an intriguing question: “Why is it that so many writers or filmmakers do their best work at a young age?”

So – coming up next: ‘Nature versus Nurture: Creativy or Experience?’ 

Movies That Will Stay With You

August 2nd, 2010 No comments

In a summer of mostly instantly unforgettable movies (anybody remember “Sex and the City 2” or “Robin Hood”? I didn’t think so), I began to think about older movies I’ve seen that have stayed with me – because their stories and plots were so compelling, or because the films themselves were so thought-provoking. Most of them, if not all, are available on Netflix or Blockbuster.com, and if you seek out an alternative to today’s formulaic fare, you might want to check out one of these memorable flicks. But be warned – ‘different’ or ‘memorable’ aren’t always ‘more fun.’ Some of these movies are downers, truth be told. But they’re all affecting – and effective. If you want to stretch your cinematic boundaries, give one (or more) of these films a try.

  1. “Nobody Knows”  This Japanese film from writer/director Hirokazu Koreeda is based on a true story of a Japanese mother whose efforts to hide her children from her landlord and neighbors take on tragic proportions. A ‘Home Alone‘ cautionary-tale of the first order, this film has haunted me ever since I saw it – 2 years ago. Because it remains so affecting, it will probably be a while until I watch it again, but I recommend it to anyone who loves good movies – with a caveat that parents of young children shouldn’t watch it with them (it’s rated PG-13), and that it is as troubling as it is fulfilling, movie-wise.
  2. “The Passenger”  This film, I feel, represents the late Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni at the peak of his career. With earlier arthouse hits like “L’Avventura” and “Blow Up,” he cemented his place in world cinema. In “The Passenger,” which employs his trademark brand of nihilistic plotting, a reporter (played by Jack Nicholson) trades places with a dead arms dealer, with predictably ambiguous results. The film represents a nifty travelogue of sorts, but the movie’s ending will leave you puzzling for a long time.
  3. The 400 Blows”  Francois Truffaut’s autobiographical film (and the first of his ‘Antoine Dionel’ features) is a gritty, no-holds-barred retelling of his own wayward youth. As a foot-soldier director in the first wave of the French ‘New Wave,’ Truffaut crafted a kinetic, homage-laden film which revealed his affinity to work with young actors, and which featured the most famous ‘foreign film’ ‘freeze frame ending’ in cinema history. Truffaut and Jeanne-Pierre Leaud would go on to make at least 5 other movies which deal with the Doinel/Truffaut character.
  4. “The Wicker Man”  Not the disappointing 2006 remake from  Neil LaBute, but rather the 1973 original feature film written by Anthony Shaffer and starrring the late Edward Woodward. A ‘lost classic’ for a number of years, “The Wicker Man” resurfaced a decade or so after its initial theatrical run. Although the 2006 remake did its best, Woodward’s final scene in the original is one of haunting realization and bravura acting, and stays with the viewer long after the credits have played.
  5. “Seconds”  This 1966 black-and-white cult classic from director John Frankenheimer (“Ronin”) is a disturbing and prescient look into the world of “Nip/Tuck” some 30 years later… Rock Hudson plays a middle-aged businessman who learns of a way to ‘do-over’ his life, courtesy of a super-secret organization that can make you look younger, offer a great career and even jettison your old identity… but at a hefty price.
  6. “Night Moves”  Arthur Penn’s 1975 film about private dick Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman) is an existential film noir which deals with themes of self-worth, sensuality and self-control. Penn’s touch is evident from his emphasis on young actress Melanie Griffith’s sexuality to the film’s utterly 1970s ‘director’s ending.’ I suspect if this picture were made in a later decade, the studio would’ve forced Penn to shoot multiple endings for the DVD release… (By the way, his 1976 film “The Missouri Breaks” is worthy of an extra look, but keep in mind that next-door-neighbors – in this case Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando – do not best co-stars make…)
  7. “The Blair Witch Project”   OK, don’t laugh. This film was one of the first ‘viral marketing’ efforts which actually took root. Since then there have been a LOT of imitators, but with the exception of “Paranormal Activity,” no one has come close (including the ‘Blair Witch ‘ sequel) to the success of this film’ssuccess.  First-person point-of-view may be trite, but it WORKS… As a result, this low-budgeted film gets points for profit – and being the first at the trough…
  8. “Paths of Glory”  Two words: Stanley Kubrick. It’s early Kubrick at that… and the result is fantastic. Watch this film all the way through and tell me you are not surprised… “Paths of Glory”: features several great twists and superior performances; not the least of which is a sequence involving a frightened female German singer in the movie’s disturbing – but eventually cathartic – final scene. Although billed as Susanne Christiane, she became better known as Christiane Kubrick – the director’s wife.

If you recognize a common thread through these films, it’s that they are the product of bygone days. It’s not that older films are better, but sometimes more mature filmmakers can recognize  a human condition that is timeless. They are also – in most cases – the films of my youth. And that makes them even more valuable. There’s not a cookie-cutter movie here – they are all originals.

Why not give one a try?