Sunday, February 27, 2011

Best Actress Oscar: 1963

I want to thank ClassicBecky, Classic Film & TV Cafe, Kevin's Movie Corner, and Noir and Chick Flicks for participating in this past week's mini-blogathon on the 1963 Best Actress Oscar race. What great and informative posts by everyone!

I also want to thank everyone who stopped by to read the posts.

To commemorate Oscar Day, which really should be a national holiday, here is a clip of the announcement of the Best Actress Oscar from 1963.

Watch the clip!

I was taken aback by the description of both Leslie Caron's and Natalie Wood's characters as women with "technical difficulty." Hmmmm. Patricia Neal was pregnant and could not attend the ceremony, and she was in London, so I'm assuming the clip they show of her was pre-taped.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Caron Graces ‘L-Shaped Room’

With “The L-Shaped Room,” Leslie Caron brings the same level of grace to a dramatic role that she did to her dancing.

After appearing in such classics as “An American in Paris,” “Lili” and “Gigi,” Caron was desperate to find an adult, non-musical role that would showcase her acting talents. Frankly, she was tired of playing the ingénue.

“The L-Shaped Room” certainly gave her that opportunity. She was thrilled to play Jane Fosset, an unmarried French woman who discovers she’s pregnant. The film is part of the British new wave that brought a grittier reality to the film landscape not typically found in Hollywood and routinely tacked topics that the studios rarely touched.

While “The L-Shaped Room’s” subject matter and revelations are less shocking today, the movie is still powerful, and Caron’s deeply felt performance is wonderful to watch.

The film’s opening credits play over Jane searching for an apartment. She ends up at a run-down rooming house, where landlady Doris (Avis Bunnage) chirps, “We’re just one big happy family here, dear,” as she leads Jane up to the top floor and the small, odd-shaped apartment. The price is right, so Jane takes it. Upon her first night, Jane pulls back the sheets on her bed to discover roaches. She falls into the nearest chair, pulls her coat over her and curls up, exhausted, frightened and dejected.

Soon Jane befriends two of her neighbors (below): Johnny (Brock Peters), who has the room next to her and who can see into her room (but it’s not a “peeping Tom” situation), and Toby (Tom Bell), who lives one floor down and is a struggling writer. He quickly develops a crush on Jane, but she keeps him at arm’s length, not revealing to him – or any of her other neighbors – that she’s pregnant.

Not sure of what to do, Jane visits a doctor about an abortion. He asks, “Can the young man be persuaded to marry you?” She replies, “I don’t want to marry him.” This surprising answer is not what he expected to hear. While he’s neither friendly nor unfriendly, the doctor has an impersonal approach, and his assumptions about Jane result in her decision to keep the baby.

Meanwhile, Toby continues to persist in his affections, and soon Jane finds herself with him even though she knows it’s the wrong thing to do.

The French new wave and the subsequent British new wave were not afraid to tackle themes like this. Often they focused on the working class – the people, their neighborhoods, their friends. And sexuality wasn’t danced around. These films are so different from what Hollywood was churning out in the early 1960s. With rising costs, the studios spent their money on the familiar – big Biblical epics, road-show musicals, and glossy romances and melodramas – in hopes the returns would be big.

If the British new wave didn’t make big bucks at the box office, they were attracting audiences – particularly younger crowds who wanted more realism in their films. And young directors and actors who would come of age by the end of the decade were riveted by such films as “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner,” “A Taste of Honey” and “This Sporting Life.”

Even if it’s clear where “The L-Shaped Room” is going, the drama unfolds beautifully. The women’s movement may be a few years away, but this movie (as well as its American counterpart that year, “Love With the Proper Stranger") isn’t afraid of exploring women’s roles and sexuality. The landlady has a revolving door of men into her apartment; in the basement apartment live two prostitutes. But the unmarried yet pregnant Jane is considered a whore – and she’s not a promiscuous woman.

In fact, the movie also touches on homosexuality, and while it’s not overtly discussed, the issue is there and accepted without relying on broad stereotypes.

Director Bryan Forbes was making only his second film with “Room.” He would direct several other British new wave movies, such as “Séance on a Wet Afternoon” and “The Whisperers,” both featuring lead performances that brought Oscar nods to Kim Stanley and Edith Evans, respectively. Then in the 1970s he made the chilling “The Stepford Wives,” which examines women’s roles within a different genre.

As for “The L-Shaped Room,” the entire cast is excellent in bringing the characters vividly to life, yet the movie’s soul comes out through Caron. She portrays Jane’s search for some direction in her life as beautifully as she danced with Gene Kelly. Even in some of her plaintive conversations, when her emotions get the best of her, Caron conveys an unspoken defiance, as if she’s saying, “What have I done that’s so wrong?” Jane may be shaken, and her journey is not easy, but Caron conveys it all with sureness.

If Caron wanted to prove she could act without dancing, to convincingly play an adult instead of a virginal young woman, she clearly succeeds. Had it not been for Patricia Neal in “Hud,” the Oscar may have been hers. It was her second nomination, the first coming for “Lili,” and she can be proud of her work as Jane.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

It was while watching "The L-Shaped Room" that I thought about the Best Actress race from 1963 and doing a blogathon. So far the results have been terrific, and here is the lineup with links:
Monday, Feb. 21: Classic Film and TV Cafe will profile Rachel Roberts, nominated for "This Sporting Life" NOW POSTED!
Tuesday, Feb. 22: Kevin's Movie Corner will present Shirley MacLaine in "Irma La Douce" NOW POSTED!
Wednesday, Feb. 23: Classicfilmboy will cover Leslie Caron in "The L-Shaped Room"
Thursday, Feb. 24: ClassicBecky's Film and Literary Review will examine Patricia Neal in "Hud" NOW POSTED!
Friday, Feb. 25: Noir and Chick Flicks will look at Natalie Wood in "Love With the Proper Stranger" NOW POSTED!

We hope you enjoy this look back at the Oscars -- leave us plenty of comments and let us know what you think!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Blogathon: The Oscars -- Best Actress 1963

With the Oscars fast approaching, several blogs are joining together for a look at the Best Actress race from 1963. So, during the week of the Oscars, we will each publish a post:

Monday, Feb. 21: Classic Film and TV Cafe will profile Rachel Roberts, nominated for "This Sporting Life" NOW POSTED!
Tuesday, Feb. 22: Kevin's Movie Corner will present Shirley MacLaine in "Irma La Douce" NOW POSTED!
Wednesday, Feb. 23: Classicfilmboy will cover Leslie Caron in "The L-Shaped Room"NOW POSTED!
Thursday, Feb. 24: ClassicBecky's Film and Literary Review will examine Patricia Neal in "Hud" NOW POSTED!
Friday, Feb. 25: Noir and Chick Flicks will look at Natalie Wood in "Love With the Proper Stranger" NOW POSTED!

We hope you enjoy this look back at the Oscars -- leave us plenty of comments and let us know what you think!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Audrey of the Month

It's Oscar time, and I love this shot from backstage at the awards in 1955 when Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly (back to camera) were nominated for Best Actress of 1954 -- Audrey for "Sabrina," Grace for "The Country Girl." Two lovely women looking lovely. Both would knock everyone off the red carpet today!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

'Out of the Fog' Not a Night to Remember

The fog machine on the Warners Brother lot must have worked overtime for “Out of the Fog,” an enjoyable if not always successful 1941 drama set along the New York waterfront.

Based upon an Irwin Shaw play “The Gentle People,” the film centers on racketeer Harold Goff (John Garfield), who bullies the waterfront folks into pay $5 per week for protection for their boats. His latest victims are Jonah (Thomas Mitchell) and Olaf (John Qualen).

Meanwhile, Jonah’s beautiful daughter Stella (Ida Lupino) is sick and tired of her predictable life, including both her job at the telephone company and her sweet yet dull boyfriend George (Eddie Albert). She’s attracted to the dangerous excitement that Goff projects and begins to secretly date him (both are pictured below), even after Jonah discovers the romance and tries to warn his daughter.

This is where the movie stumbles. The screenplay is co-written by Robert Rossen, who would go on to make some hard-hitting dramas as “All the King’s Men.” It’s also directed by Anatole Litvak, so it’s surprising that the film goes awry. If Garfield succeeds in making Goff loud and obnoxious, he fails to allow the audience to see any charm that would attract and keep Stella. She seems like a smart girl, but it’s so obvious what this guy is about. The fact that he’s different from her perceived dull life may be enough for the initial attraction. But is she really that weak or dim-witted? I don’t think so. She adores her father, and she has brains, so the fact that she insists upon this relationship with Goff and not someone else who can whisk her away doesn’t fly except that the story needs this to be so. Without seeing Goff’s charm – regardless of whether it’s real or not – it’s hard for the audience to identify with Stella, which is crucial for the film to work.

So the focus really turns to Olaf and Jonah, the latter hatching a scheme after Goff tries to shake the duo down for their life savings. Yet while the local cop would love to take down Goff, Jonah remains oddly silent at times. This makes no sense, either, except that the story needs this to be so.

What does work is the ensemble cast. Mitchell is best, with veteran character actors Qualen and George Tobias working well. The wonderful Aline MacMahon plays Stella’s mom, but I get the feeling her part may be larger in the play, as the movie shows her overbearing nature in a few scenes and little more, which is a waste of MacMahon’s talent.

There’s so much promise in “Out of the Fog.” Considering Warner Brothers’ reputation for atmospheric, hard-edged stories, my expectations were probably set too high. I enjoyed many moments of the film, but as a whole “Fog” lacks conviction.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Gaynor Escapes 'Small Town'

Janet Gaynor is so darned adorable, and I mean that in the best of ways.

I can enjoy pretty much any film she’s in, whether it’s truly great like “Sunrise” or one of her box office hits, like the melodramatic romance “Seventh Heaven.” During the early 1930s, Gaynor was a top box office star, and her wholesome charm was often paired with Charles Farrell. In fact, in 1934, she was the top star in the country.

However, outside of her distinction as the first Best Actress Oscar winner, not many people are familiar with her work. And that includes myself, as I’d only seen five of her films until recently when I took in “Small Town Girl.” This lightweight 1936 romance features Gaynor in the title role as Kay Brannan, who’s tired of the drab life she leads in her East Coast hometown. She works day in and day out for her grocer brother George (Andy Devine); she lives at home with her loving parents, who accept their small-town existence with ease; and she dates a local boy, Elmer (James Stewart), who’s also perfectly content with his predictable existence.

When traffic for the annual Harvard/Yale football game is rerouted through her town, Kay dreams of joining the crowds and escaping her routine boredom. Later that night, while Kay takes a walk alone, lost in her daydreams, Bob (Robert Taylor) pulls over and asks for directions. With a twinkle in his eye, he invites her to show him the way; with yearning in her heart, she willingly jumps into his car to do so.

Yes, the beginning of a romance in 1936 would be the beginning of a horror film in 2011.

Anyway, the result is dinner with his friends, too much liquor and a late-night trip to the justice of the peace. The next morning, they awake in his car and discover they are married, shocked by the actions they don’t remember. It turns out Bob is a doctor and his family comes from high society, and he now believes Kay tricked him into marriage for his money.

What affection existed between the two is now gone, yet they scheme to stay married to save the family’s honor. After an appropriate time, they will divorce. But first comes the pretend honeymoon, in which the two engage in typical romantic comedy shenanigans, where they slam doors and talk about how much they despise one another.

The roadmap for “Small Town Girl” is easy to follow, and it’s clear where this trip will lead. Much like Kay bored with the predictability of life, I was disappointed in the predictability of this story. The arranged honeymoon is tiring because we’ve seen so many films with bickering couples who in reality are truly in love. It just takes the characters longer than the audience to figure it out. Perhaps this is a “Purple Rose of Cairo” moment when Kay and Bob can turn to the audience and take a poll. Bob’s family certainly sees what’s happening almost immediately, and they take an instant liking to Kay.

Then there’s the typical “other woman” who Bob was seeing before the quickie marriage occurred. She’s a shrew, just as you would expect.

And the ending comes so quickly that you wonder if you missed part of the story.

What helps make the film work is Gaynor’s charm. I swear she could recite the alphabet and glow while doing so. Taylor, at the beginning of a long career at MGM, is handsome and equally charming. The two make a strong pair, even if the plot doesn’t give them something livelier to do.

The director, believe it or not, is William Wellman. The next year, Wellman would guide Gaynor through her best late-career performance in “A Star Is Born.” The supporting cast includes an eighth-billed Stewart at the beginning of his storied career as Kay’s boring yet endearing boyfriend. Ironically enough, Stewart would soon star in the talking remake of “Seventh Heaven,” Gaynor’s silent blockbuster that helped earn her an Oscar.

Despite the shortcomings “Small Town Girl,” it’s enjoyable enough. If anything, it only makes me want to see more of Gaynor on film. With luck you’ll see me reviewing more of her movies in the future.