The Also-Rans Project – Antonia’s Line (Best Foreign Language Film 1995)

Antoniasline.jpgWritten and Directed by Marleen Gorris

Starring Willeke van Ammelrooy, Els Dottermans and Jan Decleir

The Netherlands, immediately post-WWII.  The widow Antonia (Willeke van Ammelrooy) returns with her daughter, Danielle (Els Dottermans), to her hometown to see about her dying mother, who in fact dies within minutes of Antonia’s arrival.  Afterwards, with her mother’s house now empty, Antonia moves in, then never leaves.  Over the following years Antonia puts down roots in the town, collecting a variety of hard-luck-cases into her orbit, who she protects as if they were her children, and also catches the eye of a widower, Farmer Bas (Jan Decleir).  After some time, she and the Farmer Bas take up together.  Amidst this she helps Danielle in her quest to have her own child, then helps raise that child, and even helps to raise her great-granddaughter as well.  Along the way the extended family endures the various ups and downs of life in the mid-to-late 20th century and, in the end, Antonia dies happy, surrounded by family.

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The Also Ran’s Project – Billy Elliot (Best Director, Supporting Actress, and Screenplay Also-Ran 2000)

Billy Elliot movie.jpgDirected by Stephen Daldry

Written by Lee Hall

Starring Jamie Bell, Julie Walters, Gary Lewis, Jamie Draven, Jean Heywood, and Stuart Wells

In 1984 a miner’s strike was mounted England in an order to shut down the British coal industry as a whole and prevent the closure of unprofitable mines.[1]  Against this backdrop Billy Elliot (Jamie Bell), the son and brother of striking coal miners, rejects the boxing his father (Gary Lewis) wants him to learn, and instead takes an interest in ballet.  Much to the family’s chagrin, Billy excels at it and eventually lands an audition at the Royal Ballet School in London.  No shock, but Billy’s father and brother come to rally around the boy’s ballet interest and, in the end, Billy is accepted into the school. Continue reading

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The Also-Rans Project – Face To Face (Best Director and Best Actress Also-Ran 1976)

Face to face movie poster.jpgDirected by Ingmar Bergman

Written by Ingmar Bergman

Starring Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson

While her husband is away on business, and her daughter is away at summer camp, a depressive psychiatrist (Liv Ullmann) takes a job as temporary director for psychiatry at some hospital.  Through her work there she another man (Erland Josephson) and while they don’t have a physical affair, they are emotionally intimate.  In the end, because of past trauma in her life, and her depression, she has a mental breakdown.

Is This For Me?

I’m not exactly ignorant of Ingmar Bergman’s work, but I’m no connoisseur either.  At best, I’ve had my moments and quite like several of his films: The Seventh Seal, The Virgin Spring and Wild Strawberries in particular.  I also have modest affection for The Magician, which is not transcendent, but was at least fine.  Visually striking, with Max Von Sydow giving an interesting performance.  But, on the whole the film was only fine.

That all said, taking his oeuvre as a collected thing, I don’t think I get Bergman, or his enduring appeal.  The problem, for me, is every time I’ve sampled his later films – those being the one’s in color – they’ve almost instantly turned me off.  They heighten emotions, yet suppress the visuals, making them jarring.  Some leave me cold, others leave me scolded.

Most leave me punished.[1]

The problem is many of Bergman’s later films do not seem the sort of movie to be enjoyed.  Appreciated on an intellectual level?  Yes.  Enjoyed?  No.

Face to Face is one of those punishing films. It’s visually uninteresting and overwrought.  Worse, it makes completely baffling choices with the main character that served no real purpose other than to try and drive me off.

Image result for liv ullmann face to face

Liv Ullmann

The most obvious place the movie goes wrong is the rape of the main character in the later half of the first hour.  First, the rape is out of nowhere, similar to Marian Crane’s early death in Psycho, which makes it shocking for being unexpected.[2]  Then, this rape, and the character’s response to it, is tossed off.  It’s not reported, it’s not really brooded over, it’s not really addressed.  And there’s no good reason for any of those.  Or, really, any reason.  The most we get out of it is an admission to her would-be-lover (Erland Josephson) that she was not all that unhappy being raped.  After all, she says, it’s been a while since she last had sex.

And then, just like that, she lets it go.

What this means to us is the rape only existed for making the main character disappointed by it, and nothing else.  It did not catalyze her in any way, or spur her into some agency towards mental health.[3]  Rather, it happens and that’s it.  Which means it was a rape for the sake of having a rape.  Which is frankly offensive.

That all said, while the rape is offensive, Bergman is provocative with the way he addresses the “Do as I say, not as I do” mindset of many people, and the sort of toxicity of that way of thinking.  See, in this movie the main character is a psychiatrist who also suffers her own depression and psychosis.  But despite believing in the value of psychiatric treatment for others, she refuses to get it for herself.  Rather, she lives in denial of her own mental health and deludes herself into thinking she can ‘cure’ herself simply by willing her issues away.  As if denial and willpower are ever enough to overcome psychosis.  Of course, if she got treatment in the usual way then there would probably not be the massive breakdown that splits this movie neatly in half, and therefore, this would be a completely different film altogether.  So…there is that.

All That Jazz.jpgTwo Halves of One Whole

Face to Face can be divided fairly neatly between the pre- and post-breakdown sections, with the film being completely different sorts of animals on either side of the break.  Pre-breakdown the film is about a clearly depressed woman trying to get through her day and outrun her psychosis, and basically failing it.

Post-breakdown the movie turns into a proto-All That Jazz,[4] complete with a lengthy series of fantasy sequences focused on the possibility of the main character’s death, much as All That Jazz would later do.  Here are some parallels between the movies:

  • The neat bifurcation of the film between pre- and post-breakdown.
  • Ignorance of health/denial of health to the detriment of the denier. In All That Jazz the denial was of the main character’s physical health, whereas in Face to Face it is the main character’s mental health.
  • Both confront the character’s mortality with a surreal fantasy sequence. In All That Jazz, the main character confronts his death in some sort of musical/variety show setting, then dies.  Here?  She is tormented by strange visions of death, but ultimately lives. The main difference between the two films?  While All that Jazz dresses its sequence up in showbiz glamour and style, Face to Face cranks up the emotions and the dramatics from Ullmann, to the point of being unbearable.  If the film was attempting to make me uncomfortable, it worked.

And therein is where Face to Face squanders itself.  While Face to Face and All That Jazz feel incredibly similar, All That Jazz has style and drive, compared to Face to Face being flat and tepid, visually uninteresting, and squanders a good performance by Ullmann.[5]

In the end, where Bob Fosse directs the hell out of All That Jazz and gets the most out of it, Bergman stands in the way of his film’s success and it’s the worse for it.

Image result for dina de laurentiis thalberg

Dino De Laurentiif with his Thalberg Award

Fun Fact

Dino De Laurentiis produced Face to Face.  If you came up age in the 1980’s you probably associate him with having produced a ton of schlocky movies like Death Wish, Mandingo, Amityville II and 3-D.  In a way, he was the proto-Cannon Films.

But little do most 1980s kids know that De Laurentiis actually had a long history of producing solid, arthouse films.  Amongst the directors he produced films for were Fellini, Roberto Rossellini, De Sica, Martin Ritt, John Huston, Visconti, Sidney Lumet, Milos Foreman, David Cronenberg, and David Lynch.  In fact, De Laurentiis won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1958 with La Strada, and was given the Irving Thalberg Award – the lifetime achievement award for producers – by the Academy in 2001.

So, he had an arthouse vibe.  But he also produced crap.  I suppose that’s what happens when you wind up with producing credits on 175 films.  Sometimes they’re good, sometimes they’re bad, and you won’t know which until you actually make the film.

A Note on Versions

Though there are a couple different versions of this film floating around, from as short as 114 minutes, to the original Swedish TV broadcast at 177 minutes, I reviewed the 135 minute release from Olive Films.

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Please Read/Buy…

See the rest of the Also Rans Project here.

Also, don’t be afraid to have a look at the thing that inspired this, The Best Picture Project.  Or, you could buy the revised, updated version of that project in book form:  E-Book or Paperback.

To be a pal and buy my books, jum.p over here and here and have a look.  I promise, buying always makes you feel good.

_______________

 

[1] To be fair, punishment is relative.  After all, he never made Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible.

[2] Although, rape doesn’t have to be sudden and unexpected to be shocking.  It’s shocking enough on it’s own terms.  Being sudden only increases the shock.

[3] Aside from all this, it’s deeply troubling as an audience member to view a rape as something that needs to inspire a person to revenge, or some other action.  Why does a woman have to be violated in order to take ownership of herself?  Why is there an expectation that rape in a movie has to be a plot device?

[4] All That Jazz, directed by Bob Fosse (1979)

[5] To be fair, while I intellectually see Ullmann’s performance as good, it’s also so off-the-rails at times you can’t not be mesmerized by it.  But in terms of this movie, which feels tepid, Ullmann’s unhinged performance seems like it’s coming in a from a distant land.

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The Also- Rans Project – In Old Arizona (Best Picture Also-Ran 1928-1929)

In Old Arizona poster.jpgDirected by Irving Cummings and Raoul Walsh

Written by Tom Barry, based on “The Caballero’s Way” by O. Henry

Starring Warner Baxter, Edmund Lowe, and Dorothy Burgess

Old films are strange and foreign things to modern viewers.  Probably as strange and foreign to us as silent films were to move-goers after the advent of talking pictures.  Neither operates in the expected, so can be completely jarring.  Some of it has to do with advancements in sound, but just as jarring as the differences in the rhythms of the drama, or comedy; the use of the medium to tell a story; and the way the actors act out that story.

Yet, for all the differences in film across the years, they mostly have one thing entirely in common – they are designed to be efficient machines separating moviegoers from their cash.  To that end, each strives for a contemporary-to-their-time version of spectacle and, using the tools of their time, achieve it.  It’s just that what counts as spectacle, and what it looks like, has changed over time.

In the silent era the spectacle was over-broad performances and hand colored films.  The early talkies shoved in singing and dancing, even when it wasn’t really appropriate to the film, simply because they could.  Today it’s explosions and robot crap and 10-tons of CGI.

All that brings me to this: in film, nothing is ever old, and nothing is every new, as if time truly is a flat circle.

Image result for warner baxter cisco kid

Warner Baxter as The Cisco Kid

What’s It About?

The Cisco Kid (Baxter) is a suave, well-dressed bandit, making a living robbing stage coaches.  Of course, he’s not some ordinary crook, but is careful not to steal from the passengers – only the payroll boxes on the stage.  So by stealing only company money, he’s something of a romantic figure.

Well, at least he’s romantic to the hoi polloi.  To the company, he’s a thief and so eventually Sergeant Dunn (Lowe) is sent out to stop the thievery.  Only, Dunn is basically useless at the gig and instead spends his time falling in love Tonia Maria (Dorothy Burgess), who turns out to be Cisco’s sweetheart.  When she reciprocates and tries to help Dunn catch the Kid, she seals her own fate.

In the end, the Cisco Kid gets away.

This Shit Was Big Time[1]

The 1928/1929 Oscars were the second year for the awards and there were seven categories in all, down from the twelve awarded the first year.  Those categories were:

  • Outstanding Picture[2]
  • Best Director
  • Best Actor
  • Best Actress
  • Best Art Direction
  • Best Cinematography
  • Best Writing

Two films led the nominations that year with five each:[3] The Patriot and In Old Arizona.  Though both films would lose in the Outstanding Picture race to a musical, The Broadway Melody, neither went away empty-handed.   Warner Baxter won Best Actor for In Old Arizona, while The Patriot won Best Writing.  Still, that they each led the nominations surely speaks to the broader appeal of both films and should have marked them as the favorite amongst the Academy voters as a whole.  In later years, this would be the assumption.  But in 1929…

Well, in 1929 the Academy membership as a whole didn’t vote on the winners at all – or didn’t seem to.  Rather, the awards were voted on by the small group of five or so folks who made up the Academy Central Board of Judges.  This meant it was easy to spread the love around to the various studios, and meant powerful men and women in Hollywood could guarantee nominations for a film, or an award for somebody or other, even if they were clearly undeserving.  This is how Mary Pickford won Best Actress 1928/1929.  This is why no film took more than one award each.

Oh, then there is this: the 1928/1929 Oscars were the first, and only, time there were no nominations.  There were only winners.  The only reason we have nominations now is due to research the Academy did into the matter, which later resulted in nominees being named retroactively.

The ultimate point of all this: the five nominations for In Old Arizona don’t really mean shit.

Image result for raoul walsh

Raoul Walsh

What About Me?

Director Irving Cummings was nominated for Best Director for In Old Arizona.  Sure, his direction was not great in an objective way, but it was a different time and they valued different things then.  That happens.  And that’s probably why not only did Cummings not get close to the Oscars again as a director, but is basically forgotten today.

What’s interesting about the Cummings nomination is he alone was nominated for Best Director for In Old Arizona, despite not being the sole director.  Rather, he is one of the two screen-credited directors on the film: Raoul Walsh was the other.  In this instance there were two directors because Cummings replaced Walsh after Walsh had an accident that took his eye and left him unable to finish the film.  Still, that doesn’t seem like it should be enough to rob a man of his nomination.  And yet, despite Walsh being first-named in the credits of the film – inverting the alphabetizing of the names – he was shut out of the nomination.

To be fair, though, if you read the last section of this piece you understand that not even Cummings was nominated at the time and it was the Academy who later decided he alone was nominated.  So, in truth, neither man were nominated, which is probably as it should have been.

Is It Any Good?

Really?  No.  Despite having five Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture, In Old Arizona is not good.

Tonally, it’s uneven.  On the one hand it wants to be a classic western.  On the other, it wants to be a romance.  On yet another it wants to be a Robin Hood story.  On top of this, it wants to be a musical.  And by trying to be everything it becomes nothing.   So, while this is a ‘western’, it’s barely one.  So much of the action takes place indoors that it’s more like a traditional studio film that they tacked on some outdoor work just to make it all look bigger.  And while it’s a romance, it’s more creepy than romantic.  And while it tries to be a musical, it fails hardest as a musical.

My suspicion is the film includes the number of songs it does is because sound films just became a thing and they wanted to take advantage of it.  Which is why the use of the music feels completely tacked-on.  And is why when the main character rides off the screen at one point, the camera swivels around to focus on some random mariachi singers, who add nothing at all but unneeded ambience.  And is why when the stagecoach arrives in town after being robbed, we are treated to an almost-full-length rendition of “Daisy, Daisy” before we get back to the plot.  In the end, the music does not help, only exists as a speedbump along the way.

But let’s be honest, tone of the film is the least of it’s problems.  The acting is fairly awful, with Lowe’s smugness the worst offender.  The visuals are static and uninteresting.  And while it’s reputed to be the first talkie western, and the first sound film to be filmed outdoors, it does nothing to deserve those milestones.  In the end it’s all slack and boring and, honestly, if you were to cut all the random musical interludes and the other times when the camera just sort of sat there staring at nothing, this film would be half and hour shorter and would still have all the same characters, story beats, and plot points.  In other words, you wouldn’t miss a thing.

In This Way, The Film Is Ick

The Cisco Kid is played by Warner Baxter.  Which means a Portuguese immigrant from Mexico is played by a white man.  Or, to boil it down: it’s a white man painted up with makeup to play a man of some color, complete with the ‘Mee-stir’ sort of accent.  And the love interest of the film, the Mexican Tonia Maria, was played by Dorothy Burgess.  Which was another white woman painted up to portray a Mexican.

White people wearing makeup to portray other races?  A common thing in early film.  Or, the early to mid-period of films.[4]  And which was a thing that was totally cool back then.  But while In Old Arizona is not outright racist about its portrayal of these character, the low-key racism makes the whole film specious.  So, if you’re planning on seeing this, you were warned.

Image result for in old arizona burgess

(L-R) Baxter, Burgess, Lowe

In This Way, It’s Not Ick

Okay, while history and the changing of the times makes the portrayal of other races by white people specious In Old Arizona, it’s actually pretty progressive in how it treats its female lead.  In later years, when the Hollywood Code became a thing, and all sorts of rules came into place for how to deal with various types of characters, the movies would be much harder on a character like Tonia Maria, labeling her a slut, or a prostitute, and would probably kill her for that.[5]  She would have to be punished for sure.  But here, nobody cares at all that she likes to get around and, indeed, when she dies at the end, it’s tragic.  So, I guess it’s a ‘one step forward, one step back’ kind of thing.

 

_______________

Please Read/Buy…

See the rest of the Also Rans Project here.

Also, don’t be afraid to have a look at the thing that inspired this, The Best Picture Project.  Or, you could buy the revised, updated version of that project in book form:  E-Book or Paperback.

To be a pal and buy my books, jum.p over here and here and have a look.  I promise, buying always makes you feel good.

_______________

 

[1] Much off this info was pulled from The Hollywood Reporter: https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/race/oscars-academys-longstanding-relationship-accountants-question-981547

[2] That’s what they called Best Picture then.

[3] Five each being two more than the next most nominated films.

[4] Fun fact, Mr. White Guy, Rock Hudson, played a Native-American in Winchester ’73 (1950).

[5] It also would mean The Cisco Kid has to be punished for his thievery and treachery and would never get away with it.

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The Also-Rans Project – Missing (Best Picture Also-Ran 1982)

Missing 1982 film.jpgDirected by Costa-Gavras

Written by Costa-Gavras and Donald Stewart, based upon the book of the same name by Thomas Hauser

Starring Sissy Spacek, Jack Lemmon, and John Shea

In the early 1970 Chile elected socialist Salvador Allende as president.  When economic problems followed his policies of nationalization and collectivizing industries, the military ousted Allende in a coup, supported by the CIA.  In the midst of the coup Allende was killed.  Though the official line was suicide, many suspected murder.  Even today, after Allende’s autopsy was released and confirms suicide, many still have doubts. Continue reading

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Down the Barrel of Loaded a Gun: The 10 Best Stand-Offs, Duels and Battles of Will In Movies (UPDATED):[1]

  1. Kinski v. Herzog, My Best Fiend & Burden of Dreams

Before he hooked up with Klaus Kinski, Werner Herzog was a little-known art-film director who was nevertheless one of the most single-minded men the cinema has ever seen.  Of course, the man met his match in Kinski, who while being intensely talented – he worked with an amazing array of directors before he became something akin to Herzog’s muse – was also the most temperamentally self-important actors every to grace the screen.  He was as known for the quality of his work as for his ability to get fired from every other movie he worked on. Continue reading

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The Also-Rans Project — Philomena (Best Picture Also Ran 2013)

Philomena poster.jpgDirected by Stephen Frears

Screenplay by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, from the book “The Lost Child of Philomena Lee,” by Martin Sixsmith

Starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan

In 1950s Ireland, a young unmarried Catholic girl, Philomena, finds herself pregnant and abandoned to a convent, where the nun’s basically force her to give her son up for adoption.  But not only does she never see him again, she is given no information on his whereabouts are anything of the sort.

He may as well be dead.

Out of a sense of shame and guilt, Philomena (played as an old woman by Dench) hides the truth about the boy from her later husband and family for fifty years, before she eventually confesses the secret to her daughter.  The daughter manages to hook her up with a journalist, Martin Sixsmith (Coogan), who agrees to help track down the son Philomena never knew. Continue reading

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The Also-Rans Project — The Queen (Best Picture Also-Ran 2006)

The Queen movie.jpgDirected by Stephen Frears

Written by Peter Morgan

Starring Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen, James Cromwell, Alex Jennings and Roger Allam

Just a few short months into Tony Blair’s tenure as England’s Prime Minister, Princess Diana, by then divorced from Prince Charles, is killed in a car crash in Paris.  Over the course of the following week the English public struggles to come to grips with the death of the “People’s Princess,” while the royal family steadfastly refuses to publicly acknowledge it.  According to the Queen, it is a private affair and should stay that way.  But as public opinion begins to curdle against the Queen, and the royals, Blair urges some broader acknowledgement to death, fearing to not do so will only fuel the growing anti-monarchist sentiment.

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The Also-Ran’s Project – The Life of Pi (Best Picture Also-Ran 2012)

A young man and a tiger in a boat at seaDirected by Ang Lee

Screenplay by David Magee, from the novel by Yann Martel

Starring Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Tabu, Adil Hussein, Rafe Spall and Gerard Depardieu

I am torn on the career of Ang Lee.  On the one hand, he’s made some pretty amazing films.  The Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Brokeback Mountain are astounding and it is no surprise he won multiple Oscars for his work – two for Best Director[1] and one for Best Foreign Language Film.[2]   On the other hand, Hulk and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk were pretty dreadful – hell, Hulk was so lackluster is nearly killed off superhero movies all on its own.

Somewhere in there he added the interesting failures Ride With The Devil and Taking Woodstock.[3]

Where I’m torn is this: I can Continue reading

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The Also-Ran’s Project — Iris (Best Actress/Supporting Actress Also-Ran 2001)

Iris poster.jpgDirected by Richard Eyre

Written by Richard Eyre and Charles Wood, Based upon the books by John Bayley

Starring Judi Dench, Kate Winslet, Jim Broadbent and Hugh Bonneville

When I was young, a horror movie to me was something that had blood and guts and jump-scares in it.  Or something that was deeply disturbing on an emotional or spiritual level.  Some of my favorite horror movies from when I was a kid/teenager are The Shining, The Omen and Children of the Corn.[1]

Older though, my definitions of what makes a horror movie has changed.  No longer are horror movies defined for me as only some blood and guts extravaganza.  Over the years I’ve expanded my definition of them to include films where children die for no reason, siblings suddenly having cancer and dying, movies about marital discord, and the like.

In essence, as I’ve gotten to be a comfortable adult the thought of losing my way of life, and the people in it I love, terrifies me.

But what terrifies me most is the thought of completely losing control of either my mind or my body.  As an avid runner, I can’t really fathom what I’d do if I couldn’t run anymore.  I’ve had a couple of broken toes over the last couple years and when it put my running on hold for nearly two months each time, it was the worst.  No day felt normal and all the time my bones were healing there was some part of me that didn’t feel me.  So the thought that two months could be forever is…yeah, it’s the worst.

Similarly, as a writer I’m so wrapped up in my mind and live inside my own head much of the time that I can’t even imagine what it would be like to suddenly lose that.  So in that way, Iris, which is about a writer succumbing to Alzheimer’s or Dementia – the movie doesn’t really make it clear which – is the absolute peak of a horror film.

What’s It About?

Iris Murdoch (Dench) is a celebrated English novelist who, in her mid-70s, develops Alzheimer’s.  This saps her of most of her mental faculties and renders her unable to be who she used to be, and completely dependent on others.  Over the film we see her husband, John Bayley (Broadbent), cope with her deterioration, while also having lengthy flashbacks to the past, when their younger selves (Winslet and Bonneville) are just getting their relationship off the ground.

Why Iris?

The films in the running for Best Picture 2001 were A Beautiful Mind, Gosford Park, In The Bedroom, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, and Moulin Rouge!.  What do all those films have in common?  I saw them all in the theater.  The Best Director race varied slightly in that Ridley Scott was in for Black Hawk Down, and David Lynch was in for Mullholland Drive.  The former I saw on DVD after it made that transition, the latter I saw in theaters.

Of course, this meant searching about the other categories for films I haven’t yet seen in order to have one here.   There was Best Actor loser Sean Penn in I Am Sam, Best Animated Feature loser Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, and Best Foreign Language losers Elling (Norway) and Son of the Bride (Argentina).[2]

The better choice, though, was to turn an eye on Iris, a Best Actress and Supporting Actress also-ran – for Judi Dench and Kate Winslet – and a Supporting Actor winner for Jim Broadbent.

Well-Made?

As a film that seems ostensibly Oscar-bait, i.e. boring and long and grossly conventional, Iris is actually a breath of fresh air.  Yes, it essentially tells a story of Alzheimer’s, but does not  chug along with an air of importance or self-consciousness.  Rather, this particular story is about how a husband is so devoted to his wife he can’t really fathom not taking care of her.  And no, Iris is neither boring, nor long.  At just a shade over 90 minutes, it’s actually a nice little morsel that never really has time to get boring.  Last, it is hardly conventional, opening as it does with Kate Winslet underwater-nudity over the credits, and continuing on in a semi-choppy linear-non-linear sort of way.

Here, rather than tell the story straight-forward, from the 1950s through the late-1990s, Iris is a looping film.  Unlike more conventional narratives, in Iris the past and present are shaded together in a way that draws to mind the idea that everything we do we’ve done before.  Also draws to mind the way the human mind works – or at least how mine works – where there are connections, or echoes, of what we’ve done in everything we do, no matter how random or uncconected.  Certainly, this allows the past to more directly inform the present, by being juxtaposed with it, even in little snippets, but also presents the idea that under normal conditions this is how the mind works.  That it is always self-referential to some degree.  And when the structure breaks a bit, or becomes more frantic and disconnected in some ways, it’s meant to show the deterioration of the mind at work.

No, by no means is Iris a revolutionary film, but in a large way it is a risky film and should be commended for using the form of the film to tell the story of the film.

That said, as much as I commend Iris for its narrative innovations, it can’t completely avoid being obvious in it’s metaphors and symbolism, particular in the use of water imagery to equate the mind and being out of it.  Fortunately, while the metaphor is obvious, it’s not eye-rollingly terrible.

Image result for judi dench irisBetter Than Best – Judi Dench

The Best Actress race 2001 was a tough group of names.  Aside from Dench, who was sitting on a previous Oscar for Shakespeare in Love,[3] there was eventual-winner Halle Berry for Monster’s Ball, Nicole Kidman for Moulin Rouge!,[4] Sissy Spacek for In The Bedroom,[5] and Renee Zellweger for Bridget Jones’s Diary.[6]  It’s impressive to think that a little more than two years later, everybody in the category would have a little gold man of their own.  That Halle Berry triumphed is really something.

If I’m honest, Halle Berry underwhelms in Monster’s Ball.  She underwhelmed me then, and underwhelms me now.  Yes, there is a certain sort of emotionally naked bravura feeling to her performance, even as Halle Berry just seemed wrong in the role.  Where you could have expected another actress to disappear into it, or do very subtle things with it – would Taraji P. Henson have been too young? – you’re never unaware you’re watching Halle Berry.  At all times she looks like Halle Berry in a bad wig trying to convince you she can act, which is a fundamental problem – how good can the performance be if I’m always aware I’m watching her give one?

That said, was Berry not the best in the category?  I mean, Spacek was fine, but her nomination seemed more a recognition of the fact that she was still capable of making movies than anything else.  Plus, I don’t think a ‘fine’ performance is really good enough to win.  Kidman’s performance is very much a go-for-broke kind of thing, and she practically mesmerizes, to the point you forget the material in the script is only so-so.  Zellweger is also good, in that it was a ballsy move to put on the weight and stretch out from playing the ingenue she’d basically been.  In it’s own way Zellweger’s role is as nakedly unflattering as Berry’s.  That said, Zellweger’s accent in the role just seems…off.[7]

Taking Dench out of the equation, I’d have to give the award to Kidman, then Zellweger, then Berry, then Spacek.  The question then is, where does Dench fit in?

The difficult thing with Dench’s performance is while it’s good, so much of it hinges on Winslet’s performance.  Because they play the same character at different points in time, the one naturally informs the other to the extent that you sometimes forget that Winslet did these scenes over there, while Dench did these others, and you can’t give credit to either for things they did not do.  But of the two, Dench clearly has the heavier lift.  She has to play a character that starts the film lucid and cogent and then very quickly loses that vibrancy, loses that mental grasp, as she slides into confusion and blankness.  While the lucidity is easier to portray, it’s that later slip into blankness where you see Dench shine.  Where another actor might ‘play’ blank, but still with life and action in their eyes, Dench manages to play completely blank.  When you see her face you don’t see an actor working in a role, you see the role.  So while I think I’d still favor Kidman over Dench – I just love those big roles, don’t I? – Dench is surely worthy.

Image result for kate winslet irisBetter Than Best – Kate Winslet

In 2001, Kate Winslet was definitely best known as the star of Titanic, for which she received her first Oscar nom for Best Actress, following up her previous nom for Best Supporting Actress for Sense and Sensibility.  How did Winslet use the cachet of starring in the biggest film of all time?  Did she pull a Leo and chase the money, getting paid $20 million for doing Danny Boyle’s adaptation of The Beach?  No, she went off and made Hideous Kinky,[8] Quills,[9] and Holy Smoke.[10]  Or, to define it another way, she made three movies that garnered her zero Oscar noms, one SAG nom (Quills), and a total domestic gross of not even $10 million.

In other words, she hadn’t really capitalized on Titanic and was not the seemingly-perennial Oscar nominee Kate Winslet we know today.  She was still making artistic choices, rather than ones driven by some other goal.  So in 2001, when Winslet was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for Iris, it was just her third go-round at the awards.

Just as Judi Dench would face an impressive list of actresses, Winslet’s 2001 competition is quite stunning:  Helen Mirren for Gosford Park, Maggie Smith for Gosford Park, Marisa Tomei for In The Bedroom and Jennifer Connelly for A Beautiful Mind.  Of that group, Smith had already won two Oscars,[11] Tomei had already won once,[12] Connelly would win her’s for A Beautiful Mind, and Mirren would shortly add her own.[13]  Winslet would make the category perfect with her own Best Actress Oscar for The Reader in 2009.  Then, as now, this feels like a murders row and even if Connelly hasn’t yet been nominated again, and even if Tomei’s Oscar for My Cousin Vinny was the butt of unfair jokes and conspiracy theories for years, the Best Supporting Actress race in 2001 was not to be trifled with.

As the young-Iris, Kate Winslet gives a fine performance.  In order for Dench to be able to truly sell the magnitude of the mental decline in old Iris, it’s necessary for Winslet to fill in the younger years in a way that show what she is declining from.  In that way, it’s up to Winslet to show us the young, energetic Iris.  The adventurous Iris.  The intellectually superior, yet continually self-doubting Iris who does her best to hide the publication of her first novel from her friends, seemingly embarrassed that it would even be published.  In that role, Winslet does well, but without having the chance to show the actual mental decline, her part seems a little one-note.  Yes, she’s good, but when you consider it without reference to what Dench has to play with as the older Iris, nothing about Winslet’s Iris screams out as Oscar-worthy.

Still, it was nominated, so the question remains: Better than best?  More to the point, is it better than Jennifer Connelly?  Honestly, no.  While A Beautiful Mind slips in my estimation year-to-year – as these things will – Connelly’s performance is the one aspect of it that remains high.  When I re-watched it for The Best Picture Project I recall being somewhat underwhelmed by the film, and by Russell Crowe, but even then, Connelly shines.  In the history of the Oscars there are lots of times where a winner can be debated as having been undeserving, but the Oscar for Jennifer Connelly is not one of them.

Image result for eleanor bron bedazzled

Bedazzled (1967); Dudley Moore (L) with Eleanor Bron (R) 

I Know You

I know this entry is supposed to be about Judi Dench and Kate Winslet, but I want to point out that Eleanor Bron appears here, in a small role early on, introducing Iris (Dench) for a speech she’s to give.  If you have any affinity for the work of Stanley Donen you already know he directed her twice: As William Daniel’s annoying wife on the road trip with Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney in Two For The Road, and as the maybe-love-interest to Dudley Moore in Bedazzled.  Or, if you have a thing for Ken Russell, you know she played the pretentious, annoying lover to Alan Bates in the adaptation of Women In Love.

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Please Read/Buy…

See the rest of the Also Rans Project here.

Also, don’t be afraid to have a look at the thing that inspired this, The Best Picture Project.  Or, you could buy the revised, updated version of that project in book form:  E-Book or Paperback.

To be a pal and buy my books, jum.p over here and here and have a look.  I promise, buying always makes you feel good.

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[1] The Exorcist also scared the bejesus out of me the first time I saw it, but as you know from reading this series, it’s lost some of that power.  As for the other three named, The Shining is in my all-time top five, and I certainly have love for The Omen and Children of the Corn, b0th of which still have the ability to give me the creeps.

[2] Curiously, the 2001 Foreign Language Film category might be the one I’m most well-versed in in cinema history, having seen the winner, No Man’s Land (Bosnia-Herzegovina), and also-rans Amelie (France) and Lagaan (India) relatively contemporary to their theatrical release.

[3] Best Supporting Actress (1998)

[4] Best Actress for The Hours (2002)

[5] Best Actress for Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)

[6] Best Supporting Actress for Cold Mountain (2003)

[7] To be fair I am not a dialect coach, so maybe it’s right on.

[8] Domestic box office, according to Box Office Mojo — $1.2 million

[9] Domestic box office, according to Box Office Mojo — $7 million

[10] Domestic box office, according to Box Office Mojo — $1.7 million

[11] The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Best Actress 1969) and California Suite (Best Supporting Actress 1978)

[12] My Cousin Vinny (Best Supporting Actress 1992)

[13] The Queen (Best Actress 2006)

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