The Also-Rans Project – Howard’s End (Best Picture Also-Ran 1992)

Howards end poster.jpgDirected by James Ivory

Screenplay by Ruth Prawar Jhabvala, from the novel by E.M. Forster

Starring Anthony Hopkin, Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham Carter, Vanessa Redgrave, Prunella Scales, James Wilby, Samuel West and Nicola Duffett

Some movies inspire extreme reactions, both good and bad.  Positive passion, and negative passion.  Rapturous appreciation, and out-right loathing.

But, while some movies are inspirational, it is only the barest few.  In reality, most movies are not inspirational.  Most movies are not even good.  To be fair, most movies, are also not bad.  They are, for the most part, ‘meh.’

Now, this should not be a surprise – after all, the bell-curve was developed based on reality.  That reality being that most everything, and everybody, was mediocre, and only the barest few rise, or fall, below it.  To be blunt, very few things are outright good, or outright bad.  Which is why most of the entries in this series answer the question of, Better than best?, with an easy no.  Very few things are the best, and even fewer are better.

It should not come as a shock, then, that Howard’s End lives more in the fat part of the bell-curve with the other mediocrities than out on the extreme ends with the truly exceptional.  Because the odds always were that it’d be ‘meh.’

What’s It About

In the early part of the 20th century, the fortunes of two British families – the wealthy, conservative Wilcox’s, and the economically-secure-but-not-wealthy, intellectual Schlegel’s – intersect in different ways.  And because these two families, and the disparate folks who happen into their orbit, come from different parts of society, there are all sorts of minor culture clashes amongst the different parties.  In short, it’s a soap opera of very stiff-upper-lip types, which means it’s fairly quiet and more concerned about propriety than anything else.

Image result for howards endIs It Good?

Howard’s End has no real narrative through-line, or spine, or arc, to tie it all together.  Rather, because it’s more interested in the interactions of different parts of society, it’s more episodic, meandering from one bit to the other.  Episodes that only sometimes touch one another:

  1. Helen Schlegel (Helena Bonham-Carter) becomes momentarily engaged to Paul Wilcox, the youngest son of the Wilcox family. Later, after that entanglement is done in, Helen finds herself wrapped up in the life of a lowly insurance clerk, Leonard Bast (Samuel West), and his gauche wife, Jacky.
  2. Margaret Schlegel (Emma Thompson) makes friends with Ruth Wilcox (Vanessa Redgrave) – Paul’s mother – in that woman’s final days, and unbeknownst to Margaret, is to be made a gift of Ruth’s house – Howard’s End is the house – upon Ruth’s death. This is a gift the rest of the Wilcox’s immediately conceal from Margaret, then dishonor.
  3. Margaret eventually marries Ruth’s widower, Henry Wilcox (Anthony Hopkins), much to the chagrin of Henry’s children, especially Charles (James Wilby), who seems to believe Margaret is some sort of fortune hunter and should be driven off.
  4. Henry is later revealed to have been a one-time lover of Leonard Bast’s wife, Jacky, who he first encountered in Greece. Much friction ensues when Helen brings her to the wedding of one of Henry’s children.
  5. Also, after Helen and Margaret casually mention Leonard and his employer to Henry, Henry says Leonard’s employer is about to go broke, which causes Leonard to quit his job and seek another, eventually spiraling him into poverty when his subsequent jobs all fall through. The kicker?  Henry later carelessly admits he was wrong on that one, the employer was fine, and basically shrugs it off with an, “Oops, my bad.”  Of course, once he finds out Jacky is married to Leonard, he refuses to help Leonard find another job.
  6. Leonard eventually impregnates Helen – it is an adulterous moment – and even though Charles it not really family to Helen, and he seems to despise the Schlegel’s, Charles accidentally kills Leonard in some weird ‘defending her honor’ sort of way. Charles is eventually jailed for this killing.
  7. Finally, Henry decides that upon his death he will leave Howard’s End to Margaret, fulfilling his dead wife’s wish.
  8. The End.
Image result for howards end

Samuel West, as Leonard, (l) and Bonham-Carter

Because the movie plays out over the course of these various stories, there is no central unifying story drawing it together in any cohesive way.  Sure, the lineage of the house, Howard’s End, drives much of the action, but at the same time is immaterial to as much as it is material.  After all, while it is central to Charles’ story, and certainly important to Henry’s, it’s basically tangential to Helen and Margaret’s, and has no connection to the Leonard Bast story at all, other than he is accidentally killed there when he comes to see Helen.  In fact, the house has very little bearing at all on the relationship between Ruth and Margaret – so little bearing that the gift of a house to a newly-formed friend seems odd.

And because the film is told this way, with episodes only occasionally bumping into one another, the film feels as if it really does not have a true leading performance, or performances.  For instance, despite being top-billed, Hopkins doesn’t really arrive into the film until thirty minutes in, and he occasionally disappears for long stretches.  And while much of the story seems driven by Thompson and Bonham-Carter, they each have their own extended periods off-screen – especially Bonham-Carter, who all-but disappears from the film for what seems like an eternity at the end.   So the film feels…unfocused.

Worst for me is the film relies too heavily on coincidence – how perfect is it that Helen and Margaret take a shine to Leonard Bast, who just happens to be married to Jacky, who just happens to have been the one-time lover of Henry in Greece, who just happens to marry Margaret after Margaret makes friends with Ruth, who dies and happens to leave her a house that will not be given to her?  One can accept a certain amount of coincidence in the movies, because life is full of coincidences, but this is all just too much to ignore.

All of this, of course, overlooks that much of the movie would cease to exist if people would (a) just talk to one another instead of hiding everything behind the veneer of propriety, and (b) mind their own damn business.

Image result for howards end charles

James Wilby as Charles

Emma Thompson

Thompson won the Best Actress Oscar for her work in the film, and she does give a fine performance.  She’s a bit flighty to begin, when she seems settled into the notion of being an old maid, until she finally flourishes in her marriage to the much-older Henry.  As Margaret, Thompson is charming and witty and pretty, which means I cannot believe this particular woman would ever be an old maid, needing to be saved by an old rich man.  She’s just too attractive.  Which is probably an inadvertent truth about the movie business – even in the movies the plain-Jane’s have to be attractive women.

That all said, while Thompson won the Oscar, the crucial, yet overlooked, performance was given by James Wilby as Charlie Wilcox, the brutish, elder son who accidentally kills Leonard.  Even though the death is truly accidental – he wants to beat Leonard up, but not really hurt him – we have no sympathy for the killer because Wilby plays him as entirely risible.  In this way, Wilby makes him the perfect villain – he’s handsome, has some charm, and worse, his motives are not all that bad.  He just wants to preserve his family fortune and name, he just goes about achieving it in the wrong way, which makes us have to hate ourselves for sympathizing with his goals.  In the end, his is the kind of performance that won’t win any awards, even as it is exactly what this sort of film needs.

Unforgiven 2.jpgBetter Than Best

In the year that Unforgiven won Best Picture, and other nominees included Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game, not mention 1992 was the year of A River Runs Through It, there is no way Howard’s End could ever be argued as being better than the best.

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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, jump over here and here and have a look.  I promise, buying always makes you feel good.

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The Also-Ran’s Project — The Champ (Best Picture Also-Ran 1931/1932)

The Champ poster.jpgDirected by King Vidor

Written by Frances Marion

Starring Wallace Beery, Jackie Cooper, Irene Rich and Rosco Ates

In the modern world, women are consistently second choice to men in just about everything – mostly for sexist reasons.  They also make less money for doing the exact same job – also for sexist reasons.  But it’s not only today this happens, because it’s been that way since time immemorial, and Hollywood has certainly been no different: all the big stars are men, and all the big paydays are for me.  For proof, consider the relative pay imbalance between Mark Wahlberg and Michelle Williams for Ridley Scott’s All The Money In The World, even before Wahlberg squeezed more money out of the re-shoots.

It is in light of all this that the achievements of Frances Marion were all-the-more amazing. Continue reading

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The Also-Rans Project – Nicholas and Alexandra (Best Picture Also-Ran 1971)

Nicholas and alexandra.jpgDirected by Franklin J. Schaffner

Written by James Goldman, from the book by Robert K. Massie

Starring Michael Jayston, Janet Suzman, Laurence Olivier and Tom Baker

From the late 1960s, through the 1970s, there was a New Golden Age in Hollywood.  This was a time when popular movies were also good movies, but also a time when edgy films could be popular.  If there was a Venn diagram to represent it, then the circles for ‘Edge’, ‘Popularity’, and ‘Good’ would all overlap completely.

Moreover, during this time, Edgy/Popular/Good movies also won Oscars.  After all, between 1969 and 1979, Best Picture winners included Midnight Cowboy (1969), The French Connection (1971), The Godfather (1972),[1] The Sting (1973),[2] One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest (1975), Rocky (1976), Annie Hall (1977), and The Deer Hunter (1978).  There was literally no other decade in film history where this kind of thing happened. Continue reading

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I Wrote A Thing — So It Goes

Cover 1.jpgHello, everybody — I wrote a thing.  This is aside from the usual things I write here, about movies.  Also, it’s unlike what I write here in that you will have to pay for it.  You can get it from Amazon either on the Kindle for $2.99, or in a paperback form for $13.00.

Here’s the description on Amazon:

Eight stories of friends and family, connected by cars, movies and funerals.

Does that description tell you much about what you’ll find?  No, because I’m terrible at writing descriptions of my writing.  A longer version would be to say it’s 8 stories, about a small group of family and friends, as they interact over funerals, movies, affairs, and red VW beetles.  I think it contains some of my very best writing, and also some of my most personal writing.  Which is why, even though I’m from the midwest and we abhor self-congratulation, I am pretty proud of the writing within.

Feel free to buy anything else I’ve written here.

And remember, you never feel bad when you treat yo’self, so go ahead and start buying!  And if you do buy it, please leave a review — I love reviews!

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The Also-Ran’s Project – Hope and Glory (Best Picture Also-Ran 1987)

Hope and Glory poster.jpgDirected by John Boorman

Written by John Boorman

Starring Sebastian Rice-Edwards, Sarah Miles, David Hayman, Derrick O’Conner, Susan Wooldbridge, Sammi Davis and Ian Bannen

Hope and Glory is a war film – specifically, a World War II film.  But not in the way that anybody goes off to battle and dies in an overly bloody or realistic way.

Or, at all.

And also not in the way World War II films tend to be defined, which is exclusively by the American involvement.[1]  You know, the story of a group of disparate ethnicities and regional accents from across this melting pot of a country we live in fighting the Nazi’s.  Rather, it’s more a character study, focusing on one London family in the first year or so of the war, and how they cope with the blitz. Continue reading

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The Also-Rans Project – The Snake Pit (Best Picture Also-Ran 1948)

Snakepit1948 62862n.jpgDirected by Anatole Litvak

Written by Frank Partos and Millen Brand, based upon the novel by Mary Jane Ward

Starring Olivia De Havilland, Mark Stevens, Leo Genn, Celeste Holm, Helen Craig, Leif Erickson, and Beulah Bondi

In Good Will Hunting, Matt Damon plays an aimless, unambitious janitor at MIT who ultimately proves a math genius.  But, even as his secret is discovered, he’s reluctant to use it, owing to some past trauma he suffered in life.  To get passed it, he meets with a psychologist (Robin Williams), and by talking about baseball, they work towards some sort of breakthrough.[1]

So do they solve Damon?    You bet they do.  And all it took was repeating the phrase, “It’s not your fault!” until he accepts it wasn’t his fault after all. Continue reading

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The Also-Ran’s Project — The Remains of the Day (Best Picture Also-Ran 1993)

Remains of the day.jpgDirected by James Ivory

Screenplay by Ruth Prawar Jhabvala, from the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro

Starring Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, James Fox, Christopher Reeve and Hugh Grant

Let’s be honest: Anthony Hopkins is only ever going to be defined by one thing.  No matter what else he does in life – or did – he’s only ever going to be Hannibal Lecter first, and everything else second.  What is a bit curious here is while he might have made his take on the character, he was not the first actor to play the part.[1]  It was Brian Cox who had first crack at it, in Michael Mann’s Manhunter, and while Cox was charming, he lacked the specific menace Hopkins brought to the role.  Which is why one man’s take on it is iconic (Hopkins), while the other’s is merely mentioned in passing as a thing that happened (Cox).[2] Continue reading

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The Also-Rans Project – The Big House (Best Picture Also-Ran 1929/1930)

The Big House film poster.jpgDirected by George W. Hill

Screenplay by Frances Marion, additional dialog by Joe Farnham and Martin Flavin

Starring Chester Morris, Wallace Beery, Lewis Stone, Robert Montgomery, Leila Hyams, George F. Marion and J.C. Nugent

Old movies are just different.  That’s a fact.  They come from a different time, they come from a different era, they came from a different sensibility.

They are products of their environment.

And yet, too often people forget that.  Instead, they get too stuck in their own love of the present – or the near-present – and everything from it, and everything it does, to be able to look through the world they’re used to in order to see something of value in what come before them.  If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard somebody complain about a movie being in black and white, or the old garish Technicolor,[1] and therefore not being worth their time, I wouldn’t have money to retire on, but I could at least get a cup of coffee. Continue reading

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The Also-Rans Project – The Emigrants, dir. by Jan Troell – (Best Picture Also-Ran 1972)

The Emigrants poster.pngDirected by Jan Troell

Screenplay by Jan Troell and Bengt Forslund, based upon the novels “The Emigrants” and “Unto A Good Land” by Vilhelm Moberg

Starring Max Von Sydow, Liv Ullmann, Eddie Axberg, Pierre Lindstedt, Allan Edwall and Monica Zetterlund

There is no way I would have ever seen The Emigrants if not for this project.  Partially that’s because I’m not super-into Swedish film in general – I do enjoy a handful of Bergman films, including The Virgin Spring, but by no means am I ‘into’ Swedish films.[1]  But also it’s because The Emigrants just happens to be a Swedish film that’s 190 minutes long.

Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against long films.  After all, Gone With The Wind is almost 240 minutes long and it’s a top-10 for me.[2]   Plus, I’m down for foreign films.  Another top-10 of mine?  Aguirre, The Wrath of God.[3]  It’s just that when those two things intersect – extreme length and reading – it makes even the best movie a bit of a tough sit. Continue reading

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The Also-Ran’s Project – Places In The Heart (Best Picture Also-Ran 1984)

Places in the Heart (1984), poster.jpgDirected by Robert Benton

Written by Robert Benton

Starring Sally Field, Lindsey Crouse, John Malkovich, Danny Glover, Ed Harris and Amy Madigan

I wouldn’t call Sally Field an unlikely Oscar winner – I wouldn’t call anybody an unlikely Oscar winner.  After all, lot’s of people manage to capture lightening in a bottle, or just happen to be in the right place at the right time, and wind up with an Oscar.  It could happen to anybody.  It happened to Broderick Crawford, it happened to Roberto Benigni, it happened to Paul Haggis.  It’s what happens when a cultural moment coincides with the Oscars, or when some dumb schmuck gets the role tailored perfectly to their skills.

Serendipity.

Sally Field, though, might be the most unlikely two-time Oscar winner.[1]  I mean, if I were to ask you to name a  two-time Oscar winning actor, Field’s would likely be pretty far down the list – she’s just not a person you expect to have two Oscars.  After all, she started her career in the silly sitcom, Gidget, followed it up with the equally-silly The Flying Nun, then spent several years trying to break out of that ghetto before finally having her biggest box-office success playing the second-fiddle love-interest to Burt Reynolds in Smokey and the Bandit. Continue reading

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