The Brutal Truth Found In 12 Years a Slave

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On Sunday many of us will be glued to our television sets watching the annual Oscar ceremony unfold. At this time of year I tend to contemplate all the new releases I’ve seen in the past 12 months or more and linger over the films that have captured my imagination, awed me, inspired me or just made me think about old ideas and tired truths in new ways.

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Transparency of Style: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Annex - Loy, Myrna (Best Years of Our Lives, The)_NRFPT_01

The Academy Awards present what Hollywood considers its best face to the world. Never an objective measure of artistic accomplishment, if such a thing is even possible, it instead functions as a self-justification that the almighty dollar doesn’t decide their every decision. Any self-serious title has a shot at the gold, so it’s only through luck or strong-arm tactics that historically significant work is awarded. Instead of bemoaning the unearned influence of the awards, or the value of this year’s nominations, I’m devoting space to one of those rare, remarkable Best Picture winners, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). Released late last year in a richly detailed Blu-Ray transfer from Warner Brothers, it is a patient, empathetic examination of soldiers re-entering American society following WWII. In its even lighting, off-the-rack costuming and deep focus long takes, Andre Bazin found “the perfect neutrality and transparency of style”.

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Jackie Cooper (1922-2011)

Please Note: In Tribute to Jackie Cooper, on Friday, May 13th TCM will broadcast nine of the actor’s films, which are listed here.

Jackie Cooper, who was an Oscar nominee for Best Actor in a Leading Role when he was only nine,  died on May 3rd at the age of 88. His shy smile, seemingly artless candor, and innate ability to suggest an overwhelmed child’s desire to make everything all right in the world continues to make those who stumble on his films smile in recognition.

If your most vivid mental image of Jackie Cooper is still as one of the ragamuffins in Hal Roach’s The Little Rascals, or the boy pleading with The Champ (1931-King Vidor) to rise again, or the privileged child befriending a kid from Shantytown in his Oscar-nominated performance in Skippy (1931-Norman Taurog), that’s understandable. Despite the fact that his early performances are eight decades in the past, his wonderfully natural portrayal of boys on film are still painfully fresh and have an evergreen realism at their core. In the darkest years of the Great Depression audiences felt a connection to that innocent, lion-hearted kid on screen whose life wasn’t going any more smoothly than their own. I like Shirley Temple, Jane Withers, and Freddie Bartholomew very much. I’ve been astounded by Mickey Rooney’s seemingly boundless talent. Yet to me, Jackie Cooper was one of most natural child actors, even though he had a different, understandably complex perspective on his own work. “I wasn’t great,” he claimed. “The directors were great. I was just a kid who did what he was told. And what I wasn’t told to do was done for me.”

His son, Russell Cooper, commented that his father “was a fascinating guy who really did everything, from all different aspects of the business. You can’t really say that about many people.” Looking back at Cooper‘s long life, when he acted in over a hundred movies, plays and television shows, and directed and produced over 250 TV projects, it seems that he may have done everything but sweep up the stage–and, as an apparently down-to-earth person–he probably did that at least a few times.

Much of Cooper‘s acting has a similar, recognizable quality, as he personified a kind of ragged moxie laced with a guileless intensity. Even when the stories were schmaltzy, he was not. As he grew up, and seemed likely to succumb to the neglect and adulation that early fame often breeds, he eventually approached his later problems with a similar ingenuousness as he struggled to become an adult in real ways. As he later pointed out about his childhood career, “I was trained to be a professional, not to be a person.”

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Borzage Through Fresh Eyes

Color me green with envy after reading all those positive reports from all over about the recent TCM Classic Film Festival. While giving friends who attended the third degree to extract every droplet of vicarious enjoyment from their accounts of that long, delirious weekend in LA, one of the things that stands out in their reporting is the mention of the large number of young people in the audience, as well as the “lifers,” (aka those of us who have been movie-mad since childhood).  Recently, I was delighted to make the acquaintance of a youthful filmmaker who could be representative of this fresh wave of classic film lovers on the horizon.

From the viewpoint of most of us, Rebecca Bozzo, a twenty-something graduate of the University of California at Santa Barbara, is already a working film professional, but her ebullient enthusiasm for what she describes as  the  “collaborative energy” of movie making has an infectious quality that blends real knowledge and a joyous passion, even as she describes the sometimes arduous but invigorating process of collaboration with diverse people. Growing up in a household where her supportive parents exposed her to great films from Hitchcock, Cukor, Stevens, and Minnelli, her father was particularly involved in the National Film Society efforts to preserve films. With this cinematically aware family background, a growing desire to be a part of the film industry as a director and producer almost seems inevitable.

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Kissing Oscar

Anthony Quinn Kisses his 1957 Oscar for "Best Supporting Actor"

I’ve been taking a break from this entertaining site for a while, but I didn’t want to completely disappear during Academy Award time.  As the Morlocks have each explored their varied and fascinating takes on the season over the past few weeks, I tried to rustle up some photos on the theme.  You know how winners are supposed to always be kissing their Oscars, giving thanks to the gold statuette after they win?  The action has evolved into a glorious pop culture cliche, but if an internet photo search is any indication, either the kisses have been highly over-reported or they’re nearly mythical.  Where are all those kisses, anyway?

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Death by Oscar

I make no apologies for my fascination with the annual Academy Awards show. I grew up in a household filled with movie lovers and watching the Oscars was a yearly ritual in my home. My mother enjoyed making popcorn for our impromptu Oscar parties and even though we rarely had the opportunity to see all the films that were nominated each year we’d still root for our favorite performers and filmmakers to take home a gold statuette. During the yearly broadcast my mother regularly reminded me that one of our favorite actors, Richard Burton, had never won an Oscar even though he had been nominated numerous times. Together we’d shake our heads in disbelief and complain loudly about that injustice, but we continued to watch year after year knowing full well that awards aren’t always given to those who deserve them. My mother passed away in 1997 but I’ve continued our family tradition without her. It might be undeserved devotion but the pomp and pageantry of the Academy Awards show appeals to the little kid in me. I know that most of my favorite performers and filmmakers will never take home a gold statuette but I enjoy the pure spectacle of the event. Sports fans have their Superbowl and movie lovers have the Academy Awards. Oscar night represents many different things to many different people but to me it will always be an opportunity for everyone to share their appreciation for the movies and the people who make them.

My fascination with the annual Academy Awards show led me to recently read Robert Hofler’s latest book Party Animals: A Hollywood Tale of Sex, Drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll Starring the Fabulous Allan Carr. If you’re familiar with Oscar history you might recognize Carr’s name as the man who was responsible for what is widely considered to be the worst Oscar show in the Academy’s long history. Allan Carr was a flamboyant and successful Hollywood talent agent in the ‘60s who helped manage the careers of many actors including Tony Curtis, Rosalind Russell, Peter Sellers, Ann-Margret and Dyan Cannon. The book focuses on Carr’s life during the ‘70s and ‘80s when he was producing films such as the popular musical GREASE (1978) and the box-office flop CAN’T STOP THE MUSIC (1980) as well as hosting legendary parties at his luxurious Hollywood home known as Hillhaven Lodge. In 1989 Allan Carr was asked to produce the 61st Annual Academy Awards show.

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The Best Picture Nominees From 1943: Part 2

Last week I looked at six of the Best Picture nominees from 1943, the last year the Academy nominated ten films for Best Picture, until they expanded the category once more in 2010. Today I’ll look at the remaining four titles, with James Agee and Manny Farber again providing perspective with their reviews from the period. The idea is to approach these films with fresh eyes, outside of the reputations (or lack of) that have accrued over time.

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Hattie McDaniel’s Path to Her Oscar

Last year, in part because of the celebrations surrounding the films of 1939, I had a chance to introduce Gone With the Wind to younger viewers in my family who had never seen the film. It’s not a favorite movie of mine, so I could understand their appalled reactions to the innate racism of the story that implied that a slave’s first loyalty was to the families that owned them, (even after the Civil War and emancipation). Seen at a glance in GWTW, maybe the antebellum South’s biggest problems may only seem to be uppity white trash like Victor Jory’s oily Jonas Wilkerson, or the need for rebellious girls like Scarlett to maintain their hypocritical poses in a rigid social structure, while secretly acting on their own half-understood impulses, and the upheaval caused by those damn Yankees. But look a bit closer and you can see the story of changing attitudes and a brave woman struggling to make her mark in a world that both rejected and accepted her.  I don’t mean Scarlett Katie O’Hara, either.

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Keeping it Real: Oscar’s Love of Actors in Historical or Real-World Roles

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Love ‘em or hate ‘em, the Academy Awards are just around the corner, and this week the Movie Morlocks are focusing our sites once again on Oscar lore, legends, and lunacy. Beginning today and concluding next Sunday, we offer our comments, gripes, and insights for your edification and entertainment. Stick with us throughout the week, and you’ll likely learn something you didn’t know, find something to disagree with, and feel compelled to make a comment or two!

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Recently, I read Marc Eliot’s biography titled Cary Grant, and I was intrigued by a comment Eliot made about the reasons for Grant’s decision to star as Cole Porter in Night and Day (1946). According to the author, Grant had been turning down a number of film roles during the mid-1940s, because he had become disenchanted with Hollywood. However, he was lured back with the offer to star in Night and Day because of the prestige of doing a biopic (biography picture). It seems that a biopic is considered a career high point for an actor and is often the road to receiving an Academy Award nomination. Eliot then went to prove his point by listing those actors who had won Oscars for playing historical or real-life figures. It was indeed a lengthy and impressive roster, which made an impression on me. (By the way, Grant was not even nominated for his performance as Porter in  Night and Day.)

Prompted by Eliot’s comment about the importance of the biopic in an actor’s career, I studied the nominations and wins in the four acting categories of the Academy Awards to see how often actors won for portraying historical or real-life figures. The exercise resulted in some delights, surprises, and questions that I offer here for your consideration.

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