Wednesday, April 17, 2013

A Tale of Two Best Pictures

One of the (many) benefits of living in New York City is the far more abundant cinema scene and the access that one has to it. Within a week of each other I was able to catch up with two Best Picture winners that I'd never seen before. And on the big screen, too. Well, one was on a big screen in the traditional sense, while the other was on a big screen that was basically just a really big television. But, hey, the ticket was cheap so who's complaining? Still better than watching it on a dinky laptop screen, which is - as of right now - my only other way to watch movies.

 As hard as it is to believe, I'd never seen George Cukor's My Fair Lady before last week. Although, to be perfectly honest with you, I sometimes have a hard time with the musicals of this era. I mean, come on, is there anybody that likes Oliver! out there? And although I've never seen it, Gigi is frequently cited as a terrible movie. From what I have read of it I can't help but continue to avoid it. Still, My Fair Lady at least has a reputation as being somewhat respectable (right?) and I'm definitely glad I finally bit the bullet the sat down to watch all 170 minutes of the eight-time Oscar winner (we'll get to those in a moment). As soon as the overture began I remembered why I've always turned Cukor's Broadway adaptation off whenever I have gone to watch it. That music! Those flowers! It's always struck me as rather deflating and coupled with the length meant I was never in any particular mood to watch it. And, you guys, you need to be in the mood to watch three hours of this.

I can't say I was particularly taken by the whole enterprise. It's a stridently old fashioned in a way that doesn't translate to a modern day viewing. Not that a film needs to continue to feel relevant in order to be watchable some fifty years later (49, to be exact, this Christmas), but this particular film is made in a way that I can't possibly imagine it feeling anything less than old fashioned back in 1964. There's nothing forward or innovative about Cukor's direction, nor Alan Jay Lerner's adaptation of his own stage show. The camera is almost always utilised in a rather rudimentary fashion and the editing rarely uplifting to the material. And then there is, of course, the acting, which is a minefield all its own. Rex Harrison, surely one of the more baffling winners of Best Actor Oscar that I have seen, is genuinely terrible as the misogynistic phonetics expert. He plays his character so ugly that the film's third act romantic switcheroo plays entirely false. Audrey Hepburn's Eliza Doolittle can't help but come off like a subservient waif by falling in love with him. It would have surely been more brave to have Eliza leave the cantankerous professor. The film never has a very good view of men or women, but this act of complacent formula is just entirely off-putting.

Amongst the eight Oscars that My Fair Lady won were obvious ones like costume and art direction (especially so given the split between color and black + white at the time), curious ones like cinematography and musical adaptation (curious purely because it was nominated against A Hard Day's Night), and dunderheaded ones like actor and director. I'm not expert on the year of 1964 especially as it pertains to Oscar, but My Fair Lady strikes me as such a - and he's a word that I don't use all that often anymore, but feels entirely appropriate - lame choice. Of course, the film's best in show wasn't even nominated. But then, it's hard to nominate Marni Nixon. Where would one place her, after all, given she was given the duties of dubbing over star Audrey Hepburn's vocals. Shame she couldn't have dubbed all of Hepburn's painful stabs at the cockney venacular. Her performance, particularly within her face in which she manages to express so much to comic and dramatic effect, isn't actually all that bad, it's just that opening half with her high-pitched jabs that sounds intolerable.

Still, at least My Fair Lady feels like a production of some weight and size (hell: they certainly made an effort!) that a best picture win makes sense on paper. I can't, however, for the life of me figure out what on Earth was going on in 1938 when they gave the prize to the wholly unremarkable The Life of Emile Zola. A deathly dull biopic (old habits die hard with the Academy; they're still enamoured!) of a famous French writer that while set in France is spoken entirely in English and even accented in it in many cases. Paul Muni stars as the titular literary hero who brought about uncovering the disgraceful acts of treason and coverups within the French army. A story such as this really could have made for an interesting film, but the stodgy, stale manner with which director Williams Dieterle tells it hampers any possibility of that.

The signs were right there in the title, really. Many things that claim to be the story of somebody's entire life inevitably turn out to be dry. I, of course, already knew of the film's reputation thanks to this article and if I hadn't had a MoMA membership that allowed for free tickets then I probably wouldn't have gone. "Both overstuffed and understuffed" is a wonderful way to describe The Life of Emile Zola, a film that feels like its striving for epic grandeur while never really lifting a finger to express that into the cinematic language. It's a boring film to look at with only two shots (trust me, I counted) that struck me as having any more thought put behind them than a shrug. And one can't just blame the time period for that, because anybody who knows anything about cinema knows that there were truly grand, visually opulent pieces of film being made at that time. Once the film descends into a more traditional courtroom drama it at least has a personality rather than a floating ball of nothingness. However, the ludicrousness nature of the proceedings turns the events into an almost comical farce. Perhaps intentionally given the reverence the filmmakers obviously have for their subject, but that doesn't make the film any less of a mess from a screenwriting perspective. Furthermore, why introduce Nana as if she is to become a central figure when she gets promptly swept away when the film becomes more interested in Zola's other endeavours. Sigh.

Of course, a best picture winner is a best picture winner, though, and the chance to see it - and on a big screen on less - wasn't one I should have turned down. I'm glad I saw it for the place it holds in history (of course, given the films it was nominated against, that place is not a bit flattering). At least the Academy in those early stages had the foresight to not award Zola's director. I mean, he didn't even do much directing so it makes sense, right! My Fair Lady: C; The Life of Emile Zzzola: D.

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