Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 14
I’ve embarked on an EPIC challenge to watch every movie ever nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award. To do so, I’ve put all the years from 1929 to 2020 into a bucket and I’m pulling out years one by one to determine what movies to watch.
PART 14: 1954
From Here to Eternity (winner)
Roman Holiday: As enjoyable as a gelato on a hot summer day, Roman Holiday is sweet and romantic in all the right ways. Starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn in her Hollywood film debut, this lovely jaunt around the Eternal City is a fairy tale in fabulous modern dress.
On a visit to Rome during a goodwill tour of Europe, Princess Ann (Hepburn) has reached her breaking point. Stressed and exhausted from her royal obligations, she’s given a sedative to relax but, before it can take effect, she decides to run away and have a little fun on the town. Moments after her arrival, however, the sedative kicks in and she falls asleep on a bench. She’s found by American journalist, Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck), who believes her to be tipsy from wine and champagne. Not realizing she’s the visiting princess, Joe agrees to let her sleep it off in his apartment. It’s not until the next day, when his press conference with the princess is cancelled, that he realizes the true identity of his house guest.
Knowing the financial gains that would come with an exclusive interview with her highness, Joe agrees to take his royal stowaway on a sight-seeing tour of Rome, all the while gathering her innermost opinions about everything from her favorite color to her thoughts on politics. With the help of his photographer Irving (Edie Albert), Joe wines and dines the princess, he hiding his identity from her and she hiding her identity from him. Of course, what neither of them plan on is falling in love with each other.
Shot entirely on location, Roman Holiday boasts a wonderfully vivid sense of place, with scenes shot at the Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain, the Colosseum, and the Bocca della Verita (Mouth of Truth), where Peck apparently adlibbed one of the film’s most memorable scenes.
In the Mouth of Truth scene, Joe tells Ann that, if you put your hand in the mouth of the statue and tell a lie, your hand will be bitten off. As the cameras rolled, Peck borrowed a gag from comedian Red Skeleton and hid his hand up his sleeve when he pulled it out of the mouth. Hepburn, who did not know this was happening, let out a scream before dissolving into fits of laughter. The scene was filmed in one take, so what you see is her genuine, real reaction.
This was clearly one of those movies where everyone had a great time on set, and it shows. Though Hepburn admitted to being intimidated by the level of talent around her on her first film, she was a complete professional and everyone welcomed her. She would even come to win the Academy Award for Best Actress for her part in Roman Holiday. “Everyone was in love with Audrey,” claimed Peck. “We did this one picture together and I think it was the happiest experience I ever had on a movie set.”
In fact, Peck was so impressed with Hepburn’s work that he demanded she be given equal billing to his, a gesture unheard of then (and probably today). The two remained close friends and Peck would come to introduce Hepburn to Mel Ferrer, who would become her first husband.
Peck also lived a bit of a Roman holiday himself filming this movie. After suffering a heartbreaking divorce, Peck met Veronique Passani during filming, a journalist in Rome assigned to interview Peck. The two fell in love and married in 1955. They remained together until Peck’s death in 2003.
Nominated for 10 Academy Awards, Roman Holiday would win three: Best Story (Dalton Trumbo), Best Costume Design (Edith Head) and Best Actress (Hepburn). Hepburn’s style in the film would go on to inspire generations of women to follow her cute and casual fashion sense, and tourism to Rome only increased after the film’s release.
In this inversion of the classic Cinderella story, a man and a woman forgot their responsibilities for a day and made the most of what Rome has to offer. Like most holidays, all good things must come to an end – and not all fairy tale romances can have a happily ever after. In a bittersweet ending, both Ann and Joe retreat to their own worlds, knowing neither one belongs in the company of the other. However, they will always have Rome – and be a little more hopeful and openhearted because of it.
From Here to Eternity: Love is in the waves…
Even if you’ve never seen From Here to Eternity, chances are you’re familiar with its most popular scene – you know the one – Burt Lancaster and Keborah Kerr passionately embracing on a beach in Hawaii as the waves crash up around them. This scene really adds nothing to the story in the grand scheme of things, but is a welcomed distraction from the terror about to reign down on them in December of 1941.
An expose of sorts into the lives and loves of three soldiers in the American Army, From Here to Eternity focuses on the strong and reliable Sgt. Milton Warden (Burt Lancaster), the hot-headed bugler Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clift), and the less serious and fun-loving Angelo Maggio (Frank Sinatra). All stationed in Oahu in the months before Pearl Harbor, this movie interlaces business with pleasure for a story that helped define the “Old Hollywood” picture.
Once a promising middleweight boxer, Prewitt has given up that life to join the Army. Upon arriving at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, he stumbles upon his old friend Maggio and the two become inseparable.
The company commander, Captain Dana Holmes (Philip Ober), knows of Prewitt’s talent as a boxer and urges him to join the company boxing team. Prewitt refuses, having given up boxing after accidentally blinding his sparring partner, and is subjected to hazing and harassment because of it. Ever the loyal friend, Maggio remains by his side, even suffering the same punishments as Prewitt because he’s just that kind of guy.
Maggio even takes Prewitt out for a night on the town, where Prewitt meets an attractive “hostess” named Lorene (Donna Reed). The two fall in love, but find it hard to make time for each other. After all, the life of a Hawaiian prostitute is a busy one!
Meanwhile, Sgt. Warden has his own problems. In a moment of desperation, he becomes involved with Karen Holmes (Deborah Kerr), the wife of his commanding officer. At first Warden is weary of her reputation (she’s known for bedding and discarding men), but when he comes to learn the reason for her promiscuity, he sympathizes with her and the two develop an intimate love for one another.
So booze is flowing, love is blossoming – but a camera shot of the calendar set on December 6th is a bittersweet reminder that it can’t go on forever. The lives of all these characters are changed when the Japanese begin bombing their cozy paradise and, with the integration of actual combat footage from the bombing of Pearl Harbor, these climatic scenes pack a punch.
From Here to Eternity opened in the summer of 1953 to grand success. It was the second-highest grossing film of 1953 and was nominated for 13 Academy Awards, winning 8 – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Sinatra), Best Supporting Actress (Reed), Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, and Best Sound Recording. Though both Clift and Lancaster were nominated in the Best Actor category, they lost out to William Holden for Stalag 17.
For many of the actors involved, From Here to Eternity helped redirect their professional development as performers. Lancaster was offered more roles that helped take his career in a serious direction. Kerr, known for “prim and proper roles”, was given the chance to show off a sexier, more sensual side. Reed was able to abandon her sweet, girl-next-door persona and cut loose a little with her role as a Hawaiian prostitute. But the real rags-to-riches story here goes to Sinatra (and I’m not just saying that because I’m a superfan!), who was suffering an extreme low-point in his career. His role as Maggio established him as a serious actor and shot him back into the spotlight – even earning him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
With an incredible cast and beautiful cinematography from filming on location in Hawaii, it’s easy to see how From Here to Eternity snagged Best Picture. Is it a war movie that will change your life? Probably not. But it certainly has a valuable lesson to teach about individuality, ironically set against the ‘groupthink’ of the Army plot: “If a man don’t go his own way, he’s nothin’”.
The Robe: Ugh. I’m so not one for these big Hollywood Christian stories. The pageantry and spectacle are so over-the-top…and the dialogue is borderline ridiculous. Though I can certainly appreciate The Robe for its visual grandeur, this one felt like a sermon that just wouldn’t end.
This Biblical epic begins in Rome, where Marcellus (Richard Burton) angers Emperor-in-waiting Caligula (Jay Robinson) by bidding against him in a slave auction. Caligula is vindictive and insane – like an older version of Geoffrey from Game of Thrones. He banishes Marcellus and the slave he just purchased, Demetrius (Victor Mature), to Jerusalem as punishment.
They arrive to the Holy City on Palm Sunday, just in time for Demetrius to catch a glimpse of Jesus passing by on a donkey. Upon locking eyes with him, Demetrius immediately becomes a convert to Christianity before it’s even really invented yet.
Demetrius also soon discovers that Marcellus has been ordered to crucify Jesus, so he begins a desperate run through the city to find Jesus and warn him of his master’s intentions. Alas, he is too late. A cloaked man that even this non-Bible-reading-Jew knew was Judas informs Demetrius of Jesus’s fate, just as a loud clap of thunder and a bolt of lightning ring through the streets as he reveals his name. It’s cornier than Corn Nuts.
While carrying out his assignment, Marcellus wins the robe that was taken from Jesus before he was put on the cross. Then, like Gollum and his precious ring, finds he cannot wear the robe because it has bewitched him. He tries to wear it but screams out in agony. Demetrius then, still ever the loyal Christian, takes the robe and runs away with it.
Marcellus eventually returns to Rome where he reunites with his childhood love, Diana (Jean Simmons). She encourages him to track down the robe and destroy it so he can free himself of the burden he carries. He returns to Jerusalem, where he becomes acquainted with the newly formed Christian faith. After a chance meeting with Peter the Apostle, who convinces Marcellus that Jesus has already forgiven him for the crucifixion, he converts to Christianity as a way of thanking Jesus for his kindness.
Now it’s back to Rome we go, as Marcellus is now on trial for being in direct defiance of his people and his country. His father disowns him and he’s sentenced to death by the crazy Caligula for refusing to renounce Christ. Diana, who knows NOTHING of Jesus, sticks with Marcellus, deciding to die by his side. In the final scene, Marcellus and Diana ascend up a celestial ramp ala Danny Zuko and Sandra Dee in Grease, happily drunk on love, marching to their deaths, as a chorus literally screams Hallelujah in the background. The end.
The Robe was the first movie filmed in CinemaScope and certainly went all out with the look of the film. The costumes and most of the scenery was amazing (it would actually win Oscars for Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design), but everything else was flatter than Demetrius’s abs. The chemistry between Marcellus and Diana was comparable to, oh, I don’t know, the chemistry between a potato and a hair dryer…and most of the actors were either so stiff or so over the top that it was hard to take this movie seriously.
The big takeaway of The Robe is that the robe itself was never really cursed…it was just a prop for manifesting the guilt that Marcellus felt for killing Jesus. Once he accepted his guilt and converted, the robe suddenly held no power and Marcellus was able to hold it without losing his damn mind. But, I don’t know, it doesn’t seem like enough. Overall Marcellus was a good guy. He wasn’t inherently evil, he was able to love and care for others, he even felt remorse for carrying out his actions against Jesus. So what was he really gaining in converting to Christianity? I guess the biggest problem with The Robe, then, was that the robe was the biggest problem.
Julius Caesar: The whole time I was watching this movie, I was waiting to see Marlon Brando in a mini skirt and it NEVER. HAPPENED.
Whether you’ve read it or not, chances are you know at least one famous line from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “Beware the Ides of March”, “It’s all Greek to me”, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves” are just a few – and in this political saga filled with eloquent and passionate speeches, Brando takes on the Bard just two years after his bodacious bod graced the silver screen in A Streetcar Named Desire.
To recount the goings-on of what happened in this story is complicated. To put it frankly, “It’s all Greek to me” 😉 so let’s just do the Reader’s Digest version, shall we?
The Roman political counsel has an issue with their leader, Julius Caesar (Louis Calhern). His radical platform didn’t sit well with his toga-wearing brothers and Cassius (John Gielgud) and Brutus (James Mason), both in Caesar’s Senate, decide to just freaking kill him.
Foreboding ensues. Cassius pontificates.
After being forewarned to “Beware the Ides of March”, Caesar ignores the warning and is stabbed on the Ides of March by his councilman, with Brutus dealing the final blow.
Caesar’s loyal friend Mark Anthony (Brando) at first convinces the band of murderers that he’s on their side and their actions were surely justified. He volunteers to explain to the people of Rome why it was necessary to kill the man in charge.
However, in his passionate “Lend me your ears!” speech, Mark Anthony tells the Romans and countrymen that Caesar, while flawed, was a good man and didn’t deserve to be murdered. He convinces the people of Rome to riot against the officials who murdered Caesar, and a great civil war erupts – with Mark Anthony on one side and Brutus on the other.
More long, wordy speeches. Brutus sees Ceaser’s ghost. More people die off screen.
Then the great battle arrives. Cassius commits suicide. Brutus commits suicide. Mark Anthony reins victorious as the men who murdered Caesar all get their comeuppance with the same knife used to kill Caesar.
Rome lives to fight another day.
Still somewhat a newcomer to Hollywood, Brando’s casting in this Shakespearean epic was initially met with some skepticism. At the time he was best known for his mumbling performance as Stanley Kowalski in Streetcar…and “The Mumbler” had no place in this wordy Billy Shakes play; however, Brando worked hard to prove himself. He worked closely with fellow actor, John Gielgud (Cassius), to master the part and the language and would come to earn a Best Actor nomination for his performance as Mark Anthony. In fact, Gielgud was so impressed by Brando’s work that he offered Brando the part of Hamlet in a stage production he was directing – a proposition Brando seriously considered, but ultimately turned down.
Those who enjoy a good movie adaptation of Shakespeare’s plays will no doubt appreciate this rendition of Julius Caesar. Though wordy and fast-paced, the acting is superb, particularly Gielgud who also starred as Cassius in the stage production at Stratford-on-Avon. Even if you have no interest in the politics of the movie, starring at Marlon Brando for 2 hours isn’t a bad way to spend your time (even if you never see him rock the mini skirt)!
Shane: If the Western is the quintessential American mythology, Shane is the archetype. Beautifully filmed in Technicolor in the great Wyoming outdoors, this movie painted the American frontier scene as a place of great promise and freedom. It’s what great Westerns are made of – heroes riding off into the sunset, the age-old dichotomy of good vs. evil, the battle between American individualism and corporate greed. It is a coming-of-age story, an American Dream story, a story that would set the bar for all Westerns to come.
The film begins with Shane (Alan Ladd) riding into the homestead of the Starrett family – Joe (Van Heflin) is the father, a man with a hard work ethic and good, Christian principles. His wife, Marian (Jean Arthur), is a sweet homemaker who probably smells of apple pie and their son, Joey (Brandon De Wilde) is a young 8-year-old making the most of his childhood on the farm. When Joey and Shane meet for the first time, the boy is immediately taken with the retired gunslinger and refuses to take his bright, blue eyes off Shane for one moment. Marian is also taken with this new stranger, as is Joe, who hires Shane on to help on the farmstead.
Though he takes well to manual labor, Shane’s real purpose in town seems to be to defend the Starrett’s, and the other homesteaders, against Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer), the wealthy cattleman threatening to drive the ‘sodbusters’ from, what he believes, is his share of the land.
The conflict intensifies when Ryker hires Jack Wilson (Jack Palance) to bully the families. Jack is a gunman out of Cheyenne whose reputation as the fastest draw around precedes him. Dressed head to toe in black, Jack is a looming presence over the small Wyoming town, and his threats of course lead to a final showdown between he and Shane, who puts his life on the line to defend the families he’s come to know and love.
Of course, the splendor of Shane is that we’re really watching it through Joey’s eyes. We see Shane as the hero Joey sees – and it’s really the only version of the man we meet. Shane is elusive, a man without a past or a future. There’s almost a ghost-like essence about him, yet he commands every scene he’s in. When he speaks, everyone listens, particularly Joey.
De Wilde was a joy to watch as little Joey Starrett and, for his work in the movie, would become the youngest actor ever to be nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Joey finds comfort under the leather-clad wing of Shane, and the two spend time together learning everything from basic virtues to how to shoot a gun. Though quiet, thin and soft-spoken, Shane was a powerhouse to little Joey and Joey’s admiration of Shane really changed the way audiences believed in heroes.
Like most great movies, the ending of Shane is open to interpretation. In a way, it only adds to the mythology of the story and the character, a man who leaves just as mysteriously as he arrived – perhaps riding off to save another homestead…perhaps returning to the spiritual world from which he came to begin with.
Location, location, location! That was the name of the game this year. Three of the five films this year took place in Rome, while Shane brought us out west and From Here to Eternity showed off the beauty of the Hawaiian Islands.
The films with Roman influence (Roman Holiday, The Robe and Julius Caesar) all took place in a different era, which certainly added to the charm of seeing The Eternal City change over time. Julius Caesar showed off Rome in its heyday, while The Robe offered a colorful interpretation of what Italy may have looked like during the time of Jesus Christ. Finally, my hidden gem this year, Roman Holiday, brought us into the modern age, giving viewers a tour of all the must-see spots from the comfort of home.
Shane was a frontier painting come to life, with lovely shots of The Grand Tetons and the wildlife of Wyoming. Having Technicolor technology certainly helped show off this region and Shane would go on to become the grandfather of the great Western drama.
This year’s Best Picture winner, From Here to Eternity, was certainly deserving. Though filmed in black and white, Eternity still packed a punch. The acting was top notch and the story was engaging from start to finish. Seeing real footage of the attack on Pearl Harbor at the end of the movie drove this one home for me and, though the rest of these films were all good in their own right, I can’t really see any of them measuring up to the powerful impact of Eternity.
Onto the next pull!