Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 23
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 23: 1951
King Solomon's Mines
All About Eve (winner)
Father of the Bride
Born Yesterday: Before starting this project, Judy Holliday was an unknown actress to me. She only lived to be 43 years old and made just about 12 films in her career, yet she commanded the screen with as much unassuming authority as the likes of Marylin Monroe.
In what would arguably be her most well-known performance (she even won an Oscar for it), Holliday stars as the diminutive blonde, seemingly dumb on the outside, but armed with a driving passion to learn on the inside. As Billie Dawn, Holliday creates an iconic character in Born Yesterday, a multi-faceted portrait of a woman who’s smarter than she looks in this perceptive tale of self-improvement, empowerment and individualism.
Like many transformative tales (My Fair Lady, Pygmalion), you can see where this film is going pretty quickly, but in the world of rom-coms, it’s not the destination that matters, it’s the journey – and the journey here is an absolute delight.
Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford) is a larger-than-life, abusive, sweaty, pork roll-eating New Jersey-based scrap metal tycoon who arrives in Washington DC to corrupt a congressman into bending legislation in his favor. Along for the ride is Harry’s long-time girlfriend, Billie (Holliday), who has the body but lacks the brains. This gives Harry the freedom to hide questionable business transactions under her name without her knowing.
When journalist Paul Verrall (William Holden) comes by to interview Harry for a story, the two men fall into a weird friendemy-type relationship, encouraging Harry to hire Paul to improve Billie’s conversational skills so she doesn’t embarrass him while he tries to swindle the upper crust of society. What a guy…
Not one to turn down the offer of easy money (and wining and dining a beautiful woman on someone else’s dime), Paul agrees to the arrangement and begins introducing Billie to local newspapers, 18th century literature and the endless history and culture Washington DC has to offer.
As Billie learns more about politics, law and how to think for herself, she becomes keenly aware of Harry’s shady business dealings. At the same time, an attraction begins between her and Paul, threatening Harry’s entire business empire. Soon Billie opens her eyes to Harry’s true nature and refuses to let him push her around – literally and figuratively – any longer.
Easily blending humor with pathos, Born Yesterday creates dimensional characters within archaic stereotypes. Harry is big and loud, but has real, genuine moments of self-awareness and guilt about his behavior towards Billie.
Billie may personify the dumb blonde, but her drive and passion to make something of herself transforms her from a tin-voiced chorus girl to a smart, eager-to-learn woman who realizes that a little knowledge can be a powerful thing. What I loved most about her was that she admitted when she didn't understand something and looked up words she didn't know in the dictionary. She not only showed that women could be smart, but made it very clear that smart is the new sexy - which probably went a long way with a 1950's audience.
Like Roman Holiday, the shots of Washington DC not only showcase the city, but help hammer home the plot of the story. Scenes at the National Archives, the National Gallery and the Jefferson Memorial emphasize Billie’s ‘rebirth’, while instilling the audience with a patriotic fervor that reinforces the values we hold near and dear: life, liberty and the pursuit of an education.
On the northwest portico of the Jefferson Memorial, you can read the following quote: “Almighty God hath created the mind free. All attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens…are a departure from the plan of the holy Author of our religion.” For Billie, who has a moment of clarity while exploring this national monument, the idea that she could act and think for herself was about as foreign as the words etched in the walls surrounding her. But as she comes to learn, a world full of ignorant people is too dangerous to live in – and this blonde broad isn’t gonna let anything – or anyone – stand in her way.
King Solomon’s Mines: One thing I’ve learned in watching these older films – particularly those set in other countries – is that most of them can be, shall we say, difficult to watch. After learning that King Solomon’s Mines was an adventure set in Africa, I developed a lot of expectations, none of them good.
Based on the films I’ve seen thus far, I imagined the Africans would be portrayed as hostile and dangerous. They’d probably speak in a slight British accent, despite the fact that there are several African dialects in existence, and all the white men in the film would take vengeance on animals big and small to assert their dominance. Any women who were lucky enough to go on this African safari would probably be patronized at every turn, before being turned into a love interest for some guy twice her age, all while learning to hike and sweat and not scream at anything that moves.
I’m happy to say that, for the most part, none of this was true.
Part nature documentary, part romance and part travelogue, King Solomon’s Mines is a bit like The Mummy meets Indiana Jones. Elizabeth Curtis (Deborah Kerr) arrives in Africa with her brother John (Richard Carlson) to try and locate her long-lost husband – who went missing more than five years ago after searching for a legendary African diamond mine. The only clue Elizabeth has as to her husband’s whereabouts is a Dora the Explorer-style map he sent her.
Not wanting to travel into the Congo by herself, Elizabeth hires Allan Quatermain (Stewart Granger), an experienced hunter and guide, to follow her husband’s map through the then-uncharted African terrain.
What is perhaps most curious about King Solomon’s Mines is how it doesn’t feel completely dated (well, most of the time). Though it’s kind of sexist (“…any woman who wants to go on a safari must have something wrong with her…”), Elizabeth actually does quite well for herself, all things considered. Granted, she does become a love interest and she does scream at several things, but for the most part she is pretty strong and determined, especially for a 1950s heroine. She gets down and dirty with the boys, cuts her own hair into a stylish bob and learns to engage with the native tribes.
Not only that, but Elizabeth and the rest of the party must brave the real African environment as well. There’s no CGI here – actors are being filmed next to real elephants, lions, rhinos, hippos, crocodiles and birds. There are REAL animal stampedes, one of which very obviously could have inspired a similar sequence in Jurassic Park and, unfortunately, there is real animal cruelty. It's just one scene and it's done with professionals in the industry, but still - it certainly makes for an emotional opening sequence.
However, no one character in King Solomon’s Mines is shown with as much beauty and utter respect as Africa herself. Beginning and ending with the heartbeat of the African drum, played against views of gorgeous scenery, this film not only glorifies Africa and her people, but does so without being sermonizing.
All the African tribes shown in King Solomon’s Mines speak their own language and wear their own regalia. Many of the African actors were cast on the spot and the film does a wonderful job of showcasing their traditional dances, customs, songs and practices.
With his khaki wardrobe and rugged personality, Quatermain is clearly a prototype for Indiana Jones and doesn’t only act as a guide for Elizabeth and her brother, but for the audience as well. He’s fluent in several African languages and speaks them with the native tribes, translating as he goes. Suffice it to say, this was not the Africa I was expecting to see when I hit ‘play’ on this DVD.
Authentic and captivating, King Solomon’s Mines is a spectacle of African life…and it certainly holds up, even in today’s Discovery Channel days. Its only detriment might be its title, which is very obviously a MacGuffin that plays no part in the actual storyline. Still, though it may not deliver wall-to-wall adventure like the films it would come to inspire, King Solomon’s Mines brings the Western world to a place many of us have never seen, and does so with great dignity and care.
All About Eve: The best thing Bette Davis did for her career was get older. Though she wasn’t a classic Dame of Hollywood in the traditional sense, she shined as a survivor, a professional woman, and a bad-ass feminist. With eyes as big as her attitude, Davis carried herself with such confidence and gusto that she effortlessly stole any scene she appeared in.
In her 58-year career, Davis did more than 100 films and was nominated for 11 Best Acting Oscars, winning two. Ironically, her role as Margo Channing in All About Eve, which is easily one of her greatest and most autobiographical roles, was not one of the two wins. A story about an aging actress and the woman aiming to replace her, All About Eve hosts a slew of actors at their best and boasts a Twilight Zone-style ending that is just as creepy as it is honest.
All About Eve begins with a narration by the theater critic, Addison DeWitt (the delightful George Sanders), a man who knows all too well the cynical, manipulative nature of the thespian world. As he surveys the room at an awards dinner, noting the large trophy reserved for Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), he coyly describes Eve’s rise to fame. He introduces her director, Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill), her writer Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe) and her greatest supporter, Lloyd’s wife Karen Richards (Celeste Holm), before finally introducing the idol she cannibalized, Margo Channing (Davis). As the emcee of the awards show continues to sing Eve’s praises, the faces of these individuals tell a different story.
From here, we flash back once more – to the night these characters met Eve Harrington. For Margo, who is getting ready to take the stage in a production of "Aged in Wood", this is just another performance on another day, but for Eve, who is a Margo Channing groupie, this is what dreams are made of. Eve has attended every single showing of “Aged in Wood”, as well as every performance of every other play Margo has ever been in, and she hangs around the outside of the theater every night, hoping to casually run into her idol.
It's not until Karen Richards, who sees Eve skulk about the theater every night, decides to take pity on the poor girl and personally introduces her to Margo. Ironically the two take an instant liking to each other, and Eve quickly goes from super fan to Margo’s secretary, to Margo’s understudy, to infiltrating Margo’s personal circle. Eventually Margo begins to realize that Eve’s goal isn’t just to work for her, but to replace her.
Aside from Davis’s wide-eyed, cigarette-swinging performance, which is iconic in and of itself, All About Eve has a killer screenplay, which gives nearly every significant character a quotable moment. Davis and Sanders get the best one-liners, each of which is deliciously edgy or dry and sardonic. The film also boasts one of the first times Marilyn Monroe appears on screen, looking just a radiant as ever! In all honesty, practically everyone in this movie was playing variations of themselves.
All About Eve held the record for the most Oscar nominations ever (14 total), until Titanic tied with 14 nominations in 1998. It won 6 of its 14 nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor (Sanders), Best Costume Design and Best Sound Recording.
Both Davis and Baxter were nominated for Best Actress (Baxter actually fought with the studio to be nominated for Best Actress rather than placed in the Supporting category), but neither won. Many believe that Davis would have easily taken the award if her vote hadn’t been split, ironically, by Baxter.
Opposites in every way, Margo and Eve are also representative of two types of mid-century working women. Margo, traditional in her values, knows the importance of a hard day’s work. She’s not oblivious to the fact that she’s aging and is all too aware that she can no longer play a young 20-something anymore. She has no problem stepping away from the limelight to take the next step in her “career”, simply being a wife.
Eve, on the other hand, will stop at nothing to advance her career. Wooing men, setting traps, telling people what they want to hear – she’s a master manipulator. Don’t be surprised if her charm works you over, too…it worked on me. By the end, I felt just as betrayed as Margo did.
Chock-full of quotable lines and sheer irony, All About Eve is a masterclass in storytelling. Fasten your seatbelts, kids…it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.
Father of the Bride: Some things just never change. You can’t please everyone. There’s never a wrong time to eat pizza. And planning a wedding freaking sucks.
Coordinating vendors, budgeting, seating charts, guest lists, finding a venue, dress shopping, dealing with pushy relatives…I mean, I’d be lying if I said my husband and I didn’t think about eloping in the months before our wedding.
Of course, most married couples will say the drama was all worth it, my husband and I included…but for Stanley T. Banks, a wedding not only means the stress of saying goodbye to his paycheck, but also his baby girl.
Sweet and sentimental, Father of the Bride opens with a long, panning shot of a chaotic mess that is obviously the aftermath of one hell of a party. The camera finally lands on Stanley Banks (Spencer Tracy), mentally, physically and emotionally exhausted. As he begins to narrate how this epic wedding came to be – all the while wallowing in self-pity as Tracy is wont to do – we flash back to just three months ago, to the night his daughter Kay (Elizabeth Taylor) announced her engagement to wet noodle Buckley Dunstan (Don Taylor).
Predictably, Stanley feels Buckley isn’t quite worthy of having his daughter’s hand. Kay is, after all, his pride and joy and she will not be given away to just anybody. However, Stanley’s wife Ellie (Joan Bennett) shares Kay’s enthusiasm for the wedding and goes all-out in planning an epic celebration that would surpass all of Kay’s wildest dreams. As Kay’s star-studded eyes grow bigger and bigger, so does Stanley’s temper…as expenses, stresses and emotions begin spiraling out of control.
Any movie about weddings is bound to have a few great, classic scenes. Watching Stanley and Ellie meeting Buckley’s parents for the first time was especially delightful, as was the engagement party, when poor Stanley is stuck in the kitchen making drinks for all his snobby friends who are all too good to drink his pre-made martinis. Watching Spencer Tracy try to fit into his old suit was also incredibly hilarious...and relatable…
Absolutely in the prime of her years, Elizabeth Taylor is radiant in this film, which was released just days after Taylor’s first marriage to Conrad Hilton, Jr. Though her role as Kay doesn’t offer her much to work with besides the opportunity to wear an Edith Head wedding dress and flounce around the house looking pretty, she still shines with natural beauty and charisma.
But the real story here belongs to Spencer Tracy. Always expressive, almost to a fault, Tracy was one of those actors who didn’t have to do much to gain our sympathy. As the narrator of Father of the Bride, the whole story is told from his point of view, which makes for an interesting take on the classic boy meets girl story.
He also has moments of true sentimentality, like when he expresses ambiguity and sadness about losing his only daughter:
“What’s it going to be like to come home and not find her? Not to hear her voice calling ‘Hi Pops!’ as I come in. I suddenly realized what I was doing. I was giving up Kay. Something inside of me was beginning to hurt.”
These moments are sure to touch the heart of any girl who was close with her father, as well as any man who has watched his little girl morph from tom boy to blushing bride.
What Father of the Bride does best, though, is that it remains a funny film without striving for belly laughs. Instead, it concentrates on presenting vignettes of highly amusing, low-key situations that will surely ring true to most viewers. Yes, planning a wedding is exhausting and expensive – a lot of us can relate to that. But what’s arguably even harder is saying goodbye to your childhood, leaving those you love behind, watching our children grow up and start lives of their own. But there’s a beauty in that, too…and in this story of the love between a father and his daughter, that’s what comes through – the beauty of letting go.
Sunset Boulevard: If All About Eve pulled back the curtain on the workings of the thespian world, Sunset Boulevard turned the cameras around and did the same for the movie industry.
Though it’s not a blatant attack on Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard is no love letter, either. It shows the movie business for what it is – a churn ‘em and burn ‘em market where people are disposable commodities and using people for your own profit is pretty much second nature. What looks to us like a glimmering beacon of fame and celebrity is really nothing more than a trail of burnt-out stars, tirelessly paving the way for all the young actors and actresses still drawn to the glitz and glamour of a world that doesn’t exist.
It should come as no surprise that a movie about Hollywood would take place on one of California’s most well-known boulevards. Connecting the Pacific coast to downtown Los Angeles, the Sunset Strip is home to a number of popular Hollywood hot spots, including The Viper Room, Chateau Marmont and the Hollywood sign.
It’s also where Joe Gillis (William Holden) ends up dead in the pool of an old Beverly Hills mansion in what is possibly one of the most famous opening scenes in motion picture history. As the camera follows a barrage of police cars and motorcycles into this old Hollywood home, a voiceover narrator promises to tell the tale of how this dead man ended up, well, dead. "Before you hear it all distorted and blown out of proportion,” he begins, “…before those Hollywood columnists get their hands on it, maybe you'd like to hear the facts, the whole truth." For the next 100 minutes, he tells it.
Struggling to find a job to pay the rent, Joe is a B-movie writer who can’t seem to find enough work to keep his head above water. His only possession of worth is his car, which blows a tire while he’s barreling down Sunset Blvd. in an effort to escape the repo men. He pulls into the driveway of a crumbling mansion, thinking it’s deserted and could house his car temporarily; however, he soon discovers this creepy old house is inhabited by silent movie actress Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) and her faithful butler, Max von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim).
Once a great dame of the (silent) silver screen, Norma has been out of the spotlight for more than 20 years, and now her sanity tetters on the brink. Bound and determined to find her way back into the movies, Norma presents Joe with a script she’s been writing, hoping he’ll take on the job of doctoring it. Fearful to let her script leave her sight, Norma offers to house Joe as he works, and soon the two fall into a comfortable relationship. But when Norma fears she may lose Joe to another woman, she resorts to drastic, and melodramatic, action.
In a performance that skates close to parody, Swanson uses theatrical gestures, as well as over-exaggerated eye and hand movements, to hold Norma at the edge of madness. It's honestly super creepy how good she is. She almost reminded me of Nosferatu, with claw-like hands and vampiric eyes. Though it felt much like a noir, I was expecting Sunset Boulevard to turn into a haunty horror film at any given moment.
Her home is just as creepy, completely frozen in time. The house is “…crowded with Norma Desmonds”, filled to the brink with photos of her in her old film roles. Large stained glass windows, velvet drapes and ornate decorations give her home a crypt-like quality – and as she sits and signs headshots for fans who may or may not exist, it becomes clear that the real ghost of Sunset Boulevard isn’t the house, or the empty pool, or even the mysterious narrator…it’s Norma, a woman stuck in her own purgatory, trapped between past and present.
Like any classic actress of the bygone era, Norma is always giving a performance, if only in her own mind. In many ways, her mannerisms are over-the-top, as if she still sees herself as a silent film star. Yet even with her comically grandiose gesturing, Norma still gains our sympathy. As Joe says, “…she was still waving to a parade that has long since passed her by.” By the final scene, as Norma descends a staircase in front of newsreel cameras, we can’t help but feel sad for her, watching a woman age not in the flesh but in the mind…a ghost of the star she used to be.
Much like Bette Davis in All About Eve, Swanson had a lot in common with her character of Norma. A huge star during the silent era, Swanson had been largely absent from the screen for just about 20 years when she was offered the part that would bring her back into the spotlight. And like Norma, Swanson was never able to leverage her own success in Sunset Boulevard. Though she was offered scripts, she felt they were poor imitations of Norma, leading Swanson to virtually retire from film.
There’s a striking scene in Sunset Boulevard, where Norma and Joe watch Queen Kelly, the silent film that ironically ended Swanson’s career. Illuminated by the light of the projector, Norma proclaims that she will fulfill her promise to her fans to return to the screen. In the film’s final moments, when she speaks those immortal words, “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up”, she delivers on that promise, though not quite in the way she was expecting. And as the final image of her fades into nothingness, that close-up is both haunting and haunted.
Nothing was quite what it seemed in the movies of 1951. Born Yesterday showed how a PYT could have brains as well as boobs, while Father of the Bride brought us a charming father-daughter love story that proved weddings don’t have to be sappy and sentimental to pack an emotional punch.
King Solomon’s Mines was nothing like what I thought it would be, doing justice to a land and a people that had been widely unknown to most Western folk up until this time.
Finally, All About Eve and my hidden gem this year, Sunset Boulevard, took us behind the stage and the screen to see what it’s really like in the two places most people go to escape the real world: the theater and the movies. Though they both dealt with similar material and cast similar actresses in roles that were similar to their own lives, Sunset Boulevard is arguably the better of the two. Emotional and bittersweet, Sunset Boulevard risked what All About Eve was too scared to show – how fame and celebrity can destroy even the brightest star in the galaxy.
Onto the next pull!