Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 33
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 2021 into a bucket and I’m pulling out years one by one to determine what movies to watch.
PART 33: 1962
West Side Story (winner)
The Guns of Navarone
Judgment at Nuremberg
West Side Story: Two races, both unalike in dignity/(In the west side of Manhattan, where we lay our scene)/From ancient grudge break to new mutiny/Where racist blood makes all hands unclean.
For most movie musical lovers, West Side Story holds a comfortable spot at the top of the list of best stage-to-film adaptions. Though it looks a little dated in places, this Stephen Sondheim/Leonard Bernstein mash-up still packs a punch. With unparalleled dance numbers, vibrant colors, and the catchiest showtunes since Guys and Dolls, West Side Story proves it’s still got snap.
Based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, this rumble in the Bronx takes place in New York during the late 1950s. The two feuding families are replaced with rival gangs: the Jets (white) and the Sharks (Puerto Ricans). The Jets are led by Riff (Russ Tamblyn) after previous leader Tony (Richard Beymer) left to find work.
The Sharks have Bernardo (George Chakiris) leading their pack, with sister Maria (Natalie Wood) and girlfriend Anita (Rita Moreno) by his side. There’s really no need to get into the nitty gritty here, as this film basically follows your traditional Romeo and Juliet plotline. Tony and Maria meet at a party, fall instantly in love, then must defy convention and risk everything, including their lives, to be together.
With a soundtrack that’s instantly recognizable, West Side Story is filled with one slamming showtune after another. Ballads like “Tonight” and “Somewhere” are basically synonymous with the musical itself, while the catchy “Officer Krupke” is sure to get stuck in your head for weeks after seeing this movie. However, few can compare to the centerfold performance of “America”.
In addition to being a fan favorite, this song also includes the strongest elements of social commentary. It’s set up as a musical battle, where the Puerto Rican women speak to their dream of America as a land of promise – “Life can be bright in America” and “Free to be anything you choose” – while the men, who have been disillusioned by the limited jobs and housing available to immigrants, counteract their verses – “Life is all right in America, If you're all-white in America” and “Free to wait tables and shine shoes”.
Visually, West Side Story is a treat. Colorful costumes and set designs pop out of the screen, while the dance numbers make you wonder how a show like this could have even happened on film. And I don’t think I will recover from the “Cool” number, which was lit almost entirely with the headlights of cars. Amazing.
To its credit, this movie also doesn’t shy away from the hard-hitting issues. Prejudice law enforcement, immigration, senseless violence, the meaning of freedom, discrimination, and loveless households that lead to life on the streets all play a part in this timeless script.
As Maria, California-born girl-next-door Natalie Wood was a controversial casting. She was clearly not Puerto Rican (her voice was dubbed by Marnie Nixon) and she had weird, if not little, chemistry with Richard Beymer, who played Tony more like a leading man than a gang leader (his vocals were also dubbed by Jimmy Bryant).
However, for their roles as Anita and Bernardo, Rita Moreno and George Chakiris shine. Little wonder these two won Oscars in their Best Supporting categories and the leads did not. Moreno sings, dances, and exudes a passion that could only be Puerto Rican. She’s matched perfectly with Chakiris, who is a lean, mean, dancing machine, especially when paired with Moreno.
Nominated for 11 Academy Awards, West Side Story, took home 10, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress and Best Score. It was the highest-grossing film of 1961 and continues to hold the record for the most Oscar wins for a musical film.
In the end, the poison that forever separates our star-crossed lovers comes in the form of hatred. Gang violence leads to Tony’s death, leaving Maria filled with animosity for both the Jets and the Sharks. The final messages of overcoming racism certainly add a positive spin to the end of this tragic tale, but – as we all know – it won’t last. For never was there a story more phony than this of Maria and her Tony.
The Guns of Navarone: In 1943, more than 2,000 British troops were trapped on the island of Kiros in the Aegean Sea. The Allies knew they needed to get their troops off that death trap, but their ships couldn't get close enough because of two looming, demonic guns that sat atop the Greek island of Navarone, patrolling the entire area.
The Allies finally agreed to a do-or-die kamikaze mission to destroy the guns before mounting a larger-than-life rescue operation – all before Hitler was set to take control of Kiros. The only problem being how to convince a team of men to undertake it.
This was no job for a young recruit. What the Allies needed was a group of professional saboteurs to not only sneak around the back of Navarone, but then climb up the insanely high cliffside with Germans looming around every corner. Then they must negotiate miles of enemy territory, infiltrate the Nazi fortress, then finally figure out how to even blow up those freaking cannons. No, this was a job fit for an elite handful of men, a group of action heroes with the skill, knowhow, and stupidity to pull something like this off.
And so begins The Guns of Navarone. Leading this gang of rag tags is Captain Keith Malloy (Gregory Peck) who, even without a leading lady, is just as suave and debonair as ever. Alongside of him is his longtime associate, Andrea Stavros (Anthony Quinn), explosives expert John Anthony Miller (David Niven), the knife-wheeling Butcher Brown (Stanley Baker), local Greek boy Spyros (James Darren), and the brains behind the mission, Major Roy Franklin (Anthony Quayle).
Though paraded as a war flick, The Guns of Navarone is more characteristic of a heist movie, complete with suspense, impressive water stunts, disguises and hidden agendas, as well as a big ol’ twist at the end to cap it all off. But that’s not to say it all works. Parts of Navarone seem to go on forever, with dialogue that wasn’t engaging enough to keep me interested.
However, other parts of Navarone were truly suspenseful, like the intense climb to the top of the island, the Bond-esque scenes where Miller plants his explosives, and the moments our geriatric crew had to outwit a group of Nazis to ensure their own survival. It’s a movie that wanted to have its cake and eat it, too – being both anti-war and pro-Allies, witty but also serious. It pays lip service to the fact that war is hell while putting our heroes in a fun-house attraction filled with explosions and daring escapes. It may be one of the first “war films” where our heroes seem impenetrable – after all, we can’t have reality impinging on all the fun! But what Navarone did well was lead the way for action dramas to become even more cynical and self-righteous; a necessary step as Hollywood was just beginning to create a new kind of anti-hero: James Bond.
With a cast made up of classic and character actors, Navarone isn’t without charm. While it may not be comparable to the likes of Saving Private Ryan or Ocean’s 11 – a closer cousin to Navarone than any war movie – it’s still not a bad way to spend a couple hours. In fact, it reminded me of a movie I might watch with my grandpa during a Sunday visit…a fluff piece with a little action for him and some Gregory Peck for me!
Nominated for 7 Academy Awards, The Guns of Navarone would only win one: Best Special Effects. Though it might have been unforgettable at the time, it’s a bit forgettable now – not because it’s a bad movie, but because it set the precedence for better films to come.
The Hustler: Judging from the cover or poster for this film, you may think it’s about pool. It’s a natural assumption. In fact, much of the action does take place in billiard rooms and pool halls; however, this movie is no more about pool than Rocky is about fighting.
Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) is a pool shark, but turn him into a poker player or a horse gambler and the story would play out pretty much the same. Though there is some friendly competition here, The Hustler is less about beating other players than it is about Eddie’s ability to beat his own inner demons. It’s a movie about being human, winning and losing, and defining the intangible meaning of “character”.
Eddie makes a living as a pool hustler. Traveling around the country with his partner, Charlie (Myron McCormick), he collects small amounts of cash in local bars and pool halls – but Eddie yearns for something more.
It’s not money he wants, but a challenge. Eddie wants to play the best – legendary player, Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason). In a game that takes up a good portion of the first half of the movie, Eddie and Fats play for almost 2 days straight, with Eddie winning almost $20,000; but, ego and liquor get the best of him, and he leaves a beaten man.
Without a penny to his name, Eddie is forced to spend the night in a bus station. It’s here he meets Sarah Packard (Piper Laurie), a fellow addict (not of pool, but of alcohol) who lacks meaning in her life. She goes to college because she’s bored, then spends the rest of the time drinking, because she’s miserable…and we all know what they say about misery…all too soon, Sarah has a new roommate.
Struggling for money, Eddie is forced into some not-so-great situations – leading to a beating that leaves him with two broken thumbs. A shady fairy godfather named Bert Gordon (George C. Scott), who watched Eddie beat Fats, offers to be his manager…but at a steep price. It’s here where the central struggle becomes apparent – it’s not between Eddie and Fats, nor really between Eddie and Bert – but between Eddie and himself. Bert notes that Eddie has the talent to beat his competition but lacks a key quality that Fats has in abundance: character. It’s a trait Eddie will struggle to define for the rest of the film, and it won’t be an easy road getting there. In the world of pool halls and seedy bars, there are no hiding places. You will eventually reveal what you are made of, and pool is game where skill can only get you so far.
Fundamentally, The Hustler is a movie about what it means to be human. Eddie wants to be one of the greats, but his storyline is more about the obstacles he must overcome to achieve personal fulfillment. Bert is a man so emotionally hollow that he needs to dominate and win in order to find any reason to live. He uses Eddie physically, mentally and emotionally to feed his own lack of self-respect. Talk about character.
The only one who seems to have it all together is Minnesota Fats. Fats moves with purpose. He gives the impression of a man who has moved past all the hustling and under-the-table compromises and emerged as a player who simply, and beautifully, plays the game. Unlike the rest of the players and gamblers, Fats never handles any money himself, only focusing on the game he’s playing. He’s the only character who remains uncorrupted and undamaged by the end and, even when he knows he can’t win, he knows when to quit.
The Hustler was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning two: Best Art Direction and Best Cinematography (Black and White). Paul Newman, Piper Laurie, Jackie Gleason and George C. Scott all received acting nominations, but did not win their categories.
By the end, Eddie finally learns his lesson - but at a price. It’s a sad ending, but a realistic one. Character isn't about winning or showing dominance…sometimes, as Fats would teach us, character is just knowing when to walk away.
Fanny: Fanny is a weird movie. It’s a musical without the music. A drama without a villain. In many ways, it’s ahead of its time, but in others, it’s very much stuck in the past. It features two young actors at the peak of their popularity, but the best scenes belong to the seasoned thespians who pepper the story with some much-needed comic relief. This is by no means the worst movie I’ve seen, yet it’s far from the best.
Fanny is a movie, based on a musical, based on a novel. The novel was written in the 1930s and was part of a trilogy of works depicting love, secrets and passion in the old French port of Marseille. The novel then became a Broadway musical in 1954, starring Florence Henderson and Walter Slezak. Seven years later, this film – based on the musical but stripped of all the musical numbers – was released (yet another film version was still to come in 2013).
The story takes place in Marseilles, where 18-year-old Fanny (Leslie Caron) works for her no-nonsense mother, who makes a living selling fish. Fanny has harbored a love for her childhood friend, Marius, since they were small, but he has yet to express his feelings for her.
Across the way, Cesar (Charles Boyer) runs a bar with with his son, Marius (Horst Buchholz). Though Marius is loyal to his father, he dreams of a life at sea. Marius doesn’t want to leave his family behind, but also fears his life will never be complete unless he takes to the ocean. So, Marius longs for the open waters, Fanny longs for Marius, and Cesar and his best friend, Panisse (Maurice Chevalier) just bum around making fun of American tourists.
When a ship finally docks at Marseille, Marius realizes his time for adventure has finally come. He confides in Fanny that he plans to board the ship the next morning, prompting her to finally express her undying love for the guy. This, as you might expect, results in a night of passion before Marius packs his bag and heads out to sea.
Not long after Marius departs, Fanny discovers she’s pregnant. With no prospect of Marius returning for a few years, Fanny agrees to marry Panisse, a man nearly 40 years older than her. He knows the baby is not his, but agrees to love and support Fanny and her child for as long as he can.
With Paniesse’s help, Fanny and her son enjoy a comfortable, lovely life…that is until Marius returns.
It may sound dramatic, but Fanny is actually a very sweet story. Things happen and events unfold – some sad, some happy – much as they do in real life. There is no real villain here, no hidden agenda. It’s no secret that Panisse is much older than Fanny, but he still adores her and wants to provide for her, despite the fact there may not be any physical attraction. He knows Fanny still longs for Marius, but he also knows he can offer her and her son a happy life in the meantime, which is kind of a beautiful thing.
Though Fanny and Marius are at the heart of this story, it’s really the older generation of actors who steal the show. Maurice Chevalier is charming as Panisse, as is the ever-delightful Charles Boyer, who just oozes charm and likeability, even in his golden years.
In the end, we all make plans, we all have dreams – but how often does life turn out that way? Though it’s a bit cheesy and on-the-nose, Fanny is also a celebration of life and all its unpredictability.
Judgment at Nuremberg: "...under a national crisis, ordinary, even able and extraordinary men, can delude themselves into the commission of crimes so vast and heinous that they beggar the imagination."
Set in Germany in 1948, Judgment at Nuremberg is a brilliant, cinematic exploration of four German judges who served under the Nazi regime. Unlike the many films that have recounted the horrors of the Holocaust, Nuremberg deals not with the trials of the more well-known Nazi leaders, but those men whose complicity made the Holocaust possible.
Chief Judge Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy) has the unlucky job of presiding over the Nuremberg trials. Travelling all the way to Germany from Maine, Haywood is all too aware of the fact that this is a thankless job that many before him passed over, and others deemed unnecessary – or controversial. With all the head honchos dead (Hitler, Goebbels and Goering), the only ones left to attest for the Nazi war crimes are the judges, doctors and businessmen.
The first group of defendants are four German judges, most of whom refuse to recognize the proceedings as legitimate. After all, they didn’t physically beat anyone or turn the levers on the gas chambers; however, they signed documents that put those actions into practice. In this trial, which has been fictionalized, these men are being charged for murder, brutalities, torture and other atrocities against the victims of the Third Reich. As grown men, they made the conscious decision to support the Nazi ideologies rather than fight for justice…and must now be held responsible for emboldening such crimes against humanity.
But this presents a problem. After all, judges do not make the laws; they carry out the laws of the country. To go against said laws would be traitorous. So, how can they be held accountable for merely doing their jobs?
This is the main argument of their defense lawyer, Hans Rolfe (Maximilian Schell in an Oscar-winning role). If these four men are on trial for doing their jobs, where does it stop? At that point, shouldn’t all of Germany be on trail for simply following orders?
The prosecution is being led by American Col. Tad Lawson (Richard Widmark), who remains traumatized by what he saw when he and his outfit liberated the concentration camps. He is relentless in his questioning, tackling some of the most sensitive questions about the horrors of World War II. How far does the responsibility go? Were these high-ranking officials blindly obeying orders, or could they have done something to stop it? And, to a greater extent, were ordinary German citizens even aware of what was going on in their backyards?
Haywood’s balance is thrown a bit when he meets Frau Berthold (Marlene Dietrich), the widow of a Nazi general who was hanged following an earlier trial. In a sweet little dinner date, Berthold confides in Haywood that she, along with most of the German people, hated Hitler. “And he hated us,” she says. “That's why it's so ironic, what happened…It was political murder. You can see that, can't you?"
Dietrich’s tortured role is just one of many brilliant performances in this film. Burt Lancaster stars as Nazi judge Ernst Janning, who struggles with his own inner demons. Montgomery Clift appears as Rudolph Peterson, a man ordered to be sterilized by one of the German judges for being mentally challenged. And, in what’s maybe one of her best performances, Judy Garland stars as Irene Hoffmann, a woman tortured by one of the judges’ racist rulings. Both broken and struggling in real life at the time, Clift and Garland are extraordinary at playing desperate and vulnerable people.
After nearly 8 months of testimony, Haywood delivers his final verdict in one stunning 11-minute take. As Haywood, Tracy creates a gentle, but towering figure – compassionate but realistic, warm but objective. His final moments on screen are a serious gut-punch, at one moment filled with understanding, at another, utter disgust.
Whether or not these men actually received their justice is up for debate. In a powerful closing argument, Lawson shows actual footage of concentration camps, films and images that many in the courtroom, and sitting in theater seats, had never seen. The film is harsh on the German judges, but also shows the compromising attitudes of some American officials who believed these men shouldn’t be punished at all (this was thought to be a political move aimed at getting Germany to side with the U.S. and resist the Soviet Union in the Cold War).
Though Judgment at Nuremberg is by far a fictional account, it is by no means any less intelligent. It raises complex questions, avoids the easy answers, and leaves viewers contemplating what they might do in the same situation. It’s an exceptionally good historical film – and a haunting one.