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Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 39

Part 39: 1967


MOVIES:

  • The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming

  • Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

  • Alfie

  • A Man for All Seasons (winner)

  • The Sand Pebbles

The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming!


Despite the fact that the Statue of Liberty actually says, “give me your tired, your poor…the homeless…those yearning to breathe free…”, it’s no shock that America can be inhospitable to just about everyone. Though we seem to see this side of the US all over the news recently, few films depict it quite like The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming!, a satirical farce about the panic that sweeps a small New England island after a Russian military submarine runs aground at the height of the Cold War.


The fictional Gloucester Island, set off the coast of Massachusetts, has shed all its summer tourists. The only thing playing on the beaches now should just be the waves bringing in the cool, autumn weather…but this time they’re carrying something else to shore – a boatload of beached Soviet sailors.

The Russians themselves mean no harm – they’re only there by accident. Led by Lieutenant Rosanov (Alan Arkin, in his film debut), the Russians seek help at a nearby beach house, where they try to explain to the Whittaker family (led by Carl Reiner) that their submarine has run aground; however, word starts to spread about a Russian invasion, causing immense, hysterical panic among the locals.


While the islanders board up doors and windows, the Russians are happy, accidental tourists, looking at maps, gushing over Coca Cola and strolling along the beach. They find allies in the Whittaker family, themselves travelers from New York who are anxious to leave the “damp” beach house they’ve rented. Together, these two groups attempt to navigate this insular island town and outwit the comical, xenophobic residents who will stop at nothing to protect their little plot of land.

By the 1960s, it seemed that America was ready for a fairy tale version of the Cold War. Much like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World, The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming! used good humor to point out just how insulated, isolationist and paranoid we had become. The people of the town behave with remarkable realism, not unlike those “Karen” videos that continue to circulate around social media. Those who hear the exaggerated news of a Russian invasion converge on the town with guns in hand. Lynch mobs form to take down foreign invaders. It’s a scene ironically all too familiar nowadays.

As for the Russians themselves, they’re all pretty loveable. The film does a great job of contrasting the pitchfork hysteria in town with the dreamy-eyed Soviets, all of whom are more than excited to see America for the first time. Ironically, most of the town doesn’t even lay eyes on the Russians until the very end, symbolizing our quick, dangerous desire to fight and take down something we don’t even know exists.


In the end, The Russians are Coming acts as a metaphor for how Americans fail – or succeed – in welcoming foreigners of all kinds. For me, it wasn’t nearly as funny as I wanted it to be, but I still think it holds up – especially in today’s charged political climate. And while it certainly speaks to the fears many Americans have regarding foreign invasion, nothing seems to scare this town as much as immigration – newcomers embedding themselves in their little town. Tourists may be annoying, but at least they leave and return home. It’s the immigrants, the tired, the poor and homeless, those yearning to breathe free, that seem to terrify us the most.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?


Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? begins like a horror movie. The full moon illuminates a hazy, black and white scene below. A drunk couple stumbles into a dimly lit estate, brimming with gothic architecture. But Virginia Woolf is not a horror movie, at least, not in the traditional sense.


These characters aren’t fighting a werewolf or trying to outrun a serial killer. In fact they’re really not in any danger at all…yet what brings these four people together is still horrifying – and entertaining – in it’s own way.

Starring real-life partners Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a drama that encompasses the whole relationship of man and woman: love and hate; tenderness and cruelty; misery and elation. It begins in the wee hours of morning, around 2:00 am, with Martha (Taylor) and her husband George (Burton) sauntering home after a party.


Despite the late hour, George and Martha play host to another young couple: Nick (George Segal) and his wife Honey (Sandy Dennis). Nick and Honey have recently moved to town and are eager to make friends. Nick and George work at the same university where Martha’s father sits as president.

Already a few sheets to the wind, Martha is loud and obnoxious from the moment Nick and Honey walk through the door. George continues to antagonize her. As the four characters continue to drink their sorrows away, talk transitions to all manner of topics, including work, sports, weight, and children. The conversations are quick-paced, very theatrical, and seemingly obnoxious…but then things take a turn.


All too soon the struggles of George and Martha begin to come to light. Idle gossip transforms into dark secrets, fueled by near constant drinking and teasing. And that is what this story is – four people engaging in a long night of personal conflict and reflection. Filmed in black and white, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? seems to trap these characters in a dream-like state. Surrounded by smoke and alcohol, Martha, George, Nick and Honey fight truth, illusion and droopy eyelids to try and make it through the night as best they can.

A true powerhouse, Elizabeth Taylor forgoes her “Most Beautiful Actress in the World” title to play the frumpy, drunk Martha. Distraught by pain and loneliness, Martha seems to be a shadow of who she once was – and Taylor is flawless in showing us a woman torn apart by her husband’s verbal and emotional abuse.


Richard Burton, who was married to Taylor at the time, was her perfect foil. Always the master of the situation, George knows exactly how to push Martha’s buttons…and he does it relentlessly. He’s calm, cool and collected most of the time, but strikes with daggering words aimed right at Martha’s heart.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was nominated for 13 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress awards for Burton, Taylor, Segal and Dennis. It is one of only two films (the other being Cimarron) to be nominated in every eligible category at the Academy Awards and is the only film thus far to have its entire credited cast nominated for acting awards.


Both Taylor and Dennis took home their respective awards for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress. The film also won for Best Cinematography – Black and White, the last award given in that category before it was discontinued.


By the time this horrific nightmare of an evening is over, everyone is nursing a bruised ego. As the sun begins to rise, the drinking finally stops, the battle swords are put down, and what’s left is just “blood under the bridge,” as George says, perfectly summing up the life he’s fostered and endured.

Alfie


“Nobody don’t ‘elp you in this life. You gotta ‘elp yourself.” That is the philosophy of Alife (Michael Caine), the self-serving Cockney lothario who delights in generously helping himself to life’s pleasures. Tall, thin and confident, Alfie is a man intended for men (also see Don Draper). He’s very much a 60s male fantasy of character and behavior – a “fanny-magnet”, with a big car, a big personality and, well, you know…big feet.

Alfie Elkins is, for lack of a better term, a Cockney Don Juan. There’s not a “bird” he won’t bring home to nest. He pursues women – married, single, young, and old - with relentless and inexhaustible energy. His desire is simple: just sex. Commitment is a long 4-letter word…in fact the only thing Alfie is committed to is making the most of his own life.


Alfie makes no attempts at hiding who he is. The first time we see him, he’s having an affair with a married woman named Siddie (Millicent Martin). He objectifies her by calling her “it” then drops her off at a train station before going to see Gilda (Julia Foster) who is so in love with Alfie that she is literally willing to wait on him, hand and foot. Like Siddie, Gilda is treated horribly, but Alfie simply states that a woman can be quite happy “…if she knows her place”.


However, things change for Alfie when Gilda reveals she’s pregnant. Worse still, she wants to keep the baby. Does this stop this promiscuous lover? Hardly! He gets yet another woman pregnant, this time a married woman, and arranges for her to have an abortion – a very hot button topic for a 1960s film.

It’s not until Alfie meets an older American woman named Ruby (Shelley Winters) that he seems to show any inkling of respect. He admires her confidence, yet still objectifies her, noting “…she’s in beautiful condition,” as if she were a car or set of golf clubs. But when Ruby gives Alfie a little taste of his own medicine, it finally forces him to question everything.


Despite the description, Alfie is not a movie that celebrates sexual exploitation. Alfie is not likeable – though it’s near impossible to hate Michael Caine! On the surface, Alfie uses charm and charisma to seduce women, then he uses them to serve his base needs. “I don’t want no bird’s respect,” he says. “I wouldn’t know what to do with it.” Instead, these women cook his food and wash his clothes, anxiously awaiting an opportunity to sleep with him. Men want to be him, girls want to bed him.


Yet Alfie certainly doesn’t have it all. The film makes no stance on whether this lifestyle is admirable, it leaves that up to us. Breaking the 4th wall, Alfie narrates his story in real time, giving the audience a front-row seat into the workings of his brain. Alfie’s intimacy with the audience is highly personal and adds to the film’s honesty. We become his best mate, his wing man, his mirror. This makes it really hard not to like this cunning cad!

Ultimately, the main idea at the heart of Alfie is happiness – what is means to be happy. Alfie is a man without honor. His actions are selfish, he’s completely irresponsible and he has little to no concern about the effect his actions have on other people; however, he’s also obviously very lonely. By the end, we see him less of a man, a victim of his own personal philosophy on life. And though it’s quite humorous at times, Alfie also challenges the nature of selfishness, desire and where our own journeys in life are taking us.

A Man for All Seasons


I don’t know whether it’s sad or ironic that a film set in the 1500s made in the 1960s can still be relevant in 2021. There are many reflections of American politics in the text of A Man for All Seasons, particularly this comment by the title character, Thomas More (Paul Scofield): “But since we see that abhorrence, anger, pride, and stupidity commonly profit far beyond charity, modesty, justice, and thought, perhaps we must stand fast a little – even at the risk of being heroes.”


Seems politics has always been a mess. Does that make this movie relatable? Sure. Entertaining? Not so much.


This old, political epic, which somehow took home the Academy Award for Best Picture, recounts the struggle between Henry VIII (Robert Shaw) and Sir Thomas More during the final years of More’s life. As the Lord Chancellor of England, More engages in a conflict of will power against Henry VIII, refusing to sign a letter asking Pope Clement VII to annul Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon.

As we all know, all Henry wants to do is have some fun – aka divorce his current wife and marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn (Vanessa Redgrave). But More is steadfast and refuses to swerve from his spiritual and intellectual convictions at the insistence of his king…a decision that leads to his ultimate death. I suppose the nobility of a good man can’t stand against the whims of a tyrant.


And, like other political films, A Man for All Seasons is a filibuster of dialogue. Full of long, theological conversations and political implications, this film requires you to know your history in order to fully understand it…great for British history buffs… a drag for the rest of us.


Outside of the wordy Masterpiece Theater script, A Man for All Seasons is a pretty simple movie. It uses natural exterior lighting whenever possible and many of the scenes take place outside, removing the need for traditional sets and eliminating that “theater feeling” that accompanies many films that have been based on plays (such as this one).

The costumes help set us in place – basically a long time ago in England – but they’re not authentic enough to be historically accurate. But, that doesn’t matter. A Man for All Seasons doesn’t care about set and setting – it’s much more focused on history and character, offering no distractions from the moral question being asked throughout the film.


That’s all well and good – I mean, I love character-driven stories (Mad Men, anyone?) – but A Man for All Seasons fails to include an interesting element. This historical drama is here for the story and the dialogue – and that’s all we get. Robert Shaw, who is arguably the best part of this drag, only has about 8 minutes of screen time. The other colorful personality, Orson Wells, is also given a mere scene or two before being killed off. This leaves us with More and his Hamlet-like struggles to convince himself to stand by his morals. To honor thy Bible or thy King…that is the question.

The Sand Pebbles


When most people think of Steve McQueen, they probably think of motorcycle jumps, speeding cars, or towering infernos. But McQueen did his some of his best work – and won his only Oscar nomination – bonding with the engine of a gunboat in the film, The Sand Pebbles.


Set in China during the 1920’s, The Sand Pebbles is an epic war movie on the surface, but a personal war movie underneath. Clocking in at just over 3 hours long, it tells you more than you could ever want to know about life on a US gunboat.

Jake Holman (McQueen) is a rebellious Navy machinist assigned to manage the engine room of his river tugboat. He understands engines as many others would like to understand a woman. He soothes and caresses the steam-pumps, introduces himself to the machinery like a good gentleman who knows he’s handling something dangerous.


The story is punctuated with little bursts of action, a fight in a local bar; a throwaway romance with fresh-faced Candice Bergen. In fact, The Sand Pebbles features very little actual warfare. Instead, it places its soldiers on the battlefield of political warfare, offering subtle – and not so subtle – commentary on racial intolerance, international relations, propaganda, rape, slavery and murder.

As for the plot, The Sand Pebbles wanders all over the damn place. It is a story that too often gets stuck in overly predictable sidetracks. The main storyline of Holman running the engine room (and training his crew) is entertaining enough. The romances, personal conflicts and side-plots just work to drag it down.


Despite this film trying to open American eyes to Chinese culture, the Chinese still never fail to be the villains, no matter what. Those who survive the battle against the Chinese are “Good Americans”…the ones who never question, accepting their duty for what it is. Those who question authority or find something to fight for outside of “the system” are killed. Holman, who sees through the façade of what his ship and crew are doing in China, is ultimately unsuccessful in his quest. His friend Frenchy (Richard Attenborough) goes so far as to fall in love with a Chinese girl, resulting in his ultimate demise.



In 1967, America was still very much involved in the Vietnam War, and it was clear that screenwriter Richard Anderson and director Robert Wise wanted to make a statement about the war with The Sand Pebbles. The film made a clear point that American interference in foreign affairs isn’t always for the best…and not EVERYONE wants to be rescued by American armed forces. And, ever the every man, McQueen’s cool and tough anti-hero distrusts authority, reflecting the way many Americans felt toward the war and their government during the 60s and 70s.


So director Robert Wise wanted to say SOMETHING, but perhaps wasn’t quite sure what that message was. No stranger to long films (he also directed The Sound of Music and West Side Story), Wise packed The Sand Pebbles to the gills with plot, then set it out to sea to wander the open waters. Furthermore, it’s title even hints to the fact that co-existing with the Chinese is like trying to hold a brimming handful of sand. The eventual message is not that our policy with China (or Vietnam) might merit revision, but that any communication with “the damned Asians” is near impossible, so why even bother. It’s a film that takes on too many elements as it tries to explain how America takes on too many problems.



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