April 29, 2014

Luise Rainer, The Good Earth

as O-LAN
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Won: Academy Award - Best Actress
"A product of its time" -- it's something I come across often when I read up on any of the films and/or  performances of classical Hollywood. It's usually used dismissively, sort of like, "Yeah, what they did there was pretty offensive, but what can you do? It's just a product of its time." Now, I've been immersed in enough movies from this era to know what to expect--that it was a racially insensitive time, and thus the characters of color presented in these films are intrinsically racist depictions. But this doesn't change the fact that The Good Earth was vexing to watch. Normally the presences of ethnic characters acted as decorative flourishes as opposed to any portrayal of substance or real-life. Yet here was The Good Earth, the first film of the era I've seen to boast "ethnic" lead characters and an entirely "ethnic" cast--so what was normally just the occasional spoonful of racism now becomes a big 'ole full-course meal of it. And as a staunch enthusiast of naturalism in the films I watch, you can imagine how frustrating it was for me to not only sit through The Good Earth but to also separate from its performances my apprehension towards the film's (personally) offensive racist representations. It didn't matter to me how honorable these characters actually were--no level of honor justifies the cultural appropriation of billions of people through yellowface, slanted eyes, and buck teeth. And at the heart of the film is the Academy Award winning performance of Luise Rainer, whose O-Lan has proven to be a tough piece of work for me to evaluate.

April 27, 2014

Greta Garbo, Camille

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Won: New York Film Critics Circle - Best Actress

The main reason why I haven't been all that fond of the Greta Garbo performances I've seen thus far is because of that Greta Garbo Illusion. There's always that sense of unapproachability--it defines Garbo's entire legacy. In everything I've seen her in, she seems so detached from the audience and she's kind of wafting in her own world. This in turn reinforced the novelty of the Garbo image, and no one was more aware of this than Garbo herself--she didn't like it when people lingered on set and stared at her during filming, and when director George Cukor asked why, she replied: "When people are watching, I'm just a woman making faces for the camera. It destroys the illusion." So therein lies my problem: the elusiveness that makes up much of Garbo's appeal has to be maintained, but it makes connecting with her and feeling for her a problem especially if the characters she plays--troubled and depressed women--require a viewer's compassion. I had my reservations about Camille, thinking it'd be another two hour picture where Garbo stands around "making faces" under the pretense of suffering. Upon watching Camille, I could tell immediately that there was something different about Garbo here.

April 24, 2014

Barbara Stanwyck, Stella Dallas

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It took me some time to formulate my feelings towards Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas into words. Because for the most part, I was unsure of how I felt towards her. What I can't deny is her amazing screen presence--she's got a sultry confidence that oozes out of her like clockwork which in turn makes her incredibly sexy even if she wasn't a conventional beauty by Hollywood standards. That said, her Stella is an unusual creation--it's a packaging of fine acting mixed with off-the-charts acting that annoys and charms all at once. So I struggled a bit in figuring out just how much I liked Stanwyck here, as one typically does when faced with divisive performances. But it got me thinking: perhaps my indifference towards Stella and Stanwyck was the desired effect after all?

April 21, 2014

Janet Gaynor, A Star is Born

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At the tender age of 22, Janet Gaynor forever cemented her place in film history by becoming the first lady to be named Best Actress by the Academy Awards. She had amazed Hollywood with her triumphant triple-threat batch of performances, so it's almost perfect that she'd headline A Star is Born, seeing as she was quite literally a star born only ten years prior. As the small-town girl who dreams of becoming a movie star and who eventually takes Hollywood by storm, even winning her own Oscar within the context of the film--you watch Gaynor in that famous scene at the Academy Awards, standing up at the podium and giving her acceptance speech while clutching her real life Oscar in her hands...and it's hard to deny that in that very moment on celluloid, her career had officially come full circle. Now, I say that it's almost perfect casting because despite the perfect similarities between the artist and the character, I don't think Gaynor was a skilled enough actress to make the superficially written Esther truly flourish.

April 17, 2014

Fredric March, A Star is Born

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I will preface this post by saying that I've fallen for Fredric March. Since I began my voyage of going through the nominated (leading) performances of Oscar's earliest years, March has popped up in several of the films I've seen and as a result, I became taken by the lax yet confident charisma he always exudes on the screen. I was so fond of him that I actively sought out films and performances of his not nominated for Oscars, one of which being his work as an alcoholic mess in Merrily We Go to Hell. Naturally, I was pretty excited to see him play another alcoholic mess in A Star is Born, especially since I had heard nothing but great things about him as the original Norman Maine. But upon finishing A Star is Born, I was left with a ton of indifferent feelings. My biggest issue with the film is the story, which, although interesting, doesn't do a very good job at addressing the topics of stardom and alcoholism, both of which are very hefty subjects to begin with. As a result, we're left with a performance from March that's sometimes compelling but mostly underdeveloped.

April 13, 2014

Robert Montgomery, Night Must Fall

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Looking through Robert Montgomery's filmography, you'll see that he starred in a ton of forgettable flicks in the early thirties, often as the male counterpart to a bigger female star. He was unable to take the role of Roger Byam in Mutiny on the Bounty, and he passed on the role of Peter Warne in It Happened One Night the year before, giving him the dubious honor of having missed out on two consecutive Academy-Award nominated performances. I've only seen him in three other films, that being The Divorcee, Their Own Desire, and The Big House. In the first two pictures, his roles fall right into the typecast set by his studio--pretty forgettable and merely accessories to Norma Shearer's characters. But he's excellent in The Big House. The role is small, but he infuses his character with such a palpable sense of desperation and fear, and he more than holds his own up against Chester Morris and Wallace Beery. Watching him there, I got a sense that he was capable of so much more than what was being given to him. That said, I'm pretty happy that MGM decided to make Night Must Fall, not only because it's a film so unlike anything else that was being made by the studios at the time, but also because it finally gave Montgomery a plum role that was worthy of his talents.

April 11, 2014

Charles Boyer, Conquest

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When you decide to make a film where one of the main characters is Napoleon Bonaparte, an immensely iconic figure in world history whose name is recognizable to just about anyone who's ever taken a history class, it really ought to be interesting. He was, after all, one of the most powerful political and military leaders, who had rose to the position of Emperor of France "by achievement". So with Conquest, there's an inherent problem: this is not a film about Napoleon. This is a film that is strictly about the romance between Napoleon and a woman. Thus, anything interesting about Napoleon, any juice from his life story, any of those "achievements" that helped make him the legend he became--that's all tossed into the back seat in favor of yet another sappy love story. Charles Boyer's portrayal of Napoleon is filled with potential, but he isn't able to make something truly magnificent out of it due to the film's misdirected aspirations.

April 7, 2014

Spencer Tracy, Captains Courageous

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Won: Academy Award - Best Actor

Sometimes first impressions tell you everything you need to know. When we first meet Spencer Tracy in Captains Courageous, he is sitting in a little fishing boat out in the middle of the ocean screaming "OOOH! OOOH!" because he's imitating a ship's fog horn. So in that moment when I realized I was watching a grown man do an impression of a ship instead of out at the local college bar drinking dollar beers, I rolled my eyes, laid back, and cursed my obsessively completist mentality regarding these Oscar-nominated performances. Because without it I certainly would have no reason to watch Captains Courageous, which is an amalgamation of a number of things I really don't like (a children's film, a child star, an all-male cast, a poorly acted ethnic role by an American actor, and a schmaltzy narrative).

April 5, 2014

Paul Muni, The Life of Emile Zola

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Won: New York Film Critics Circle - Best Actor

In the eight years between 1929 to 1937, Paul Muni managed to grab Oscar's attention five separate times*. Publicized by Warner Bros. as "the screen's greatest actor", Muni had enough clout to sway his studio into making The Story of Louis Pasteur and The Life of Emile Zola. And as poorly aged as some of his films and performances are, at the very least one gets the feeling that his own involvement with a project brings a certain aura of importance. That's because he was constantly transforming himself on the screen--from a violent gangster to a chain gang convict to a Mexican-American casino partner to a Hungarian coal miner to a French microbiologist to French author reviewed here to a Chinese farmer to a Mexican president--Muni was likely the bravest and most transformative actor of his era. He was constantly challenging himself, which can't be said about the likes of Clark Gable and Greta Garbo, huge stars who rested on a particular base persona in much of their roles.