Thursday, 5 March 2015

Turner Classic Movies Fan Favorites

Those of you who watch Turner Classic Movies may remember that last November TCM started a new segment called "Fan Favorites" in which four fans were able to discuss one of their favourite films with TCM co-host Ben Mankiewicz. On April 11 TCM will air another round of Fan Favorites and among the featured fans will be yours truly. I will be talking about The Beatles' classic A Hard Day's Night (1964). I will post more details (such as the specific times we fans will be on) as they come available.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

My Picks for the Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival

Sadly, I will not be attending the Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival this year. That having been said, like many who are not attending I like to think about the films I go see there.  Indeed, this year they are once more showing some of my favourite films of all time. Since I cannot attend the festival, then, I am posting my list of must-see movies for those of you who are. I have to tell my fellow bloggers that if I do not see long, detailed blog posts about each of these films I will be sorely disappointed!

Here, in alphabetical order, are my picks for the Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival.

42nd Street (1933): In my humble opinion 42nd Street is both the greatest backstage musical of all time and one the best Pre-Code movies. It is also the second best film of 1933, second only to King Kong. 42nd Street literally invented nearly every backstage musical cliche. And while many viewers who have never seen the film will nonetheless find much that is familiar about it, 42nd Street still remains fresh and exciting largely due to fast paced, witty dialogue (much of it containing double entendres); incredible Busby Berkeley dance numbers; and some truly great songs. It also benefits from a great cast, including Ruby Keeler, Warner Baxter, Dick Powell, and Ginger Rogers.

The Apartment (1960): If you know me, then you also know how much I love this film. Quite simply, The Apartment is my third favourite film of all time (after Seven Samurai and Casablanca). Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond's screenplay is funny, witty, touching, and romantic by turns, and at times all at the same time. It also boasts some of the most quotable lines of any film ever made. The film benefits from a great cast, including Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray, Jack Kruschen, Ray Walston, David White, and Edie Adams. It is a true classic, movie-wise.

Gunga Din (1939): There is this myth that big budget, action blockbusters were invented in the Seventies. Gunga Din is proof that this is not the case. Indeed, short of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), it might well be the most famous adventure film of the Thirties. There much to recommend about Gunga Din, including a great cast (including Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Sam Jaffe), a sterling screenplay, and plenty of action. It also has some of the most quotable lines of any film in movie history.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939): It is no secret that 1939 was a very good year for film. Indeed, there are those of us who think that it is the best year for films ever. It should then be no surprise that there are two films from that year on this list. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) is the best adaptation of Victor Hugo's novel of the same name, even if it does take considerable liberties with the source material. Regardless, Charles Laughton plays the quintessential Quasimodo in what might be the greatest performance of his legendary career. The film also features some incredible performances from Maureen O'Hara, Cedric Hardwicke, Thomas Mitchell, and Edmund O'Brien. Beyond the great performances and a great screenplay, The Hunchback of Notre Dame boasts some of the best production design of a film from the Thirties. RKO recreated medieval Paris on their Encino Ranch. It was one of the most expensive and most extravagant sets built at the time.

The Loved One (1965): If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know The Loved One is one of my all time favourite films. The film takes its bare bones plot from Evelyn Waugh's classic novel The Loved One: An Anglo-American Tragedy, and from there goes in wholly unexpected directions. Quite simply along with Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, The Loved One was one of a new breed of irreverent comedies that lampooned topics that were previously taboo for film comedies. Indeed, not only does The Loved One send up the funeral industry and Hollywood much as the original novel did, but everything from American mores to the space programme. Jessica Mitford titled her essay on the making of the film,  "Something to Offend Everyone", and that essentially became the tag line of the movie. The Loved One benefits from an incredibly funny script by Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood, as well as a great cast. Even though Robert Morse's English accent is only a little better than Dick Van Dyke's in Mary Poppins, he still gives a great performance as the film's protagonist, while Anjanette Comer is perfect as Aimee Thanatogenous. Both Jonathan Winters and Rod Steiger very nearly steal the show. If you love the irreverent comedies of the Sixties, then this is a must see.

The Man Who Would Be King (1975):  Even though it was made in the Seventies, The Man Who Would Be King seems much more like an old fashioned, adventure film from the Thirties. Much of this might be due to the fact that the film was based on Rudyard Kipling's short story of the same name, as well as the fact that it was directed by one of the Golden Age of Hollywood's greats, John Huston. Indeed, Mr. Huston had wanted to make a film based on the short story as far back at the Fifties (at which point  Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart would have played the leads), but was never able to get the project off the ground. There is much to recommend about The Man Who Would Be King, not the least is its subtle balance of action, comedy, and drama.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969): When it comes to the James Bond films, I have always thought On Her Majesty's Secret Service is one of the most underrated. It was the only movie in which George Lanzenby played James Bond, and he does well in his only outing as the character. The film also boasts my favourite "Bond girl" of all time (if that term is even really applicable to her), Dame Diana Rigg as Countess Tracy di Vicenzo. As to the plot, it is appropriately Bondian in scope, with Bond's archenemy Blofeld played by Telly Savalas literally threatening the whole world. Perhaps the best thing about On Her Majesty's Secret Service is that it is one of the few films in which Bond is actually allowed to be human. In this film Bond actually has feelings and is all too vulnerable, quite a contrast the British superman portrayed in most 007 movies.

Pinocchio (1940):  This could well be my favourite Disney animated feature of all time. It certainly contains some of the best animation of any Disney film or any animated film, period. It also has one of the best screenplays of any Disney film, with a story that goes well beyond the simple morality play about the importance of hard work and telling the truth. The film has a great voice cast, with Dick Jones as the title character and Cliff Edwards as  Jiminy Cricket. It also benefits from one of the best soundtracks of any animated film, including the songs "When You Wish Upon a Star" (which won the Oscar for Best Music, Original Song) and "I've Got No Strings".

Rififi (1955): Although often counted as a caper film, Rififi is no light hearted romp. Instead this tale of thieves plotting a heist is a prime example of film noir. The movie is both dark and violent, and represents a world where literally no one can be trusted. At the same time, however, there is a humanity about Rififi that is lacking in many crime films and even other films noirs. The movie benefits greatly from Jules Dassin's direction, as well as a brilliant screenplay.

Roman Holiday (1953): This is the film that made Audrey Hepburn a star, and there should be little wonder it did. Not only was it her first major role in a Hollywood film, but she gave a bravura performance as Princess Ann. Indeed, she won the Academy Award for Best Actress for the role. Today it is hard to believe that anyone else could have even been considered for the role (director William Wyler considered Elizabeth Taylor and Jean Simmons, but both were unavailable). Roman Holiday not only benefited from Audrey Hepburn's performance, but also from a solid screenplay by Dalton Trumbo, Ian McLellan Hunter, and John Dighton, based on a story by Dalton Trumbo.  The rest of its cast, from Gregory Peck to Eddie Albert,  also do fine jobs.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

A Conversation with Lyndsy Spence about Her Book Mrs Guinness: The Rise and Fall of Diana Mitford

Perhaps no other set of sisters had an impact on the 20th Century as the Mitford sisters. Beautiful, intelligent, and more often than not controversial, the Mitfords may well be the most famous sisters of all time short of the Brontës. They spanned nearly the entire political spectrum, from a Nazi sympathiser to a Communist. And they achieved a good deal in a wide range of various fields, everything from best selling novels to muckracking journalism. It should be no surprise that there is a great deal of interest in them to this day.

Perhaps no one is as interested in the Mitfords as author Lyndsy Spence. She is founder of the Mitford Society, which boasts over 1700 members. She wrote the highly successful book The Mitford Girls' Guide to Life and edited the Mitford Society's two annuals. She has been published in everything from The Lady Magazine to BBC Magazine. Her latest book, Mrs Guinness: The Rise and Fall of Diana Mitford, comes out tomorrow. It details the early life of one of the most controversial of the Mitford sisters, Diana, who married brewing heir and future peer Bryan Guinness only to leave him for British Fascist leader Oswald Mosley. Following is an interview with Miss Spence regarding her latest book

A Shroud of Thoughts: Mrs Guinness: The Rise and Fall of Diana Mitford is your second book related to the Mitford Sisters. How did you become interested in the Mitfords?

Lyndsy Spence: I am drawn to the inter-war era and I am fascinated by the relationships sisters and female friends have with one another. Any female relationship is complex and with six sisters you get a variety of personalities and the complexities behind them. The Mitfords seemed to be connected to everyone both through friendship and by blood. They really did have a front row seat to the key events of the last century.

A Shroud of Thoughts: What drew you to Diana Mitford as a subject for a biography?

Lyndsy Spence: Diana always provokes conversation and debate, and people either love her or loathe her. I wanted to discover the woman behind the public profiles that have been labelled on her. The thing that I admire about Diana is that whether the choices she made were right or wrong, she committed herself entirely and she never complained or played the victim. Her attitude was very much "I wanted to do it, so I did it".

A Shroud of Thoughts:  How did you go about researching Diana's early life?

Lyndsy Spence: I wanted to take her out of the Mitford circle, if you will, and look at her without the influence of her sisters. Naturally Nancy and Unity played significant parts in her life, but as far as her growing up was concerned, I wanted to explore Diana's friendships with the men who influenced her outlook on life. I was interested in the dynamic of her relationships with the men who worshipped her and how it shaped her as a person. The letters between James Lees-Milne and Diana were very revealing, and her frame of mind as a teenager did not change as she matured. So that, to me, confirmed Diana's self-belief and her opinions on how she believed people should interact with one another was very strong. Her fundamental principles as a 14 year old did not change when she reached adulthood, and it affirmed - to me at least - that Diana knew what she wanted. It was a good foundation to build on.

A Shroud of Thoughts: The Mitfords seem to have been a diverse lot, including everything from a best selling novelist and biographer (Nancy) to a Nazi sympathiser (Unity) to a political activist and muckraking journalist (Jessica). That having been said, how do you think the sisters were alike?

Lyndsy Spence: They were alike in their freethinking ways and in their independence. Granted they all married, except for Unity, and lived in an age when men dominated society, but they knew their own minds and they lived by their own rules. I think their bond ran deeper than blood, and although Decca could not forgive Diana's fascist leanings, the passion they had for their causes and the men whom they loved were alike, albeit on opposite ends of the political spectrum.

A Shroud of Thoughts:  This next question will take a bit of speculation on your part. How do you think Diana's life would have been different had she remained married to Bryan Guinness?

Bryan and Diana Guinness
Lyndsy Spence: When I was trying to imagine what Diana's life was like with Bryan Guinness, whom everyone said was so kind and loving toward her, I wondered if it hadn't have been Mosley, would she have left him for somebody else? It's difficult to say what her life might have been like because, as we know, when the girls felt strongly about something they committed themselves one-hundred-percent. So, when Diana began to feel disenchanted around 1930 with the economic depression and how her set seemed to move through life relatively unscathed, she was kicking against the gilded world Bryan afforded her. I don't think her passion, at the time, for righting the wrongs of society would have passed and perhaps had she stayed with Bryan she would have been restless. I think, although Bryan adored her and was a good husband and father, he was also striving for something Diana could never give him. He was poetic and had a gentle nature, and the men she seemed attracted to - think Mosley - were almost clones of her father aka Farve. The woman Bryan ended up with was probably the type of wife he hoped Diana would become. His second wife was content to live a country life and give him lots of children. As Diana said, "A better wife for him than I was." Had she stayed with Bryan I think she might have been miserable, for it would have meant fooling herself into believing she was truly happy with her situation. But then again, we don't know!

A Shroud of Thoughts:  Could you tell us about any of your upcoming projects?

Lyndsy Spence: I'm writing a biography of the British film star Margaret Lockwood to mark her centenary next September (2016) and I am working on a television project that's in development. I'm also writing a fiction novel (I've been doing this in-between projects), which has been a dream of mine for so long. I'm always busy!

Mrs. Guinness: The Rise and Fall of Diana Mitford is available at Amazon UK and in Kindle format at Amazon US.

Saturday, 28 February 2015

What Will Become of the BBC?

Those of you who keep track of news regarding the British Broadcasting Corporation (better known as the BBC) have probably already read about the report issued by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee (a  Select Committees of the House of Commons that oversees the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, a department that deals with culture, sport, and some aspects of media in the United Kingdom). In its report the Culture, Media and Sport Committee insisted that the licence fee (the payment required by British subjects to receive television broadcasts) should eventually be abolished and that failure to pay the fee should be decriminalised. The committee also suggested that the BBC Trust, the governing body of the BBC, should be replaced by an independent Public Service Broadcasting Commission. The report also called for a smaller BBC with a more narrow focus.

The report has received a good deal of criticism, even from one person who provided evidence for the report. Steven Barnett, professor of communications at the University of Westminster, said of the report, "The ultimate aim of this report appears to be a smaller, poorer, less publicly attuned BBC which will simply be filling in the spaces left by commercial competitors, rather than a thriving and dynamic institution which serves its audiences and operates in the public interest." and "It seems to be aimed more at appeasing the BBC's competitors than promoting the interests of consumers and citizens."

Given the sheer size of the report (it is 164 pages) and much of what it recommends, I imagine many of my fellow American fans of the BBC may be concerned for its future. I rather suspect that there is little reason for any of us to be overly concerned at this moment. The report is simply a set of recommendations that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport can simply choose to ignore. Ultimately any changes to the BBC will only come when its charter goes into effect on midnight, January 1 2017. In the meantime there will be another General Election, not to mention a lot of lobbying on the behalf of the BBC and its supporters. To steal part of a line from Shakespeare's Macbeth, in some respects the the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee's report is simply,  a lot of "...sound and fury, signifying nothing." In the end, it has no real power to make changes to the BBC.

Indeed, the BBC's charter is renewed every ten years, and every time it comes up for renewal there are those who demand massive changes to the Corporation. In the end there is generally very little change and even the licence fee remains in place. Even if the licence fee was abolished and replaced with a levy on all household, much as Germany has, I suspect it would only be the nature of the BBC's funding that would change. The BBC would continue much as it always has.

Of course, while I do not think the BBC is under any really threat of being reduced from what is and has been for the past many years, that is not to say that I don't think the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee is a bit misguided. Namely, I think that in calling for a smaller, more narrowly focused BBC they are wrong. First, I think there is a need for a public broadcaster whose primary purpose, at least in theory, is broadcasting in the public interest rather than turning a profit. Second, like many fans of the BBC I have to question if the Corporation could continue with much of its programming if it was reduced in size. Would the BBC be able to continue to produce such shows as Doctor Who, Call the Midwife, Wolf Hall, and others if it was smaller? The BBC produces some of the best programming in the world. It is the reason many of their shows have large, loyal followings not only in the United Kingdom, but around the globe. This is not only good for the BBC, but for the whole of Britain. Shows such as Doctor Who and Call the Midwife not only bring in money to the United Kingdom, but also help promote the image of the United Kingdom worldwide. 

Of course, ITV (Britain's oldest commercial network) also produces some great shows, but I have to wonder if they would continue to do so if they did not have the BBC to compete with. Because the BBC set such a high bar for television in Britain before ITV was even launched in 1955, ITV was forced to create fine TV shows in order to compete. As a result British television has been much richer than that of other countries. I should not have to point out that even many American viewers believe that on the whole British television shows are better than those produced in the United States.

Whatever the renewal of the BBC's charter entails, it seems to me that one thing is certain. It should insure that the BBC not only remains an important part of British life, but one of the most respected broadcasting organisations in the world. It should insure that the BBC can continue to produce shows that are not only enjoyed and appreciated in the United Kingdom, but around the world as well. Anything less and Britain, not to mention the world, will have lost a very valuable resource.

Friday, 27 February 2015

The Late Great Leonard Nimoy, Live Long and Prosper

I have never known a world without Leonard Nimoy until today. Star Trek was among the earliest shows of which I was aware. I remember watching reruns of the show when I was very young. In fact, I do not remember a time when I did not know who Mr. Spock was and who played him as well. In the role of Spock on Star Trek, as well as that of Paris on Mission: Impossible and yet other roles, Leonard Nimoy was very much a part of my childhood, as I am sure he was the childhoods of many other people. Sadly, Leonard Nimoy died  today at the age of 83. The cause was complications due to  chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Leonard Nimoy was born on March 26 1931 in Boston, Massachusetts. He took to acting young, appearing in local theatrical productions from when he was eight years old. He continued to appear in local plays through his years in high school. His first major role was in an amateur production of Clifford Odets' Awake and Sing when he was 17. He studied at Boston College and in 1949 went to Hollywood. In 1951 he made his film debut in Queen for a Day.

Throughout the Fifties Mr. Nimoy appeared in such films as Rhubarb (1951), Kid Monk Baroni (1952), the serial Zombies of the Stratosphere (1952), Old Overland Trail (1953), Them! (1954), and The Brain Eaters (1958). He appeared on several TV shows throughout the decade, including Four Star Playhouse, Fireside Theatre, The Man Called X, West Point, Highway Patrol, Broken Arrow, Steve Canyon, Dragnet, Colt .45, M Squad, Sea Hunt, The Rebel, Wagon Train, and Bonanza. From 1953 to 1955 he served in the United States Army. He was stationed for 18 months at Fort McPherson in Georgia, where he was involved with shows for the Army’s Special Services branch. After his discharge from the Army in 1955 he studied acting at the Pasadena Playhouse.

The early to mid-Sixties saw Leonard Nimoy guest star on such shows as Rawhide, 87th Precinct, Gumsmoke, The Untouchables, The Twilight Zone, Perry Mason, Dr. Kildare, The Outer Limits, Combat, Daniel Boone, and Get Smart. In 1963 he first acted alongside future Star Trek co-star DeForest Kelley in the episode of The Virginian "Man of Violence". He first acted with future Star Trek co-star William Shatner in the Man From U.N.C.L.E. episode "The Project Strigas Affair" in 1964; Mr. Nimoy played the villain. He also guest starred on Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry's short lived series The Lieutenant. In 1963 he appeared in a few episodes of the soap opera General Hospital.

It was in 1964 that Leonard Nimoy was cast in what would be his most famous role, that of Mr. Spock on Star Trek. Mr. Nimoy first played the half Vulcan/half human character in the first pilot for Star Trek "The Cage". NBC thought that "The Cage" was too cerebral and as a result commissioned a new pilot. In the meantime there would be various changes to the cast (Jeffrey Hunter, who played Captain Christopher Pike, was not longer available, so William Shatner was cast as Captain James T. Kirk), as well as changes to the character of Spock. A mere lieutenant in "The Cage", Spock became the First Officer of the U.S.S. Enterprise. More importantly while Spock showed emotion in "The Cage", in the second pilot ("Where No Man Has Gone Before") he became the familiar character who's life is guided by logic. Although ratings for Star Trek were never particularly high during its initial run, the show developed a large cult following even then. Even in the late Sixties Leonard Nimoy as Spock was recognisable to people who had never watched an episode of Star Trek, to the point that he was able to appear as the character in a cameo of a 1967 edition of The Carol Burnett Show.

Leonard Nimoy would follow his role as Spock with a role on another iconic show, playing disguise artist Paris for two seasons on Mission: Impossible starting in 1969. During the Sixties he also appeared in the films The Balcony (1963) and Deathwatch (1966). He appeared on the TV shows The Pat Boone Show, The Hollywood Squares, Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, The Joey Bishop Show, The Red Skelton Hour, and The David Frost Show.

In the Seventies Leonard Nimoy returned to the role of Mr. Spock in both the 1973-1974 animated version of Star Trek and the feature film Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). He was the host of the syndicated television documentary series In Search of... He guest starred on the TV shows Night Gallery and Columbo. He appeared in the TV movies Assault on the Wayne, Baffled!, The Alpha Caper, and The Missing Are Deadly. He appeared in the feature films Catlow (1971), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979).  It was in 1973 that Mr. Nimoy broke into directing with the episode of The Night Gallery "Death on a Barge".

The Eighties would see Leonard Nimoy play Mr. Spock in several more Star Trek films, including Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (1982), Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984), Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989). He also continued to direct, directing the feature films Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984), Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), 3 Men and a Baby (1987), The Good Mother (1988), "Body Wars" (1989), and Funny About Love (1990) , as well as episodes of The Powers of Matthew Star and T.J. Hooker, and the television movie Vincent. On television he appeared in the mini-series Marco Polo and The Sun Also Rises. He also guest starred on the shows T.J. Hooker and Faerie Tale Theatre. He played Vincent Van Gogh in the TV production Vincent.

In the Nineties Leonard Nimoy played Spock in the feature film Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991), as well as an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. He guest starred on such shows as The Outer Limits and The Simpsons. He had a recurring role on the syndicated show Invasion America. He provided the voice of Mr. Moundshroud  in the TV special The Halloween Tree (based on Ray Bradbury's book of the same name), and appeared in the TV movies Never Forget, Bonanza: Under Attack, David, The First Men in the Moon, The Lost World, and Brave New World. He was the host of both the TV shows Ancient Mysteries and History's Mysteries.

From the Naughts into the Teens, Leonard Nimoy had a recurring role on the TV show Fringe. He guest starred on The Big Bang Theory. He provided the voice of King Kashekim  in the film Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) and the voice of Sentinel Prime in Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011). He played Mr. Spock in the films Star Trek (2009). Perhaps fittingly, Spock would be the final role in which he appeared, making a cameo in the film Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013).

In addition to being an actor, Leonard Nimoy was also a talented photographer and poet. He published three books containing his photographs: Shekhina (2005), The Full Body Project (2008), and Secret Selves (2010). He published several volumes of poetry, including You & I (1973), Will I Think of You? (1974), We Are All Children Searching for Love: A Collection of Poems and Photographs (1977), Come be With Me (1978), These Words are for You (1981), Warmed by Love (1983), and A Lifetime of Love: Poems on the Passages of Life (2002).

Leonard Nimoy also had a recording career. In December 1966 the Paramount subsidiary Dot Records signed Mr. Nimoy to a recording contract when it became apparent that Star Trek was developing a cult following. His first album, Leonard Nimoy Presents Mr. Spock's Music from Outer Space, was released in June 1967. It was followed by Two Sides of Leonard Nimoy (which contains "The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins") and The Way I Feel in 1968, The Touch of Leonard Nimoy in 1969, and The New World of Leonard Nimoy in 1970.

Throughout his life Leonard Nimoy was identified with the character of Mr. Spock. Indeed, he even entitled his two biographies I Am Not Spock and I Am Spock. There should be little wonder that Leonard Nimoy would be so identified with the role, as he was extraordinary in it. Throughout the years Mr. Nimoy gave what may be one of the best continued performances in a single role in the history of television and film. Today it is often forgotten that Mr. Nimoy was nominated three times in a row for the Emmy for Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Drama for his work on Star Trek.

Of course, it was not simply Mr. Nimoy's performance as Spock that led to him being so identified with the character, but the fact that the character was so extraordinarily popular. Even while Star Trek was still on the air people who had never seen the show could recognise the character of Spock. As to why Spock was so popular, it is perhaps because the half Vulcan/half human represented in a single character a conflict with which each one of must deal from time to time, that of  logic versus emotion. Raised Vulcan, Spock sought to live his life according to pure logic. Despite this, all too often Spock's emotional side won out, particularly with regards to his friends. In many respects, then, Spock represents an ideal: logic tempered by the human heart. While Spock almost never allowed negative emotions such as hate or anger to dominate him, he often found himself at the mercy of such emotions as  love and sympathy, and he was ultimately a better person for it.

While Spock remains one of the most beloved characters in television history, in some respects it is perhaps unfortunate that the role overshadowed the rest of Mr. Nimoy's career to  large degree. The fact was that Mr. Nimoy was an immensely talented actor who could play a large array of roles, many of them about as far from Spock as one could get. On the Perry Mason episode "The Case of the Shoplifter's Shoe" he played a rather brutal hoodlum with no objections to beating his wife. He was incredible in his role as Vincent Van Gogh in the television production Vincent. He also did a fine job of portraying Golda Meir's husband Morris Meyerson in A Woman Called Golda (in fact, he was nominated for an Emmy for the role). In his many guest appearances on American television shows he played everything from a young Basque immigrant on Wagon Train to a surgeon who thinks he committed the perfect crime on Columbo. What is more, he played all of these roles well. Leonard Nimoy's talent as an actor is even more impressive when one considers he was also talented as a director, photographer, and poet as well.

Beyond Mr. Nimoy's talent, it also appears that he was quite simply a good man. During the run of Star Trek Walter Koenig (who played Ensign Chekov on the show) told Leonard Nimoy that Nichelle Nichols (who played Lt. Uhura) was getting paid less than either or him or George Takei (who played Lt. Sulu), despite the fact that her role was as large as theirs. Mr. Nimoy went to the producers and made sure Miss Nicholas got a pay raise. When the animated version of Star Trek went into production it was initially planned that neither George Takei nor Nichelle Nichols would be hired to reprise their roles. Leonard Nimoy made it clear that if they were not hired, then he would not return to provide the voice of Spock. Needless to say, Mr. Takei and Miss Nichols were hired for the animated series. Fans who had the honour of meeting Leonard Nimoy always had the same things to say about him. He was a very kind and gracious man. In the end, it was perhaps not merely because he played an iconic character or because he was a talented actor that Mr. Nimoy was so loved by his fans, but because in the end he was a truly nice person.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Are the Oscars Out of Touch with Movie Goers?

In the wake of the 87th Academy Awards ceremony there have appeared the usual articles proclaiming that the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences is out of touch with movie audiences. Many have pointed out that the winner of Best Picture, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, was seen by fewer than 5 million people in the United States. There have been not a few who have accused the Academy of snubbing popular movies.

Speaking for myself, I don't think the idea that the Academy is out of touch with movie goers is a particularly new idea. In fact, it seems to me that people have been saying this for as long as I have been alive. What is more, I think they may have been saying it for as long as the Academy has given out awards. Consider the year 1933. The highest grossing films for the year were Queen Christina, I'm No Angel, and King Kong. Not only did all three films do well at the box office, but they are also now regarded as classic films. As hard as it is to believe, not a one of them was nominated for Best Picture that year. Instead the Oscar for Outstanding Production (pretty much the "Best Picture" award of today) that year went to Cavalcade, a film that did well enough at the box office, but nonetheless did not rank in the ten highest grossing films for the year. And while  Queen Christina, I'm No Angel, and King Kong are widely regarded as classics, Cavalcade is now remembered only by classic film buffs and film historians.

Fifteen years later, in 1948, the three highest grossing films for the year were The Red Shoes, The Three Musketeers, and Red River. While The Red Shoes was nominated for Best Picture, neither The Three Musketeers nor Red River were. What is more, the winner of Best Picture that year was Lord Laurence Olivier's adaptation of Hamlet. While Lord Olivier's Hamlet is regarded today as a classic, it was hardly a winner at the box office--it was the seventeenth highest grossing film for the year.

Over the years, particularly since the Eighties, there have been several times in which films that did not do particularly well at the box office have won the Academy Award for Best Picture. This is not something that just began in the past few years. And while it is true that there have been many times in the past that big box office films have walked away with the award (Gone with the Wind, From Here to Eternity, The Sound of Music, and so on), at no point in the history of the Academy do I think it can be said that it was the norm.

Of course, here I have to say that I don't think the fact that top grossing films are sometimes shut out of the Best Picture category can be used as evidence that the Academy is somehow out of touch with the movie going public. Instead I think it is more likely the case that the Academy uses other criteria than box office gross or popularity in determining whether a film is worthy of a nomination. Let's face it, if the Oscar for Best Picture had gone to the top grossing film for 2014, the producers of Transformers: Age of Extinction would have been on the stage accepting the award this past Sunday. Given I know of no one who thinks Transformers: Age of Extinction is a good movie, let alone a great one, I think we can agree that how well a film does at the box office should not play a role in being nominated for Best Picture.

That is not to say that I do not think the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences does not have a problem when it comes to nominating films for Best Picture at times. I still remember 2008 when The Dark Knight was not nominated for Best Picture. Not only was it the highest grossing film of the year worldwide, but it also received overwhelmingly positive reviews and was on many critics' best lists. Despite this, The Dark Knight was not nominated for Best Picture. Christopher Nolan was not even nominated for Best Director. Instead the award for Best Picture went to Slumdog Millionaire, a very good film in my humble opinion but nowhere as good as The Dark Knight. While I can understand why the Academy would not nominate a high grossing but critically despised film like Transformers: Age of Extinction (and I would not want them to either), I cannot understand why there are times the Oscars will not nominate high grossing but critically acclaimed films either.

Ultimately, I think the problem may not be so much that the Academy is purposely snubbing popular films, as it is biased against certain types of films. King Kong, Red River, and The Dark Knight all have one thing in common--they all belong to genres that the Academy has traditionally overlooked when nominating films for Best Picture. Indeed, if one looks at a list of the Best Picture winners, one will see very few horror movies, science fiction movies, fantasy movies, superhero movies, Westerns, or even comedies among them It is rare that they are even nominated. Given that the past several years many of the critically acclaimed, but popular films have belonged to genres the Academy tends to overlook, it should be no surprise that there should be a gap between what the Academy nominates for Best Picture and what audiences actually pay to see.

Unfortunately, the only solution to the Academy's consistent snubbing of certain genres of film and thus closing the gap between the Academy and movie goers would seem to be to change the Academy membership. The average Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences member is 63 years old, male, and of European American distinct. Many of the Academy members no longer make movies. The average Academy member is then among the least likely people to appreciate superhero movies, science fiction movies, horror movies, or any of the various other genres that at one time were regarded as "kid's stuff" or simply not taken very seriously. It would seem the only way to change the sort of films that are nominated for Best Picture, then, is for more young people, more women, and more people of various ethnicities to join the Academy.

In the end, I think to some degree the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has always been out of touch with the movie going public. Certainly in some years the Academy has given Best Picture to what movie goers apparently liked best, but in many other years they did not. It is quite possible that if the membership of the Academy changed dramatically we would still see certain types of films nominated for Best Picture over other types. Regardless, the idea that the Academy is out of touch with movie goers is hardly a new one.

Monday, 23 February 2015

87th Academy Awards

 Alejandro González Iñárritu and his Best Director Award
This year I saw very few of the films nominated for Oscars. It is a sad fact of life that I don't get to the cinema as often as I once did, and that many Oscar nominated films are not shown at our local theatre. For that reason I do not have a real opinion on many of the films and personages who won awards last night. That having been said, it has been a tradition since my childhood to watch the Academy Awards and so I watched the 87th Academy Awards last night.

As far as the awards themselves were concerned, last night's Oscars held very few surprises. The people and films that many pundits expected to win did so: J. K. Simmons took Best Supporting Actor, Patricia Arquette took Best Supporting Actress, Eddie Redmayne took Best Actor, and so on. As I said earlier, I saw very few of the films nominated for Oscars this year, so I don't really have an opinion on many of this year's winters. There are three categories in which I either saw or, in one instance, heard the nominees. With regards to Best Animated Short, while I liked all of the nominees I do think "Feast" definitely deserved to win. As to Best Animated Feature, I do not think the best animated feature film was even nominated. Namely, The Lego Movie not only deserved to be nominated, it deserved to win. How How to Train Your Dragon 2 (which is a good animated film, just not Oscar material) was nominated and The Lego Movie was not I will never know.

This brings me to the category of Best Original Song. To be blunt, I think this is one of the worst groups of nominees for Best Song in literally years. The only song I actually liked was "Grateful" from Beyond the Lights. While I love The Lego Movie, I absolutely despise "Everything Is Awesome" (I actually dislike it more than "Happy" from last year...). As to "I'm Not Gonna Miss You" and "Lost Stars", I thought both songs were rather dull. This brings us to "Glory". I realise many have referred to the song as "inspiring". And I will agree that  John Legend and Common gave very inspirational speeches when they accepted the award for Best Song. That having been said, I do not like "Glory". For me it is a song that could have been very good had it only featured John Legend's contributions to the song. Of course, here I must point out that rap is my least favourite genre of music of all time, so I am probably biased when I think "Glory" would have been much better without a rap section.

As to the Oscar ceremony itself, I thought it was disappointing. I had been looking forward to last night's ceremony as Neil Patrick Harris has hosted several other awards ceremonies (the Emmys and the Tonys) and he has always proven funny, witty, and charming. Unfortunately, as last night's Oscars host he was hit and miss. I rather suspect the problem was not so much Mr. Harris as it was the Academy's writers. Evidence for this may be found in the speeches of the various presenters, very few of which were very good. Speaking as someone who is short himself, I thought Anna Kendrick and Kevin Hart's arguing over who was shorter when they presented the award for Best Animated Short was very funny. For me the highlight of the night came when Julie Andrews presented the Academy Award for  Best Original Score. Miss Andrews was as beautiful and eloquent as ever. She was by far the best presenter of the night.

Of course, that brings me to another highlight of the night. As most of you know, I have never been a fan of The Sound of Music (to put it simply, it puts me to sleep), but I thought the tribute to the film may have been the best thing about last night's ceremony. While I don't care for the movie itself, I have always loved the songs in both the film and the stage musical and Lady Gaga did them justice. I don't think anyone but Julie Andrews herself (who, sadly, can no longer sing) could have given a better performance.

I would say that the "In Memoriam" segment was another highlight of the evening, but unfortunately I honestly cannot. This year's "In Memoriam" segment was much better than those in the past many years. I thought it was subtle and subdued as it should be. Unfortunately, they once more omitted many who had died the past year. For me the most glaring omission was that of legendary film noir actress Lizabeth Scott. How they could have possibly left her out, I do not know. They also omitted Mary Anderson, Polly Bergen, Mona Freeman, Richard Kiel, Donald Sinden, Elaine Stritch, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., and others. I am honestly beginning to think that the Academy should simply show Turner Classic Movies's excellent "TCM Remebers" segment instead of trying to do their own "In Memoriam".

As to last night's acceptance speeches, there were very few that impressed me. The very best acceptance speeches came from director Alejandro González Iñárritu, who was funny and charming every time he took the podium. Indeed, I loved the acceptance speeches for the award for Best Original Screenplay for Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). It may have been the first time a dog has ever been thanked! Why more people don't thank their pets when winning Oscars I don't know. I also loved Graham Moore's acceptance speech for the award for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Imitation Game. Not only did he bring attention to the great Alan Turing (who not only deserves a pardon, but a posthumous knighthood as well), but to some very important issues as well. I also liked Patricia Arquette's acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actress for Boyhood. Like Mr. Moore, she also addressed some important issues. While I did not like the song "Glory", I did like John Legend and Common's acceptance speech for Best Song. I thought it was very inspiring. 

Of course, there were several missteps during last night's Academy Awards. Having Idina Menzel and John Travolta present the Oscar for Best Song was inspired and could have been quite funny. Unfortunately I think Mr. Travolta went so overboard in touching Miss Menzel that it swiftly became a bit creepy. I also think the performance of "Everything is Awesome" was a bit over the top. Granted I really don't like the song, but I thought its performance seemed more in tune with the old TV show Kids Incorporated (yes, I know I am dating myself there) than it did the Oscars. I also thought Sean Penn's "Green Card" joke was in very poor taste.

Here I also have to say that I wish the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would return the Lifetime Achievement Awards to the main ceremony itself. For me they were always the highlight of the evening and I really do miss them. There is so much that they could cut from the ceremony to make room for them. Do presenting speeches really need to be that long? Do they really need a song following the "In Memoriam"? Do they really need production numbers? I don't think so.

In the end the 87th Academy Awards was not the worst Oscar ceremony ever, but it was far from the best either. I think it was much too dull. I would like to see Neil Patrick Harris host again, but I definitely think the Academy needs to fire its writers and get new ones. I also suggest that next year they select better songs for the "Best Song" category (I am almost certain there were better songs in films last year than the five nominees--surely last year's crop of song wasn't that bad). Finally, they really need to include more people in the "In Memoriam" segment. They can cut the superfluous song afterwards. And it might not be a bad idea to get Tuner Classic Movies to produce the "In Memoriam" segment for them!