Saturday, March 6, 2010

1937 - The Life of Emile Zola

One more sleep until the Oscars. While Kat and I get ready for our Academy Awards dinner party (featuring such items as Avatado and The Hurt Liquor), here are my 2009 Oscar predictions, including my wacky Avatar-Bigelow combination for Picture-Director.

As Avatar and The Hurt Locker battle it out for the 82nd Best Picture award, yesterday I watched the winner of the 10th Best Picture award...

The Life of Emile Zola
William Dieterle
Norman Reilly Raine, Heinz Herald, Geza Herczeg
(based on the book "Zola and His Time" by Matthew Josephson)
Paul Muni, Gale Sondergaard, Joseph Schildkraut, Gloria Holden, Donald Crisp
Academy Awards:
10 nominations
3 wins, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor (Schildkraut)

Contrary to its title, The Life of Emile Zola is less a biography of the famed French writer as it is an exploration of the Dreyfus affair. While it does deal with Zola's life, especially his rise to fame, the central focus of the film is his involvement in the the political scandal that rocked France in the late 19th century.

Struggling as a writer in his early days, Emile Zola later finds success due to several politically charged books critical of the establishment. Meanwhile, French Jewish soldier Alfred Dreyfus is wrongly accused and subsequently convicted of treason. When evidence comes to light that would prove his innocence, ranking officials seek to sweep it under the rug. But our intrepid hero Mr. Zola steps in to speak up for Dreyfus only to find himself on trial for libel.

The picture begins at a cracking pace, covering Emile Zola's early life and career relatively quickly. Nonetheless, it never glosses over anything. Instead, we are clearly presented with the portrait of a man who loves his country and will passionately speak his mind on any perceived injustice. Clearly a strong believer in free speech, Zola is not fazed by authority, authoring several tomes that rock the proverbial boat.

When the story switches to the events leading up to Dreyfus' arrest and imprisonment, there is a slightly odd feeling of displacement, probably due to one's expectation of the story based on the film's title. All of a sudden, the Life of Emile Zola becomes the Corruption of the French Military. Not that I'm complaining. It's a gripping, well-told story of weighty themes. Zola takes the backseat for a while and he never quite manages to leave it for the rest of the film. Yes, he's the one who got people talking about Dreyfus again after the world had all but forgotten him, but once his famous "J'accuse!" article is written, his role from that point on is mostly a passive one, save for the powerful closing statement he delivers at his own trial (pictured). But, in the end, despite the film's intention of portraying Zola as a heroic man of action, he dies an entirely unheroic and horribly anti-climactic death. (Oops, spoiler alert...)

Paul Muni's French accent is only slightly better than his Chinese accent, but his performance in this film far outshines his work in The Good Earth. His portrayal lends Zola a certain moral heroism even if the story doesn't. Taking home the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, Joseph Schildkraut is heartbreaking as Alfred Dreyfus. A particularly poignant moment occurs when Dreyfus is finally released. He walks out of the prison cell once, stops, walks back in and repeats his exit twice more, clearly enjoying his freedom.

In spite of my criticism, The Life of Emile Zola is a very engaging film. Its only real flaw, then, is that it need not have bothered covering anything but the Dreyfus affair. And since that is the majority of the film anyway, perhaps a title change is all it would have taken.


  1. Warner Brothers prestigious production was smart to let us know right at the beginning that it was a fictionalized account Zola's life and the Dreyfus case - because what followed was so typical of screen-writer's invention when it came to biographies. I wouldn't have minded it so much if it wasn't so contradictory. Zola's passion for human rights and disdain for political corruption was nicely presented. Then, we get the scene where Dreyfus is set up for the treason charge, that is so capricious, it's nearly comical. I half expected the military staff to start twirling their mustaches. It's a shame that some of the guts that Zola himself had didn't carry over to the script. The story completely avoided the real motive of anti-semitism (the closest it came was a brief shot of a data sheet on Dreyfus that mentioned his religion as Jew.) The trial of Zola near the end was almost as bad they way the mob scenes were presented.

    Muni was in his element as Zola. His natural hamminess meshed well with the character. Joseph Schildkraut, despite not have very much to do, was touching as the scapegoat. And if you want an example of the overly theatrical acting style of the thirties, Gail Sondergaard provides it as Dreyfus's loyal wife.

    Perhaps I'm being a bit too harsh because this film won Best Picture. At the time, it probably was the most sincere choice, but there are a number of nominees from 1937 that have held up much better over the years.

    I'll post my Academy Picks later. I can't believe I'm still agonizing over Original Screenplay and Cinematography. Get a life Michael. Right now, I think we differ on 4 or 5 categories, Matt.

  2. My Oscar Article:

    My first interest in the results of the Academy Awards goes back to the telecast of 1959. While I got so sick of hearing the theme from Gigi (9 nominations - 9 Wins), I was hooked on the Academy Awards ever since. I have governed my predictions by one overriding rule: Don't vote with your heart. As a result, I've been fairly successful in annual pools, yet as my wife reminds me - big deal - isn't it better to root for your favorites? She's right of course. In the long run, having your favorites win easily outlasts your Oscar pool result.

    In the days before the Internet, I usually won my office pool. Not only because I voted with my head, but I was the only one who read Variety and knew who won the handful of precursor awards that were handed out at that time.

    Today, there are so many precursors and Oscar blogs, anyone with the inclination can pretty much find out the odds in every category - except my wife, who will vote for The Blind Side for Best Picture because she liked it the most.

    This leads us to this year's awards and for me, the Avatar conundrum. Analytically, everything tells me that Avatar would have to beat the odds in nearly every predictor to win - yet many feel it will. Why is that?

    Avatar has won the Golden Globe and ties for the lead in nominations - that's it for the pluses
    Looking at it's minuses:
    No PGA
    No DGA
    No Screenplay nomination
    No Acting nominations
    No critics awards
    Genre - Science Fiction (no winner in that genre ever)

    Nebulous distinctions:
    Astronomical Box Office - Plus or Minus (maybe people feel it's box office is enough reward)
    Technological bar-raiser. True, but so was The Robe (first film in Cinemascope): nominated but didn't win. 2001: A Space Odyssey: not even nominated. Star Wars: nominated, won most awards, but lost best picture to lowest grossing nominee, Annie Hall.

    Just about every minus item for Avatar is a plus for The Hurt Locker including genre (War films have done exceedingly well as Best Picture winners. Nearly every major war has a corresponding Best Picture Winner, often multiple winners. The Iraq war hasn't yet - the Hurt Locker is its first nominee. Every logical bone in my body tells me The Hurt Locker wins in a walk, with Inglourious Basterds its closest pursuer. Yet there's this Avatar fervor that just won't quit.

    Enough of this: Here are my picks:

    Picture: The Hurt Locker
    Director: Katherine Bigelow
    Actor: Jeff Bridges
    Actress: Sandra Bullock
    Supporting Actor: Christoph Waltz
    Supporting Actress: Mo'Nique
    Screenplay, Original: Inglourious Basterds
    Screenplay, Adapted: Up in the Air
    Animated Film: Up
    Art Direction: Avatar
    Cinematography: The Hurt Locker
    Costume Design: The Young Victoria
    Documentary Feature: The Cove
    Film Editing: The Hurt Locker
    Foreign Language Film: The White Ribbon
    Make-Up: Star Trek
    Score: Up
    Song: The Weary Kind (Theme from Crazy Heart)
    Sound Mixing: Avatar
    Sound Editing: Avatar
    Visual Effects: Avatar
    Short Subject: Documentary: The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant
    Short Film: Live Action: Miracle Fish
    Short Film: Animated: A Matter of Loaf and Death

  3. Looks like we each picked 15 correct this year, Matt. Don't know about you, but for me it's nothing to brag about. Going zero for four in both the screenplay and sound categories is rather embarrassing. I do feel bad about Up in the Air not picking up an Adapted Screenplay Award. I thought it was one of the best scripted films of 2009.

    With the first decade finished, I looked back at the results. For the first five years - 2000-2004, the Academy picked a different Best Picture than I would have. For the last five years - 2005-2009, the Academy and I agreed. This disclosure shouldn't tip my hand when we cover those years in your blog (if I should live so long :) ) How I rate the nominees when I re-watch them may change. A few years this past decade, there were some very close competitors.

    Onward to 2010 (have only seen Shelter Island so far) and backward to 1937 (re-watched all except for A Star is Born which is on short wait in my queue and the illusive One Hundred Men and a Girl)

    If you happened to watch this year's Oscar show, I'd like your impressions, Matt.

  4. Well, 15 out of 24 is about average for me, I think. Perhaps a bit below. But then, I only started making predictions about 10 years ago, and for the first few years, I don't think I really knew what I was doing.

    I enjoyed the show. But I always enjoy it. At Oscar time, I'm like a little kid. It doesn't matter how garish or cheesy or boring the actual ceremony is, I still find the wonder.

    I thought Alec and Steve were great and the few little adjustments that the new producers of the show made were fascinating. The presentations of the Best Actor and Actress, for example. A bit drawn out, perhaps, but I kinda liked it. The friends of the nominees seemed like they were speaking their own words, which felt more genuine than a lot of other intros.

    Shelter Island? Sounds like an interesting film. Can't wait to hear about it. I've seen Shutter Island, though. :-)

  5. I have a feeling I'm going to continue making the Shelter/Shutter Island mistake. Shelter Island is on the eastern part of Long Island, and I've known about it since I was a kid.

    I thought the show was on par with most. Some good jokes, some embarrassing moments. Maybe a bit geared too much toward the younger crowd, but everything seems that way to me now. I wonder how many there knew who Lauren Bacall and Roger Corman were? All in all, an enjoyable watch.