Tuesday, May 22, 2012

1959 - The Nun's Story

It's hard to believe that it's already tech week for The Taming of the Shrew and that we open in three days. If you're in the New York area in the next three weeks, be sure to pop along and say hi.

We now take a look at another Best Picture contender from 1959...

The Nun's Story
Fred Zinneman
Robert Anderson
(based on the novel by Kathryn Hulme)
Audrey Hepburn, Peter Finch, Edith Evans, Peggy Ashcroft, Dean Jagger, Mildred Dunnock, Beatrice Straight
Academy Awards:
8 nominations
0 wins

The Nun's Story, as its title suggests, is the story of a nun. Gabrielle (Hepburn) is a stubborn young woman who, for some reason, chooses to enter a Belgian convent with hopes of serving as a nurse in the Congo. She endures the brutal identity-stripping training, struggling to keep up with what is expected of her, but thrives during science class as she learns all about tropical diseases. Despite topping the class, Sister Luke, as she is now known, fails to truly embrace a test of humility and is therefore deprived of her desire to be sent to the Congo. Instead, she is sent to assist at a mental hospital. Eventually, however, after proving herself, she is finally sent to the Congo where she is assigned to work alongside Dr. Fortunati (Finch). Her doubts continue to haunt her, though, especially as non-believer Fortunati challenges almost everything she has been taught.

It is perhaps unintentional, but there is a somewhat ominous feeling that pervades the first act of The Nun's Story. One by one, the rules of the convent are laid out and each one seems more cult-like than the last - give up all your possessions that elicit memories of your past, don't talk to the other nuns about anything but official business, make daily confessions about your unworthiness, rat out your fellow nuns when they commit even minor offences. It's like a sorority hazing. The most unsettling part is that it is considered strength to be able to obey all these rules.

The pace is relatively swift as Gabrielle makes her way through the various stages of becoming a nun, and moves from assignment to assignment. Then about halfway into the film, it settles down a little, made all the more watchable due to an affable performance by Peter Finch (pictured) who injects some life into an otherwise sombre picture. In fact, it all gets rather more fascinating at this point as Fortunati's presence affects Sister Luke in challenging and confusing ways.

If you're unfamiliar with this story, I recommend not watching the original trailer (or reading the following paragraph, for that matter). Assuming the viewer's familiarity with the source material, the trailer begins with the final scene from the movie, that of Gabrielle giving up her habit. After struggling for so long with the faith, the final straw seems to be the convent's order to remain neutral as World War II begins, something that Gabrielle finds excruciatingly difficult given her father was just killed by Nazis occupying Belgium. She admits that she's simply not cut out for the life of a nun, which seems to reaffirm that unsettling idea that one needs to be strong to give up one's past life and become a nun. However, as she literally hangs up her habit and walks out the door, there is a clear sense of Gabrielle achieving some semblance of freedom. To me, she proves her strength here by maintaining her identity and thinking for herself. It is a powerful and effective final moment.

The cast of The Nun's Story contains no less than five Oscar winners - Audrey Hepburn, of course, who won a few years earlier for Roman Holiday and was nominated again here; the excellent and natural Peter Finch, along with Beatrice Straight, who both won for Network; Peggy Ashcroft, a Supporting Actress winner for A Passage to India; and Dean Jagger, who had already won for Twelve O'Clock High. Also featured is perhaps the cutest blue-faced monkey I've ever seen.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

1959 - The Diary of Anne Frank

Last week, I began rehearsals for Titan Theatre Company's production of The Taming of the Shrew, opening at the end of this month. In an unexpectedly exciting twist, the first read through was held at the historic club known as The Players. Over 120 years old, the club was the brainchild of famed 19th century American actor Edwin Booth, whose bedroom still exists on the upper floors of the club, reportedly untouched since his death in 1893. Quite a step back in time, let me tell you. Along with its incredible roster of famous past members, The Players is also noted for being the location at which Actor's Equity was covertly formed.

We turn now to another of the Academy's picks from 1959 for Best Picture...

The Diary of Anne Frank
George Stevens
Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett
(based on their play, which was based on "The Diary of a Young Girl" by Anne Frank)
Millie Perkins, Joseph Schildkraut, Shelley Winters, Richard Beymer, Gusti Huber, Lou Jacobi, Diane Baker, Douglas Spencer, Dodie Heath, Ed Wynn
Academy Awards:
8 nominations
3 wins, including Best Supporting Actress (Winters)

Based on the famous diary itself, The Diary of Anne Frank recounts the story of a young Jewish girl (Perkins) in Amsterdam who spends two years hiding from the Nazis in a small attic above a spice factory. Sharing the cramped quarters with her are her parents, Otto (Schildkraut) and Edith (Huber), and her sister Margot (Baker), along with Mr. and Mrs. Van Daan (Jacobi & Winters) and their teenage son Peter (Beymer). The claustrophobic living space causes many a strained relationship, compounded even further when they also take in Mr. Dussell (Wynn), a sullen old man who seems to get on everyone's nerves. Anne finds solace in her diary, reporting on the disagreements among her cohabitants, the near misses when Nazi officers search the building, and her budding relationship with Peter.

The Diary of Anne Frank is that rare example of a seemingly incompatible genre mash-up, the coming-of-age Holocaust movie. Interestingly, the focus on Anne's adolescent journey makes the story feel somehow less tragic than most films that tackle this subject matter. Not because it's not tragic, because it is, and I'll get to that later, but because there are several moments of sweetness and charm as Anne deals with her burgeoning romantic feelings, as well as the usual teenage angst and confusion.

In fact, the love story subplot is a clever misdirection, aiding in distracting us from the tragedy at hand, as it does for the parties involved. Mind you, it is a little disconcerting how maturely this romance is presented, complete with orchestral themes that seem more appropriate for a sweeping epic love story, full of passion and lust, rather than a teenage flirtation.

Adding to the misdirection is the story's unflinching use of humour, at times approaching downright silliness, provided mostly by Shelley Winters and Lou Jacobi. Not until Life Is Beautiful has humour been used to more effect in a Holocaust picture.

On the whole, however, The Diary of Anne Frank is undoubtedly tragic, despite its periodic moments of light-heartedness. The stakes are constantly as high as they could possibly be, several sequences piling on the tension. The scenes in which the hidden families remain utterly silent as an intruder pokes about downstairs are breath-holding indeed.

Millie Perkins (pictured) as the titular diarist is adorable, which assists in making the story more charming while simultaneously making it all the more tragic. Joseph Schildkraut (a previous Oscar winner for The Life of Emile Zola) brings the perfect blend of authority and compassion as the Frank patriarch. Serving as the comic relief for the majority of the picture are Shelley Winters, earning her first Oscar here for Best Supporting Actress, and Lou Jacobi, both very effective once you get past the oddity of a Dutch couple with New York accents. Ed Wynn was also nominated by the Academy for his curmudgeonly performance of Mr. Dussell.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

1959 - Room at the Top

There is one major pitfall of the infrequency with which I've been updating this blog as of late. Too many newsworthy events occur in between posts for me to devote the appropriate amount of space to informing you about each of them. So, here's a brief summary of my news for the past couple of weeks:

Fresh off the New York City premiere of my short film Clicked, of which I wrote about last time, the film has now been selected for the Hoboken International Film Festival, screening in the first week of June. On top of that, I'll be beginning rehearsals later this week for a local production of The Taming of the Shrew, in which I will play Grumio.

If I manage to decrease the delay between each post in the coming weeks, I'll give more details for those events, but in the meantime, the next Best Picture nominee from the 1959 Oscars is...

Room at the Top
Jack Clayton
Neil Paterson
(based on the novel by John Braine)
Simone Signoret, Laurence Harvey, Heather Sears, Donald Wolfit, Donald Houston, Hermione Baddeley
Academy Awards:
6 nominations
2 wins, for Best Actress (Signoret) & Best Adapted Screenplay

Post World War II, Joe Lampton (Harvey) leaves his small war-torn Yorkshire town for a slightly less small town and the security of a job with the local government. There, he quickly falls for Susan (Sears), the daughter of high-powered executive Mr. Brown (Wolfit), who is consequently far out of Joe's reach. That doesn't stop Joe, of course, who shamelessly pursues both Susan and the upper class life. When Brown thwarts Joe's attempts at courting his daughter by sending her away, Joe instead begins an affair with Alice (Signoret), a French amateur actress who is herself unhappy with her lot in life, particularly her husband.

Assuredly, Room at the Top was considered racy at the time of its release, particularly in comparison with American fare of the late 1950s. Yet, to the modern viewer, there is a strange paradox that occurs while watching it. By today's standards, the film is only mildly risque, so it's amusing to think of the fuss that was probably made over its British sauciness. However, knowing that it was released in 1959, it is slightly jarring to hear the word 'bitch' bandied about so nonchalantly, alongside some rather suggestive dialogue. Perhaps this is only a phenomenon felt by those, like me, who weren't yet alive in the 1950s, and have based their erroneously wholesome image of that era on the mostly profanity-free American pictures of the time.

In any case, the film is a thoughtful exploration of class issues, possessing an interesting grittiness while retaining enough humility to allow for clever conversations in which the characters hint at naughty things without being explicit. Metaphor goes a long way. My favourite line in the movie must, without a doubt, be when Susan asks if Joe likes the way she makes love. Feeling in an unkind mood, Joe replies, "It reminds me of a good set of mixed tennis."

Without spoiling too much of the film's conclusion (although the poster does a pretty good job of that on its own), I will compliment the effectiveness with which the story's message is conveyed. Essentially, it's the ultimate case of being careful what you wish for. Joe's ambition is intense but when he finally achieves his stated goal, there is great dissatisfaction - for him and for the audience. The final moments are awkward, driving home the point, unsatisfying yet inevitable.

Laurence Harvey's (pictured) is not a particularly likable performance, albeit mostly due to his character. Joe initially presents as creepy and somewhat sleazy. His immediate fascination for Susan, expressed with stony glares, appears borderline obsessive and, even though this disturbing aura soon gives way to vulnerability, he never really shakes off that awkwardness. The Academy saw fit to nominate Harvey for Best Actor, however, so what do I know?

Simone Signoret, on the other hand, is positively engaging. Her complex portrayal of the complex Alice is natural and nuanced, earning her a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar. In a tiny but effective role, Hermione Baddeley delivers a memorably eccentric performance as Alice's protective friend, receiving the film's third acting nomination for Best Supporting Actress.