Tuesday, August 14, 2012

1971 - The Last Picture Show

Rehearsals are well under way for Cosi, the first production of Australian Made Entertainment, the theatre (and eventually, film) company that Kat and I recently formed. We begin performances on September 7 in New York City, only three and a half weeks away, so if you're going to be in the area, get your tickets now.

We now turn our attention to the final nominee from the Best Picture race of 1971...

The Last Picture Show
Peter Bogdanovich
Larry McMurtry and Peter Bogdanovich
(based on the novel by Larry McMurtry)
Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Ben Johnson, Cloris Leachman, Ellen Burstyn, Eileen Brennan, Clu Gulager, Sam Bottoms, Sharon Taggart, Randy Quaid, Joe Heathcock
Academy Awards:
8 nominations
2 wins, for Best Supporting Actor (Johnson) and Best Supporting Actress (Leachman)

Contrary to my usual rule, my viewing of The Last Picture Show was of the director's cut, not of the original version that played in cinemas in 1971, which appears to be difficult to find. Nonetheless, with only seven minutes of additional footage, I think we can let it slide.

It's 1951 in a small town in Texas. Sonny Crawford (Bottoms) is a senior in high school and doesn't really have any plans, either for tomorrow or for the rest of his life. His best friend Duane (Bridges) is dating the spoiled Jacy (Shepherd), a strained relationship if ever there was one. After Sonny breaks up with his girlfriend Charlene (Taggart), who he never really cared about anyway, he begins an affair with his football coach's middle-aged wife Ruth (Leachman). Stumbling from one day to the next, Sonny impulsively takes a trip to Mexico with Duane, takes over the town's pool hall, begins a flirtation with Jacy, and generally comes of age.

Being set in the early 1950s, director Peter Bogdanovich cleverly replicates the style of film-making during that era. The film is shot in black-and-white and, during some of the darker scenes, the lighting often employs that stark contrast effect in which an actor in close-up moves in and out of a small sliver of bright light. The performances, too, are sometimes filled with a 1950s bravado and enthusiasm, typical of the acting style back then.

However, the most fascinating element is the incongruity that results from the pairing of this nostalgic style with the solemn and crude subject matter. During the actual time period, it seems unimaginable that such sexuality and bad language would have appeared on film, but twenty years later, without the shackles of censorship, The Last Picture Show is free to create a sobering look at life in a small town. Stylistically, though, it remains in the 1950s, creating a slight feeling of unease.

The story certainly doesn't rush. With its slice-of-life approach, the characters plod along, experiencing things unfolding without any main driving goal at the forefront of the plot. Which is not to say that nothing happens. The film is full of major events, and considering the plight of the younger characters, could easily be described as a coming-of-age story - kind of a cruder small-town version of American Graffiti. Sex is clearly a focus, particularly the awkwardness of first encounters, but in no way could it be said that any of the sex scenes in this picture are actually sexy. In one scene, for instance, our attention is directed toward the awkward noises of the squeaking bed as one participant attempts to hold back tears.

Timothy Bottoms (pictured) carries the film well with a very understated performance as a young man trying to make sense of his world. He is joined by several young stars in the making. Cybill Shepherd, in her film debut, is extremely effective as the manipulative girl with powerful eyelid-batting skills. Also on debut, Randy Quaid is delightfully awkward as the patient rich kid. Jeff Bridges deservedly scored his first Oscar nomination for his breakout role, but was beaten to the Best Supporting Actor trophy by his co-star Ben Johnson, who delivers a moving performance as the surrogate patriarch. The film also received two Supporting Actress nominations, the first for Ellen Burstyn's fantastic portrayal of a woman attempting in vain to prevent her daughter from making the same mistakes she made. Cloris Leachman clinched the Oscar, though, with an incredibly touching performance, capped off by a memorable outburst near the end of the film. And yes, that's Magnum P.I.'s right-hand man, Higgins (a.k.a John Hillerman) as the school teacher at the beginning.

For a bit of extra trivia appropriate to this blog, some of the characters in the film attend a screening of Father of the Bride, which is itself a Best Picture nominee.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

1971 - The French Connection

It's not often the timing works out that one of the nominees from a year I'm currently reviewing happens to be scheduled for a retrospective screening in New York City during that time. Such was the case with the next subject of review, which had a one-day only engagement at BAM Rose Cinemas, which, if memory serves, is a Matt vs. the Academy first. Of course, had I been speedier with my look at the rest of the nominees, I would have been entirely finished with the current year of review and missed the opportunity all together. In any case, it certainly was a thrill to see this picture up on the big screen. In fact, I worry that it may give this film an unfair advantage in my final verdict, since the experience of watching a movie in a darkened cinema is far more all-engrossing than watching on a smaller screen at home, susceptible to all sorts of distractions.

Advantage or not, here are my musings on this nominee from the 1971 Best Picture race...

The French Connection
William Friedkin
Ernest Tidyman
(based on the book by Robin Moore)
Gene Hackman, Fernando Rey, Roy Scheider, Tony Lo Bianco, Marcel Bozzuffi, Frédéric de Pasquale, Bill Hickman
Academy Awards:
8 nominations
5 wins, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor (Hackman)

Narcotics cop "Popeye" Doyle (Hackman) and his partner Russo (Scheider) become suspicious of small business owner Sal Boca (Lo Bianco) after they witness him entertaining mob men known for drug trafficking. Acting on a hunch, they trail Boca, following lead after lead, eventually uncovering a drug smuggling ring, headed by French crime boss Alain Charnier (Rey). Committed and determined, Doyle leads the charge to bust Charnier and his henchmen, at often dangerously high risk.

Gritty and realistic, The French Connection delivers an almost documentary-style story, complete with shaky, hand-held camera work and voyeuristic, fly-on-the-wall long shots. Everything is raw and unpolished from the performances to the design. Even the film print I saw was dirty. I realise, of course, that the Blu-ray is probably crystal clear, but the graininess of the film print actually seemed strangely appropriate for this picture, possibly even enhancing the viewing experience.

The details of the drug ring central to the plot may be complex but, at its heart, The French Connection employs a solidly simple cops-and-robbers story, or more accurately, cops-and-drug-traffickers. Most of the scenes consist of some variation of a cop following a criminal, whether it's tailing an alleged conspirator or an out-and-out chase scene, and consequently, the tension is extremely high throughout. Of particular note is the suspensefully amusing on-the-train, off-the-train sequence when Doyle unsuccessfully follows Charnier into the subway. And, of course, later comes the legendary chase scene which begins with Doyle flagging down a passing motorist and hijacking his car, a Hollywood cliche that is thankfully forgotten quickly as the chase gets under way. Then comes some of the most exhilarating few minutes ever committed to celluloid as we follow along in the backseat of the car as it careens underneath an elevated track attempting to keep up with the speeding train above. Listening to director William Friedkin and others talk about the making of this sequence, it's easy to understand why it feels so spectacularly authentic.

If there's one gripe I have about The French Connection, it would have to be the conclusion. I have talked about unsatisfying endings a fair amount in the past, but this picture's ending really takes the cake. It could even be said that it doesn't really have an ending. We spend almost the entire film watching Doyle and his colleagues chase the bad guys only to have a caption inform us that the main antagonist escaped and was never found. Not only that but in the final nail-biting scene, Doyle accidentally fatally shoots one of his own team, and the closing credits begin less than a minute later with barely an acknowledgement of the severity of such a turn of events, let alone a resolution. Luckily, the rest of the film is so profoundly engrossing. Plus, there's the fact that the story is loosely based on real events, so I suppose I should be more lenient.

As I mentioned, the performances are emotionally pure and candid with a distinct improvisational feel, adding to the documentary style of the picture. It is Gene Hackman's (pictured) film, however, and he is nothing short of sublime, well deserving of his Best Actor Oscar for this role. For the trivia buffs, Eddie Egan, the real cop on whom the character of Doyle is based, appears as the detectives' supervisor, Walt Simonson. Egan's real-life partner, Sonny Grosso, himself the basis for the Russo character, also appears in a minor role.