Saturday, February 23, 2013

1942 - The Magnificent Ambersons

This year's Academy Awards ceremony is now less than 24 hours away, so my giddy excitement is a-brewing. While working on my predictions, I went back and forth on a number of categories, eventually contradicting some of what I wrote in the last few posts. The fact that the Best Picture winner is not at all clear (it's a tight race between Argo and Lincoln) is brilliantly exciting, especially for all those office Oscar pools, whose winners may well be decided on the last category of the night. Here are my humble predictions.

From the 85th Academy Awards to the 15th, here's my take on the next Best Picture nominee from 1942...

The Magnificent Ambersons
Orson Welles
Orson Welles
(based on the novel by Booth Tarkington)
Joseph Cotten, Dolores Costello, Anne Baxter, Tim Holt, Agnes Moorehead, Ray Collins, Erskine Sanford, Richard Bennett
Academy Awards:
4 nominations
0 wins

The wealthy Amberson family is the talk of a small town in the late 19th century when daughter Isabel (Costello) rejects the love of her life, automobile pioneer Eugene Morgan (Cotten), in favour of the boring Wilbur Minafer. Many years later, Eugene returns to town a widower with his beautiful daughter Lucy (Baxter). Isabel has a child, too - a terribly spoiled brat of a son, George (Holt), who takes as much a liking for Lucy as he does a disliking for Eugene. When Wilbur dies, Eugene and Isabel begin their love affair anew, much to the annoyance of Isabel's sister Fanny (Moorehead), who always harboured a thing for Eugene. Mind you, Fanny's disdain of Isabel's and Eugene's relationship doesn't hold a candle to the possessive deep-seated rage that George expresses.

The Magnificent Ambersons holds an interesting place in film history. Its acclaim as a classic is tainted somewhat by the controversy over the film's final cut. Writer/director Orson Welles lost a battle for control to RKO, the studio that financed the film, outspokenly decrying the version that was released to the public. While it is true that RKO excised a great deal of footage from the film and even reshot the ending without Welles' participation to give it a slightly more upbeat closing moment, it still can't be considered a happy ending by any stretch of the imagination. And in fact, the ending that exists is apparently more faithful to the source novel, anyway. Furthermore, it turns out that Welles' own rough cut fared poorly when presented to preview audiences, so perhaps a little snip is what it needed, especially considering it now holds a place in the US National Film Registry.

In any case, Welles' pioneering style undeniably remains in the picture. He doesn't shy away from having his actors talk over each other and innovative camera techniques abound, including some beautiful lengthy tracking shots. Welles himself can be heard as the film's narrator, even during the closing credits, which instead of scrolling text, consist of Welles somewhat indulgently announcing the cast and crew individually before signing off. In his defense, he was a radio star at the time, so this was clearly less an exercise in self-indulgence as it was his standard way of closing a show.

A pre-Bewitched Agnes Moorehead (pictured) steals the show as the down-trodden Fanny. She is consistently natural and delivers a heartbreaking climactic scene, enough to garner her a Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. Joseph Cotten also shines as the amiable Eugene. Adding to the film's drama is Bernard Herrmann's beautifully expressive score. Although, Hermann requested his name be removed from the credits due to a sizable portion of his music being edited or replaced, so I can't be entirely sure that what my ears enjoyed was his work. Nonetheless, the music is striking, whoever wrote it.


  1. You did pretty well in your predictions there Matt! What did you think of the awards this year? And the backlash about Seth's apparently rather misogynistic hosting (I say apparently as I haven't yet watched the coverage... but the reading has been fascinating!)?

  2. Thanks Lu! I actually really loved the show this year. An abundance of singing talent (Bassey was a fav).

    And I genuinely enjoyed Seth MacFarlane as a host. If Family Guy has taught us anything, it's that his sense of humour is firmly rooted in the inappropriate, but I never felt he went overboard. There were a lot of stinging barbs but we could've expected a lot worse from him.

    I haven't read anything yet about the misogyny. It hadn't really occurred to me, but now that I think about it, there was that song about which movies to see different actresses' boobs in. I laughed, though. Is that bad?

    In any case, no Oscar host will ever get off scot-free. Someone will find something to backlash about. Some worse than others (see: Letterman or Hathaway/Franco) but even Billy Crystal had his critics.

    All in all, I thought the show was great. Mind you, my love for the Oscars is essentially uncondintional, so I'm probably not the best person to ask. :-)

  3. A quick comment on the Awards. My feelings about Lincoln luckily served me well, and I did better than anticipated. Actually, you and I agreed on most of the categories. So, we both missed Production Design, Animated Feature, Documentary Short and Supporting Actor, though I picked DeNiro for my miss. You bested me with Original Screenplay and I bested you for Director and Makeup.

    Nine more movies are now added to your blog. I hope to comment on the recent posts soon.

  4. It sounds like Broadway got a massive plug, which I'm always in favour of! I just get tired of the endless crusade of belittling women in the media... I know the Academy is mostly elderly white men, but it would just be amazing to see some positive representation of women in the public sphere! :)