Thursday, January 30, 2014

1934 - Viva Villa!

The Oscar nominations are in, and my predictions achieved a success rate just above my average but far better than the previous couple of years, so I'll take it. No huge out-of-the-blue surprises in the major categories. Perhaps Jonah Hill's Supporting Actor nod for The Wolf of Wall Street took some off guard, although it wasn't entirely unexpected. It's also interesting to see Hong Kong's The Grandmaster receive two artistic nominations (Cinematography and Costume Design) yet miss out on a citation for Best Foreign Language Film, despite being shortlisted in that category. And some interesting choices in the Makeup & Hairstyling category. Who would have thought we would ever hear the phrase, "the Oscar-nominated Bad Grandpa"?

Another fascinating statistic is that this marks the second year in a row that a David O. Russell film has received four acting nominations, one for each category. Last year, Silver Linings Playbook supplied nominations for leads Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, as well as Robert De Niro and Jacki Weaver for their supporting roles. This year, Cooper and Lawrence were cited for their supporting turns in American Hustle, while Christian Bale and Amy Adams represented the film in the lead categories. While an acting nomination sweep was a semi-regular occurrence in the earlier years of Oscar history, it hadn't been achieved in over 30 years prior to Silver Linings Playbook. And now Russell becomes the only director to be able to claim this achievement twice, let alone in consecutive years.

Speaking of Jennifer Lawrence, the 23-year-old is now the youngest person to have received three acting nominations. That's one year younger than previous record holder Teresa Wright, who incidentally was never nominated again after receiving her three nominations within two years. Furthermore, since Lawrence won Best Actress last year, a win in March would give her the title of youngest ever two-time Oscar winner.

Now, back to the 1934 Best Picture contest to review another nominee...

Viva Villa!
Jack Conway
Ben Hecht
(based on the book by Edgecumb Pinchon and O.B. Stade)
Wallace Beery, Leo Carrillo, Fay Wray, Donald Cook, Stuart Erwin, Henry B. Walthall, Joseph Schildkraut, Katherine DeMille
Academy Awards:
4 nominations
1 win, for Best Assistant Director

In late 19th century Mexico, a young Pancho Villa witnesses his father suffer a fatal whipping at the behest of a Spanish aristocrat. In revenge, Villa murders the responsible party and spends the next couple of decades hiding in the hills. The adult Villa (Beery), now a kind of Mexican Robin Hood, has his antics recorded by American journalist and new friend Jonny Sykes (Erwin) who happily exaggerates reports in Villa's favour. Soon, Villa agrees to assist revolutionary Francisco Madero (Walthall) in ending the unjust rule of the current government. He easily rounds up an army to help with the fight but his brutal tactics earn the disapproval of Madero.

The opening title card tells us that much of what is known about Pancho Villa is unconfirmed and possibly mythical, yet it still asserts he was a heroic figure. Alas, what follows does not entirely live up to that introduction. The portrait that is painted is of a man who is decidedly unheroic. Granted, his unnecessary brutality does not in itself disqualify him from hero status. Many heroes might be guilty of that, and this is a biopic, after all. And what good is a biopic if it's not a warts-and-all biopic.

But what is harder to swallow is his comically dumb nonchalance. Wallace Beery's portrayal of the Mexican revolutionary, amusing as it might be, makes him out to be an almost stereotypical clueless bully, ignorant and unintelligent. Not the stuff of heroism at all. And, of course, in true Hollywood style, the slovenly and unattractive man still draws admiration from sexy women.

Despite this somewhat incongruous depiction, Beery (pictured) is indeed entertaining. Stealing the show, however, is Stuart Erwin, whose comic delivery as the reluctant journalist is spot on. As a team, Beery and Erwin develop a quite touching relationship by the film's conclusion. One final thought: why did nobody teach film actors in the 1930s how to realistically handle firearms? The bandits wave those guns around so wildly, it's amazing they have any accuracy at all.


  1. Viva Villa airs on Turner Classic Movies on Feb. 23, so I'll catch it then. That's funny about the gun play. I guess the old movies didn't worry too much about realism when it came to action, battle, stunt or fighting scenes. By today's standards, it can come across as comical. I still have a hard time watching the old war movies, with nearly every soldier that gets shot, doing a pirouette move before falling down.

  2. I somehow forgot to record the TCM showing of this last week, but did catch the last 30 minutes live. It didn't impress that much, with Beery playing to his "aw shucks" style. Despite allowances for its age, a really poorly done rear projection shot of Pancho on his horse on an obvious sound stage near the end wasn't too good.