Sunday, August 12, 2018

1945 Alternate Oscars

My choices are noted with a ★. A tie is indicated with a ✪. Historical Oscar winners are noted with a ✔.

I wrote this about To Have and Have Not some time ago:

At the heart of every Howard Hawks action movie is the concept of the professional doing his job, and doing it well, despite the imminent threat of death — an idealized code of conduct Hemingway called "grace under pressure." We're all going to die sooner or later, Hawks seems to be saying, can't we at least do it with a bit of dignity and honor and laughter and good company?

That, above all, I think, is at the core of what is known as "a Hawksian woman," one who can laugh and provide good company in the face of death.

Whatever else a Howard Hawks drama is about, usually a woman meets a man and grows up enough to prove worthy of him and his cadre of professional associates (what one might loosely think of his family).

His comedies, in contrast, are about a man proving worthy enough of a woman to start a family (through marriage).

To Have and Have Not, so far as I can remember, is the one Hawks movie that takes that comedy formulation — the man proving worthy of the woman — and applies it to a dramatic situation. Do you know To Have and Have Not? In it, Harry Morgan (Humphrey Bogart) has retreated from the messy political world into a cocoon of isolationism so complete he's willing to ignore the fascists in charge of the local government even as they are shooting his clients and making his life and the lives of his friends miserable.

Into that mix comes Marie "Slim" Browning (Lauren Bacall in her first film role), teaching him how to whistle and forcing him to realize that no matter how much he thinks he's successfully avoided sticking his neck out, his neck is out there, on the block, along with the necks of his "family" (Eddie, Frenchy, Cricket and, finally, Slim herself).

Whether he likes it or not, the Cause is his and he can either fight for it or go down the tubes anyway. So he fights, and in so doing, becomes worthy of Lauren Bacall, the toughest of tough young broads ever to grace the screen.

And I once wrote this about Joan Crawford:

Joan Crawford was a complicated woman—which is to say that like all of us, she had her good points and her bad points. She was catty and cruel, she was uneducated and insecure about it, she had the morals of an alley cat and her failures as a mother are legendary. But she also had a tremendous work ethic, always tried to improve herself, and as far as I can tell, she never phoned in a performance, not even in the execrable sci-fi horror flick, Trog, which proved to be her last.

And she was always willing to take a shot at Norma Shearer, which is a plus all by itself.

A lot has been written over the years about Joan Crawford's private life, particularly with regard to her sexuality and her parenting skills, so much so that the scandals have completely obscured her work as an actress. But if I were handing out awards based on people's private lives, we'd wind up with a roster full of nice people and very few good movies. Only to the extent that I can discern a clear relationship between a person's off-screen life and their on-screen work will I tend to dwell on the former. Beyond that, celebrity gossip bores me. In fact, as far as I can tell, when they're not working, most celebrities are actually pretty dull people.

Besides, in his biography Possessed: The Life of Joan Crawford, Donald Spoto states flatly that the infamous "No wire hangers!" incident never happened. But then a lot of famous incidents never happened—J. Edgar Hoover didn't wear dresses, Walt Disney wasn't cryogenically frozen, and the military-industrial complex didn't assassinate John F. Kennedy.

Fans of the novel might be tempted to complain that Hollywood sanitized and simplified James M. Cain's original vision. But let's face it, no novel ending with the line "Let's get stinko" was going to make it to the big screen intact in 1945. Besides, the final product is plenty violent for all but the most bloodthirsty among us and as cynical about human behavior as the darkest film noir. Mildred Pierce isn't a perfect movie, just a great one and Crawford gave her best performance in it.

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