Hattie McDaniel On The Stairs: One Of The True Benchmarks Of Screen Acting

April 21, 2010 § Leave a comment

By Lars Trodson

I was in Blockbuster the other day in Portsmouth, NH and, while scanning the shelves for something – anything – to watch, I came across a stack of “Gone With The Wind” DVDs. I took one and held it against my “Less Than Zero” disc, contemplating what was enticing me to see “GWTW” yet again.

And yet, as I walked down the aisle, it dawned on me that it may be – could it be? – that I had never actually seen the movie. Is that possible? Didn’t I know all about Rhett and Scarlett and Mammy? Wasn’t the famous crane shot of the dead and dying lying on the tracks of the Atlanta train depot seared into my memory? Sure it was, but I think my viewing of the movie was really the result of viewing a few famous scenes of the movie over and over and over – until it got to the point that it just felt as though I had seen it. That, and the fact that its mythology is so steeped in American movie-going culture you feel as though you know the story by heart.

But I hadn’t it seen it, and as soon as I put in the disc, and watched the opening scenes at Tara – the O’Hara plantation that is the geographic center of the film – I realized that this experience was going to be new.

I’m not going to revisit the film here, or try to revitalize its importance, but it was amazing to see a film that at turns could be beautiful, stupid, powerful, sublime and melodramatic. Clark Gable has presence, and Vivien Leigh’s beauty will not be denied, nor will the sheer scope of her performance. She holds onto her Southern accent about as well as Leslie Howard, as the milquetoast Ashley Wilkes, does not. Howard acts like he just walked out of a “Perils of Pauline” silent short – his acting is that out of date.

One of the great treasures of seeing this film, though, turned out to be the performance of Hattie McDaniel as Mammy. Movie buffs and trivia fanatics can immediately respond when asked who the first African-American was to win an Oscar (of any kind) was, but is the performance itself that well-known? And did it really merit an Oscar?

I had always wondered, vaguely, if McDaniel’s award wasn’t just another example of the Academy patting itself on the back for being so progressive, even if the actual performance or movie didn’t earn the honor. I came to that conclusion because all I had seen were bits of her performance -– the tying of the corset, her bustling about the house mumbling to herself. These were the cartoonish moments, shown without the context of Clark Gable’s character actually seeking out Mammy’s respect, and without seeing the scene in which Mammy and Rhett share a drink together. That was a beautiful scene.

But the real moment came when Melanie (played by Olivia DeHavilland) comes to the Butler household in Atlanta after Rhett and Scarlett’s child has died in a horse-riding accident. Melanie and Mammy take a long walk up those famous red-carpeted stairs, and Mammy, her face contorted in pain and tears literally pouring out of her eyes, starts to tell Melanie of the pain that Rhett and Scarlett are going through, and of the violence that kind of pain sometimes begets. This walk up the stairs is unedited, it’s shot in one graceful movement – and punctuated by the agonizing repeated requests from Melanie to Mammy not to say any more. You suddenly realize you are seeing a performance of rare and raw power. It is absolutely astonishing, and very beautiful, and is – and should be – considered a high mark in screen acting.

This scene, for whatever reason, is never shown, but it has the redemptive power of making sense of all the histrionics and soap opera aspects of the story that have come before.

I now know why Mo’Nique credited Hattie McDaniel when she won her recent Oscar for “Precious.” McDaniel is incredible, inspiring.

This performance of Hattie McDaniel’s should be elevated to something far more important than a facile answer to a trivia question. And I’m embarrassed to say I wasn’t familiar with it before now. Her Mammy is a human, living, passionate person, and if you take the time to watch the movie (if you haven’t seen it) and reach that moment, you’re eyes will be opened by Hattie McDaniel and you’ll see something you can truly say you’ve never seen before.

Give the Public What It Wants: Audience Voting Should Be Next For the Oscars

July 6, 2009 § Leave a comment


By Lars Trodson

The recent announcement from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that the group is expanding the Best Picture category to 10 films is, in one sense, a fairly meaningless thing. But it may be the first delicate step toward something the purists don’t want to think about: audience voting for the winners. Here is my theory: by loosening the rules over time, the Academy will simply ease its way into having at least one category in which the winner is chosen by viewers. That’s my prediction and I don’t think this is a bad thing.

Apparently confused over a declining interest in the show and a precipitous drop in their influence, the Academy is trying to spruce things up. So far the results haven’t been so great.

Last year, they picked a group of past Academy Award winners to introduce the nominees in certain categories. While it may have seemed like a good idea — nostalgia and star power all rolled up into one — it made for stodgy television.

To give the presenting actors extra time, we lost out on seeing film clips from the movies and the performances. These clips can still be fun, despite the fact that the only parts of the movie that the studios seem to license out are the trailers, but we didn’t get to see the clips at all. And some of the actors presenting the nominations seemed, um, under rehearsed. Adrien Brody’s introduction to Richard Jenkins made it seem like Brody was wholly unfamiliar with the actor.

Also, it would have been nice to have actors who have achieved nominations but not wins sprinkled in among the presenters. That way you at least give a passing nod to the idea that it is an honor simply to be nominated, as they say. By just having those who have won the statuette you’ve diminished that notion.

The Oscar race is, of course, a popularity contest, but its cache once lay in the idea that the experts, the actual members of the Academy, would validate the feelings of the audience. This happened when the Academy recognized films that audiences either respected and/or flocked to see. That was the connection. You felt part of the club. When this relationship reached perfect pitch (popularity + critical acclaim = Oscars) — as in “Gone With the Wind”, “The Sound of Music”, “The French Connection”, “The Godfather” and “The Silence of the Lambs” — everybody, audience and industry alike, was happy.

Nobody is really happy any more.

I think the 1997 “Titanic” represented a cultural shift. Here was a movie that was a global phenomenon and that also tied for the most Oscar wins ever, but the critics (highbrow) didn’t much like it. They didn’t like the script, the acting was hokey, some of the CG wasn’t so hot. Now it was the critics that had been dissed by the Academy, and they weren’t go to have that! The critics then started waging the same war that audiences had been quietly talking about probably since the Oscars began: What is the meaning of these things, anyway? (No one likes to have their views dismissed, but critics were used to actually influencing the outcome of these things.)

So the debate began to simmer on all sides: audiences and critics feeling disconnected.

Now the fracture is pretty complete. Two years ago, the two critical darlings, “There Will Be Blood” and “No Country for Old Men” were not warmly received by audiences. There were people who passionately believed in these pictures, and there were others like me who were openly disdainful of them. But now we all had the Internet that allowed us to join in the debate.

Slumdog Millionaire” from last year had a schizophrenic reaction. Some people were elated by it, others found it mean-spirited and violent. (I haven’t seen it.) And then, of course, there is the black elephant in the room that has really jump-started this debate once again, a little art film called “The Dark Knight.” When the Batman film was dismissed (audiences and critics loved this film), everyone began to pile on.

And so here we are. No doubt, in an effort to accommodate both “The Dark Knight” and “No Country for Old Men”, the Academy has opened up the Best Picture nominees to 10 (this was the way it was decades ago).

I don’t think, frankly, that it will matter who or what is nominated; the debate will still revolve around the winner. So I’m not sure this gesture will help much.

But I do think it is one small step for Oscar toward an “American Idol” type of audience participation. If they do it, they should have the audience vote during the Oscar telecast itself.

The barrier between critic and audience has long been smashed anyway — I see more trenchant observations about art and culture from blogs than I do in “Newsweek” or “Time” or many other established pubs. So this step, when it comes, obviously won’t wreck the track record of the Oscars (insert joke here). And, well, who really cares if the critics are unhappy.

So bring the audience in to the Oscars. Don’t even wait. Do it next year. It could make the Oscars relevant – and critics may even be surprised who people vote for. It may even make the Oscars fun and suspenseful again.

Actor In Highest Grossing Movie Of All Time Turns 107

February 5, 2009 § Leave a comment


By Lars Trodson

I had not seen “Gone With the Wind” since college, and so I rented it a few weeks back and watched it all including the “Overture” and the “Entr’Acte” — which is “comedical” for intermission.

Audiences 70 years ago had time for all that, when today we barely have time even for the movie itself. What is the average movie length today, 88 minutes, something like that? Including credits. But GWTW takes its leisurely time at 224 minutes.

The movie is interesting as spectacle, and hard to appreciate as entertainment. I found myself looking at the costumes, and marveling at the accents. Leslie Howard, God bless him, barely tries to hide his deep English tones, and Vivien Leigh has occasional trouble hiding hers. In one scene I was looking at Olivia De Havilland’s dress, and was wondering how long it must have taken the costume department to make it. It was beautiful.

Clark Gable, who was born on Feb. 1, 1901, has no accent at all. He just has that voice, and good for him for not even attempting a southern accent. He was born in Ohio.

I think I rented the movie because an actor who played in an early scene had just died — he was 90, or more — and I realized that DeHavilland may very well be the last one, aside from some children who were in the movie. After all, GWTW — perhaps the earliest movie ever to be known just as an acronym- is now officially 70 years old.

And Clark Gable would have been 107 this year, but as it was he only lived to be 59. I wonder how many kids know him today. While he was in one of the most famous Technicolor movies of all time, it doesn’t seem like he made many color movies at all, and there really isn’t any place to show them now. He died when Hollywood was about to make the transition from black and white to color.

I would have argued not so long ago that movie stardom was probably the most durable stardom of all, but I’m not so sure any more. How many people today look at Chaplin? Or listen to Bing Crosby? Bob Hope, who died only a few years ago, seems to be receding into the past. How could a guy like Gable compete?

One of the problems is that so many movies are being remade, we don’t have to know the originals — we don’t have to be introduced to those stars. For a new generation, Inspector Clouseau belongs to Steven Martin and not to Peter Sellers, so why rent “A Shot In the Dark”? Did I read somewhere they were remaking “The Wizard of Oz”?

It’s too bad because movies — right up until the 80s – gave you a sense of what the world looked and sounded like. You can look at a movie like Gable’s “The Hucksters” and get a feel for the mid-1940s. You can see the west dying right before your eyes in “The Misfits”, which was made in 1960 and was Gable’s last film. If you watch that movie you can see Marilyn Monroe, and she’ll break your heart.

So we here at Roundtable Pictures always try to honor the past. We’re indebted to it.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Gable, and congratulations for starring in the movie that Imdb.com has identified as the number one grossing movie of all time.

Here’s the list (check out how many Disney pictures there are here):

http://www.imdb.com/features/poweroffilm/

And here’s a clip from a forgotten movie that shows just how popular Gable once was:

http://www.youtube.com/v/TfAwQSk9STI&hl=en&fs=1

Celebrating the Outsiders

August 15, 2007 § Leave a comment


By Lars Trodson

The Wizard of Oz” was released 68 years ago today, in the middle of one of the most storied years in movie history. By all accounts, the movie did well on each coast, but as it moved into the heartland it faded fast and was not a financial success its first time out.

The movie was directed by Victor Fleming, who certainly must be one of the most anonymous directors of all time despite having helmed this picture, as well as “Gone With the Wind” the same year. I’d be hardpressed, without looking it up, to name another movie the guy directed.

No matter. If neither film is directed with anything you could call the “Fleming style”, it does seem to me that both films are imbued with a deep humanity; there is room enough in each — while acknowledging the limitations that stereotyping required back then — for the misfits and the lowlifes and the miscreants and the people on the fringe. Each film, “Oz” and “Wind”, is a panorama of outsiders trying to work their way back in, and for that reason alone I always thought that Fleming had a generous artistic heart.

It’s funny about “The Wizard of Oz.” While I certainly was enchanted by the movie as a child, it more deeply affects me when I see it as an adult. I’m particularly fond of the moment when Dorothy says to the Cowardly Lion that she’s going to miss him most of all. You’re not supposed to pick favorites, but she did all right to tell him that, in front of the others, because he deserved it. And I think the small, unvarnished scene when she wakes up at the farm, surrounded by all those characters, is the perfect coda to the film.

There are few actors left from either film. I believe there are still some of the actors who played some of the Munchkins still alive, and Olivia de Havilland, from “Gone with the Wind” is still with us. “Wind” of course was pretty much hailed as an instant classic ­ a term I don’t like — but “Oz” took a little longer to make its way into our consciousness. Now its more firmly affixed there than its more gargantuan Fleming partner, mostly because the misfits and goofballs in the movie have decent hearts, just as we hope we do ourselves.

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