Chicago (2002)

 

Well, this was a fun little flick to close out the month.  I’ve been living in a cave since 2002 (and probably earlier since this was originally on Broadway), so I didn’t actually know anything about this movie except that it was a musical.  Little did I realize it fell into one of my more favored genres, the dark comedy.  As an added bonus, the film features bad girls, glorifying them in the same way we’ve been admiring the moxie of our gangsters since the jazz age.  It’s like Orange is the New Black, or at least what I imagine it would be like, not having watched it myself.  There’s singing in OITNB, right?

It’s interesting, and rather fitting, to contrast this movie with the first one I watched this month, The Broadway Melody.  Both are female-focused musicals, with a sort of meta narrative about performance.  But where the first felt more like an attempt to replicate the exact on-stage theatrical performance, Chicago plays with both the musical genre and film itself to tell a story.  I especially loved the marionette scene, where dancers are choreographed as puppets, all of them controlled by the mastermind defense lawyer played by Richard Gere.  Just layers upon layers going on there.

I’ve never seen a musical on stage, I don’t think – certainly not a real Broadway show.  I guess technically, there was that one year Shakespeare on the Common did a mashup of Shakespeare with old Rat Pack songs.  Does that count?  I don’t even know.  But my point is, I realize that there are certain customs and tropes in musicals that I simply don’t get because I’m not familiar with the genre.  While that might bother me in some other cases, here it didn’t.  It felt accessible and engaging, even though virtually every moment of the film was a song.

In this particular case, it’s a little harder to run a Bechdel Test.  Does it count as a conversation if two women happen to be singing in the same song?  If they’re discussing ways to be cleared of a crime, does it matter that it was for a man’s murder if they don’t actually mention the man in dialogue?  Regardless, it’s an academic discussion, because there are enough moments between the many women in prison, discussing their respective crimes (of which all are perfectly innocent), to pass the test.  Why aren’t there more movies like this?  I might actually watch musicals in that case.

And so ends another theme month here at the ol’ Oscar blog.  As we hit the halfway point of the year, I’m pleased to report that I’ve officially watched exactly half of the movies on the Best Picture list.  Right on target.  I’ll admit, I wasn’t sure I would be able to keep this up so long.  Over the past couple of months, I’ve felt a bit more strain about the whole process, like I’m always on the verge of having to watch another movie, post another blog, swing by the library for another pair of requested movies.  Warmer weather also makes me less eager to spend an afternoon in front of the TV.

There’s even a librarian who’s clearly a movie buff, taking note of all the classics I pick up, once or twice a week.  I tried to explain my project once, as I’ve tried to do with other casual acquaintances, but it’s hard to say why I’m doing it.  And if I’ve managed to keep up this habit, why not other more useful ones, like exercise or flossing?  I’d like to think I’m learning something about myself in the process.  But I guess I still have six months to figure out what it is.

 

Theme:  Ladies on film

Bechdel Test:  Passed!

First Time Watching?

Final Verdict:  There ain’t no justice in the world

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The English Patient (1996)

It’s really weird how the sand dunes formed the shape of a couple kissing behind my head.

Despite his prestigious career, I know Ralph Fiennes mostly as Lord Voldemort.  And let’s be real:  He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named isn’t the sexiest romantic lead.  This movie is strangely prescient, given that Ralph spends half the film in prosthetics that are not totally dissimilar from the Voldemort snake-face.  That says something about him as an actor, or maybe about me as a viewer.

But where are the ladies? you might be asking.  Yes, my month of ladies is winding up.  But why am I having more difficulty finding solid women leads as I get closer to the present?

In fairness, I do like both of the women characters in this film:  Hana, the war nurse who isn’t very busy tending to a single mysterious patient (that’s Ralphy, post-burnt-to-a-crisp-conveniently-amnesiac); and Katharine, wife of an archaeologist on expedition around Cairo just before World War II breaks out.  The fact that the film fails the test because the two main ladies exist in two separate time frames and so never have a chance to talk to each other shouldn’t discount that they’re interesting people.  Also the fact that their primary existence is as a love interest for a male character.  And the fact that we see naked breasts all over, but somehow the idea of bare man-parts is apparently scandalous.

Instead of the main love story, I actually found more intriguing the burgeoning romance between Hana and Kip, the Sikh minesweeper who camps outside the monastery Hana’s tucked away in.  It wasn’t a romance fraught with drama and jealousy and adultery, which is probably why it didn’t get as much screen time.  There’s a touching moment, after they part, Kip off to defuse a bomb while Hana realizes the horror of caring about another person she’s doomed to lose.

As I’ve probably said here before, I’m a bit of a sucker for a good framing device, and this one worked pretty well – working through the puzzle through snippets of the mysterious unnamed (until he is) man.  Overall, I enjoyed the mystery of this film, in figuring out how it all came to a papery-faced man who had given up all hope in life.  Maybe not so different from ol’ Voldy, after all.

 

Theme:  Ladies on Film

Bechdel Test:  Nope, unless you count that nurse in the beginning who borrows money from Hana right before her jeep blows up.

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Too many men, just like this house.

 

 

 

Terms of Endearment (1983)

Oh, hey, did you know Jack Nicholson is in this movie?  No?  Well, here he is.

 

This is a film about female friendships, and Jack Nicholson.  I liked the former, but could have done with a little less of the latter.

What’s particularly strong in this movie is the way the mother-daughter relationship is portrayed, both in its bond and in the inevitable conflict between the two.  Aurora is so often critical, even casually cruel to her daughter Emma (on the eve of her wedding to a man Aurora disapproves of, Mom tells her, “You are not special enough to overcome a bad marriage.”).  And yet, they have an unusually fierce attachment, talking on the phone each morning, even when one or the other has company in bed.  It’s the complexity of that connection that epitomizes the family relationship – loyalty and antipathy all rolled up in one.

But Emma also maintains a lifelong friendship with Patsy, even throughout moves across the country, changes in fortune, childbirth.  As teenagers, they share dreams about their future, and there’s something so touchingly familiar in Emma’s certainty that their bond will last.  How many friends have you shared that same conversation with – and how many are still there for you?

Considering how much this film was touted as a story about women, I was a little surprised at the amount of screen time devoted to Jack Nicholson’s former-astronaut-turned-drunken-playboy.  And the inevitable, disappointing attraction that the prudish Aurora develops for him.  His storyline felt a little cliché for the sake of a movie like this, and I didn’t find whatever change of heart he may have had to be worthy of all the effort.  But then, I’m not really a Jack Nicholson fan, so maybe I’m in the minority on this one.  (In fairness, I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen a Jack Nicholson movie, and I feel strangely compelled to constantly write out Jack Nicholson’s full name every time I refer to him.  To Jack Nicholson, that is.)

Despite Jack Nicholson, the film earned a decent grade on the Bechdel Test.  We even managed to check off a passing grade in the first few minutes, as child-Emma consoles her anxious mother.  Sometimes later in life, the men get in the way of a proper Bechdel-approved conversation, but that’s probably true enough of most mother-daughter conversations after a certain point.

My only complaint about this film is that it dragged quite a bit in the second half.  The surprising twist it takes isn’t really that surprising – after all, these family dramas need to get their tension from something, and it might as well be somebody’s death.  In the process, the twist somehow manages both to spring out of nowhere and to prolong things at a snail’s pace, just to make sure every single character has a chance to talk to every single other character about what’s happening.  It’s like the multiple goodbyes of the end of The Lord of the Rings, which, unfortunately, is not being paired with this film.  Just you wait.

 

Theme:  Ladies on Film

Bechdel Test:  Passed!

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Grown women are prepared for life’s little emergencies.

Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)

 

I swear I didn’t plan to watch a movie about divorce on Father’s Day.  GG, Bridget.  Granted, if there’s a movie that celebrates fatherhood more than this, I haven’t watched it yet.  It doesn’t remind me in any way of my own dad, but then again, my dad’s not Dustin Hoffman, either.

So, I ran into a bit of difficulty with my theme when I reached the seventies.  Fully half of the movies that won Oscars in this decade reference a dude right in the title, so that rules them out.  I suppose I could have managed Annie Hall if I hadn’t already written it up – though, in fairness, that film is less about a woman than about Woody Allen occasionally pausing in his whining long enough for a woman to wander by.  What’s left, then, but Kramer vs. Kramer?  Surely, I thought, in a movie featuring two parents, the lady Kramer would factor in about 50% of the time, right?  Right?

You’d think I’d have learned something, lo these six months.  This is not a movie for the moms out there.  In the first half hour alone, I found myself wondering just how many times I’d have to listen to the sound of boys taking a piss.  Rather than a movie about how difficult it is to be a parent (mother or father), this really comes off to me more as a film about a not-great-dad realizing how hard parenting is when he actually has to do it.  Do I sound bitter?  Maybe I’m a little bitter.

The truth is, nobody would have cared about this movie if the roles were reversed:  dad walks out and leaves mom to do the hard work of bringing up a child on her own.  Because we’ve all heard that story, maybe even lived it.  Even today, thirty-some years after the movie came out, in an atmosphere where work/life balance is acknowledged as important, women face the same threat to their priorities.  Your career sees a setback because you had to stay home with a sick kid?  Ah, too bad, you just didn’t want it enough.

Meanwhile, Mr. Kramer needs a job and manages to bully his way into a new one in the middle of a Christmas party, just because he wouldn’t leave until he got what he wanted.  Would a woman come out of that the same way, or would she end up getting kicked out on her ass?  I think we all know the answer to that.  The same is true in how each parent is approached in the courtroom during a custody dispute: (the former) Mrs. Kramer is grilled about her sexual history and mental health, her fitness questioned at every turn.  Nobody asks Mr. Kramer about the last time he had sex.

Maybe, in the end, this is just the right movie to watch – both on Father’s Day and during a month of movies meant to consider what it’s like to be a woman on film.  Whether it means to or not, it is a film representative of the female experience.  No matter how hard you fight, in the end, you’ll still end up doubting your own worth and giving in.

 

Theme:  Ladies on film

Bechdel Test:  Complete failure

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  No double-chocolate chip ice cream

My Fair Lady (1964)

Rex Harrison, I discovered while watching this film (and perusing IMDB for tidbits of trivia) was the inspiration for Stewie’s character on Family Guy.  That’s not really relevant to anything else I have to say about this movie, but it seemed like one of the more pleasant things I could say about Henry Higgins, so let’s start there, shall we?

In college, I took a couple of classes in linguistics, so that obviously makes me an expert in the field.  And I have so much trouble believing that a character like Professor Higgins who seems to be so fascinated with speech can also be so judgmental about how people talk.  What intrigued me most about linguistic study was the sheer range of sounds that we could make and still be understood.  But then douchey Higgins comes along and makes a little science experiment out of Eliza Doolittle and takes all the credit for her transforming herself into a bombshell with excellent elocution.

Is it truly a romantic movie if you spend most of it hoping that the female lead will come to her senses and get the hell away from the guy?  Why is it considered romantic for a woman to fall in love with a total asshole who treats her like crap?  Even worse, a man who sings songs about how terrible women are and how they should be more like men (listen, buddy, when you’re singing a song to your live-in, confirmed bachelor, fellow-linguist colonel friend about how you wish women were more like him, you need to come to terms with some basic truths about yourself; just run off together, already).  Eliza has the good sense to get away from him, but then comes back, just in time for him to demand his slippers.  Come on, Liza.  You can do better than that.  Find a damn prince.

There’s an interesting commentary here about social class, and how the way people present themselves to the world – through speech and dress – affects the opportunities they can access in life.  Eliza recognizes this from the beginning, and manages to raise her station by getting lucky and working hard.  It’s a shame to think that, even in her best-case scenario, all she thought herself good for was to work as a teacher supporting a worthless lump of a suitor.  Instead, she finds herself silenced at every turn, even as she struggles to find a new voice.  Meanwhile, the men sit around congratulating themselves on how well they’ve fooled everyone with their pet project.  The scene after the ball, where Higgins and Pickering are singing about how great they are as Eliza cowers in the background, worried about what’s next for her is kind of heartbreaking, though I suspect it was meant more to be funny.

Bits like that add up to a big fat zero when it comes to the Bechdel Test.  There are so few scenes where Eliza is not surrounded by the phonetic duo that I didn’t even keep track of any spots where she spoke to other women.  Maybe a couple of moments where she’s alone with the maid or Higgins’ mom, and where she’s either screaming bloody murder or playing coy about running out on Higgins.  But any movie that takes such pains to blather on about women’s irrationality doesn’t deserve a feminist pass.

You can change a human by changing her speech, Higgins says at some point in the film.  It’s a shame he couldn’t change his own speech to be a better person.

 

Theme:  Ladies on film

Bechdel Test:  Even if it passed, all the misogynistic songs would disqualify it

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Well, I’m dashed

All About Eve (1950)

 

When I first thought about doing a month of woman-centered movies, this is actually the film that inspired me.  I hadn’t heard much about the plot of it, except that it featured several women, which was a pretty big deal simply because of its rarity.  Even though I’d seen good things about it, I was still concerned (as I am with all the older movies I watch) that I might find it dated or dull.  I can honestly say that this is one of my favorite Oscar winners that I never would have watched if not for this project.

The story itself is maybe not the most original:  an aging actress fears her position being usurped by a younger, fresher ingénue.  In a way, though, it’s the familiarity of this story that makes the way it plays out so engaging.  It’s like watching someone hit a piñata – you know what’s going to happen, but you still want to see which way the candy flies.  So much of the plot is driven by various characters being bitchy to each other and either plotting against or suspecting each other of plotting against each other.  Ultimately, though, it is all about Eve and the destruction she brings.

This movie touches on a question about a woman’s career and ambition that’s basically still unresolved today.  At one point, Bette Davis’ character wonders how to balance her acting with “the career of being a woman” – she concludes that you can’t have it both ways.  It’s moments like this, where she’s sitting in a car with a woman she thinks is her closest friend, confiding her deepest fears, that really show what’s possible when women are given strong roles.

Boring side note:  whenever I watch one of these movies for the blog, I always jot a few notes into a notebook to help me remember characters or details, or simply to record my initial impressions.  Usually, I’ll end up with one page of thoughts, maybe a quote or two.  I’m pretty sure that my notes for this movie are longer than anything I’ve seen thus far.  To be fair, the movie begins with a virtual dramatis personae, rattled off amid an awards ceremony, and I figured I’d need to keep track of who’s who.  (I also observed, “Room full of dudes: great start” in reference to my Bechdel Test.)

But I also found myself copying down quote after quote.  There are so many clever lines and witticisms, that even if the plot – hurtling toward some sort of inevitability – didn’t keep your interest, you could just listen for the funny stuff.  I hope someday to have the right context and solemnity to intone, as Bette Davis, “Remind me to tell you of the time I looked into the heart of an artichoke.”

In the context of the Test, perhaps it’s Marilyn Monroe, in one of her early roles, who gets the best and most lasting line.  When someone suggests Eve talk to the pretentious theater critic, who’s brought Marilyn as his date to a party, she demurs, saying she doesn’t have anything interesting to say.  “You won’t bore him, honey,” Miss Monroe reassures her.  “You won’t even get a chance to talk.”

I’ll conclude with one last note I made, which I actually have thought about with respect to all of the films I’ve watched this month so far.  “Wouldn’t it be great,” I wrote to myself, “if the women just fell in love with each other instead?”

 

Theme:  Ladies on film

Bechdel Test:  I’ll say it passes.

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Real diamonds in a wig

Mrs. Miniver (1942)

 

Based solely on the title and the fact that this movie is set during World War II (set and released), I decided that it must be about a Rosie-the-Riveter type of woman who worked in a factory in support of the war.  I thought, Oh, cool, my grandma did a Rosie-the-Riveter job during the war.  Which then prompted an evening-long venture through Google genealogy to research my family history, and which I’ll be happy to delineate in careful detail now.

Oh, wait.  Movie.  That’s right.  Well, anyway, though Mrs. Miniver is a war movie, it is unfortunately not about Rosie the Riveter.  It’s not even set in the United States.  The film was actually created to encourage Americans to support the Allied effort (even the end credits implore you to buy bonds!).

The title Miniver is your typical upper middle class lady who likes shopping and buys overly expensive hats (women, amiright?), which turns out to be okay because her Don Draper-esque husband just blew some cash on a new car.  Somehow, Mrs. Miniver ends up admitting she’s wrong about something while her husband calls her fat, and then they go to bed in neighboring twin beds.  Then the war starts.

You might wonder why a war movie is named after a woman.  Here’s the twist:  by the middle of the picture, there are actually two Mrs. Minivers.  The elder Mrs. M’s son, Vin, meets the daughter of the local baroness, and despite the fact that Vin introduces himself by man-splaining something about social consciousness, they fall in love.  In a weird side plot, the baroness hosts a flower competition in the village, except that nobody has ever attempted to compete against her… until now!

How might the Bechdel test have fared in a movie from 1942, even one that apparently focuses on the life of a woman?  Not well, as a matter of fact.  I’ve interpreted the Test to mean that two women characters must be in a scene alone to qualify, and it’s a good hour into the film before we even see the two women alone together.  Instead of dialogue, they sit gaping in shock at something war-ish.  I don’t think that counts.  Later on, after Vin enlists in the air force, the ladies Miniver end up discussing at length how much it will suck if Vin dies in combat, but that, at the end of the day, they’ll figure out how to move past it.  I won’t ruin the ending.

The moral of this movie, if you could say such a thing, is that war – and particularly this war – affects the lives of everyone, including the women who wait at home for their loved ones to return safely.  It’s not an especially novel message, but an affecting one nonetheless.  While watching, I found myself marveling at the very idea of making a movie about the war while it was going on, without knowing what its result might be.  Especially in 1942, when the U.S. had just barely got into the game, and everything seemed to be running in Germany’s favor.  For some reason, World War II remains in many ways the favorite war to depict on film.  I wonder whether and how the war will carry on in our memories long after our grandparents and their own memories have faded into history.

 

Theme:  Ladies in Film

Bechdel Test:  Total failure

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Gentlemen don’t propose when they’re eating.

 

The Broadway Melody (1928/1929)

If your movie doesn’t include talking, singing, and dancing, you’ve done something wrong.

 

It’s June, which means it’s time for a new theme month.  April’s focus on war movies made for an interesting longitudinal study, so I thought it might be fun to try it again (especially since it’s likely the final month I’ll have enough films to choose from to make up a full month of related pictures).  This time, we’ll be looking at women.

I’ve selected eight movies, one from each decade (allowing for a bit of leeway on the first one), in which a woman, or women, hold a prominent role.  In some cases, the woman is named in the title, and in a couple cases, I’ve had to stretch it a little.  Just for kicks, I’ll also apply the Bechdel Test to each film – because I’m honestly curious to see how the ones I’ve picked will go.  If you’re not familiar, the rules of the Bechdel Test are, simply put:  there must be two women characters who talk to each other about something other than a man.

The Broadway Melody is, surprisingly enough, about a pair of actress sisters who move to New York in order to make it big on Broadway.  The older sister’s beau, Eddie, has already moved to New York and seen success writing songs for a revue, and he’s their connection.  The only snag is that once Eddie sees the younger sister all grown up (beautiful but dumb, because a woman certainly can’t be both), he falls in love.  Awkward triangle alert!

This is a plot line that doesn’t bode well for the Test, and for the most part, Eddie (or his rival, who has perhaps the douchiest name of the era, Jock) dominates the ladies’ conversation.  However, I’m going to let it squeak by because one of the first scenes features the girls checking into a hotel room and discussing the anxieties of breaking into the New York entertainment industry.  I can’t quite remember whether one of the men who is supposed to help them comes up in conversation during that actual scene, so I’ll let it slide.  As a side note, I noticed, in the hubbub of the stage preparations, a costume designer who is clearly a stereotypical gay man – but I’m going to give the film some credit for depicting him as a fully integrated member of the stage crew.

In this early Hollywood era, there seems to be a fascination with depicting the popular entertainment of New York theater on the big screen.  Looking back, I find it strange – the thing that’s most impressive about a big musical number on stage is that it’s performed live before your eyes, with all the bombast and energy surrounding you, something that’s lost when portrayed on static film.  To be fair, watching a movie like this alone on your couch is pretty different from seeing it in a movie theater with crowds and maybe even a live orchestra.  They couldn’t really have anticipated DVDs back then.  Did they even have couches?

I guess there’s also a bit of “reality TV”-style drama here, too, because you’re not just seeing the big song-and-dance numbers, but the behind-the-scenes personal stories of the people, off-stage.  That’s a lot of hyphens.  This film reminds me a lot of another movie of the same era, The Great Ziegfeld, because of its similar structure and concern with backstage shenanigans (here, the producer is a thinly-veiled Ziegfeld).

So, with The Broadway Melody, I have now officially watched all (three) Oscar winners from the 1920s.  Historically, it’s a fascinating time of transition for film, moving from silents to talkies, in that brief window of pre-Code pictures.  Granted, three is not much of a representative sample.  When I think of old movies, I think of the censorship of later years – longing looks or chaste kisses instead of bedroom sex scenes.  Here, you can see ladies in their underwear, still rather concealed by today’s standards, but probably pretty sexy for the era.  How will this one compare to future films on the scale of lady-friendliness?  We’ll soon find out.

 

Theme:  Ladies on Film

Bechdel Test:  I’ll give it a pass

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  It’s cream in the can.