Saturday, January 08, 2005

Why Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin'?

This article on the Academy Award best picture winners makes a lot of points I consider somewhat dubious, but one I really wanted to argue with -- probably because I've heard it made a lot in the past -- is the argument that The Greatest Show On Earth is one of the most undeserving Best Picture winners. The author's favorite of 1952 is High Noon:

1952 was an embarrassment. The best nominated picture that year was “High Noon,” in which Marshall Wil Kane (Gary Cooper) is abandoned by everyone in the town he’s trying to protect. “Where are the others?” one man asks. “There are no others,” Kane replies. These lines were written by Carl Foreman, who refused to testify before HUAC and saw most of his friends and colleagues abandon him as a result. The film is a metaphor for the McCarthy years and is now considered a classic. But in 1952 it lost to….“The Greatest Show on Earth,” a fluffy, overlong melodrama about the lives and loves of members of the Ringling Brothers Circus, starring a young Charlton Heston. It was like awarding the winning entrĂ©e at a bake-off to cotton candy.

Reading that paragraph reminded me of all the reasons I never liked High Noon: it's more interested in being a political statement than in being a good Western. As a Western, or even just a story about a policeman facing down some bad guys who want to kill him, the story of High Noon is kind of ludicrous: Gary Cooper runs around asking the townspeople to help him out in a gun battle. Really, he has no business asking them to help him; it's his job to protect them, not vice versa, and it's irresponsible of him to ask people who aren't professional gunfighters to go up against people who are. Howard Hawks famously made Rio Bravo to show how a lawman ought to act in a situation like this, but for all the generic moral-codery going on in Rio Bravo, the way John Wayne behaves in that movie is simply more plausible than the way Gary Cooper behaves in High Noon; a sheriff who does his job and doesn't want civilians getting involved makes more sense in a Western. If the law-enforcement chief in my area acted the way Cooper does, asking me to strap on guns and help him fight off some crooks, I'd wonder why the county hired this guy in the first place.

But that's the thing: High Noon isn't really supposed to make sense as a Western, or a movie about law enforcement or gunfighting or any of the things that are actually happening onscreen; it's a political allegory, and once you take away the genre elements, the story finally makes sense, of a kind: Cooper is the guy being railroaded by HUAC, and the townspeople are the people who won't speak up for him (or testify against him). Now asking for help makes sense. But by telling this story in the form of a Western, where the danger is not of getting blacklisted but of getting killed, High Noon winds up with a story that only makes sense on the allegorical level. Because in the actual onscreen, non-allegorical action, he's not asking them to just speak up or refrain from testifying, he's asking the townspeople go out and do something for which they are (mostly) woefully unqualified. Like many pictures made by its producer, Stanley Kramer, it's a movie that respects its own righteous message more than it respects the genre to which it belongs, and it's little wonder that for many years High Noon was one of the few Westerns respected by American film critics: its lack of respect for the genre was considered to be proof of its high seriousness.

So I can't feel bad that High Noon lost the Academy Award. I'd even go so far as to say that The Greatest Show on Earth was an okay choice; you can't accuse Cecil B. DeMille of not respecting the genres to which the movie belongs (circus movie, soap opera), and while it's corny and cheesy, I find it unfailingly entertaining from beginning to end. DeMille's career-long compulsion to throw in anything and everything -- as long as it's entertaining -- was sort of summed up in this one movie, and the Academy Award made a certain amount of sense as a sort of lifetime achievement award to a man who, whatever his faults, was tremendously influential on cinema world-wide. But anyway, given a choice between The Greatest Show On Earth and its implausibile, silly plot, and High Noon and its implausible, preachy plot, I'll go for the silly film. Though among the other nominees, The Quiet Man would have been a better choice, and as often happened, the best films of the year -- Singin' in the Rain, most obviously -- weren't even nominated.

The other widely-mocked win of the 1950s, Around the World in 80 Days, is far harder for me to sit through than Greatest Show On Earth, and I find that win far harder to understand, though the movie that otherwise would have won -- Giant isn't all that easy to sit through either. I guess the explanation for 80 Days is that Hollywood had been thrown into a state of panic by the advent of TV and the collapse of the studio system. Around the World in 80 Days represented all the things that movies could do to that TV couldn't: wide screen, location shooting, deluxe presentation in Roadshow format. The voters were looking for a symbol of the continued viability of movies in a TV world, and so they chose the biggest, most extravagant movie of the year.

Bringin' up the snubbin' of Singin' brings up my other problem with that article's analysis: I don't think the Academy Awards have suffered from too much timidity about recognizing "serious issue" movies. Indeed, one of the redeeming qualities of the Academy voters is that they usually steered clear of ponderous, self-righteous issue-laden movies like Stanley Kramer's. In 1944, the favorite to win Best Picture was Daryl F. Zanuck's Wilson, an overlong Oscar-craving biography of Woodrow Wilson; the Academy sensibly picked an actual entertaining movie, Leo McCarey's Going My Way. But Going My Way wasn't anywhere near McCarey's best work or the best film of 1944; it was a safe, middle-of-the-road choice by voters who weren't quite prepared to deal with the new trends in movies, like the onset of what is now called film noir (Double Indemnity, Laura) or the increased artistry of musicals (Meet Me in St. Louis) or the increasing satirical scope of the best comedies (like Preston Sturges' two films that year, neither of which were nominated). But those were all "pure" genre movies of one kind or another, and pure genre movies almost never win the Oscar.

And that's the history of the Academy Awards: the winning movie has to be entertaining and successful and at least respect the genre it belongs to, but it also has to be recognized as something more than a genre film, because Hollywood people tended to think of genre films as mere bread-and-butter projects, and dream of doing projects that avoided or at least transcended the limitations of genre moviemaking. The result was that the stuff we now think of as Hollywood's best work -- Westerns, musicals, comedies, gangster films, swashbucklers -- almost never won unless the voters could asure themselves that this movie had something big, something prestigious about it. "Little" musicals like Singin' in the Rain never won, but An American in Paris had the high-art aura provided by the Big Ballet; Gigi had the residual glow of Legitimate Theatre provided by the contributions of the My Fair Lady team; West Side Story was a big Roadshow movie packaged like a theatre production. A regular little gangster movie couldn't win, but The Godfather could win, because it was a big epic gangster movie with big messages about American society (also a great movie, but when it comes to winning Oscars, being Important counts for more than being great). And being based on a novel usually helped, because Academy Award voters tended to be people who, like David O. Selznick, dreamed of taking some big thick novel and transferring it to the screen.

So the Oscars never did, and never will, represent what's best about American movies. But it could be a lot worse, and one can be thankful that they rarely took the article writer's advice to go for movies that dealt with the painful issues of the day. Put it this way: at least no Stanley Kramer movie ever won best picture. Score one for the Academy.

No comments: