Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Quo Vadis (dir by Mervyn LeRoy)


The 1951 best picture nominee, Quo Vadis, is actually two movies in one.

The first movie is a rather stolid historical epic about life in ancient Rome.  The handsome but kind of dull Robert Taylor plays Marcus Vinincius, a Roman military officer who, after serving in Germany and Britain, returns to Rome and promptly falls in love with the virtuous Lygia (Deborah Kerr).  Complicating Marcus and Lygia’s relationship is the fact that Lygia is a devout Christian and a friend to Peter (Finlay Currie) and Paul (Abraham Sofaer).

Marcus’s uncle, meanwhile, is Petronius (Leo Genn), a government official who has a reputation for being a bon vivant.  In real-life, Petronius is believed to have been the author of the notoriously raunchy Satyricon.  You would never guess that from the way that Petronius is portrayed in Quo Vadis.  We’re continually told that Petronius is a notorious libertine but we don’t see much evidence of that, beyond the fact that he lives in a big palace and he has several slaves.  In fact, Petronius even falls in love with one of his slaves, Eunice (Marina Berti).

The second movie, which feels like it’s taking in a totally different cinematic universe from the adventures of Marcus and Lygia, deals with all of the intrigue in Nero’s court.  Nero (Peter Ustinov) is a giggling madman who dreams of rebuilding Rome in his image and who responds to almost every development by singing a terrible song about it.  Nero surrounds himself with sycophants who continually tell him that his every idea is brilliant but not even they can resist the temptation to roll their eyes whenever Nero grabs his lyre and starts to recite a terrible poem.  Nero is married to the beautiful but evil Poppaea (Patricia Laffan) and there’s nothing that they love more than going to the arena and watching people get eaten by lions.  It disturbs Nero when people sing before being eaten.  “They’re singing,” he says, his voice filled with shock an awe.

It’s difficult to describe just how different Ustinov’s performance is from everyone else’s in the film.  Whereas Taylor and even the usually dependable Deborah Kerr are stuck playing thin characters and often seem to be intimidated by playing such devout characters, Ustinov joyfully chews on every piece of scenery that he can get his hands on.  Nero may be the film’s villain but Ustinov gives a performance that feels more like it belongs in a silent comedy than a biblical epic.  Ustinov bulges his eyes.  He runs around the palace like he forgot to take his Adderall.  While Rome burns, Nero grins like a child who has finally figured out a way to outsmart his parents.  “You won’t give me more money?  I’ll just burn down the city!”

And the thing is — it all works.  The contrast between Ustinov and the rest of the characters should doom this film but, instead, it works brilliantly.  Whenever Ustinov’s performance gets to be too much, Robert Taylor and Leo Genn pop up and ground things.  Whenever things start to get too grounded, Ustinov throws everything back up in the air.  The conflict between the early Christians and the Roman Empire is perfectly epitomized in the contrast between Robert Taylor and Peter Ustinov.  It makes for a film that is entertaining almost despite itself.

Quo Vadis was nominated for best picture but lost to An American In Paris.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Ivanhoe (dir by Richard Thorpe)


Welcome to England in the 12th century!

That’s the setting of the 1952 best picture nominee, Ivanhoe.  It’s a green and healthy land, full of chivalrous knights and corrupt royalty and outlaws who steal from the rich and give to the poor.  King Richard the Lion Heart (Norman Wooland) left on a crusade and he hasn’t been seen for a while.  Richard’s evil brother, the cowardly King John (Guy Rolfe), rules the country and has little interest in making sure that Richard returns.  Even when Wilfred of Ivanhoe (Robert Taylor) discovers that Richard is being held for ransom, John declines to do anything about it.

Ivanhoe is determined to raise the money to pay the ransom and restore Richard to the throne of England, even if he has to secretly compete in a tournament to do it.  Of course, before he can do that, he’ll have to buy a horse and some armor.  Fortunately, he comes across Isaac (Felix Aylmer) and his daughter, Rebecca (Elizabeth Taylor).  Isaac and Rebecca give Ivanhoe the money necessary to purchase a good horse and equipment.  Rebecca falls in love with Ivanoe, despite the fact that Ivanhoe is in love with Rowena (Joan Fontaine, who spends most of the movie looking rather bored).

Speaking of love, the king’s favorite knight — the hot-headed but honorable Sir Brian De Bois-Guilbert (George Sanders) — has fallen in love with Rebecca.  That, of course, complicates matters when the anti-Semitic King John attempts to have the Jewish Rebecca burned at the stake for witchcraft.  When Ivanhoe invokes the “wager of challenge,” in an effort to save Rebecca’s life, Sir Brian is chosen as the court’s champion.  Needless to say, this leads to some awkward moments….

Listen, I would be lying if I said that it was easy for me to follow the plot of Ivanhoe.  It seemed like every few minutes, someone else was plotting against either Ivanoe or King John and it got a bit difficult to keep track of what exactly everyone was trying to accomplish.  By the time Robin Hood (Harold Warrender) showed up, I have given up trying to make sense of the plot.

Instead of worrying about the exact details of the plot, I decided to just enjoy the film as a spectacle.  If nothing else, Ivanhoe is gorgeous to look at.  The colors are lush and full and the costumes and the sets are all wonderfully ornate.  Apparently, 12 Century England was a very colorful place.  There’s a lot of battles and jousts and sword fights.  I couldn’t always keep track of who was fighting who but at least the film moved at a steady pace.

Robert Taylor and Joan Fontaine make for a dull leading couple but a young Elizabeth Taylor is stunning in the role of Rebecca and George Sanders transforms Sir Brian into a truly tragic figure.  Guy Rolfe is memorably evil as King John, though he’s perhaps not as much fun as Oscar Isaac was in Robin Hood.  Everyone in the movie looks good in their period costuming.  Really, that’s the most important thing.

Ivanhoe was nominated for Best Picture but lost to The Greatest Show On Earth.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Winner: Hamlet (dir by Laurence Olivier)


(With the Oscars scheduled to be awarded on March 4th, I have decided to review at least one Oscar-nominated film a day.  These films could be nominees or they could be winners.  They could be from this year’s Oscars or they could be a previous year’s nominee!  We’ll see how things play out.  Today, I take a look at the 1948 best picture winner, Hamlet!)

Hamlet is a film of firsts.

It was the first British production to win the Oscar for Best Picture.  In winning, it beat out three American films (Johnny Belinda, The Snake Pit, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) and one other British film (The Red Shoes).

It was also the first adaptation of Shakespeare to win Best Picture.  Of course, it wasn’t the first Shakespeare adaptation to be nominated.  That honor would go to 1935’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Adaptations of Romeo and Juliet would be nominated in 1936, 1961, and 1968.  Henry V (which, like Hamlet, was directed by and starred Laurence Olivier) was a 1946 nominee.  Then there was 1953’s Julius Caesar.  The Dresser featured scenes from Shakespeare.  Shakespeare in Love imagined the circumstances behind the writing of Romeo and Juliet.  However, Hamlet was the first to win.

It also remains the only traditional Shakespearean adaptation to win.  West Side Story updated Romeo and Juliet while Shakespeare in Love … well, let’s just not get into it.

It was the first Best Picture winner to be directed by the man starring in the movie.  Laurence Olivier was nominated for both Best Director and Best Actor.  He lost the directing Oscar to John Huston but he won for his performance as Hamlet.  In winning, he became the first actor to direct himself to an Oscar.

Finally, Hamlet was the first of 24 films to feature both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee!  In fact, this was Lee’s film debut.  Now, before anyone gets too excited, I should point out that Cushing and Lee don’t actually interact.  In fact, Lee doesn’t even speak in the film.  He appears in the background as a Spear Carrier and it’s pretty much impossible to spot him.  He has no dialogue and wasn’t even listed in the final credits.  From what I’ve read, I don’t think Lee and Cushing even knew each other at the time and, when they later met, they were surprised to learn that they had both appeared in the film.  For his part, Cushing plays Osiric, the courtier who everyone remembers because he had such a cool name.

It’s always fun to play “what if.”  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do not appear in Olivier’s adaptation of the play.  To modern audiences, that might seem strange but, really, that’s just because we’re all familiar with the two characters from Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.  When Olivier filmed Hamlet, he excised portions of the play in the interest of time.  (Hamlet uncut runs over four hours.  Olivier’s version clocks in at nearly three.)  Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Fortinbras, and the second gravedigger are all dropped from Olivier’s version and, to be honest, none of them are particularly missed.

And yet … as I watched Hamlet, I found myself wondering what would have happened if Olivier had kept Rosencrantz and Guildenstern around and had cast Cushing and Lee in those roles.  It probably wouldn’t have happened, of course.  Cushing maybe but Lee was a total unknown at the time.  Still, how amazing would that have been?

As for the actual film, Olivier’s Hamlet turned out to be far more cinematic than I was anticipating.  Olivier’s camera snakes through the darkened hallways of Elsinore Castle while Olivier’s Hamlet veers between self-righteous fury and apparent madness as he seeks revenge on his Uncle Claudius (Basil Sydney).  As Hamlet grows more obsessed with death and vengeance, the castle seems to grow darker and the hallways even more maze-like, as if the castle’s changing shape to conform with the turmoil in Hamlet’s mind.  Among the cast, Jean Simmons is poignantly fragile as Ophelia while Eileen Herlie is the perfect Gertrude, despite being 12 years younger than the actor playing her son.  Olivier gives a wonderfully physical performance as Hamlet, killing Polonious with a demented gleam in his eye and literally leaping towards his uncle at the end of the film.

If you’re one of those people who thinks that Shakespeare is boring … well, Olivier’s Hamlet probably won’t change your mind.  One thing I’ve noticed about the “Shakespeare is boring” crowd is that nothing can change their minds.  But, for the rest of us, Olivier’s Hamlet is an exciting adaptation of Shakespeare’s more difficult play.

You won’t miss Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at all.  And seriously, Fortinbras who?

Lisa Watches An Oscar Nominee: Separate Tables (dir by Delbert Mann)


As some of you may know, I have been on a mission for a while now.  My goal is to see and review every single film that has been nominated for best picture by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  (Of course, with the 1928 nominee, The Patriot, being a lost film, that may seem like an impossible mission.  No matter!  For me, nothing is impossible.  What Lisa wants, Lisa gets.)  For that reason, I spent part of last night watching the 1958 best picture nominee, Separate Tables, on TCM.

Separate Tables is one of the more forgotten of the best picture nominees but then again, the 50s were not the greatest decade as far as the Academy was concerned.  Consider some of the other films released in 1958: Big Deal on Madonna Street, High School Confidential, Indiscreet, The Last Hurrah, Machine-Gun Kelly, The Fly, The Blob, The Horror of Dracula, The Revenge of Frankenstein, Some Came Running, Thunder Road, A Touch Of Evil, and Vertigo!  The thing they all have in common is that none of them were nominated for best picture but Separate Tables was.

That’s not to say that Separate Tables was, in any way, a bad film.  Actually, it’s a pretty good film and I’m glad that I watched it.  It’s not bad at all.  However, it is … what’s the right term to use here?  Stately perhaps?  Maybe stagey.  Separate Tables is based on two one-act plays and, though it’s obvious that some effort was made to open up the material, it still feels undeniably stage-bound.  Separate Tables was directed by Delbert Mann, who had previously won an Oscar for his lively direction of Marty.  With Separate Tables, his direction is far less lively.  Watching it, you get the feeling that he was not only straight-jacketed by the theatrical origins of the material but also by the fact that the film was clearly made to win Academy Awards.

So, ignore the direction and pay attention to the performances.  Separate Tables works best as a tribute to good acting.  The film follows the lives of several guests at an English seaside hotel.  Some people are just staying for a few days.  Some people live at the hotel.  John Malcolm (Burt Lancaster) is a moody writer, a recovering alcoholic who is planning on asking the hotel’s manager, the level-headed Pat Cooper (Wendy Hiller), to marry him.  Of course, then his ex-wife, Anne (Rita Hayworth), shows up.  As quickly becomes obvious, John and Anne may hate each other but they also love each other.  Neither one is particularly sympathetic but, in their scenes together, Lancaster and Hayworth do create a fascinating portrait of mutual self-destruction.  Ultimately, you’re left with the impression that both of them are so self-destructive that they belong together, if just to keep from drawing anyone else into their messed up orbit.

And then there’s Major Pollock (David Niven).  David Niven won the Oscar for Best Actor for his role as Major Pollock and he does give an excellent performance.  Major Pollock is one of those roles that often seems to attract comedic actors looking for a chance to prove their dramatic abilities.  When he first appears, he seems to be a bit of a joke but then, as the film progresses, we learn that he’s actually struggling with his own demons.  In the case of Major Pollock, those demons are more hinted at than defined.  As we learn at the start of the film, Pollock was convicted of “harassing” several “young women” at a movie theater.  Separate Tables does not make clear how young or, for that matter, the exact details of the harassment.  Some residents of the hotel want Major Pollock to be kicked out of the hotel.  Some residents say that it is none of their business and that everyone deserves a second chance.  John Malcolm is in the latter group, though he’s more concerned with his ex-wife than with the scandalous Major (who, to no one’s great surprise, isn’t actually a major and whose war stories have all largely been lies).  Also seeking to defend Major Pollock is the shy Sibyl (Deborah Kerr, playing against type).  Sibyl’s mother (Gladys Cooper) is among those most determined to exile Pollock.

And really, the only reason this plotline works is because of the performances of Niven and Kerr.  As written, it’s way too vague about the exact details of what it was that Pollock did.  We’re just told that he was caught “behaving immorally.”  (According to Wikipedia, Pollock was originally written as being gay but, apparently, that was considered to be too controversial for 1958, hence the mention that Pollock’s crime involved “young women.”)  But Niven gives such a soulful and wounded performance that, much like Sibyl, you want to believe the best about him.  You want to give him a second chance, even though you know he’s going to let you down.  As Major Pollock, David Niven uses his trademark charm to paint a portrait of a man who is painfully aware that he has little to offer beyond charm.

At the same time, I was surprised by how little screen time Niven actually had in Separate Tables.  The majority of the film is taken up with Lancaster and Hayworth.  Niven definitely deserved some consideration for best supporting actor but best actor?  Not in the year that saw Orson Welles in Touch of Evil and James Stewart in Vertigo.

Separate Tables is not a great film, at least not in the way that we might wish that a film nominated for best picture would be.  It’s way too stagey and vague.  But, with all that in mind, it’s still wonderfully acted and always watchable.  It may not be great but it is very, very good.

Separate Tables was nominated for best picture but lost to Gigi.