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 Reviews an Oscar Nominee: Roman Holiday (dir by William Wyler)


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The 1953 film Roman Holiday is one that I’ve watched quite a few times.  If you know anything about the film and/or me, you won’t be surprised by that.  I love Audrey Hepburn.  I love Rome.  I love romance.  And I love bittersweet endings.  And Roman Holiday has all four of those!

Speaking of Audrey Hepburn, I’ve shared this picture before but I’m going to share it again:

Audrey Hepburn 1954 Roman HolidayThat is Audrey Hepburn, the morning after she won the Best Actress Oscar for Roman Holiday.  Roman Holiday was Audrey Hepburn’s motion picture debut and it continues to hold up as one of the greatest film debuts of all time.  Watching how easily she controls and dominates the screen in Roman Holiday, you would think that she had made over a 100 films previously.

The film tells a simple story, really.  Audrey plays Ann, the crown princess of an unnamed country.  Princess Ann is touring the world.  The press is following her every move.  Her royal handlers are carefully choreographing every event.  Her ever-present bodyguards are always present to make sure that no one gets too close to her.  In public, Ann is the epitome of royal discretion, smiling politely and always being careful to say exactly the right thing.  But, in private, Ann is restless.  Ann knows that she has never been allowed to see the real world and yearns to escape, if just for one night, and live a normal life.  So far, her handlers have managed to keep her under control but then she arrives in Rome and…

…well, who can resist Rome?

Despite having been given a sedative earlier, Ann stays awake long enough to sneak out of her hotel room and see the enchanting Rome night life.  Of course, the sedative does eventually kick in and she ends up falling asleep on a bench.  It’s there that she’s discovered by an American, a cynical reporter named Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck).  Not realizing who she is and, instead, assuming she’s just a tourist who has been overwhelmed by Rome, Joe allows her to spend the night at his apartment.

The next morning, Joe finds out who Ann actually is.  Realizing that getting an exclusive interview with Ann could be his ticket to the big time, Joe and his photographer, Irving (Eddie Albert), rush back to Joe’s apartment.  Joe doesn’t tell her that he’s a reporter.  He just offers to take her on a tour of Rome.  Ann, however, wants to experience Rome on her own.

What follows is a wonderful and romantic travelogue of the glory of Rome.  Though Ann does explore on her own for a while, she eventually does meet back up with Joe and Irving.  Whenever I watch Roman Holiday, I always try to put myself in the shoes of someone in 1953, sitting in the audience during the film’s first week of release.  For many of them, this film may have been their first chance to ever see Rome.  (The opening credits of Roman Holiday proudly announce that the entire film was shot on location, properly acknowledging the Rome is as much a star of this film as Hepburn, Peck, and Albert.)  If you’re not already in love with Rome (and I fell in love with the city — and really, the entire country of Italy — the summer after I graduated high school), you will be after watching Roman Holiday.

(If you truly want to have a wonderful double feature, follow-up Roman Holiday with La Dolce Vita.)

The film’s most famous scene occurs at the Mouth of Truth and… well, just watch…

This scene was improvised, on the spot, by Gregory Peck.  Audrey Hepburn’s scream was very much real as Peck didn’t tell her what he was planning on doing.  As great as this scene is, it’s even better after you’ve actually been to Rome and put your own hand in the Mouth of Truth.

It’s a very sweet movie, one that stands as both a tribute to romance but also proof of what pure movie star charisma can accomplish.  It’s not just that Audrey Hepburn gives a great performance as Princess Ann.  It’s that Gregory Peck gives one of his most natural and surprisingly playful performance as well.  It’s that Peck and Hepburn have an amazing chemistry.  By the end of the film, you know that they deserve Rome and Rome deserves them.

And then there’s that ending, that bittersweet ending that always brings tears my mismatched eyes.  It’s a sad (though not depressing) little ending but somehow, it’s also the only ending that would work.

Roman Holiday was nominated for best picture but it lost to From Here To Eternity.

That’s right — Roman Holiday and From Here To Eternity were released one after another.

1953 was a very good year.

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Cleaning Out The DVR #5: Around The World In 80 Days (dir by Michael Anderson)


Last night, as a part of my effort to clean out my DVR by watching and reviewing 38 movies in 10 days, I watched the 1956 Best Picture winner, Around The World In 80 Days.

Based on a novel by Jules Verne, Around The World In 80 Days announces, from the start, that it’s going to be a spectacle.  Before it even begins telling its story, it gives us a lengthy prologue in which Edward R. Murrow discusses the importance of the movies and Jules Verne.  He also shows and narrates footage from Georges Méliès’s A Trip To The Moon.  Seen today, the most interesting thing about the prologue (outside of A Trip To The Moon) is the fact that Edward R. Murrow comes across as being such a pompous windbag.  Take that, Goodnight and Good Luck.

Once we finally get done with Murrow assuring us that we’re about to see something incredibly important, we get down to the actual film.  In 1872, an English gentleman named Phileas Fogg (played by David Niven) goes to London’s Reform Club and announces that he can circumnavigate the globe in 80 days.  Four other members of the club bet him 20,000 pounds that he cannot.  Fogg takes them up on their wager and soon, he and his valet, Passepartout (Cantinflas) are racing across the world.

Around The World in 80 Days is basically a travelogue, following Fogg and Passepartout as they stop in various countries and have various Technicolor adventures.  If you’re looking for a serious examination of different cultures, this is not the film to watch.  Despite the pompousness of Murrow’s introduction, this is a pure adventure film and not meant to be taken as much more than pure entertainment.  When Fogg and Passepartout land in Spain, it means flamenco dancing and bullfighting.  When they travel to the U.S., it means cowboys and Indians.  When they stop off in India, it means that they have to rescue Princess Aouda (Shirley MacClaine!!!) from being sacrificed.  Aouda ends up joining them for the rest of their journey.

Also following them is Insepctor Fix (Robert Newton), who is convinced that Fogg is a bank robber.  Fix follows them across the world, just waiting for his chance to arrest Fogg and disrupt his race across the globe.

But it’s not just Inspector Fix who is on the look out for the world travelers.  Around The World In 80 Days is full of cameos, with every valet, sailor, policeman, and innocent bystander played by a celebrity.  (If the movie were made today, Kim Kardashian and Chelsea Handler would show up at the bullfight.)  I watch a lot of old movies so I recognized some of the star cameos.  For instance, it was impossible not to notice Marlene Dietrich hanging out in the old west saloon, Frank Sinatra playing piano or Peter Lorre wandering around the cruise ship.  But I have to admit that I missed quite a few of the cameos, much as how a viewer 60 years in the future probably wouldn’t recognize Kim K or Chelsea Handler in our hypothetical 2016 remake.  However, I could tell whenever someone famous showed up on screen because the camera would often linger on them and the celeb would often look straight at the audience with a “It’s me!” look on their face.

Around The World in 80 Days is usually dismissed as one of the lesser best picture winners and it’s true that it is an extremely long movie, one which doesn’t necessarily add up to much beyond David Niven, Cantinflas, and the celeb cameos.  But, while it may not be Oscar worthy, it is a likable movie.  David Niven is always fun to watch and he and Cantinflas have a nice rapport.  Shirley MacClaine is not exactly believable as an Indian princess but it’s still interesting to see her when she was young and just starting her film career.

Add to that, Around The World In 80 Days features Jose Greco in this scene:

Around The World In 80 Days may not rank with the greatest films ever made but it’s still an entertaining artifact of its time.  Whenever you sit through one of today’s multi-billion dollar cinematic spectacles, remember that you’re watching one of the descendants of Around The World In 80 Days.