Tag Archives: Best Actress

Pre-Code Hollywood #2 – The Divorcee (1930)

The_Divorcee_posterThe Divorcee (1930)
Directed by: Robert Z. Leonard
Written by: Nick Grinde, Zelda Sears, John Meehan (based on Ex-Wife by Ursula Parrott)
Starring: Norma Shearer, Chester Morris, Conrad Nagel, Florence Eldridge, Robert Montgomery

Robert Z. Leonard’s film The Divorcee begins on a far more exciting note than 1929’s In Old Arizona (the first film in our marathon), setting a brisk pace and a progressive attitude that never lets up over its 80 minute run-time. The Best Picture nominee was developed primarily as a vehicle for Hollywood superstar Norma Shearer, who picked up an Oscar for Best Actress for playing Jerry, the film’s titular divorcee. The Divorcee opens with a party where love and passion is in the air and jealousies are running high, when suddenly that all comes to a halt with the jarring sounds of a car accident. From there, The Divorcee establishes its consistent tone and rather progressive attitude, imagining women as social and sexual equals to their male counterparts.

The Divorcee follows Jerry (Norma Shearer) and Ted (Chester Morris), a couple who have been married for three years. When Jerry discovers that Ted has been cheating on her, she decides to get even with her husband and sleeps with Ted’s good friend Don (Robert Montgomery). When Ted returns from a business trip, Jerry informs him that she’s “settled their accounts”, and an enraged Ted demands a divorce. From there, The Divorcee turns into a picture chock full of adultery and open sexuality, apparent alcoholism, and melodrama of the highest sort.
Melodrama has always been a major point of interest for me – there’s just something so inherently fascinating about watching the heightened romantic lives of exaggerated on-screen characters. The Divorcee is no different than many of the melodramas I’ve enjoyed in the past – its passions are exaggerated, the situations unlikely, and the consequences non-existent, which is probably what ultimately contributed to my overall enjoyment of it. Norma Shearer’s Oscar-winning turn as Jerry is terrific, showing off strength, wit, and independence in every scene of the film – even if some of her actions were questionable. The character of Jerry seems incredibly forward-thinking for 1930, long before the era of screwball comedies where women were believably verbally sparring with men. Her character feels like a living, breathing human being who has believable faults and lovable charms about her, something that the previous film in our marathon was sorely missing. The Divorcee intelligently tackles themes of adultery and human sexuality with a deft – if sometimes clumsy – hand, showing off a great deal of pre-code Hollywood goodness. On top of themes of sexuality and the sanctity of marriage is the rampant use of alcohol – which seems to appear in every major scene in the film. The film’s early accident scene is probably one of the first instances of drunk-driving on the big screen, another instance of progression in this exciting pre-code era. The script by Nick Ginde, Zelda Sears and John Meehan (based loosely on Ursula Parrott’s story Ex-Wife) asks the audience bold questions about infidelity, and paints a brief picture of a strong, modern woman getting even with the man who betrayed her. One of my major problems with The Divorcee is a side story involving Paul (Conrad Nagel) and Dorothy (Florence Eldridge), which only served to add to the film’s melodramatic nature and add some minutes to its runtime. While the side story in general is interesting, it just doesn’t feel natural to include it in what is already a fairly compelling and dramatic story of love gone bad. The film’s ending is another weak point, as it goes against the overall tone and message that I felt the writers and director were trying to portray. The whole experience just feels rather counterproductive in its last ten minutes, which is a damn shame.

The Divorcee is a strong, dramatic film from director Robert Z. Leonard. Its themes of sexuality, infidelity, and divorce were groundbreaking at the time, and hold up rather well all things considered. It’s a film that simply could not have been made in a post-Hays Code era, at least not on this scale. Norma Shearer’s Oscar-winning turn as Jerry is very strong, realistically portraying a strong, independent, free-thinking female protagonist. Overall, Leonard’s film is a mostly strong take on an all-too taboo subject – divorce. It falls apart slightly in its final minutes, and features some unnecessary plot elements, but the positives outweigh the negatives here. The Divorcee is worth seeing for its forward-thinking screenplay, its charming melodramatic nature, and for Shearer’s performance alone. It’s recommended.

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Top 100 Films #3 – Annie Hall (1977)


annie-hall#3. Annie Hall (1977)
Directed by: Woody Allen
Written by: Woody Allen, Marshall Brickman
Starring: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Tony Roberts, Carol Kane

Woody Allen is a writer-director who I’ve always revered – his incredibly amount of output and passion for the arts is a great source of inspiration for me as a writer and film enthusiast. Even when his films are bad or mediocre, there’s passion and heart to them. His 1977 film Annie Hall is arguably the greatest film he’s ever made, featuring a great love story, hilarious Woody Allen dialogue, and terrific performances. Annie Hall stars Woody Allen as Alvy Singer, a neurotic comedian reflecting on his relationship with Annie Hall (Diane Keaton), which we find out has ended a year ago. Alvy chronicles his childhood in New York, where he obsessed over the meaning of his existence, and was punished for his early sexual curiosity. Through a series of flashbacks, Alvy and Annie meet after a doubles tennis game with friends, and the two awkwardly hit it off. Things progress wonderfully until Annie moves in with Alvy, which creates tension in the relationship. The two eventually break up, date other people, and reconcile shortly after when Annie needs Alvy’s help with killing a spider in the middle of the night. Soon after their reconciliation, the relationship once again falls apart, this time permanently – both characters are glad to have loved one another, even if it wasn’t always filled with good times. Annie Hall is one of the most beloved romantic comedies in Hollywood history – it even beat Star Wars for Best Picture at the 1978 Academy Awards. The screenplay by Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman is highly intelligent and often morbidly hilarious, playing on Woody Allen’s fascinations with death, existence, and the creative process. Even through the script’s intellectual and neurotic nature, Allen and Brickman manage to create one of the most genuine and heartfelt romantic stories ever told on film – one that doesn’t just focus on the best moments in a relationship. The use of flashbacks and non-linear storytelling allows for Allen and Brickman to explore the past of Alvy Singer, including the failed marriages and relationships that have shaped his views on romance. Both Woody Allen and Diane Keaton shine throughout Annie Hall, carrying dramatic and comedic weight like no other on-screen pairing could. Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer is his usual highly neurotic and obsessive, but still confident and arrogant, self, while Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall is adorably goofy, strong-willed, and highly intelligent. The two had such obvious on-screen chemistry in their many collaborations, undoubtedly aided by their brief real life romantic relationship. Annie Hall is Woody Allen at his absolute funniest as a writer and a performer, somehow managing to make both Ingmar Bergman and holocaust documentary The Sorrow and the Pity humorous. The writing and storytelling feels personal and genuine, and the film’s ending feels groundbreaking for the time – not giving the audience the “fairy tale”-esque ending they might be asking for. Annie Hall is Woody Allen’s greatest achievement as a writer and director, and may even be the film where he finally found his voice. It’s hilarious, romantic, heartbreaking, genuine, and smart – everything a Woody Allen movie should be.

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Top 100 Films #22 – Fargo (1996)


fargo_033pyxurz#22. Fargo (1996)
Directed by: Joel Coen
Written by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Starring: Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Harve Presnell, Peter Stormare

Fargo is perhaps the most iconic film in the impressive and prolific filmography of the Coen Brothers, thanks in part to the film’s many quirky idiosyncrasies. Fargo follows Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) as a pregnant police chief investigating the killing of a local State Trooper.  The murder has occurred after the pre-arranged kidnapping of Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy)’s wife Jean. Lundegaard is in desperate need for money, and has arranged for his wife’s kidnapping in order to extort his father-in-law for a ransom.  The two men responsible for the kidnapping and the murder are Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare), who run a sloppy and uncoordinated operation. Their mistakes eventually lead Marge Gunderson straight to the source, complicating the extortion plot and leading to a series of betrayals and backfires.  Fargo is the Coen Brothers are their very best from a writing perspective – the complicated and unfortunate situation of William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard is immediately established, and his motivations made clear, the lack of chemistry between antagonists Carl and Gaear is shown, and the investigative prowess and critical thinking skills of police chief Marge Gunderson become clear in time.  Every character is perfectly written and realized, with every one of them having their own idiosyncrasies and ticks – most famously Marge’s thick Minnesotan accent and good-natured attitude, Jerry’s nervous, innocent, and immediately suspicious demeanor, and Carl’s nonstop motormouth.  Fargo has been made famous by the sheer quotability of its dialogue, most notably the amount of “oh yeah”’s featured – even twenty years later anybody who has seen the film can’t hear “oh yeah” without immediately associating it with this film.  Frances McDormand’s endearing Marge Gunderson is one of the great screen characters of the 1990’s, “oh yeah”-ing her way all the way to an Academy Award for Best Actress in 1997.  Frances McDormand’s Marge is unintentionally hilarious, tough as nails, and far more complex than she is initially portrayed as – her awkward and uncomfortable scene with Steve Park’s Mike Yanagita and her subsequent revelations about his lies is one of my all-time favorite movie moments.  The Coen Brothers’ hilarious and suspenseful crime film is the basis for the highly successful television show of the same name, which has almost managed to match Fargo in terms of quality and bizarreness.  If you’re a fan of the television series and have somehow managed to avoid the film, do yourself a favour and see Fargo as soon as possible – it’s one of the funniest, quirkiest, most unique movie experiences you’ll ever have.

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Women in Film Feature #8 – The Piano (1993)

The-piano-posterThe Piano (1993)
Directed by: Jane Campion
Written by: Jane Campion
Starring: Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel, Sam Niell, Anna Paquin

New Zealand born film director Jane Campion is one of only four women to ever be nominated for Best Director by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  With her incredibly successful film The Piano, she became the second woman ever nominated for the prize, nearly two decades after Lina Wertmuller’s nomination for her film Seven Beauties.  Campion also became the first female winner of the Cannes Film Festival’s prestigious Palme d’Or – a record that stood for two decades.  Her films have been praised for their quiet beauty, their adherence to realism, and for their use of gender-central themes and ideas.  While her career has not again reached the highs of The Piano, Campion’s latest work on the television show Top of the Lake has highly acclaimed, with a second season currently in the works.  Jane Campion’s achievements in the early 1990’s cannot be understated, as her success helped propel female directors like Sophia Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow to elite status in Hollywood, tremendous critical acclaim, and to their eventual Academy Award nominations.

Before her incredible success with 1993’s The Piano, Jane Campion saw critical acclaim with two independent features, 1989’s Sweetie, and 1990’s An Angel at My Table.  The Piano saw Campion working with a higher budget than ever before, with the film costing $7 million.  The film was an enormous financial success upon its release and critical acclaim, bringing in an incredible $140 million at the box office and later with rentals.  The Piano stars Holly Hunter as its lead character Ada McGrath, Anna Paquin as her daughter Flora, and Sam Neill and Harvey Keitel as the men competing for Ada’s love and affection.  For the role of Ada, director Jane Campion wanted Sigourney Weaver, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Isabelle Huppert.  Due to various scheduling conflicts with Weaver and Leigh, eventual star Holly Hunter was looked at and ended up fighting harder for the role than Huppert did.  The fighting paid off for Holly Hunter, as her incredible silent performance was rewarded with an Academy Award for Best Actress at the 1994 Oscars ceremony, earning her a great deal of acclaim and solidifying her as one of Hollywood’s greatest actresses of the period.  On top of Hunter’s Best Actress win, The Piano earned another acting award, this time a Best Supporting Actress award for Anna Paquin.  At just 11 years old, the win made Paquin the second youngest Oscar winner ever.  The film was nominated for 8 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, and Best Costume Design.  Campion herself picked up an award for Best Original Screenplay, but the film was beaten out in other major categories by Steven Spielberg’s seminal film Schindler’s List.  Jane Campion’s The Piano remains one of the most critically hailed films of the 1990’s, and stands as a modern triumph of what women can do with the medium when given equal opportunity to do so.


Ada McGrath, her daughter Flora, and the titular piano in Jane Campion’s 1993 film.

The Piano opens by explaining that a young, mute Scottish woman named Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter) has been sold by her father for marriage to a man in New Zealand by the name of Alisdair Stewart (Sam Niell).  Ada has not spoken a word since the age of six, and nobody knows exactly why.  Ada brings her daughter Flora (Anna Paquin) with her to New Zealand, along with her prized hand-crafted piano.  The young woman is seemingly only to express herself through the playing of this piano, and she spends much of her time learning and playing.  Once in New Zealand, the mother and daughter duo are taken in by Alisdair, who instructs his crew of Maori men to leave the piano on the beach, as it is far too heavy to carry all the way back to their new home.  Alisdair turns out to be not quite the gentle and charming husband Ada would have preferred, instead quickly becoming quite jealous and controlling over his new wife and daughter.  Ada gradually grows closer to Alisdair’s friend Baines (Harvey Keitel), who in turn purchases the piano and brings it up from the beach so that Ada can play when they are together.  Baines soon falls in love with the mute woman, setting off a chain of events between himself, Ada, and Alisdair and ensuring that none of them will ever be the same again.  Will true love prevail, or will the bitter jealousy of one man ruin things for all parties?  Find out in Jane Campion’s acclaimed The Piano.

Jane Campion’s The Piano was my first experience with her works, and I came out of the experience pleasantly surprised.  I have always wanted to see both Sweetie and An Angel at My Table because of their status as independent hits, and now I have more motivation than ever before to do so.  The Piano is such an incredibly memorable experience in many ways, including some truly incredible performances, terrific direction from Campion, and breathtaking photography by cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh.  The film manages to tell a truly powerful story without ever having its lead character speak, and without sinking into melodramatic territory, which happens too often in stories of love triangles and forbidden romance.  Jane Campion deserves a great deal of credit for her subtle but effective screenplay, which treats every character as a flawed human being, never romanticizing or villainizing any one character no matter how easy it may be to do so.  Campion’s writing never goes for the “easy” win, and instead she opts to take a much more treacherous path in making the audience feel for the character in The Piano.  Campion’s writing and direction can also be credited in aiding the entire cast in delivering highly memorable performances, even earning two Oscars in the process.  Holly Hunter’s silent and moody performance as Ada is one I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forget, as she conveys so much without ever saying a word.  Hunter’s dark eyes do all of the speaking for her, telling the audience more in one glance than many actresses could in an entire monologue. Holly Hunter’s Ada is both passionate and reserved, and the audience can always feel the emotional tug-of-war that is trying to drag her into the mud.  The supporting cast of Anna Paquin, Sam Neill, and Harvey Keitel all give tremendous performances in their own right, but are all eclipsed by Hunter’s hauntingly beautiful portrayal of Ada McGrath.  While The Piano can seem slow and dreary at times, there don’t seem to be many wasted moments in the film’s run-time.  Every scene feels like it has a place in either setting the atmosphere of our New Zealand location, establishing the motivations and drives of our cast of characters, or moving the central story forward.  What starts as a relatively mundane costume drama eventually turns into a fiery, brooding story of one woman’s awakening.  Had Campion kept the script’s tragic original ending, the film would have received an even more positive reaction from me.  It’s a shame that it was released the same year as Schindler’s List, because Jane Campion’s The Piano would otherwise fall very neatly into the canon of terrific and important Best Picture winners.


Flora (Anna Paquin) and Ada (Holly Hunter), the mother-daughter duo in Jane Campion’s The Piano.

While its slow-moving nature may turn off some potential viewers, there’s absolutely no denying the power and importance of Jane Campion’s 1993 romantic drama.  The Piano features too many incredible elements to be forgotten by critics or audiences, including a career-best performance by Holly Hunter, a solid cast of young and veteran supporting performers, tremendous writing and direction from Jane Campion, and rich, dark cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh.  While the idea of a forbidden love triangle may not immediately set your world on fire, the film’s tragic and triumphant story of an independent young woman finding strength and motivation to escape from a toxic situation should be more than enough to arouse your interest.  Jane Campion’s The Piano is easily one of the best films of the 1990’s, and a landmark moment for women in film.  It’s highly recommended.

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Women in Film Feature #7 – Sophie’s Choice (1982)

Sophie's_Choice1Sophie’s Choice (1982)
Directed by: Alan J. Pakula
Written by: Alan J. Pakula (Based on Sophie’s Choice by William Styron)
Starring: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Peter MacNicol, Rita Karin

Since her early acting days in the 1970’s, American actress Meryl Streep has been widely regarded as being one of the best and most influential actresses of our time.  The incredibly prolific Streep has made a career of taking challenging and diverse roles, developing a wide variety of accents, eccentricities, and many personality traits.  These varied roles have led Meryl Streep to being one of the most decorated actresses in Hollywood history.  She currently holds three Academy Award wins (once for Best Supporting Actress, and twice for Best Actress), and was nominated for a further sixteen.  Her nineteen career Academy Award nominations makes Streep far and away the most nominated screen actor in history.  Streep’s most famous films include The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Silkwood, Out of Africa, A Cry in the Dark, The Devil Wears Prada, and Doubt.  The acclaimed actress has also been heavily involved with the National Women’s History Museum, serving as their spokesperson and even donating millions of dollars towards the cause.  She has served as a hero and role model to millions for nearly forty years, and continues to be a tremendous influence on and off the silver screen.

Sophie’s Choice marked the second career Academy Award win for lead actress Meryl Streep, and her first win for Best Actress in a Leading Role.  It’s one of the projects that propelled the actress into mainstream popularity, and furthered the acclaim she had already received for being a “chameleon”.  Based on the highly acclaimed novel of the same name by writer William Styron, Sophie’s Choice blends a coming-of-age story and romantic drama with tragic elements revolving around World War II and the survival of the Holocaust.  The film was directed by the famed Alan J. Pakula, who had produced the big screen adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, and directed the critically acclaimed “paranoia trilogy” of Klute, The Parallax View, and Best Picture nominated All the President’s Men. Sophie’s Choice stars Meryl Streep as the titular Sophie, as well as Kevin Kline in his big screen debut, and Peter MacNicol.  The film was a tremendous box office success, more than tripling its budget of $9 million.  Pakula’s drama was also a critical hit, topping Roger Ebert’s 1982 year end list, and earning five Academy Award nominations including Best Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, and Best Adapted Screenplay.  Meryl Streep took home the movie’s only Oscar statuette, and officially cemented herself as one of the most successful performers in Hollywood.


Peter MacNicol, Meryl Streep, and Kevin Kline in 1982’s Oscar-winning Sophie’s Choice.

The film is narrated by the character of Stingo (Peter MacNicol on screen, Josef Sommer in narrated scenes), a young writer who settles in Brooklyn after finishing his schooling.  Stingo befriends the explosive couple of Sophie Zawistowski (Meryl Streep), a Polish immigrant, and Nathan Landau (Kevin Kline), a highly unstable pharmaceutical researcher.  It is revealed that Sophie is a survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp, and that Nathan had helped to ease her post-war transition and nursed her back to good health upon meeting. Nathan grows increasingly jealous and paranoid towards Stingo and Sophie, despite having no evidence to prove that the two are carrying on an affair.  His paranoia causes him to lash out at her in abusive and harassing ways, and has him constantly coming into and leaving Sophie’s life.  Sophie’s past is shown through a series of flashbacks; her father sympathized with the Nazis, while her lover led the Resistance movement against the German’s.  Sophie fears that this knowledge will fall into the wrong hands, and fears for the lives of her young children. Eventually Sophie’s lover is murdered, and her and her children are taken away by the Gestapo.  She is soon made to make an impossible decision that will change her life forever.  Meanwhile in real time, Stingo makes startling revelations about Nathan that furthers his distrust of the wildly eccentric man. To find out whether Sophie’s Choice ends on a positive or a tragic note, you’ll have to watch the film for yourself.

Sophie’s Choice is a film that I’ve been struggling with for more than a week now as I write this.  I have known of its legacy for years, but only brought myself to see it for the sake of the Women in Film marathon.  Its reputation for being incredibly sad and tragic is well-earned, but the amount of critical and audience acclaim for the movie that I’ve read seems pretty unbelievable.  My main gripe lays in the actually storytelling of the film, especially in its heavy reliance on flashbacks.  We learn a great deal about the character of Sophie through these flashbacks, and while they are often very moving and effective, they do little to actually move the plot or connect themselves with the actual narrative of the film. Sophie’s “choice” seems almost inconsequential by the end of the film, because it’s almost completely overshadowed between her struggle to choose between the two men who love her dearly (or worship her, in Stingo’s case).  The use of the Holocaust almost seems exploitative in many moments, especially towards the end of the flashback scenes.  We never spend any significant amount of time with Sophie’s wartime family, so none of it ever has any weight or gravity to it. Instead of caring about these heartbreaking events unfolding before my eyes, I was left scratching my head about why the scenes were even here in the first place.  Especially confusing is the emphasis on Stingo’s coming-of-age in the story, which clashes with the film’s tragic elements on every level and serves to further trivialize the film’s Holocaust subplot.  The writing and structure of Sophie’s Choice is unfortunately the worst element, and in a 2 ½ hour film, that most definitely matters a great deal.  All gripes aside, I have to admit that the acting in the film is incredible, and Meryl Streep’s performance as Sophie is absolutely phenomenal – quite possibly the best performance of the marathon up to this point.  Streep is almost unrecognizable at times, especially in flashbacks where Sophie is suffering from anemia after her liberation from the concentration camp.  She constantly seems meek and uncertain, especially when dealing with Nathan’s outbursts.  Meryl Streep’s Polish accent remains believable and consistent throughout, never mysteriously fading away as some “accents” tend to.  Complimenting Streep’s performance is the scene stealing Kevin Kline in his movie debut.  Though it’s only a supporting role, Kline does what he does best and chews the scenery in every scene he appears in.  His manic and unstable nature is completely believable, and you’re constantly wondering when his next outburst may come.  Sophie’s Choice is competently directed by a veteran of the game, who treats the film’s tragic subplot with a great deal of respect and level headedness.  While it’s not a flashy film, Pakula’s slow and steady direction mixed with rich and gorgeous cinematography by Nestor Almendros, helps to create a realistic atmosphere that is perfect for the time period the film takes place during.


Sophie (Meryl Streep) and Nathan (Kevin Kline) in Alan J. Pakula’s Sophie’s Choice.

Unfortunately for all those involved in the making of Sophie’s Choice, great acting and solid direction can’t make up for a highly confused and aimless screenplay.  While the dialogue is never bad or wasted, the film’s melodramatic treatment of the Holocaust as a story element and its subsequent focus on a coming-of-age love story just feels insulting.  Any elements of the film that would affect viewers in any way seem superficial because of the lack of actual substance to the film’s seemingly important subplot.  Sophie’s Choice feels like two great films that were sloppily edited into one mediocre one.  Fortunately, when the film gets something right, it gets it very right. Sophie’s Choice features an absolutely incredible and award-winning performance by a young chameleon Meryl Streep, and a fun supporting turn from breakout actor Kevin Kline.  We can thank it for its furthering of Meryl Streep’s acting career, but I fail to see any other reason why we’re still talking about it more than thirty years later.  Much to my disappointment, I must urge readers to view at your own discretion.

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Women in Film Feature #5 – Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

breakfast-at-tiffany-sBreakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)
Directed by: Blake Edwards
Written by: George Axelrod (Based on Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote)
Starring: Audrey Hepburn, George Peppard, Patricia Neal, Buddy Ebsen, Mickey Rooney

Audrey Hepburn has the distinction of being one of the most instantly recognizable film actresses in the history of the medium.  Hepburn (no relation to Katharine) was associated with beauty, elegance, and class during Hollywood’s Golden Age, and is still remembered for those qualities today.  The Brussels-born actress starred in some of the biggest and most acclaimed movies of the 1950’s and 1960’s, being nominated for Best Actress at the Academy Awards five times, picking up the win once – for Roman Holiday in 1954.  Though her acting career did not have the longevity of her contemporaries, Audrey Hepburn made incredible contributions to the world in other ways.  Her humanitarian work with UNICEF throughout the late 1980’s and until her death in 1993 saw the actress travel around the world to spread the word and lend a helping hand.  She had UNICEF missions to Ethiopia, Turkey, Central America, Vietnam, and many more countries dealing with natural disasters, widespread poverty, and malnourishment.  Hepburn’s humanitarian efforts were recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences soon after her death, as they honored her with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in March of 1993. Hepburn’s legacy as a loving and caring humanitarian and an incredible actress of stage and screen have ensured her place in the history of Hollywood films. Her most famous movies include Best Picture winning My Fair Lady, Billy Wilder’s Sabrina, William Wyler’s Roman Holiday, Stanley Donen’s Charade, and Fred Zinnemann’s The Nun’s Story.

One of the most famous women in film of all-time in what is widely considered to be her trademark role, Audrey Hepburn took the world by storm in 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and her influence is still being felt today.  Director Blake Edwards, the mind behind The Pink Panther series starring comedic genius Peter Sellers, created what would prove to be arguably his biggest mainstream hit with the Audrey Hepburn vehicle.  Loosely based on a novella by the famous and highly acclaimed Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s was praised by critics and audiences for being a funny, modern, stylish, and incredibly romantic picture that transcended the famous melodramas of the 1940’s and 50’s.  Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly would go on to become one of the most iconic characters in the history of the medium, mostly due to her bizarre lifestyle and attitudes towards modern city life, her impeccable style choices, and the air of sophistication she gives off throughout the film.  The film’s beautiful score by composer Henry Mancini is instantly recognizable, and his song “Moon River” still sounds as wonderful as ever, even more than fifty years later. Mancini took home two Oscars for his compositions in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, one for Best Original Song for the aforementioned “Moon River”, and the other for Best Music.  The film was also nominated for Best Actress (Audrey Hepburn), Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Art Direction – Color, but ultimately lost all three nominations. Breakfast at Tiffany’s went through something of a reexamination through the 1980’s and 90’s, and the “yellow-face” performance of the notorious Mr. Yunioshi by Mickey Rooney has faced a great deal of criticisms.  The character and its portrayal are regarded as perhaps the biggest detractors of an otherwise timeless modern classic. Other than some of the troubling racism found throughout, the film has endured the test of time, and Holly Golightly’s influence on fashion can still be found in mainstream culture today.


Audrey Hepburn as the iconic Holly Golightly in 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s begins with the young and seemingly wild Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) returning home from a disastrous night on the town in New York City.  She is later awoken by her new neighbour, Paul Varjak (George Peppard), who uses her apartment to use the telephone.  The two neighbors become acquainted as Holly readies for her weekly trip to Sing Sing prison, where she regularly visits accused mobster Sally Tomato (Alan Reed).  Holly’s visits are paid for by Tomato’s lawyer, as long as she delivers the “weather report” given to her by Tomato.  One night while trying to elude a much too eager man, Holly climbs into Paul’s window through the fire escape and the two fall asleep together.  They’re woken up when Holly has nightmares about her brother Fred, who is currently in the US Army.  The two become closer, and Holly inspires Paul, an out of work writer, to begin working on his passion again.  Paul eventually meets Doc Golightly (Buddy Ebsen), and finds out that Holly’s name is actually Lula Mae Barnes, and that she and Doc were married when she was just 13 years old.  Holly eventually tells Doc that she won’t be returning home with him, and instead decides to marry Rusty Trawler (Stanley Adams), who is the “ninth richest man in America under 50”, for his money.  Soon enough, Holly finds out that Rusty has married somebody else instead, and Paul takes her out for a day of things that neither has ever done before.  Will the eccentric and elegant Manhattan socialite go with her heart and settle down with the man of her dreams, or will she go with her instincts and run away to something less complicated?  Find out in Blake Edwards’ timeless classic Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Though I initially wasn’t sold by Blake Edwards’ colorful, silly, and sentimental Breakfast at Tiffany’s, it very quickly won me over with its effortless charm and excellent lead performance.  It’s easy to see why the film has been so incredibly influential on both film and popular culture as a whole in the years since its release, as it feels so very modern.  Audrey Hepburn’s performance as the delightfully frustrating Holly Golightly is without a doubt the highly of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and most critics seem to agree with this sentiment.  The simple country girl turned elegant socialite is an age-old tale told time and time again, but Hepburn really brings both aspects of the character to life in her best moments.  She’s entirely believable as a free-spirited dreamer who does everything at a whim, never settling for anything or anybody. Hepburn’s performance is the solid foundation of what becomes a truly touching and wonderfully fun picture, and I doubt any actresses of the time could have had the same effect.  Breakfast at Tiffany’s completely sold me on an actress I wasn’t too sure about beforehand, and now I fully understand why she has had such a terrific influence on American pop culture.  Starring beside her is George Peppard as Paul Varjak, who despite not being great in the role, is perfect as a mostly silent and charming witness to the eccentricities and zaniness that comes from Holly Golightly. Hepburn’s real co-star comes in the form of a small, furry, and entirely lovable cat, known simply as “Cat”.  If it weren’t for Cat, the film’s final act would be without the drama and heartbreak that makes it truly standout. The movie features bright and vivid photography from Franz Planer, who makes every scene in Breakfast at Tiffany’s pop off the screen and make it feel as if it were shot just last year.  Also behind the camera is director Blake Edwards, whose success with this film would lead him to excellent and highly influential projects like The Pink Panther series, The Party, and Days of Wine and Roses. The direction by Edwards is never overly energetic or distracting, and instead serves as a nice counterweight to the energy brought to the film by Hepburn’s performance.  It’s never flashy or remarkable, but it serves its purpose and has an excuse for its normalcy.  And of course how could any review of Breakfast at Tiffany’s be without a nod to Henry Mancini’s incredibly romantic score. I’ve been humming and singing “Moon River” in its many forms to myself all week long, and I couldn’t be happier about it.  His score adds weight and drama to the film’s more romantic scenes, and never sticks out as being obnoxious or overplayed.  It all just feels so right.


Holly Golighty (Audrey Hepburn) and Paul Varjak (George Peppard) in Blake Edwards’ Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s has so much going for it that it’s impossible not to acknowledge its massive influence on pop culture and modern films.  Audrey Hepburn is absolutely delightful as Holly Golightly, despite my not always agreeing with her choices or actually liking her as a character.  She’s never annoying or unbelievable, she’s just a modern woman trying her absolute best to find herself.  The film is important in many regards, and will live on in the history books forever because of its many terrific elements.  Its beautiful score and photography, subtle and unpretentious direction, and excellent performances have carved out its incredible legacy in the mainstream. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a beloved classic for a reason, and it comes highly recommended from me.

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Women in Film Feature #4 – To Each His Own (1946)

apv6i8xcTo Each His Own (1946)
Directed by: Mitchell Leisen
Written by: Charles Brackett, Jacques Thery, Dodie Smith
Starring: Olivia de Havilland, Mary Anderson, John Lund

The great Olivia de Havilland is perhaps one of the most under-appreciated actresses of her time, as her name is very rarely thrown around with contemporaries like Hepburn, Bergman, Davis, Stanwyck, and Bacall.  She was not somebody I was overly familiar with before selecting one of her most acclaimed roles as a feature, but I sure am glad I chose her over many of my other options.  Olivia de Havilland is a two-time Oscar winner, and currently stands as the oldest living actor to have won a prestigious Academy Award.  The younger sister of fellow actress Joan Fontaine, Olivia got her start in industry working side-by-side with Errol Flynn, one of the biggest male stars in the early days of sound films.  From there, she featured prominently in a supporting role in Gone with the Wind, being nominated for her very first Academy Award.  Though she is known best for her roles in romantic melodramas of the era, her range as an actress led her to be nominated for a total of five Oscars, as well as a host of other awards and honors. This is most evident in Anatole Litvak’s 1948 drama The Snake Pit, where de Havilland plays a woman in an insane asylum who can’t remember why and how she got there.  Her tumultuous relationship with sister Joan Fontaine would have fans debating for decades over which was the best of the siblings.  Whatever the answer may be, the talented sisters remain the only siblings in history to have both won Academy Awards for leading roles.

By the time Olivia de Havilland would star in the acclaimed To Each His Own in 1946, she was already a bonafide star in the industry and would be at the top of her game for the next decade.  Director Mitchell Leisen had worked with the stunning actress just five years before, in Hold Back the Dawn; which saw multiple Oscar nominations and would give the young de Havilland her first nod for the Leading Actress award. The prolific director had nearly fifty directing credits to his name by the end of his career, and had worked with great actresses like sister Joan Fontaine, Carole Lombard, Jean Arthur, Marlene Dietrich, and Claudette Colbert.  Despite working with some of the industry’s very best, his biggest successes seem to have come in early collaborations with Olivia de Havilland in the starring role.  Legendary screenwriter Charles Brackett (of Ninotchka, Ball of Fire, The Lost Weekend, and Sunset Boulevard fame) both wrote and produced To Each His Own, adding his impressive reputation to melodrama.  As such, the picture was nominated for Best Writing at the Oscars, and Brackett’s screenplay helped Olivia de Havilland take home her first major acting award.  Today, To Each His Own is woefully ignored and overlooked among film enthusiasts, and is mostly relevant for being one of de Havilland’s greatest roles and performances.  The film’s highly melodramatic nature mixed with a very strong female lead character and a positive message at its core shows that the film is still highly relevant (if slightly dated and on the nose) today, and is ripe for potential of being rediscovered by a whole new generations of moviegoers.


Olivia de Havilland as Judy Norris tending her father’s hometown shop in 1946’s To Each His Own.

To Each His Own begins with Judy Norris (Olivia de Havilland), an aging fire warden in World War II era London, recounting her life story to her colleague Lord Desham (Roland Culver) during a down period for the two.  Through a series of flashbacks, we see young Judy as she lives her life in her small hometown of Piersen Falls.  She is very popular among the locals because of her idealistic and kind-mannered nature, and has the eye of multiple bachelors in town.  Uninterested in any of the townspeople, Judy falls in love with a pilot named Captain Bart Cosgrove (John Lund) who flies into Piersen Falls to promote the purchase of war bonds.  The two share a single night together, and Captain Cosgrove flies off to another town.  Soon, Judy finds out that she is pregnant with Cosgrove’s child, and that she may require a life-saving operation that would result in her losing the child.  After hearing of the untimely death of Captain Cosgrove, Judy changes her mind about the operation and decides to have the baby on her own, without the knowledge of the townspeople.  In order to keep her reputation as a stand up citizen in her hometown, Judy decides to leave her baby on the doorstep of a friend with multiple, who would “find” the baby and offer it to Judy because another child would just be too much. Unfortunately for Judy, the baby is given up for adoption after a series of unfortunate events to a couple who have just lost their own young child.  Judy pledges her entire life to reuniting with her young child, now known as Gregory or “Griggsy”.  She does this by aiding Griggsy’s adoptive mother with the young child, and constantly checking in on the family.  After some tension between the women, Judy is forbidden from seeing the young boy and moves out of Piersen Falls to start anew.  Will Judy Norris ever reunite with her son, or will the boy grow up and never recognize that he in fact has two loving mothers in his life? Find out in Mitchell Leisen’s Academy Award winning To Each His Own!

Being able to discover great new films is my absolute favourite part of doing these spotlights, especially since I always make a point of only seeking out unseen films. To Each His Own might be one of my favourite discoveries yet, especially since it’s something I went into with literally no expectations at all.  Olivia de Havilland was an absolute revelation, and I can’t believe I hadn’t seen her in a starring role until this film.  She brings so much power and grace to the character of Judy Norris, who is quite possibly one of the all-time great mothers in film. Her performance never feels cheap or too melodramatic, and instead oozes hope and idealism.  She never bows down to a male character who isn’t her own son, which is another thing I absolutely loved to see in a film from this time.  The direction by Mitchell Leisen isn’t anything to phone home about, but he obviously knew how to command one hell of a performance out of Olivia de Havilland and the rest of the supporting cast, most of whom give good or at least passable performances.  The other shining light of To Each His Own is its Charles Brackett-penned screenplay, which packs tremendous emotional punches over and over again, but also isn’t afraid to insert some clever humor here and there. These comedic moments come mostly from small supporting players (often children) throughout, and helps to ease the tension the audience feels by watching a loving mother come so close to her own child, yet never manage to get the necessary words out to him.  The film moves at a great pace, not getting to Judy’s brief romance with Captain Cosgrove until more than twenty minutes in. We get a feeling for the town of Piersen Falls and the people who live within, and best of all get to spend some quality time really getting to know Judy Norris and her motivations as a character.  Things really speed up when Judy leaves her hometown for greener pastures, seeing her run her own small business empire with the help of a friend wonderfully played by Bill Goodwin.  To Each His Own never lingers for too long, yet always manages to remind you as a viewer what is really at stake with all of Judy’s successes.


Olivia de Havilland accepting her Oscar for Best Actress from presenter Ray Milland at the 1947 Academy Awards.

It’s really too bad that To Each His Own has been so overlooked for such a long time now.  While it doesn’t reinvent the wheel in any way, there’s a lot about it to really admire and fall in love with.  Its melodrama feels realistic and mostly deserved, feeling more like the more subtle work of the great Douglas Sirk than your typical Oscar fare of the time.  It features a truly incredible performance by Olivia de Havilland, who plays a strong and loving mother who never lets anybody get in the way of her relationship with her son.  It’s incredibly progressive and despite aging quite a lot in some ways, still feels pretty relevant today.  It allowed de Havilland to really show off her skills as a leading lady, and led to her taking far more interesting and successful roles in the coming years. The film features a sharp screenplay with little to no wasted time, and the two hour run-time goes by almost too quickly.  To Each His Own had me in tears when the credits rolled, something I can’t say for many of the movies I’ve reviewed here on my blog.  While it’s certainly not perfect, it managed to easily worm its way into my heart.  To Each His Own is highly recommended.  

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