Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Best Pictures from the Outside In: '31/'04

How has this happened twice? Two installments ago in this Best Pictures series, I found myself in the strange position of defending The Broadway Melody, a mediocre movie at best, even in the context of its historical moment. This time, at least relative to my sparring partners, Nathaniel and Goatdog, I turn out to be the resident stumper for another mediocrity, Wesley Ruggles' Cimarron. From time to time, that movie slides from mediocrity to genuine atrocity, most consistently when Eugene Jackson's African American servant-child appears, or when first-class granite-faced windbag Richard Dix feels an oration coming on. But as you'll read, I still find some fleeting things to admire in Cimarron. Particularly, as with The Broadway Melody, I think the conclusion is more ambivalent and more interesting than my buddies do.

Speaking of ambivalent conclusions, you need to be really confident in the thematic trajectory and the emotional resonance of your movie to end it with a shot like this one—and whatever the lapses in Million Dollar Baby's on-the-nose dialogue or its slightly under-imagined performances, the movie has confidence, resonance, and grace to spare. I'm a sucker for a movie that doesn't just map a "style" onto its "story" or its "themes" but that emanates so fully from its edits and its images that you simply can't distinguish how it's made from what it means. One struggles to say the same of its fellow nominees and of most Best Picture nominees, but Million Dollar Baby, as I first tried to articulate in this full review from 2004, is just such a movie for me... for which reason it's my favorite Best Picture winner of the '00s so far.

Speaking broadly, and generously, one could say something analogous about Cimarron: its self-conscious sweep as a Western epic is what the movie's about. (The movie's tagline in 1931 was "TERRIFIC AS ALL CREATION!", which I'm sure we'd all dispute.) But "bigness" isn't much to go on as an objective correlative, especially when it leads to stodginess, distance, schizophrenia, and stolidity, as it often does in Cimarron. Sheer scale and financial reward are the only imaginable rationales for its victory; in a woeful twist of Oscar happenstance, a much better and more smartly ironic Edna Ferber adaptation, George Stevens' Giant, would lose the Best Picture Oscar in 1956 to a film that's even worse than Cimarron, and for similar reasons of sprawl and box-office success. August 1931 through July 1932, the eligibility period for these fourth Oscars, was a pretty fecund period for American movies, and it's too bad that Oscar missed the boat so badly. In this image, you can see that Richard Dix's Yancey Cravat is blithely, arrogantly riding in to the new town he will conquer, and lead, and lecture incessantly, but look at Irene Dunne's Sabra: she can see instantly that all of the new neighbors are Skippy fans, and Front Page fans, and City Lights fans, and Honor Among Lovers fans, and Other Men's Women fans, and Dracula fans, and Public Enemy fans, and, like me, Smart Money fans, and they want nothing doing with these Cravats, who should keep that unmerited Oscar packed up in that covered wagon and find someplace else to settle.

This Week: Nathaniel's transcript and Goatdog's amazing poster
Previously: ep.1: Wings & No Country; ep.2: Broadway Melody & Departed; ep.3: All Quiet & Crash

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Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

You're so brave to cast yourself as pompous floppy haired windbag Richard Dix. You're such a stronger orator than he, don't you kow?! don't sell yourself short.

i love everyone's comments on this one but mine. i'm rereading it and i'm like what the hell am i talking about. ha ha.

i imagine you won't be the lone champion of the next two movies though so you're safe.

6:52 AM, July 17, 2008  
Blogger Brian Darr said...

Smart Money is a terrific, undersung film, but when it comes to this Oscar year, count me a Morocco fan first and foremost.

1:39 AM, July 18, 2008  

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