A Plastic Bag Is Like a Melody
A shower of rose petals pours forth from Luise Rainer's bosom
And we're back! And we have two more Best Picture winners to tackle: MGM's lavish and lengthy The Great Ziegfeld, a mostly-biopic inevitably fashioned into an almost-musical from 1936, and DreamWorks' American Beauty, a satirical comedy married to a midlife-crisis drama making out with a rebels-without-a-cause youth pic going at least to third base with the digital effects department.
The movies were helmed respectively by Robert Z. Leonard (who didn't win Best Director) and Sam Mendes (who did), but creative control was a real team effort on both counts. Seymour Felix won an Oscar for his Dance Direction on Ziegfeld, as did Conrad L. Hall for his American Beauty cinematography, and I don't think either film's Best Picture victory is imaginable without these men's contributions. They are also emblematic of the splashy, tuneful, and expensive brand-naming that MGM was committed to reinforcing through the 1930s and of the "edgy," personal, unusual dramas that DreamWorks would become an in-house specialty in the late 1990s, even if they rarely delivered at this high level.
I'm interested off the bat, then, in what you guys think about the generic blends and creative points of view in these movies. And also in what they imply about why we tell stories about the people we do: is Florenz Ziegfeld worthy of a biopic outside of the excuse he offers for over-the-top production numbers (and don't you sort of wish there were more of these)? And what does The Passion of Lester Burnham have to say to American Beauty's unexpectedly massive audience? Does the film stay on a consistent message, or even agree with itself about what it's saying, or for whom, or why? Part of the attraction and also the frustration I feel for both movies stems from their shared tendency to be a little all over place.
NATHANIEL: I was thinking about this very topic (who gets bios and why?) the other day as I perused the National Gallery in D.C. For such an overstuffed genre with a veritably unlimited supply of source material, there sure is a distinctly limited set of protagonists. Ziegfeld is definitely one of the types: huge ego, massive dreams, big failures, epic influence on American entertainment. Oscar is a size queen but y'all knew that already.
Nathaniel tours the National Gallery in D.C.
Which is why the success of the smaller and more "personal" American Beauty is more fascinating to me as Oscar tales go. How did screenwriter Alan Ball's personal prejudices, pets, and demonsthat's the way I see it because this movie is nutty with specificsend up feeling so universal to moviegoers in 1999? Maybe the film should have been called American Neurosis, because boy, does it have issues. They're all visibly tangled up in your first question about the movie but I don't even know where to begin with the parsing.
Help me, Mike.
MIKE: I remember leaving the theater back in '99 so ecstatic about American Beauty that I was flabbergasted when a respected professor dismissed it as "a total male fantasy." How could she think that, when it was so sharply critical of the male fantasy that it was depicting? Seeing it again today, I don't think either of us was entirely right, because it's impossible to pin the film down on anything. What, exactly, is its point of view on any of the myriad "personal prejudices, pets, and demons" Nathaniel mentioned? It seems to genuinely love the very things it's tearing down, and genuinely hate the things it's holding up for praise, so in the end it's a huge, tangled, slippery ball of contradictions. Does it even understand when it's contradicting itself? Its only answer to this question seems to be a smirky "what do you think?" So in answer to your questions, I think it covered so many bases that audience members were almost bound to see something in it to identify with. The strength of that identificationthe accuracy of the blindfolded knife throwdetermines the amount of love people have for it.
I agree that The Great Ziegfeld wants its cake and wants to stage a huge dance number on it too, but it does it much less stealthily and stylishly. It wants Flo to be a rake and a cad, but a lovable one, but he ends up neither rakish nor caddish nor lovable enough. It wants to be a snazzy backstage showbiz film, but it doesn't have enough musical numbers, and the ones that were here were staged pretty shoddily, despite that Oscar for the enormous but utterly fucking boring "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody" numberhello, Oscar? Anything from Swing Time is better than this. (I'll tell ya, Busby Berkeley and Fred Astaire ruined 1930s musicals for me: if it doesn't have three hundred chorines stomping around in geometric patterns while wearing funny hats or two supernaturally gifted dancers flitting about an empty floor, I start to snooze, and all the numbers in Ziegfeld made me snore. But I digress.) It wants to be a Serious, Important biopic, but its rhythm is all wrongscenes last too long or feel perfunctory, characters are built up and then disappear without explanation, there's no way to tell how much time passes between scenes, etc. The terrifying thing is that this is NOT the nadir for Best Picture-winning biopics in the 1930s: next time around we have to watch The Life of Émi
Sorry, I nodded off just thinking about it. What were we talking about?
NICK: We were talking about how I can't wait to hear what Nathaniel thinks about American Beauty, given how swiftly he passed that hot potato, but maybe we should knock out Ziegfeld first. Over and above the other pseudo-musical that we've covered, The Broadway Melody (R.I.P. Anita Page, who died this weekend!), I'll at least give Ziegfeld credit for archiving a stage aesthetic that makes almost no sense to me, but which was enormously popular at the time, and in which the filmmakers do seem to take earnest and sustained pleasure, even if they can't always communicate that pleasure to us. All of those outfits shaped like feathery candelabras, and sequined spiderwomen, and giant cake-shaped rotating stages where no one does a whole lot while a mostly arbitrary song plays over top of them... It's all about the crazy-ass designs, and alternating slow and fast rhythms, and I like the bizarre creativity of that, even though The Great Ziegfeld is helpless at making distinctions between "good" tableaux and "bad" tableaux.
And though I agree with every single one of your criticisms, Mike, I do find Ray Bolger's tap routine pretty delightful (even though it only represents about 1/100th of this gargantuan movie's running time), and the plotline about the sozzled chorine Audrey at least dramatizes the trade-offs between beauty and tackiness that generally fight a losing battle elsewhere in the film. Luise Rainer's Oscar is as mysterious to me as the film's, but with Frank Morgan hamming so relentlessly, hers isn't even the most distractingly overcooked performance. As opposed to William Powell's, which is the most distractingly undercooked.
NATHANIEL: I'm guessing I can safely say that I enjoyed The Great Ziegfeld more than both of you. But I temper this enjoyment confession with the following disclaimers.
1. I'm a sucker for the song and dance. Kick a leg up here or there, throw in some showtunes properly sung. I'm good.
2. My finger did slip, accidentally jarring the fast-forward button on occasion. (That damn DVD remote is so tiny!)
3. I spent some of the running time fantasizing that I was watching Matthew Barney's Cremaster Cycle. There was so much white on white on white on white in Ziegfeld's tableaux that I half-expected the chorus girls to dissolve into big hunks of sculptural vaseline like the props that they were. And then maybe drip down the walls of the Guggenheim.
4. I watched it in seven hour-long sessions as opposed to all at once. In one of those sessions, all that happened was that the aforementioned wedding cake rotated 180 degrees. Unfortunately, Madonna did not descend from it in full Virgin regalia. In another I swear Luise Rainer changed her mind 180 times. Thrice each minute!
On the subject of Rainer's over cooking and Oscar eager dining on the same... I'm OK with it. I prefer well done (Rainer) to medium rare (Powell) if the subject is extravagant show people. Okay okay... I prefer overcooking even if the dish is stylized marital discord. Y'all know where I'm headed with this. If Mena Suvari gets to have rose petals exploding from her underage tomatoes, nobody better be throwin' tomatoes at my very ripe Annette Bening.
Tread carefully, boys.
NICK: Did it just get cold in here? I'm going to go get a sweater...
NATHANIEL: A sweater? Wouldn't you rather have the dresser fetch you a nice second-hand shawl for your Follies debut? If it's good enough for Fanny Brice...
MIKE: Speaking of that shawl, and sort of avoiding the Annette Bening issue for a moment, there was a nice instance of When Biopics Clash in TGZ, with its tale of how The Impeccable Flo takes Fanny's glam outfit away, understanding intuitively that she had to perform in Salvation Army wear instead of silk and lace. Thirty years later in Funny Girl, however, it's Brice who has to give Ziegfeld the business about how Fanny Brice should be presented to the public. The later depiction makes more sense to me, and maybe if I bothered to look it up it might turn out to be true, but it's interesting how the earlier film seems to maim history and my sense of what feels intuitively right in the service of establishing Flo as some sort of tarnished (but not too tarnished) god of the theater.
About The Bening: she gives by far the best performance in the film, and if a certain other woman hadn't delivered a certain other performance in 1999, Bening would get my Oscar vote. She's consistently sharp and funny, and her take on Ball and Mendes's take on Carolyn Burnham remains the most rewarding thing about re-watching the film.
(Can I throw in a "but" here?)
But it's a feat of intuition and skill that comes despite, not because of, the way the film sees Carolyn. I think she's the only place the film doesn't want to have it both ways: it thinks she's completely ridiculous, and it never changes its mind. It's ridiculous for her to want to protect her couch from beer spills, even though this comes right after we learn that Lester has purchased a classic car "because I wanted it." Why is materialism OK for him but not for her? Why is Lester's lust for his high school sweetheart presented so forgivingly"Laugh with us at this middle-aged guy's silly infatuation with this teenage git, this lovely, sweet, irresistible teenage git you all want to sleep with too"!but Carolyn's athletic romps with the King of Real Estate are total, unredeemed comic relief? But Bening is so awesome that she almost makes me forget all of this.
NICK: I have repeatedly used that car-to-couch sequence as a little nugget for teaching film analysis in my classes, because, as you say, you instantly catch American Beauty right in the act of its anti-woman double-standards. For extra perks, notice that costume designer Julie Weiss has outfitted Bening in a stiff steel-blue sheath dress so that when she sits, she looks exactly like one of those Italian-silk vertical stripes on her sofa. Lester wants his car, but she is her couch, and this, apparently, is the problem.
Even the fact that most of the other principalsSpacey, Bentley, Birch, Suvarigo naked at some point but Bening never does seems like a kind of built-in defense against ever "looking closer" at an adult woman without all the shrill editorializing.
I can't agree that Bening gives the best performance; my vote goes to Bentley, followed by Cooper, and then to Spacey (if only in his scenes with Bentley and Cooper). But I will say this, partially to bowl over Nathaniel: I do think she has two of the best line-readings"I must be PSYCHOTIC then!" and "We lived in a DUPLEX!"and I think she stars in the single best-acted scene of the movie, when she's tipsily asking to pick the brain of Buddy the Real Estate King. She's light and funny, and her voice loosens up; she works hilariously with those olives in her martini glass; and she shows us Carolyn "being herself" while also keeping up a strange set of pretenses. We can't tell if she's suppressing or exaggerating her drunkenness, and it's sad and humorous and poignant to watch her strategize. Much more interesting and believable than that grotesque house-cleaning plus self-slapping bit. I have never given this scene its proper due in teaching, writing, or thinking about the movie, and I'm glad to have a companion scene for crystallizing American Beauty at its best: capturing the absurdity, humor, cynicism, and sexuality of white upper-middle class suburbia without all the strenuous effects and acting tics that distract the film from itself as often as they help it.
So, can we play this game for a second? Say something about American Beauty that you've never said before in private or on your sites. What's the freshest thing you noticed or thought this time through the movie? And does it break in the movie's favor or against it?
NATHANIEL: I love to play games, but yours come with difficult rules.
The first two times I saw this film were during its release, and I was entirely focused on the three adult couples: the Burnhams (Bening & Spacey) for obvious film-carrying reasons, but the other two as well: that happy jogging gay couple whom we never get to know, and the uptight military couple who have rendered themselves unknowable.
The third time through (last week, nine long years later), I was focused on the teenagers. I ended up really angry that Wes Bentley's Ricky and Thora Birch's Jane so viciously reject Mena Suvari's Angela in the end. Previously there'd been this strange The Kids Are All Right vibe going on in the movie. (Grading on a curve, are we, Alan Ball?) But then the trio breaks up and Angela is condemned for her normalcy. Though, let's be honest here: what's more normal when you're a teenager than being moody (i.e. Jane) and feeling superior (i.e. Ricky)? I suddenly realized that Angela was going to grow up to be Carolyn. They're both sexual, slightly wild girls who have basically normal suburban values at heart. One of them is just 20 years older than the other. I still wonder why American Beauty thinks that growing up to be Carolyn is such a terrible terrible thing. Or at least why it thinks that's such a worse fate than growing up to be Lester.
NICK: Right, but one never grows up to be Lester, because then you would GROW UP. But I'm sure the movie doesn't want me thinking that. And in truth, in many scenes, the movie convinces me not to feel this stingy and conned, because it looks and sounds awfully delicious.
Sorry, Mike. I interrupted.
MIKE: Will I be graded on this assignment, other than by public opinion? OK, two things I noticed this time around. (1) A deeper connection between Ricky and Lester, in that they're both obsessed with not wanting to miss experiences. Lester's catching up on the ones he let slip by, and Ricky compulsively records everythingbecause he "has to remember" or however he puts it. Both tasks are pretty hopeless. Lester's not twentysomething anymore, and he'll never get that back even if he buys a dozen cars and sleeps with a dozen cheerleaders. Ricky isn't experiencing any of it: he has thousands of tapes, but how would he ever get the time to revisit them (aside from the plastic bag, of course)? He's documenting, but I think he's forgetting to live. (Editor's Note: Even when we coop up inside with all these Best Picture winners, we are in no way guilty of this same mistake.)
And (2) this movie is really, really hard on its women. Maybe this should have been more obvious to me the first time around. They're either shrill harridans (Bening) or soon-to-be so (Suvari) or stoned into submission (Janney) or basically unformed (Birch). Count 2 works against the movie, but I'm not sure about Count 1. It's interesting to see more parallels between those two, but it's one of those things the film doesn't really examine satisfactorily. Does American Beauty think that seeing everything through a video camera is unproblematic?
I'd like to throw in that I still like this movie quite a bit, just not as rapturously as I did when I first saw it.
NICK: About Ricky and his videos and whether the movie sees them as problematic: I remember laughing when my friend Lynn saw Road to Perdition, Mendes' Beauty follow-up, and in response to the Jude Law character, who's sort of a grotesquely criminal vision of Ricky, she said, "Maybe it's just Sam Mendes who likes to take pictures of dead people." Of course, Alan Ball obviously does, too.
I also still like the movie, even though repeat viewings don't seem to help it. (I discovered on this second viewing that I might also like The Great Ziegfeld more than it deserves, even though that's still not much.) You gotta give Beauty points for theatrical showmanship and for its various ambitions, however twisted up they seem to get. Andrew O'Hehir wrote this in Salon, and it sounds like we all agree, though I've never heard it put so succinctly:
"American Beauty accomplishes more in its incoherence than most Hollywood movies do in tidy, soulless success. It's remarkable that any movie that's so ambitious and angryand that treats ordinary American life so seriouslymade it through the mainstream production channels in the first place. Plenty of "independent" films aren't half this daring."
NATHANIEL: O'Hehir is a tough act to follow, curse you! But while I'm feeling resentful about his brevity and skill, I must concede that he's right... if a little generous, curse him!
Watching this again and discussing it with both of you I've realized that this movie makes me angry. I get angry with Alan Ball and Sam Mendes (and their respective surrogates, Lester and Ricky) for their inability to really see the women in their lives. They only have it in them to objectify or judge. I get angry that Lester is such a hypocrite and that the movie applauds that character trait. I get angry with Carolyn for shuttering her own joy with grudges and the inflexibility. I get angry with Janey for being so disdainful of her parents' admittedly pathetic outreach attempts. I get angry with Colonel Fitts because no one should do that to themselves or their families. I get angry with the cheap "Who shot L.B.?" red herrings. I get angry at the concluding voiceover epiphanies which don't make any narrative sense to me whatsoever. And yet... I like the movie. It makes me feel something (not always anger) in virtually every scene and that's, well, something. That's not normal.
Above all else it's highly watchableso much beauty. It wipes the floor with Ricky's plastic bag video.
Florenz Ziegfeld's famous Dance of the Plastic Bags
Help us out, readers. Is Beauty more than skin deep? Is it equal opportunity for every gender? Is Ziegfeld really Great, or is it a pioneering work in TackyVision? We'll look forward to your comments... Oh, and: will SOMEONE pass the asparagus??!
This Week: Nathaniel's killer fashion spread
Previously: ep.1: Wings & No Country; ep.2: Broadway Melody & Departed; ep.3: All Quiet & Crash; ep.4: Cimarron & Million Dollar Baby; ep.5: Grand Hotel & LOTR:ROTK; ep.6: Cavalcade & Chicago; ep.7: It Happened One Night & A Beautiful Mind; ep. 8: Mutiny on the Bounty & Gladiator