Sunday, February 25, 2007

And the Winner Is...

By Mitchell

It’s Academy Awards time, and in honor of tonight’s ceremonies it seems like a good time to talk about movies.

You may remember a couple of weeks ago I mentioned in passing A Man for All Seasons, the Best Picture of 1966, a movie I’ve never been able to sit all the way through. Last night I caught it on TCM and was finally able to make it to the end. It was, needless to say, better than I had remembered, although I still think it treats the subject of St. Thomas More somewhat superficially and perfunctorily (notwithstanding a magnificent performance by Oscar-winner Paul Scofield). It was a good movie, perhaps even the best movie of that year, but not what I would consider a great one – put another way, it was not as good as it should have been. It lacked the warmth and humanity of Becket, the movie to which I compared it previously (qualities the real Thomas More apparently had in abundance); it also lacked the epic feel and length such a story deserves. Despite this, it still goes in my collection.

More disappointing was the pre-movie discussion by TCM’s resident expert, the usually reliable Robert Osborne, and Entertainment Weekly movie writer Dave Carter, TCM’s special guest for their Academy Awards marathon. Usually Osborne uses his pre-movie moment to discuss some aspect of the film we’re about to see, whether it be the performers, the backstory, a behind-the-scenes story, or the movie itself. This time Osborne and Carter chose to use A Man for All Seasons as jumping-off point for a discussion of two types of acting roles the Academy has always been infatuated with: real-life characters and British royalty – which is why Helen Mirren and Forrest Whitaker are such heavy favorites to walk off with the awards tonight.

There’s no doubt this is true, as any look at past Oscar winners confirms, but by lifting A Man for All Seasons from its historical context – the times from which the film was made – I think Osborne and Carter miss the more important analysis of the movie and its significance.

A Man for All Seasons appeared at the height of one of the Academy’s periodic British invasions. In this case, one need go no further than to look at the most acclaimed pictures of that decade – Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Tom Jones (1963), My Fair Lady and Becket (1964), Darling (1965), Alfie (along with A Man for All Seasons, 1966), The Lion in Winter and Oliver! (1968), The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Anne of the Thousand Days (1969). A lot of the actors and actresses nominated were British, too – Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, Sylvia Miles, Edith Evans, Rex Harrison, Albert Finney, Rachel Roberts, Richard Harris, the Redgrave family, Paul Scofield. British actors like Lawrence Harvey, Michael Caine and Peter Finch were big stars in American movies as well as British. And what with Masterpiece Theater on the horizon, there’s no missing the American infatuation with all things (and actors ) British.

In this context, it’s no wonder that A Man for All Seasons won (besides the fact that it is a good movie). It was a sign of Class and Importance to an Academy always looking to lend dignity to their work. Perhaps the movie still would have won if it had been about American politics (such as All the King’s Men), but to remove it from the context of the 60s British invasion, as Osborne and Carter did, is to miss an important part of the story.

Equally important is to keep it in the center of another important trend of 60s filmmaking – the Social Message picture. This seems like a given nowadays, and it’s always been a part of filmmaking (back to the patriotic – if not propagandistic – movies of the 30s and 40s). However, the 60s were prime territory for the Message Movie, and I think you sell A Man for All Seasons short if you don’t consider its place in that time.

A look again at other award-winning movies of the time bears this out – Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), Dr. Strangelove (1964), Ship of Fools (1965), In the Heat of the Night, Bonnie and Clyde, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) – even 1970’s Patton was originally subtitled Salute to a Rebel. These movies all had something Important to say, or at least thought they did.

Now, recall that one of the prime messages of this movie is the importance of conscience. Sir Thomas More serves his king loyally, but ultimately will not take an oath that places his king above his God, even though others have found ways to rationalize it. His conscience will not allow it, and in matters of State the conscience must ultimately prevail.

Now, transpose that scenario to the 60s, to a time in which the role of conscience is a major point in society, particularly as it relates to Vietnam. To resist the war – to evade the draft, flee to Canada, burn your card, protest in the streets – is treated as an act of conscience which the government cannot subsume. You can question whether or not these acts were those of well-formed consciences, but that’s not particularly germane to the present conversation. What is important is that A Man for All Seasons presents its conflict in stark terms that would have been instantly recognizable to anyone living in 1960s America, or most other places in the world. Whether or not Thomas More was ever abducted by the peace movement I don’t know, but clearly, you’re missing the cultural context of the times of this movie if you don’t take it into consideration.

It’s true that Osborne and Carter really were there to discuss this year’s nominees, using the films of the past as backdrop, but it demonstrates the dangers of taking something and distorting or reshaping it to fit something else entirely. Taken out of context, movies – like words, pictures and images – can be made to represent something other than what they actually are.

Granted, it’s fairly innocuous when talking about something as ultimately meaningless as the Academy Awards, but in doing so you also lose much of what’s interesting about these pictures and their times. It helps you understand the impact of a movie at a given time, why it was or was not a success, how it avoids or falls victim to becoming dated. It’s why cultural archaeology, which is what I like to think of myself as doing, is so much fun, and ultimately gives a great deal more texture and insight into the past – something we just might be able to make use of in the future.

* * * * *

Speaking of Academy Awards, here’s what we had to say about it a couple of years ago.

Here’s our good friend Badda Blogger and his take (although I have to take slight issue with him on The Departed, which I thought was clearly the best new picture of the past year).

And here’s a wonderful, not to mention prescient, comment from one of my favorite film critics, John Simon. Keep in mind that this was written prior to the 1967 show – 40 years ago:

[T]his year’s Oscar ceremonies themselves lasted two and a half hours, and may, in due time, last four, with a fifteen-minute intermission for dinner, taking a walk, or , if one happens to care about film, hanging oneself in despair.

Scary, isn’t it? I guess the message is to be careful what you joke about – it may just come true.


  1. If you take a film out of its cultural context is it still a great film or even a good film? Should a film just stand alone w/o all the cultural baggage?

    The film M*A*S*H leaps to mind. A huge hit in its day. It's usually considered one of the top "message" films. I enjoyed it back in my days of "Stick it to The Man!" Now, I, literally can't watch it. I find the characters and their attitudes insufferable.

    I think also of Mrs. Miniver which, I believe, was an Oscar winner. It is definitely a film of the WWII years. It has moments, but overall it serves as a propoganda piece: Keep your chin up! Be strong for your nation and your family!

    I can ONLY view those 2 films in relation to their cultural era but I can't appreciate them for what they are as a work of art. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I'm not sure.

  2. Cathy,

    That's a good question, and rather than try to answer it right now I'll just say that we're going to be exploring the relationship of art, politics, truth and context very shortly.

    But one preview I will offer is the question as to whether "political" art can in fact be considered art if it does not have staying power beyond its original contextual time. For example, Verdi's operas were very political, but because of their artistic value were able to become timeless - or, rather, exist outside the context of the times in which they were written.

    Stay tuned.



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