LIFE WITHOUT OSCAR: 1963 and 1964

Posted by · 4:42 pm · July 28th, 2010

Catch up with the idea behind this series here.

The Beatles weren’t the only British invasion happening around 1963 as “Tom Jones” took the big prize at the Academy Awards and British talent racked up no less than 9 of the 20 acting nominations. It also became one of the few comedies to win, slaying proud heavyweights like “Cleopatra” in the process.

Also worth mentioning is Sidney Poitier’s historic Best Actor win for “Lilies of the Field.” Normal business resumed the following year as the lavish musical, “My Fair Lady” swept the board, although Julie Andrews got a bit of sweet revenge by stealing the Best Actress award away from Audrey Hepburn, who was cast in the role Andrews made famous on stage.

Not winning an Oscar that year? You guessed it, Peter O’Toole. And maybe the biggest snub in Oscar history occured when none of the songs from “A Hard Day’s Night,” including the title number received a nomination for Best Song. Nice job Academy, it’s only The Beatles.

1963 – “Contempt” (Jean-Luc Godard)

Mr. Godard. One of the most prolific filmmakers of all-time, still churning out titles today, and arguably one of the most respected and influential in the history of cinema. The Academy thinks differently though, and has yet to see it fit to nominate the man or his films for a single Oscar. Not even in Best Foreign Language Film. Anyone else with a brain and a pair of eyeballs knows his filmography includes any number of masterpieces that could land on this column.

One of the pillars of the New Wave movement was the reflexive nature of the filmmaking and nobody enjoyed breaking the fourth wall more than Godard, but he took it to another level with “Contempt.” Fritz Lang appears as himself, Jack Palance plays a scrupulous Hollywood producer and Michel Piccoli is the writer brought in to spruce up their big budget adaptation of “Ulysses.” A stunning, 28-year-old Brigitte Bardot is the fly in the ointment.

Godard was only three years into his feature filmmaking career and “Contempt” represents both his ambitions to raise his game and his frustrations with the way that studios demeaned those ambitions with interference and insistence on the bottom line. One famous anecdote has the actual producers of the film furious with Godard for making a film with Bardot but not including any nudity. Forced to add one, he shot the opening sequence but used obtrusive color filters over the lens. As a practical look at the process of inter-continental, big budget studio politics, it’s fascinating.

But of course, the real meat of the story is between a man and a woman. Jealousy, suspicion, hurt and anger lead to contempt as the relationship between Piccoli and Bardot breaks down. The film dives head first into their collapse in an uncompromising sequence that pans around a seaside apartment as the couple fights, rarely framing the two lovers in the same shot. The nuance of the camerawork is truly stunning and is what melts my geek brain the way Joseph Gordon-Levitt fighting somebody in zero gravity does for other readers.

The performances are all excellent, with Piccoli in particular putting in an impressive shift in his first major role. Bardot was already a huge star and it’s not hard to see why, while Palance provides a nice reminder that he had quite a healthy career before primarily becoming known as the old guy from the Billy Crystal movie who did one-armed push-ups at the Oscars.

There’s so much more that merits mention, from Godard’s subversive first use of cinemascope (majestic in that aforementioned apartment sequence) to the saturation of primary colors. Godard and Charlie Kaufman are maybe the only two filmmakers who can turn a story about their ambitions failing into an ambitious success.

1964 – “I Am Cuba” (Mikhail Kalatozov)

Nearly two and a half hours of plotless propaganda, “I Am Cuba” is an unlikely candidate for a list of the greatest films of all time. When your two and a half hour plotless propaganda film contains as much striking imagery, technical innovation and powerful thematic undercurrent as Kalatozov’s, then it becomes a little less unlikely.

The technical innovation is what first stands out, with many sequences showcasing unprecedented camera movements that follow characters around for what seem like endless takes. One early example starts on the roof of a hotel, seemingly descends down the side of the building, catches up with a hot lass in a bikini as she slowly walks into the pool and the camera submerges into the water behind her. Paul Thomas Anderson directly lifted the shot in “Boogie Nights.”

Another eye-popping sequence shows a mass procession in the streets and somehow cranes over the crowd and into a cramped building and then back again. All of this done in the name of praising communism, denouncing American influence and predicting a utopian future under Fidel Castro. To that end, the film (co-produced and almost exclusively financed by the Soviet Union) is a historical novelty.

As with any piece of propaganda, some of the points are rammed home with a heavy hand. Others are beautifully subtle. A sequence where a defiant farmer burns his crops falls somewhere in between, with his motives being painfully on the nose but the execution of his actions heartbreakingly lyrical. A shot of a canoe gently floating through a canal is one of many that bears a striking resemblance to the future work of Terrence Malick.

It’s not just the movement that startles, with the stark contrast in the black and white sometimes being enough to elicit the beauty required. The occasional music used also provides a lively jolt of energy to the proceedings and it’s in some of these scenes that Kalatozov lets his admiration for Sergei Eisenstein come through in the editing. Narration pops up so sparingly that when it does, it only reminds us how much a lesser filmmaker would have relied on it to tell the story.

Kalatozov was hired to depict a revolution and wound up delivering one himself.

Those are my picks. Have your say in the comments and check out these films if you haven’t.

[Photo: Film Forno]
[Photo: Film Reader]




→ 12 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Filed in: Life Without Oscar

12 responses so far

  • 1 7-28-2010 at 5:14 pm

    Jeorge. said...

    Great choices. Contempt is a classic – maybe not the Godard I would’ve picked but an unimpeachable choice all the same.

    Saw I Am Cuba in a freshman film history class at college. It blew the mind of every single person in the class. Glad you highlighted the story of the farmer – that has always been my favorite episode from the film.

    As for my picks? I guess I’d go with Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor, with its tabloid topicality and off kilter use of color inserts, for 1963. And Shohei Imamura’s remarkable, gorgeously shot Intentions of Murder for 1964.

  • 2 7-28-2010 at 5:58 pm

    Jordan Cronk said...

    Great choices. I’m personally at the point where I just want to go ahead and say that CONTEMPT is Godard’s best film, and that’s with all due respect to like a dozen of his other works.

  • 3 7-28-2010 at 7:19 pm

    RJL said...

    1963: Lord of the Flies
    1964: Fail Safe

  • 4 7-28-2010 at 7:22 pm

    Chris said...

    It amazes me that ‘Charade’ was snubbed for screenplay and direction in 1963.

  • 5 7-28-2010 at 7:30 pm

    Steven said...

    1963 (what an incredible year for film):

    Jerry Lewis’ “The Nutty Professor”
    Ken Jacobs’s “Blonde Cobra”
    Shirley Clarke’s “The Cool World”
    Witold Lesiewicz and Andrzej Munk’s “Passenger”
    Jean-Luc Godard’s “Contempt”
    Ingmar Bergman’s “Winter Light”
    Jack Smith’s “Flaming Creatures”
    Samuel Fuller’s “Shock Corridor”
    Nelson Pereira dos Santos’ “Barren Lives”
    Jean-Daniel Pollet and Volker Schlondorff’s “Mediterranee”
    Farrough Farrokhzad’s “The House Is Black”
    Robert Wise’s “The Haunting”
    Kon Ichikawa’s “An Actor’s Revenge”
    Joseph Losey’s “The Servant”

    1964:

    Kenneth Anger’s “Scorpio Rising”
    Alfred Hitchcock’s “Marnie”
    Michelangelo Antonioni’s “The Red Desert”
    Sergei Parajanov’s “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors”
    Roger Corman’s “The Masque of Red Death”
    Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Before the Revolution”
    Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “Gertrud”
    Glauber Rocha’s “Black God, White Devil”
    Kaneto Shindo’s “Onibaba”

  • 6 7-28-2010 at 7:33 pm

    Michael said...

    “The nuance of the camerawork is truly stunning and is what melts my geek brain the way Joseph Gordon-Levitt fighting somebody in zero gravity does for other readers.”

    I feel like this line perfectly sums up Chad’s online persona.

  • 7 7-28-2010 at 7:43 pm

    Speaking English said...

    Can’t stand Godard. Bergman put it best:

    “I’ve never gotten anything out of his movies. They have felt constructed, faux intellectual and completely dead. Cinematographically uninteresting and infinitely boring. Godard is a fucking bore. He’s made his films for the critics. One of the movies, Masculin féminin: 15 faits précis (1966), was shot here in Sweden. It was mind-numbingly boring.”

    Beautiful. And incidentally, I’d pick one of Bergman’s very best films for the year 1963, “The Silence.” Not nominated for anything, a masterpiece.

  • 8 7-28-2010 at 8:24 pm

    James D. said...

    I am not too savvy on Oscar history, but I had heard that they used to get it right more often. I just assumed something Godard would get recognized.

  • 9 7-28-2010 at 8:24 pm

    Maxim said...

    “And maybe the biggest snub in Oscar history occured when none of the songs from “A Hard Day’s Night,” including the title number received a nomination for Best Song. Nice job Academy, it’s only The Beatles.”

    I’m pretty sure those songs were inelligible since they weren’t written specifically for the movie. If I am wrong, I would like to be corrected on this.

    In any case the Beatles did win an Oscar for “Let
    It Be”.

    “One early example starts on the roof of a hotel, seemingly descends down the side of the building, catches up with a hot lass in a bikini as she slowly walks into the pool and the camera submerges into the water behind her.”

    It is a pretty great shot and the lass was indeed pretty hot.

  • 10 7-28-2010 at 8:57 pm

    Chad Hartigan said...

    They were written for the movie.

  • 11 7-28-2010 at 9:10 pm

    The Z said...

    I read somewhere (sorry about no citation) that the producers of “A Hard Day’s Night” didn’t submit the proper paperwork – or something to that extent – and so none of the songs were elligible.

    I know that similiar situations happened with “The Graduate” and “Saturday Night Fever.”

  • 12 7-28-2010 at 10:13 pm

    Jeff said...

    I have not seen your picks this time, Chad, but mine would be:

    1963: The Fire Within (Louis Malle)
    1964: My Way Home (Miklos Jancso)