by Julian Spivey
In December I saw something called the “12 Movies Challenge” on Facebook. The premise was that you would have 12 months to watch 12 movies recommended by 12 friends. I don’t often participate in such social media challenges but being a movie buff I felt this might be an interesting way to get out of my comfort zone a bit when it comes to watching movies.
My Facebook buds gave me some films that I’ve been meaning to watch and I pretty much front-loaded those on the list – though not explicitly stated in the challenge rules I am opting to watch one film a month.
A Best Picture winner like “Out of Africa” is an obvious choice for me to get to at some point – that point is now going to be March of this year. But there are certain movies I’m not really looking forward to all that much – I’m looking at you “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken,” my August selection. Then there’s the acclaimed stuff that isn’t really up my alley like the anime feature “Spirited Away,” which I’ve scheduled for November. That will truly be me getting out of my comfort zone.
Here are the 12 movies recommended to me and the months I’ve assigned myself to watch them:
January: “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” (1983)
February: “Till” (2022)
March: “Out of Africa” (1985)
April: “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006)
May: “Legally Blonde” (2001)
June: “The Birdcage” (1996)
July: “Morning Glory” (2010)
August: “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken” (1966)
September: “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006)
October: “Rocky Horror Picture Show” (1975)
November: “Spirited Away” (2001)
December: “The Last Laugh” (1924)
“Out of Africa” was chosen by my friend Patti. I chose to watch it in March as it was the Best Picture winner from 1985 and March is typically Oscars month.
As I say at the beginning of this piece that I attach to these posts every month, “Out of Africa” was one of the 12 movies selected for me this year that I most looked forward to as it was a previous Best Picture Oscar winner and it’s a film I’ve literally DVR’d off Turner Classic Movies multiple times over the years and just never got around to watching. I also believe there’s a copy of it among the hundreds of DVDs on a shelf in a room I hardly ever go into because most things are available via streaming these days. So, I fired up Netflix and watched “Out of Africa.”
Yes, it was one that I had wanted to get around to for some time, but as that time neared I began to dread it just a bit – mostly because of its two hours and 40 minutes runtime (I’ve been growing weary of long runtimes lately – which would make 17 year old me who watched “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago” back-to-back highly annoyed), but also it seemed like a film that could easily fall into melodramatics from the very little I knew about it going in.
Its 61 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes among film critics doesn’t help either. I think that makes the film the fourth-lowest score ever on that site – I’ll get to that again in a bit.
“Out of Africa” is the story of Karen Blixen, based loosely on her 1937 autobiography of the same name she penned under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen with additional material from some more of her books, a Danish woman recalling her life in Kenya in Africa, where she moved in 1913, her relationships with three men: her husband Bror Blixen (a marriage of mutual convenience – he was a baron, she had money), a big-game hunter Denys Finch Hatton (a Brit in real-life, but played by Robert Redford with his natural American accent – supposedly at the behest of director Sydney Pollack after Redford attempted a British one) and Berkeley Cole, a British aristocrat. Karen is headstrong and focused on her endeavors, which include a coffee farm and school for the local Kikuyu children.
Streep plays Karen and this is easily the best Meryl Streep performance I’ve ever seen - though I have unfortunately not seen any of her Oscar-winning roles yet with her two Best Actress wins in “Sophie’s Choice” (1982) and “The Iron Lady” (2011) and her Best Supporting Actress win in “Kramer vs. Kramer” (1979). I, obviously, have additional movies to add to my list.
Streep owns every inch of this film. Redford is billed first in the movie’s credits, which I find gobsmackingly dumb. I realize he was the more senior actor of the two and probably still the biggest name at that time, but it’s Karen Blixen’s story and Redford’s Finch Hatton merely plays a meaningful part in it.
“Out of Africa” is the kind of epic and romance – not necessarily an “epic romance” in that I found the romance to be only a part of the story (though I realize others may disagree) – that you pretty much saw from the dawn of cinema until about the time this film won Best Picture. You don’t really see these kinds of stories much anymore – at least not this successful. As for potential melodramatics, I understand some might see it in the film, but it was not something that bothered me.
The only other Pollack film I’ve ever seen is 1982’s “Tootsie,” which was his prior film to “Out of Africa,” and I can’t imagine two films more different than those two. “Tootsie” is also really good – likely even higher ranking in my book, but it’s been well over a decade since I saw it and I need a rewatch. The two films back-to-back show Pollack’s range.
About that worrisome runtime … Yes, Pollack and his editors probably could’ve chopped a little out of the film, though the fact that I can’t tell you what points to the fact that maybe two hours and 40 minutes was needed for the story. After all, Pollack did win the Oscar for Best Director, and though they didn’t win, his four editors were nominated for Best Editing. The film’s seven Oscar wins were: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography (rightfully so, as the majority of the movie was filmed on location in Africa), Best Art-Set Direction, Best Sound and Best Original Score.
Streep lost out on Best Actress to Geraldine Page in “The Trip to Bountiful” (haven’t seen it).
As for the low critical ratings … I can understand why some wouldn’t think of “Out of Africa” as the Best Picture winner – I haven’t seen any of the other nominees that year, but Steven Spielberg’s “The Color Purple” (another film on my “to see list”) was its biggest competition – but I don’t see how anyone could view “Out of Africa” as a bad movie. There’s just too much interesting about Blixen’s life, Streep’s performance, and the beautiful, on-location cinematography to see this as something less than good in my opinion.
Next up on my 12 Movies Challenge is “The Devil Wears Prada,” another film starring Streep. That wasn’t planned. That one seems more fun than prestige. Hopefully fun is what it will be.
by Julian Spivey
10. Oscars Producers Try Something New - Fail Miserably
The 2021 Academy Awards will forever be known as the pandemic Oscars, but it wasn’t the pandemic that led to one of the most shocking moments in Oscars history. That blame belongs to that year’s three producers Steven Soderbergh, Jesse Collins and Stacey Sher, who decided to shake things up and get out of the norm when it came to the order of the evening’s honors. The biggest change was awarding Best Picture, always the evening’s biggest honor (BECAUSE IT SHOULD BE!), before the Best Actress and Best Actor categories. It seemed at the time that Chadwick Boseman would posthumously win Best Actor for his performance in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” likely leading to an emotional end to the Oscars with Boseman’s widow Taylor accepting the honor. That didn’t happen. Instead, Anthony Hopkins won Best Actor (the second of his career) for his performance in “The Father” – and the veteran actor in his 80s was not present to accept the award. The show immediately ended. So, not only was the obvious plan of the producers thwarted, but this major perceived emotional moment ended in essentially nothing happening but that evening’s Best Picture winner “Nomadland,” directed by Chloe Zhao, having been disrespected by its placement in the ceremony. The decision to have any other award besides Best Picture end the Oscars is one that hopefully will never be made again.
9. Seth MacFarlane's 'We Saw Your Boobs' Song
The Academy Awards highlight the best in the film industry, so it was confusing from the moment the announcement was made that comedian and animated television series creator Seth MacFarlane would be hosting the 85th annual Academy Awards on February 24, 2013. ABC was attempting to bring a younger audience to the Oscars, but all they really did was bring the immaturity and a host who relegated the greatest actresses of their era to their bodies in a crass song called “We Saw Your Boobs,” just a few years before the #MeToo movement would change Hollywood forever. Some of the actresses included in the song were shown by producers live from the audience and the reactions of some were very uncomfortable. It was something everyone behind the telecast should be ashamed of.
8. Best Picture Shockers and the Politics Behind Them
There have always been and will certainly always be controversies over whether one film winning best picture over another is right or wrong, but there have been at least a couple of cases throughout the Academy Awards where the winner likely came down to politics. The movie considered by the American Film Institute to be the greatest American film ever made, “Citizen Kane,” being mostly snubbed by the Academy at the 14th annual ceremony in 1941 was one of these moments. Orson Welles, director, co-writer and star of “Citizen Kane,” had made an instant enemy out of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst when it was revealed that Hearst was the primary inspiration for the titular Charles Foster Kane and it wasn’t a glowing portrayal. Hearst, at the time one of the most influential people in America, used his might and many publications to attack the film and Welles. Hearst’s efforts to have the film wiped off the face of the earth hurt the film at the box office and scared many within the industry from supporting it. While “Citizen Kane” was nominated for nine Oscars it would only take home one honor for Best Writing (Original Screenplay) for Herman J. Mankiewicz and Welles. Best Picture would go to director John Ford’s “How Green Was My Valley.”
In 2004, director Ang Lee’s modern Western romantic drama “Brokeback Mountain” was considered a turning point for the advancement of queer cinema into the mainstream. It was the best-received film critically of the five Best Picture nominees that year and the most nominated film at the 78th annual Academy Awards with eight total nominations. While “Brokeback Mountain” did win three Oscars – Best Director for Lee, Best Adapted Screenplay for Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana and Best Original Score for Gustavo Santaolalla – it was highly controversial when it lost the big prize of Best Picture at the end of the evening to director Paul Haggis’ “Crash,” a crime drama about racial and social tensions in modern-day Los Angeles. It was almost instantly seen by many as one of the worst Best Picture decisions in Oscars history and critic Kenneth Turan suggested, probably rightfully so, that homophobia among Academy members had cost “Brokeback Mountain” the honor.
Much like the country in which they were formed, the Oscars have always had diversity issues – both among its winners and Academy members. In nearly 100 years, only five African American men have won Best Actor (and four of those have been in the last 25 years). Even worse, Halle Berry is the only African American Best Actress winner in the show’s 95-year history. No African American has ever won the Best Director honor with only six black directors being nominated – the first being John Singleton in 1991 for “Boyz n the Hood.” The fact that Spike Lee has only been nominated once and that wasn’t until 2018’s “BlacKkKlansman” is telling. When it comes to other minorities there haven’t been too many Oscar successes either. This year is notable for the fact that Michelle Yeoh could become the first Asian Best Actress winner for her performance in “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” If Ke Huy Quan wins Best Supporting Actor, as is heavily favored, for “Everything Everywhere All at Once” he’ll be just the second Asian actor to win that honor after Haing S. Ngor won for “The Killing Fields” in 1984. Stephanie Hsu (“Everything Everywhere All at Once”) and Hong Chau (“The Whale”) are both nominated this year for Best Supporting Actress. Either would become the third Asian woman to win the honor.
The diversity issues at the Oscars came to a head in 2015 with the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, started by activist and writer April Reign, highlighting the fact that out of 20 actors nominated that year none were people of color. The Academy took this embarrassment seriously and began corrective measures by inviting more people of color to become Academy members and thus play a role in selecting the nominees and winners. The nominees are still predominantly white (and male), but the percentages have minority nominees and winners have risen in the almost decade since #OscarsSoWhite made notice that change was necessary.
6. Adrian Brody Kisses Halle Berry Without Consent on the Night the Academy Honors Possible Rapist
This is pretty much a two-fer that happened at the 75th annual Academy Awards on March 23, 2003. That’s the evening Hollywood heaped the biggest honor a director could win on a potential rapist fugitive and the star of his film forced himself upon presenter and reigning Best Actress winner Halle Berry. It would be almost another 15 years before the #MeToo movement would become a major story within Hollywood, but the movie industry’s biggest night in 2003 highlighted issues with sexual abuse and harassment when the Academy awarded Roman Polanski, who hadn’t set foot in America since 1978 after he fled the country following an arrest for allegedly drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl, with its Best Director honor for “The Pianist.” Polanski couldn’t accept the award in person; after all, he’d be arrested if he set foot in this country. If awarding a potential pedophilic rapist wasn’t bad enough, when Adrien Brody won the Best Actor award for “The Pianist” earlier in the evening he immediately grabbed Berry, presenting the award as the previous year’s Best Actress winner for “Monster’s Ball,” and planted a big kiss on her without any consent whatsoever.
5. Marlon Brando's Best Actor Boycott
The fact that Marlon Brando wanted to boycott his Academy Award win for Best Actor for “The Godfather” wasn’t all that shocking in itself. Just two years before George C. Scott had also refused his honor for “Patton” because he didn’t believe in competition among actors. But, what made it shocking was what Brando planned if he won the award. Brando was boycotting the event to protest Hollywood’s portrayal of Native Americans and to draw attention to the standoff at Wounded Knee, which had begun the month before. Brando sent Sacheen Littlefeather, an actress and Native American civil rights activist, to decline the award on his behalf and read a statement – a condensed version on stage and the full 739-word statement to the press afterward – while receiving a mix of applause and boos from the live audience. Much has been made about what may or may not have happened in the moments after Littlefeather left the stage, including a potential attempted assault on her by Oscar-winner John Wayne, but nothing has ever been proven. Brando’s career wasn’t affected by his protest. Littlefeather, on the other hand, said she was blackballed by the industry and received death threats over the incident. The Academy sent Littlefeather a statement of apology in June 2022 for “the abuse you endured because of this statement was unwarranted and unjustified. The emotional burden you have lived through and the cost to your own career in our industry are irreparable. For too long the courage you showed has been unacknowledged. For this, we offer both our deepest apologies and our sincere admiration.” Littlefeather died four months later at 75.
4. Hollywood's Inaugural Best Actor Becomes a Nazi
It doesn’t seem like enough people know the story of Emil Jannings, the very first Academy Award Best Actor winner, who turned into an actual Nazi late in his life. Jannings was a silent film star who appeared in classics like “The Last Laugh” (1924) and “Quo Vadis” (1924) before becoming the very first winner of the Best Actor Oscar prize for his dual roles (a practice that didn’t last long) in “The Way of All Flesh” (1927) and “The Last Command” (1928). Jannings was the only Best Actor winner from a silent film until Jean Dujardin won the honor for “The Artist” in 2011. When the “talkies” took over Hollywood in the late ‘20s and into the early ‘30s, Jannings career was pretty much kaput due to his thick German accent. In 1933, with Adolf Hitler already in control of Germany, Joseph Goebbels was appointed Reich minister of public engagement and propaganda and realized how useful Jannings would be in propaganda films. Jannings would end up campaigning for Hitler in the 1938 elections, the last ones before total Nazi rule of Germany. Following World War II, British and allied military officials quizzed Jannings about his time as Hitler’s propaganda star, according to The Independent, rejected claims he worked reluctantly for the Nazis. He retreated to Austria following the war, in 1945 he was interviewed by The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle where he said: “Open resistance would have meant a concentration camp.” He would never work in film again. He died in 1950 from liver cancer at age 65.
3. Oscars Bend to Communist Witch Hunts
One of the darkest times in Hollywood history was the communist witch hunts of the 1940s and 1950s led by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) that led to the blacklisting of many within the industry, but probably most notably a group of screenwriters and directors known as “The Hollywood Ten” in 1947. The HUAC witch hunt would ruin the careers and lives of many throughout Hollywood. It would also lead to strange Academy Award moments, like when Robert Rich won the Best Story Oscar in 1956 for “The Brave One,” despite the fact that nobody had ever heard of or seen such a person. It turned out to be a pseudonym for the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo. Trumbo also won a screenwriting Oscar in 1953 for “Roman Holiday.” The award that year was given to a front writer Ian McLellan Hunter. The next year Pierre Boulle would win a screenwriting Oscar for writing “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” despite the fact that he merely wrote the novel the film was based on and never touched the script. The real screenwriters were Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson, both blacklisted. It would take until 1960 for some of the blacklisted writers to begin using their own names on scripts, most notably Trumbo’s name on both Otto Preminger’s “Exodus” and Stanley Kubrick’s “Spartacus.” This era in Hollywood will forever be remembered for its hysteria and the industry’s ineffectiveness and inability for standing up for its own.
2. Envelope Error Leads to Wrong Film Announced as Best Picture
On February 26, 2017, at the 89th annual Academy Awards, the strangest ending in the history of the Oscars took place when the wrong Best Picture-winning film “La La Land” was announced by presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway instead of the actual winner “Moonlight” due to a mix-up when a PricewaterhouseCoopers accountant Brian Cullinan, not paying attention to his duties, handed the presenters the wrong envelope (which was the backup envelope for Best Actress winner Emma Stone (“La La Land”). The producers of “La La Land” Fred Berger and Jordan Horowitz were in the middle of their acceptance speech when Oscar crew members came to inspect the envelopes and let them know there was a mistake. Horowitz announced to the audience and millions watching at home on ABC: “There’s been a mistake. ‘Moonlight.’ You guys won.” “Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins came upon the stage to give the acceptance speech but unfortunately for the film and those who worked on it the moment wasn’t the celebration it should have been amidst the confusion.
1. The Slap
It was supposed to be a great night for Will Smith, one of Hollywood’s most likable leading men for decades. He was a shoo-in to win his first Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of tennis father Richard Williams in “King Richard.” But when presenter and comedian Chris Rock made a dumb jab at Smith’s wife Jada Pinkett Smith’s shaved head while presenting the Best Documentary Feature category, the actor stood up from his seat in the audience, walked onto the stage, physically slapped Rock across the face and began a verbal tirade, including the immediately infamous: “Keep my wife’s name out your fucking mouth!” The moment stunned the audience and became the biggest talking point of the evening. When Smith won Best Actor about 40 minutes later and didn’t seem very contrite about what he had done it led to more anger on top of what was already felt by millions watching from home. In the aftermath, Smith resigned his membership from the Academy and he was banned by the Academy from attending the Oscars for 10 years.