A penny saved is ridiculous.

A penny saved is ridiculous.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Serious stuff, continued

As promised, here’s part two of my friend Ray Smith’s list of great American films that no self-professed movie lover should miss.

Two For The Seesaw (1962)- Directed by Robert Wise. Starring Robert Mitchum, Shirley MacLaine, and Elizabeth Frasier. Not exactly a family drama, but a poignant study of two mismatched people (a Nebraska lawyer and a Bronx bohemian) who, by rights, should never have met. But Mitchum, in a wonderfully understated performance, is a perfect balance to MacLaine’s eternally hopeful screwball. The ending is one which, while you understand it, still breaks your heart.

A Raisin In The Sun (1961)- Directed by Daniel Petrie. Starring Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Diana Sands, Claudia McNeil, and Louis Gossett (in his film debut). Produced by Davis Susskind, this film’s funny and scathing examination of a struggling inner city black family was unique in its time. There had never been an American film like it. The acting is uniformly superb, yet the film received not a single nomination. And, at the risk of sounding overly dramatic, if you have ever wanted to truly experience the emotions of pity and terror associated with great drama, watch Claudia McNeil as Mama descend into fury and wailing sorrow at her son’s (Poitier) betrayal of the family. I promise you won’t forget it.

Marty (1955)- Directed by Delbert Mann. Starring Ernest Borgnine, Betsy Blair, Joe Mantello, Esther Minciotti, and Jerry Paris. Some will argue over this selection, and frankly, some of the comedic aspects of this Paddy Chayefsky Oscar winner for Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Screenplay have dated badly. But Borgnine and Betsy Blair are so touching and so real, it's like you’re sitting across the table from members of your own family. And certainly, for anyone who only thinks of Borgnine for his roles in McHale’s Navy and The Poseidon Adventure, his Best Actor winning performance will be a revelation.

A Catered Affair (1956)- Directed by Richard Brooks. Starring Bette Davis, Ernest Borgnine, Debbie Reynolds, Barry Fitzgerald, and Rod Taylor. Again from a Paddy Chayefsky play, but this time Chayefsky's in a lighter comedy/drama mode that is the very essence of 1950's “Kitchen Sink” drama. Davis’ performance as a Bronx housewife, who insists her daughter must have the large wedding she never had, is still controversial, but I think she brings a spine and a ravaged naturalness to the role. And Borgnine matches her brilliantly. Also Debbie Reynolds is quite touching in one of her few dramatic roles.

The Children’s Hour (1961)- Directed by William Tyler. Starring Shirley MacLaine, Audrey Hepburn, Fay Banter, Miriam Hopkins, James Garner, and Veronica Cartwright. This was forbidden territory when I snuck in to see it as a boy in summer 1961. A vicious adolescent brat lies about her two teachers and causes a scandal. The lesbian theme, even in the muted form in the film, was highly controversial at the time. Interestingly, Wyler had directed the same story thirty years before as These Three (with Hopkins as one of the teachers) but made it a straight (pun intended) love triangle. This was supposed to get the story right. The film still fudges a bit (and contemporary gay film scholars tend to denigrate it), but the acting across the board is terrific.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)- Directed by Richard Brooks. Starring Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor, Burl Ives, Judith Anderson, Jack Carson, and Madeline Sherwood. Essentially Tennessee Williams watered down for the screen, but the star power is so overwhelming, what’s up there on the screen is just fine. The gay theme, which was central to the Williams’ play, is completely diluted unless you are observant enough to pick up on it, but the themes of parent/child conflict and sibling rivalry are well handled. And to me, this is Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman at their most beautiful.

All My Sons (1948)- Directed by Irving Reis. Starring Edward G. Robinson, Burt Lancaster, Mady Christians, Howard Duff, Arlene Francis, and Harry Morgan. This Arthur Miller drama of a munitions factory owner who betrays his country and, inadvertently, his own family, is a great analysis of family delusions and the lack of personal responsibility. Made right after World War II, as many soldiers were returning home maimed for life, the film is a searing indictment of America doing business “at any cost.” And the scenes in the parlor and around the dinner table as all the illusions unravel are extremely fascinating.

Thanks again for taking the time to share your thoughts, Ray. Future lists will always be welcome here. For now, though, I have some movie watching to do!

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