January 4, 2010

0 1962: Hollywood's Second Greatest Year? Part 5

The Summing Up

In the previous installments of this series I've written on the five movies that for me are the unequivocal American masterpieces of 1962: Lawrence of Arabia, Long Day's Journey into Night, The Miracle Worker, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and Ride the High Country. In truth this is not all that large a number of great American movies for any single year. What really distinguishes the year 1962 in American pictures for me, though, is the addition to these five masterpieces of an unusually large number of films that fall just short of masterpiece status but are nonetheless excellent works.

Although many knowledgeable film lovers consider To Kill a Mockingbird a great movie, I would add it to this latter group. Mockingbird has many fine qualities, but I don't think it quite reaches the level of the five I have identified as the great American movies of the year. Its condemnation of racism is laudable and important, but in narrative terms I find that the emphasis on this theme essentially turns the movie into a courtroom drama that proceeds in lockstep to its inevitable conclusion. I prefer the greater emphasis of the novel on the less dramatic but more moving childhood memory aspects of the story.

I am also not a big fan of Gregory Peck, and for me his rather wooden acting style makes the nobility of Atticus Finch seem stiff and just a bit dull. (I realize that I am likely in the minority here.) I would have preferred a warmer actor like Henry Fonda or Joel McCrea or even William Holden as Atticus Finch. I do think, however, that while Mockingbird falls short of masterpiece status, it is still an excellent movie and am including it on the following list of other notable American movies of the year:
  • Cape Fear
  • Days of Wine and Roses
  • Experiment in Terror
  • Hatari!
  • Lolita
  • Lonely Are the Brave
  • The Longest Day
  • Lover Come Back (shown in Los Angeles in late December 1961, probably to qualify for the Oscars—it did receive a nomination for best original screenplay—but not in general release in the US until March 1962)
  • The Manchurian Candidate (a good year for John Frankenheimer, who also directed All Fall Down and The Birdman of Alcatraz)
  • The Music Man
  • Sweet Bird of Youth
  • To Kill a Mockingbird
  • What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
For the record, here are the five films nominated for the Oscar as best picture of 1962:
  • Lawrence of Arabia (the winner)
  • The Longest Day
  • The Music Man
  • Mutiny on the Bounty
  • To Kill a Mockingbird
Several notable British and foreign language films were also first released in the US in 1962. Some of these presage the directions American films would take later in the decade—on the one hand, greater realism; on the other hand, a greater degree of auteur-inspired stylization.
  • Through a Glass Darkly (Sweden)—Oscar winner as best foreign film of 1961
  • Divorce, Italian Style (Italy)
  • L'Eclisse (Italy)
  • Shoot the Piano Player (France)
  • Jules and Jim (France)
  • Last Year at Marienbad (France)
  • Sundays and Cyb√®le (France)—Oscar winner as best foreign film of 1962
  • The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (UK)
  • A Taste of Honey (UK)
  • Whistle Down the Wind (UK)
  • Billy Budd (a UK production but with a number of Americans in the cast and produced by Allied Artists)
Finally, a few observations about some of the memorable performances of the year. This was an especially fine year for acting—another reason 1962 was such a great year—and when Oscar time came, all the nominations for best actor and best actress were for once well deserved. But several other nomination-worthy performances didn't make the cut, especially in the best actor category: James Stewart and John Wayne, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance; Joel McCrea, Ride the High Country; Kirk Douglas, Lonely Are the Brave (according to Michael Douglas, his father's favorite movie he ever made); James Mason, Lolita (he was the very personification of Humbert Humbert); Jason Robards and Ralph Richardson, Long Day's Journey Into Night; Robert Mitchum's menacing psycho in Cape Fear; Paul Newman, Sweet Bird of Youth; Robert Preston's exuberant Prof. Harold Hill in The Music Man; Tom Courtenay's sensitive performance as a juvenile delinquent in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.

As for actresses, even though I'm a huge fan of Bette Davis and consider her without question a superior actress to Joan Crawford, I feel Crawford—restricted to acting largely with her facial expressions and voice—gave an unusually thoughtful and controlled performance in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? that compared quite favorably to the Oscar-nominated Davis's flamboyant gargoyle. Nineteen-year-old Rita Tushingham, who shared the best actress award with Katharine Hepburn at the 1962 Cannes Film Festival, gave a striking debut performance in the British film A Taste of Honey. And what about Jeanne Moreau's unforgettable Catherine in Jules and Jim? After all, performances in foreign language films were just beginning to be recognized by the Academy: Sophia Loren had won the year before for her performance in the Italian film Two Women, and Marcello Mastroianni received a best actor nomination that very year for Divorce, Italian Style.

In the supporting categories, the following noteworthy performances were overlooked by Oscar: Lee Marvin, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (the definitive version of his early villains); Ross Martin's chilling psychopath in Experiment in Terror; Charles Bickford, so touching as he mourns the loss of his daughter to booze in Days of Wine and Roses; Edgar Buchanan, Ride the High Country; Brandon de Wilde, All Fall Down; Brock Peters, To Kill a Mockingbird; Walter Matthau as the genial sheriff in Lonely Are the Brave, a performance more subtle and sincere than his later hammy ones; Charles Laughton and Don Murray, Advise and Consent; Robert Ryan in Billy Budd; Eva Marie Saint, All Fall Down; Vera Miles, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance; and Shelley Winters, hilariously vulgar in Lolita.

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