Nathaniel: If you're just joining us, "Best Picture From the Outside In" is a series wherein we screen and compare two best pictures from either end of Oscar's 80 year timeline until eventually we meet in the middle in the 1960s several months from now. This, the 7th episode of 40 (whew), brings us two famous screen romances.
The first, directed by the beloved Frank Capra, features the hugely influential pairing of Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable in the screwball classic It Happened One Night (1934). Not only did Claudette's leg baring hitchhiking routine inspire endless subsequent film gags but Clark's undressing demonstration sent sales of men's undershirts plummeting: He wasn't wearing one. Together they laid down definitive romantic comedy beats that would be copied with varying degrees of success for four decades until Annie Hall (1977) arrived to reshape the genre and inspire its own innumerable and less rewarding imitations (though that's a story for a later episode). The second celluloid couple, directed by Ron Howard, is composed of Russell Crowe as mathematician John Nash and Jennifer Connelly as his longsuffering student then wife. A Beautiful Mind proved no trendsetter but it's representative of Oscar's undiscerning fascination with its entire genre: the biopic.
This wasn't an easy week for me. I fall madly in love with Colbert & Gable's sass and fire every time -- I'm eager to throw rice at that wedding. But when it comes to Crowe & Connelly's weepy mannerisms, I just want a quickie divorce. I don't understand the appeal of either half of this romance. Connelly has mostly one note: wet eyed put upon woman and Crowe delivers his worst performance. He's unbearable mannered with an arsenal including so many facial twitches, hand gestures, and vocal tics that I swear I caught whiff of mental retardation Oscar-baiting rather than an honest examinations of social awkwardness or schizophrenia. I wanted to retitle the movie Forrest Gump Goes to Princeton... or maybe I Am Nash --ditch Connelly's sainted wife and bring in Dakota Fanning as an eternally patient daughter. The movie won't change that much.
I wanted to give this movie a second chance... I really did. The Million Dollar Baby week reminded me that Oscar backlash sometimes gets in the way of seeing a movie's true worth -- but I just don't like this movie. Nash, on his rooftop with his imaginary friend (Paul Bettany) claims that a teacher once described him uncharitably as having "two helpings of brains but only half a helping of heart" From where I'm sitting that's a really generous take. A Beautiful Mind is closer to 'half a brain with several scoops of gooey heart.'
Nick: The huge crisis in A Beautiful Mind is one of direction. I know I don't have to spell out the whole "Ron Howard somehow beat Altman, Jackson, Lynch, and Scott" trope since everyone reading this is already remembering that inglorious moment. But even aside from that balloting outrage, the direction in A Beautiful Mind is just so obtuse and bashful. Sadly, this was NOT inevitable: there are moments in Apollo 13 and in Ransom where Howard makes the dismay or even the terror of his characters feel really palpable without violating his whole calculating, middlebrow aesthetic. But he just can't do it with A Beautiful Mind. The film never goes nearly as dark or as high-stakes as the script demands, and Howard steers his actors well clear of the most painful but revealing elements of the material. That scene where Connelly's character admits to Adam Goldberg that she survives her marriage with Crowe by fooling herself that he's still the man she initially thought he was? Heartbreaking and shocking, and a HUGE keyhole into this baffling character that demands a whole new slant for the movie... except Howard and Connelly just push right through it like it's nothing.
I'll give A Beautiful Mind credit for having one extraordinarily smart idea: that paranoid schizophrenia is hard to diagnose, and is maybe even rewarded, in a Cold War environment that thrives on paranoid schizophrenia without admitting it. But there's just so much glop obscuring and diluting that idea. The handsomeness of the film is as boring in this context as the handsomeness of Connelly and Crowe--Roger Deakins does not earn any bragging rights for this one--and the charged moments (Connelly discovers The Shed) are usually undercut by cheap ones (he's going to drown the baby!!).
Goatdog: I came out of the theater after seeing A Beautiful Mind back in '01 saying "Well, that wasn't a huge ball of shit," which isn't exactly high praise, but it's still the highest praise I can give. I hold individual parts in higher esteem--once Nash starts to go a little gray, Crowe's performance blossoms into something that goes beyond the tics and mannerisms that Nathaniel mentioned, and I only wish he had been this good earlier in the film. (And really--how could they do such a great job on his oldster makeup and yet manage to make Connelly look like Mrs. Doubtfire?) But in general there's so much wasted potential here--in the blend of Cold War paranoia and savior complex that gives rise to Nash's delusions, or in the examination of how Nash's genius and madness function, or even in the "my husband is a nutjob but I have to keep the family together" domesticity late in the film (hello, completely forgotten and potentially more interesting plot direction)--and I'll join the chorus and blame most of it on Ron Howard's insipid tastefulness and possible lack of a beating heart.
I'd much rather talk about It Happened One Night, which gets better every time I see it, although I seem to notice a new bad cut every time --maybe that's why it wasn't up for Editing? But still, we get to see Clark Gable start to take his pants off twice, which is nothing to complain about. As we all know, this was the first of three Big Five winners*, and unlike the other two (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and The Silence of the Lambs), I wouldn't reassign a single one of those awards, because Gable and Colbert and Capra and Riskin were all so supernaturally great that their competitors weren't even close.
Nick: ...which I guess is where I have to admit that, quite surprisingly, I enjoyed It Happened One Night a little less this time through. Though only marginally less: it's a terrific character piece for Colbert, especially, and I love that the tone is actually a bit inscrutable, even though it's usually pegged as a major progenitor of screwball comedy. My favorite thing Capra and Colbert do in this movie - even though I also found it a bit enervating this time around - is that they keep Ellie Andrews kind of hanging around in hotel rooms and depots and ship cabins and bedrooms. She paces a lot, her huge and thoughtful eyes rolling around pensively in her head, often earning pride of place over Gable in Joseph Walker's shots, as though she and the film are constantly wondering: what does Ellie really want? Who is she actually? She isn't a Dizzy Heiress™ or a Headstrong Heiress™ as in many 30s comedies, and this is one road film that really does capture the introspective sense of journeying. All while keeping quick, funny, zippy, and incident-filled.
But: is the upshot enough for you guys? I appreciate that Gable's performance gets sharper and tougher as the film goes on, as he realizes that he really wants Ellie (and is full-on spiteful when he thinks she's chucked him). And the possibility of rapprochement between Ellie and her dad, well-played and smartly shot and directed, pushes the piece in rich, unexpected directions. But It Happened One Night felt a little bit to me like it needed a bolder point of view on Ellie by the end, and a little less of a rushed conclusion. Am I nuts?
I've got lots more to gush about, but I feel compelled for some reason to ask this upfront.
Goatdog: I don't agree that the ending is rushed--if anything, I felt like it could have been rushed, but then it smartly slowed down for those wonderful scenes between Walter Connolly and both Colbert and Gable. It shows the film's interest in even its relatively minor characters to have him emerge in the last act as such a complicated character. And I think the film is in part about the fact that we don't know who Ellie is or what she wants, and neither does she. On the road with Gable, she starts to figure it out in the first rebellion against her upbringing that isn't simply about escaping and causing mischief, and when she thinks Gable abandons her she crumples completely, beyond her earlier shapeless rebellion and into a scary ennui. I know every time that it's a romantic comedy and things have to work out, but the moments before she runs off still make me anxious, because Colbert sells that loss of spirit so well.
Nathaniel: Her Oscar win sure did arrive at the right time. The performance is great and 1934 was also a huge year for her what with Cleopatra, Imitation of Life, and this beloved comedy all hitting theaters.
I can't agree, Nick, that we need a clearer view of Ellie since, as Mike says, she doesn't necessarily have a clear view of herself. And more importantly, Colbert totally understands her malleability. She telegraphs all of this early on. Her quicksilver shifts in temperament, especially when it comes to Peter, are so easily connected back to her impulsive marriage to King Westley, the disaster that sets the plot in motion. I didn't notice this on previous viewings but I also love the subtle mirroring of her thorny romance with Peter and her hot and cold filial relationship. She complains that her father is too domineering but isn't Peter too, once you really start looking at their push and pull rapport...which is mostly push and push? Yet for all of the controlling both men do, they're crazy in love with her.
Can we talk for a minute about the 'Walls of Jericho'... that sheet that Peter and Ellie hang between them when they share hotel rooms. So many romantic films struggle to create elaborate or ridiculous obstacles to keep their lovers apart for the sake of drama (or comedy). It Happened One Night achieves more than most with a simple wire and modest thread count. It's effortless and sexy. The romance between the Nashes in A Beautiful Mind tries all sorts of tricks to sell its romance: they star gaze together, their courtship is underlined with a soggy score, there's horrid sentimental dialogue (go ahead you know you want to share your "favorites") and the requisite beautifying closeups too. For all the sweating effort, the romance still falls flat or at least feels abstract. I can't imagine Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly having sex outside the narrative. With Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert it's practically all I can think about.
Nick: Maybe all I'm missing is a scene where we actually see Peter and Ellie reunited, because for all the reasons you guys have mentioned, there is so much complexity and ambiguity built into Ellie and about this strange, insinuating courtship that leaving us with the tut-tutting innkeepers and the fallen Wall - despite being delicious, and despite ending a movie that's given us plenty of imaginative space to play around in and speculate from - feels like just this side of not enough.
Or maybe the curiosity is just killing me, because she has been so fascinating and shifty throughout, to see whether Colbert would play such a scene with ambivalence intact or with total lustful abandon. And to see what Peter's like when he's actually got what he (thinks he) wants. And to see how Joseph Walker would light it, or not.
More praise, though. Since Nathaniel was so dead-on about It Happened One Night handling romantic obstacle so deftly and simply, especially compared to modern imitators, I'll add that one of the other pleasures of this film is how evocatively the film incorporates the depressed social climate of 1934, even as it lightens the mood so extraordinarily. There's the conspicuous stuff, like Colbert's looong walk through the Hooverville to get to the showers, but also the more tacit stuff, like the fact that it's almost always pouring during those bus-driving scenes. The shots of the bus are actually pretty foreboding, especially given how many of them are filmed at low angles in the middle of the night. Capra isn't yet pushing his State of the Union stuff onto center stage as he'd soon begin to, but he's extending a gift for texture and atmosphere that's in a lot of his early-30s work like The Miracle Woman and The Bitter Tea of General Yen (scooped you, Mike!).
And, as in those last two films, he's just not afraid of sex. When Claudette is wanting it, she is SO WANTING IT. Gable too, even if he's more satisfied with himself as an object of desire.
Goatdog: Since Nathaniel is forcing us to talk about A Beautiful Mind again, I agree that I can't picture the Nashes having sex outside the narrative. Or doing much of anything, for that matter. Did you notice how we never see them interacting domestically until after he's certifiable? Up to then, it's all high-gloss scenes next to fountains or in ballrooms. Honestly, what could these people talk about? Aside from God's original career before he took up Creation, of course.
But all this talk about sex reminds me of something that's been building in this series, even though I don't think we've ever mentioned it because it didn't have such a big effect on the kind of prestige films that win the big awards: the Production Code was just over the horizon when It Happened One Night was released. This is the first and last "pre-Code" style film we'll be dealing with--The Broadway Melody (previous discussion) was pretty tame for a backstage musical, and the historical epics don't delve as far into subversiveness and openness about sex as this film did. Capra makes a nice case study in how the Code changed things: his career up to this point contained films that demonstrate his later political obsessions (American Madness) but also films like this one, Forbidden (a "fallen woman" soap), and Platinum Blonde, which was basically a dry run for this one, being the story of a fast-talking newspaperman who falls for a society lady. And, of course, a certain film that Nick mentioned. (grumble grumble backstabber). These films show a guy willing and able to explore class and sex with a good deal of skill, often in the same film. But I think Capra got a lot less interesting after July 1934, when he and Hollywood tried to forget that sex even existed. We'll see whether the films did as well.
Nick: ...and though that last bit has the ring of a great Final Thought, I can't help emphasizing: It Happened One Night is completely unlike anything that had won up till that point. The movies it most resembles--the pre-Code films Mike touches on, but also two-hander character pieces and all romantic comedies and unpretentious snapshots of American social milieux--hadn't even had much luck getting nominated since 1928, much less winning. And It Happened One Night was a February release, so it hardly won because it was the new hot thing at voting time. This is a truly surprising win in terms of Oscar trends (not to mention, we're starting to worry, in terms of quality!). I wish it had exerted an even stronger influence on the kinds of films the Academy would consider in ensuing years, but nevertheless, it almost single-handedly saves the Oscars from turning completely into a Time-Life series of Great Books That Are Good For You.
Oddly, A Beautiful Mind doesn't much resemble the other winners of its time period, either. Nor the other movies that made upwards of $150 million that year at the box office. No subsequent winner that we've already covered has gone anywhere near this kind of buttery, high-gloss, feel-good studio filmmaking, and without jumping ahead of ourselves, neither did any winner in the previous decade except Gump, which made twice as much money, covered a lot more history, gave the techie types more to savor, and starred Hollywood's favorite walking flagpole. Looking now at A Beautiful Mind, it's even harder to suss how it caught such a lightning bolt of zeitgeist in its modest little bottle. If Nash stared hard enough, and fluttered his eyelashes, and emitted a vaguely Appalachian diphthong to prove that he is Thinking, would he break this code?
Nathaniel: In Nash's absence, he died shortly after receiving a bunch of pens or something (details are foggy and I've only just revisited the movie), that leaves it up to you, the reader, to break the code: How did A Beautiful Mind get away with it, stealing the trophy from four richly deserving movies with both heart and brains? And did you want to run away with Peter & Ellie at the end of It Happened One Night as badly as we did?
further reading @ Goatdog and Nick's Flick Picks
statistics It Happened One Night (1934) was nominated for and won 5 Oscars --the *Big Five* which refers to the categories of Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay (Adapted in this case). A Beautiful Mind (2001) was nominated for 8 Oscars and took home 4: Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, and Supporting Actress for Jennifer Connelly.
the series so far episode 1 No Country For Old Men (07) and Wings (27/28) episode 2 The Departed (06) and Broadway Melody (28/29) episode 3 Crash (05) and All Quiet on the Western Front (29/30) episode 4 Million Dollar Baby (04) and Cimarron (30/31) episode 5 LotR: The Return of the King (03) and Grand Hotel (31/32) episode 6 Chicago (02) and Cavalcade (32/33)