Month: August 2015

Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke (1967)



Paul Newman received his fourth Oscar nomination for playing “Cool Hand Luke”.

Cool Hand Luke is a great film – it deserved a best picture nomination, in my opinion. It started slow, but grabbed my attention as it progressed and it really captured the harsh and brutal conditions of the prison farm. George Kennedy won best supporting actor for a really good performance, but it’s not one of those Oscar-winning turns that don’t scream brilliant to me.

I may have mentioned this before, but I consider Paul Newman one of the greatest movie stars that ever lived – he had everything, good looks, charisma but most importantly, enormous acting abilities. Seriously, I think the guy could hit emotional intensities that I have never seen an other actors achieved.

Newman has a reputation playing charming rascals during the 60s, but his brilliant characterization skills allows him to know his characters inside out, and he manages to shape them to their own unique characteristics, never making his performances repetitive. I guess that’s why he manages to differentiate his work here so well from Hud and The Hustler – these characters may be “troubled” rascals, but the root cause of their problems differ.

The first thing I noticed about Newman’s performance is how quiet it is. He doesn’t have a lot of lines, but his presence alone explains a lot about the character and his motivations. We don’t know much about Luke and his background, and he is constantly a mystery throughout the film. In a way, Luke is an almost symbolic figure in the film, representing hope and freedom for the other prisoners. Newman fulfils this role brilliantly – his presence, reticence and “give no shits” demeanor never feels forced, mainly because of how Newman fits the role like a glove.

What is so brilliant about Newman’s performance is how he makes Luke such a complex and layered character even though the script doesn’t offer him any opportunities to do so. Even though we don’t know much about Luke’s background, we can get the sense that he is depressed and has given up on life. Newman always explores this aspect differently, be it when he eats 50 eggs,or bets his money away on his losing hand – it’s all fascinating and saddening to watch, even if it’s not overtly so.

When Luke goes on a downwards spiral following his mother’s death, Newman’s performance becomes devastating. It’s amazing how he manages to convey the emotions with so little, but you can see from his overall demeanor that the man has changed drastically.When he cries while singing, or when he finally broke after being abused by the guards, or his final monologue in the church, it’s utterly fantastic. Newman always draws you in, making you fascinated with the character’s state of mind. 5/5.


Meryl Streep in The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981)

Meryl Streep received her third Oscar nomination for playing Sarah/Anna in The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

The French Lieutenant’s Woman is an okay film that I found watchable, but not too engaging. The story is a film within a film, focusing on Sarah, the “scarlet woman of Lyme”, and Anna, the actress who plays Sarah. I’m not sure whether such a structure actually worked for me as I didn’t really see the point of Anna’s storyline, but like I said, I found the film fine for the most part. Jeremy Irons (in his first leading role) gives a great performance as Charles, the man who falls for Sarah’s “trap”, and Mike, the actor playing Charles. I think he deserved a nomination at least.

This performance wasn’t on my to-review list but my curiosity was aroused when I was reviewing Kate Hepburn’s performance in On Golden Pond. As it turns out, Streep won the golden globe and bafta for this performance, which made me wonder how close she actually came to winning the Oscar. Of course, she would go ahead to win one of the most deserving Oscars one year later, but her work her was like a “sneak peek” into the Meryl Streep we are all familiar with – accent, tears, etc. What especially worked was the mysterious edge that Streep gives this woman – the scene where she is standing by the seas is pure brilliance, and the haunted expression on her face is amazing. Her presence is poetic and melancholic at the same time, and she is like a ghost waiting for a lover whom she knows will never return.

Out of Streep’s nominations, this one is often the least talked about. Personally, I can understand why – my main issue with this performance is how it seems more of a display of Meryl’s technical skills as an actress than anything. The accent is there, the emotions are spot-on, the tears are on full display, but I never really connected with the performance as much as I would have liked. We are supposed to buy that Sarah is this woman who has no control over her emotions, who is filled with bitterness, envy and is essentially labelled as the “town slut”. Unfortunately, I didn’t really feel that overwhelming, turbulent passion within the character that I feel should have been there. I can only imagine how Isabelle Adjani would have nailed this part. Streep’s performance is actually very restrained, which worked in giving the character the mysterious edge, but I didn’t really buy her ability in “ensnaring” Charles as some people say. The affair between her and Irons worked mainly because of him, imo – he sells his character’s weakness and inability to resist temptation brilliantly. Still, I appreciated that Streep didn’t portray Sarah as some manipulative, evil slut who goes all out to wreck marriages, but as a sympathetic and lonely character who has no outlet to channel her inner desire for passion.

The character of Anna is a bit pointless for me, although I actually have nothing to fault with Streep’s acting. Like I said, I feel like this performance is more of a display of Streep’s acting skills, and she succeeds. There’s no doubt that she’s two different characters (even though one’s playing another), and she even adapts her mannerisms according to the time period of her characters. It’s not a bad performance – in fact, I think it’s a very good one by a fantastic actress in her early days. 4/5.

Jeanne Eagels in The Letter (1929)

Jeanne Eagels

Jeanne Eagels became the first posthumous Oscar nominee for her performance as Leslie Crosbie in The Letter.

The Letter is a typical film of this era – dated, awkwardly made and in general, not very good. The story revolves around a woman who kills her lover upon discovering his affair, and an incriminating piece of letter that may ultimately decide her fate. It’s only an hour long, which made it more tolerable even though I was watching a horrible version on youtube. The performance by the cast, however, is downright laughable, especially the chinese woman. They were literally waiting for each other to deliver their lines, and it was quite funny to watch.

Jeanne Eagels died shortly after this film was made, and many people have wondered what kind of career she would have had. In The Letter, she rises above her film and its cast, making Leslie a raw and fierce presence. I found her approach to the character incredibly brave and original – given how this is the era for melodrama antics, I expected Eagels to go with the teary-eyed, weak with passion route that is defined by many actresses of this era. Eagels justified her character’s motivations with an intense passion that was almost insane and possessive, and the performance actually reminded me of Glenn Close’s fantastic turn in Fatal Attraction.

I never found a false note in Eagels’ performance, and she brings so many layers to her performance that I found her work wonderfully ahead of its time. It’s true that Eagels seemed very fidgety throughout the film (some attribute it to her addiction in real life), but strangely enough, it works for her interpretation of the character. She gives Leslie this unstable, abrasive side that can be very difficult to handle, but the fieriness of her personality gives The Letter the life it needs. Be it when she swallowed her pride to retrieve the letter from the chinese woman, or her fantastic confrontation scene with her husband when she revealed the truth without any shame or remorse – Eagels gives a really unique and interesting performance that would have deserved a better film. 4.5/5.

Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn in On Golden Pond (1981)


Henry Fonda

Henry Fonda received his second Oscar nomination and won the Oscar for playing Norman Thayer in On Golden Pond.

On Golden Pond is a surprisingly good film that I really enjoyed. I remember actively disliking it the first time I watched it years ago, but I this time round I found myself being to appreciate it for its simplicity. In fact, I probably prefer it to its best picture competitor Reds. The score is fantastic, and the whole film is very beautiful and relaxing to watch. I didn’t think Mark Rydell needed to be nominated for his standard direction though. And I feel a bit bad for saying this as I usually like her performances, but I found Jane Fonda’s acting a bit weird here. I understand that this role is a very personal one for her, and obviously it meant a lot, but it feels as if she really wanted to prove this point. Maybe I should re-watch her performance but I felt that she was over-doing it a little. Her final scene was utterly fantastic though, and it really redeemed her performance.

Henry Fonda’s win is often attributed to his veteran status, but this time round, I found myself appreciating his work a lot more than I did the first time. Fonda is not an actor I am familiar with, although I really liked his performance in The Grapes of Wrath (my pick for 1940 best actor). I enjoy reading about his relationship with Jane, and in a way, I felt like he managed to utilize this personal aspect of his performance better than she did. What I really appreciated about his performance as Norman Thayer is how wonderfully layered it is, which might not be obvious at first glance. On the surface, Norman seems like the typical curmudgeon you don’t want to talk to, but Fonda justifies Norman’s abrasive personality in a way that allows us to understand him inside-out. Norman’s fear of death is something that was very well-played by Fonda, probably because of how close it was to reality. He handles the gradual physical and mental deterioration of the character well, and shows how this is something that is he is truly frightened of. He also manages to express his regrets over his estranged relationship with his daughter more effectively than Jane, even though he had fewer lines to do so. I always found myself sympathizing with Norman, and you can sense that he is actually a kind person inside.

The main bulk of On Golden Pond focuses on Norman’s relationship with Billy, the young kid. It’s a cliche, yet Fonda allows us to see a fatherly side of Norman. Personally, I don’t care for the kid’s performance and yet I found their relationship devleopment extremely moving thanks to Fonda. Norman always had difficulty expressing himself, and Fonda potrays this fantastically – we know that he truly cares for the boy, even though he has never expressed it out loud.

It might not be the flashiest performance, but I found Henry Fonda’s  performance as Norman Thayer extremely moving and beautiful. It’s not the most original, but it’s an Oscar win that I feel is largely deserved.

Katharine Hepburn

Kate Hepburn won her fourth Oscar for playing Ethel Thayer.

I don’t really have that much to say about Hepburn’s performance as much as Fonda. The last time I watched it, I remembered being extremely disappointed and underwhelmed because I watched this film immediately after his brilliant turn in The Lion in Winter (1968). This time round though, I found myself understanding and appreciating her performance a lot more.

Unlike the Fondas, Hepburn’s character isn’t as complex or layered – which is fine, although having watched Long Day’s Journey Into Night and The Lion in Winter, you will know that this performance is probably nothing for an actress of her calibre. Ethel Thayer is essentially the “wise lady” of the household, the devoted and emotionally supportive matriarch whom everybody turns to for advice. For the most part, Hepburn’s performance involves her being spunky and humorous, while being the big supporting column of her family as well.

The “knight in armour” speech she gave to Fonda is fantastic, and she is definitely a cheery and warm presence throughout the film. Even though she’s the lead of her film, she just gives reaction shots to the conversations happening around her, such as an approving smile or a disappointed glance. I might sound critical, but I assure you I really appreciated her work and I think she gives a thinly written character a lot of weight. It’s a pity the film doesn’t focus that much on her story, but I think Hepburn does a very good job, even if I don’t necessarily agree with her Oscar win – 4/5.

Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine in Sleuth (1972)

Laurence Olivier

Laurence Olivier received his eighth Oscar nomination for playing Andrew Wyke, an author who loves games.

Sleuth is a very enjoyable, though a bit stagey (it was based on a play afterall), battle of wits story about an author of detective stories (Andrew Wyke) who invites his wife’s lover Milo Tindle (Michael Caine) over for a “game”.

Olivier is an actor I really like in general, although I understand the issues people have with him. It is true that he can come across as mannered/stiff in some of his roles, especially the older movies, but what I admire most about him is the way he brilliantly characterizes his performances. Be it the haunted Maxim De Winter or Heathcliff, I always find that he brings many layers to his characters that make them interesting.

Andrew Wyke is a departure from the Olivier I am accustomed too, namely because of his over-the-top nature. He is loud, flambuoyant, and he takes great pleasure in the various dolls, costumes and props inside his house. What Olivier succeeds in is the way he sells this bizarre/eccentric side of Wyke. I never once doubted the authenticity of Olivier’s “weirdness”, and he makes it entertaining and slightly unnerving at the same time.

The role allows Olivier to show off his emotional range, and he allows us to peer into the mind of this interesting character. For the first half of the film, Olivier steals the show by incorporating a perfect mixture of menace and humour into Wyke’s game. I was both entertained and disturbed by the way he slowly torments Tindle, and how he gradually reveals a “darker” side to the character beneath the games.

*spoiler alert* When Tindle starts tormenting Wyke in the second half of the film, Olivier manages to sell the character’s desperation and fear. I thought it was fantastic that he managed to make me feel sorry for him, even though he kinda, well, deserved it. But it was until the chilling scene where he plots Tindle’s murder and starts “narrating” his death where I felt like I knew this character inside out. I love how Olivier ties all these different aspects of Wyke’s personality together, right from his refusal to lose/be humiliated and his murderous pride. We get to see how Wyke is not just a character who loves “games”, but a cruel personality who derives great pleasure in humiliating and manipulating others. It’s a fascinating, entertaining and bizarre performance that gets 5/5.

Michael Caine

Michael Caine received his second Oscar nomination Milo Tindle, the young lover of Wyke’s wife who gets tormented by Wyke.

It’s interesting to see Michael Caine play playboys/flambuoyant characters when he was young, especially when you are so accustomed to seeing him play mentors. I think he is a fantastic actor in general, and I really want to discover more about his earlier works.

When two actors are both nominated as best actor in the same film, one will naturally have a tendency to compare both performances against each other. Usually, I will prefer one over another unless it is like, say, Amadeus, where I find both leads to be brilliant (though F. Murray Abraham is still easily my winner).

I wouldn’t say that Tindle is an uninteresting character – on the contrary, I find him extremely interesting to watch as well, and he definitely holds his own as a lead in this film. Still, as compared to Wyke, he is probably the less complex character. In the first half of the film, when Tindle is playing Wyke’s “game” and slowly getting tortured, I found myself more invested in Olivier’s performance. Still, Caine succeeds in portraying Tindle as a very charming, and a bit naive, young man who falls for Wyke’s trap. It’s hard not to feel for him when he gradually realises what is happening to him – the fear in his eyes when he realises that Wyke intends to kill him is fantastic. I was more interested in Olivier’s performance, but I think Caine is great as well.

It is only until the second half of the film where Caine gets his revenge. *spoiler* For me, it was a bit hard to assess the part where he pretends to be the “inspector” as I was already aware of the twist before I watched the film. Objectively speaking, I think Caine excels here in pretending to be trick Wyke into thinking that he really was the inspector. Despite the disguise, Caine’s distinctive voice naturally gave him away but his mannerisms were natural and he sold the character quite well. The real highlight, however, is when the “inspector” reveals himself to be Tindle. Caine successfully portrays the new, cruel, Tindle, and his monologue about how he believed that he was really going to die was great. Unlike Wyke who plays games for fun, Tindle plays this game purely out of revenge. I think it is great that Caine manages to differentiate Tindle’s motives from Wyke – You can sense that Tindle isn’t enjoying his torture of Wyke, he is doing it because of revenge.

Like Olivier, Caine also manages to portray Tindle’s “change” throughout the film excellently. His performance is great on its own, but for me, I just found Olivier’s performance to be more compelling. It could be because I’m naturally biased towards crazy characters, but I found Olivier to be the dominating force in this film, even when he is being humiliated by Caine’s character. Still Michael Caine gives a fantastic performance as Milo Tindle, which naturally gets – 4.5/5.

Robert Donat in Goodbye, Mr Chips (1939)

Used this picture because I thought it was nice, even though it didn’t take place in the film

I have always been interested in finding out more about a nowadays forgotten actor called Robert Donat. I was watching this documentary about him on Youtube and I thought it was really interesting. Naturally, this drew me to his Oscar-winning turn as Charles Edward Chipping in Goodbye, Mr Chips (1939), in which he famously beat iconic performances by Clark Gable (Gone With The Wind) and James Stewart (Mr Smith Goes To Washington).

Goodbye, Mr Chips is an okay film. I actually like the sentimentality and cheesiness of films from this era, unless they become way too manipulative. There isn’t much a story here, it basically follows the lead character throughout the various phases of his life. Greer Garson was nominated for best actress for a really thin supporting performance, but I actually liked her warmth and kindness she displayed for her character, and she was certainly a highlight of the film. I couldn’t stand the scenes with the kids and their horrid acting (creepy kid staring right into your soul at the end as he says goodbye), but at the end of the day, I actually liked the film.

Actually, the main reason why this film worked for me was because of Donat’s central performance; I agree that the part isn’t the most challenging technically and emotionally, but I think Donat added a lot of weight to it, carrying it from the beginning to the end. What worked for me was the fact that Donat really fleshed out each portion of Chips’ life without any false notes. I bought every single one of his scenes, even the older ones with the makeup and more obvious mannerisms. I actually liked how naturally he sold Chips’ changes; from the nervous, naive teacher to the strict disciplinarian to the role model whom everyone looks up to. You always get the sense that Chips’ is learning something new about life, even when he is old and retired. It’s a cliche for sure, but it never feels like it – to me, it was really like following an inspirational figure going throughout his life journey. I always felt for him, and he sells the heartbreaking emotional scenes very well too, especially during the loss of his wife and baby and the war scenes. He also has fantastic chemistry with Garson; the mountain scene was so cheesy and the whole danube thing was super corny as well, but I bought that these 2 people were really in love.

It could be because Donat is quite a charming actor, but I really liked his performance here. I felt for him throughout the film, and overall I thought he did a beautiful and moving job. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but not an Oscar win that I mind too much at all. 4/5

p.s. Rewatched The Theory of Everything. I still find the film kinda boring, but Eddie Redmayne’s performance improved on me quite a bit. I could be feeling extremely lenient (as seen above), but I’m actually willing to bump up the rating to a 3.5 – 4. That being said, I would have to do the unlikely task of re-watching the other nominees like Carell to put things into perspective. I still prefer Felicity Jones’ performance by a mile (she’s almost 4.5 now).

I also watched this horror film called Unfriended. I actually liked it omg.