The end of the 1940s sees two Best Picture winners that are, to be perfectly honest, rather depressing. So many characters die…
Hamlet (Best Picture, 1948)
It is popular among intellectual academic types to speak of Shakespeare’s great tragedies – Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, and King Lear – in hushed, reverent voices. They are untouchable, uncriticize-able works of unrivaled genius.
This may be true. I grant that they are remarkable plays, full of intense emotion and raw truths of human nature. That said, I prefer the comedies. Perhaps it’s evidence of a trivial mind, but I like jokes and a happy ending better than tears and death. Katherine of Aragon is supposed to have once said that she would rather be sad than happy, but I’m the other way. I would much rather laugh than cry.
There is no need to summarize HAMLET. Really, if you haven’t got the basic plot points by now you had probably better ask for a refund from your high school.
Laurence Olivier’s turn as the obsessive and melancholy Dane is iconic. It is the benchmark by which all aspiring Shakespearean actors must inevitably be measured. And I believe that to this day, Olivier is the only actor to win the Best Actor Academy Award for a Shakespearean performance in which he directed himself.
And truly, his performance is brilliant. He outstrips the rest of the cast easily, and they fade into the background so that Ophelia’s madness, Claudius’ conniving, Gertrude’s growing guilt, and Polonius’ inanities are pale and amateur in comparison. I am glad to have seen this performance, though I couldn’t help but continuously compare it to Kenneth Branagh’s HAMLET (1996) and Mel Gibson’s HAMLET (1990). It is clear that Branagh considers himself Olivier’s heir, and in my opinion Branagh surpasses his predecessor. Olivier is a touch hampered by the Shakespearean style of his day, which is ever so slightly declamatory, making it hard for the audience to forget the rhythm and meter of the poetry. Branagh speaks the antiquated English as he would modern English, not dumbing it down, but rather assuming the modern mind will follow and understand.
The weak point in the cast is Ophelia(Jean Simmons), who remains a flat, paper-doll figure. The actress, like Olivier, is apparently hampered by the standards of the day, which requires her to take on a mild and rather sweet madness. It is much less effective than Helena Bonham-Carter’s wildly erratic, mad-eyed performance in 1990 (really, the role could have been written for the notoriously odd actress). Simmons does manage to pull off the “Get thee to a nunnery” scene well by bursting into wild grief that is far more convincing than the average weeping 1940s actress.
As a film it is an interesting interpretation, all grey skies and stark, cold sets. Apparently Danish castles of the sixteenth century have hardly any furniture or wall hangings? The stumbling block is in the way the play is edited to fit the length of the movie. Shakespeare’s plays generally last 3 hours if they are delivered quickly, and in my experience, tend more towards 4 hours. Laurence Olivier and his production staff clipped the play down to fit into a 2.5 hour film. It is more than a line here or there – it feels like entire scenes are missing, especially at the beginning. Hamlet speaks to the ghost of his father and then in the next scene he’s already mad. It’s been a while since I read the play, but isn’t there at least a little bit in between? Even if I’m wrong in that, the edited script feels clunky. It seems to make awkward leaps to compress timelines, and entire characters are missing – no Rosencrantz and Guildenstern here.
Fun trivia: Christopher Lee (Saruman in LOTR) has a nonspeaking, uncredited role as a spearbearer. Or so I’m told. I couldn’t pick him out.
All The King’s Men (Best Picture, 1949)
Remember THE WEST WING? For many of my acquaintance (as well as myself) that show portrayed what we wish American politics was like. Administrations of intelligent, articulate, moral people, dedicated to doing what is right (oh, alright, what liberals think is right) in the right way. Sometimes achieving that meant breaking established political rules, but the ends justified the means.
The idea of the ends justifying the means also characterizes THE WEST WING’s polar opposite, 1949 Best Picture winner ALL THE KING’S MEN. The film is a not-very-subtle fictionalized biopic inspired by the life of Huey P. Long. Told through the eyes of journalist Jack Burden, the story chronicles the rise of “hick” Willie Stark, who rises from local nobody to governor of an unnamed, seemingly midwestern state. Like the evil mirror universe in STAR TREK, Willie Stark is President Bartlett’s conniving, corrupt photo-negative. Stark begins his rise by a determination to speak the truth, to let his fellow citizens have all the facts so they can protest the corrupt fat cats running the government of the state. Inevitably, he becomes one of the corrupt fat cats himself. He makes use of bribery, bullying, physical beatings, blackmail, and everything detestable to get his way. Stark makes those who cross him disappear, either figuratively (financially or politically) or literally. At the end of the story, he is assassinated. Shot in the chest, his last words are a whispered dream of a Willie Stark world.
ALL THE KING’S MEN is relentless. The audience can see where it’s headed from scene one. We know there will be no redemption, and we know that he will be stopped. I suppose it is meant to inspire that feeling of trapped anxiety, probably with the intention of making us question our own leaders and political loyalties. It is disturbing to watch this in the months leading up to a presidential election, because it so clearly demonstrates the difference between political speechifying and political actions.
I was distracted during the film by the unfortunate stereotypical 1940s acting of Joanne Dru in the role of Anne Stanton, girlfriend of Jack Burden and mistress of Willie Stark. There is a type of distressed-female acting that I have seen in movies of this era that is decidedly distasteful to the modern eye. I can only describe it as a loose-necked rag doll sort of acting, where the distressed female throws her head around to avoid looking at anyone and must be held, limp and floppy-haired, by the stronger masculine party in the scene. It’s distracting, melodramatic, and nowhere near as effective as it was meant to be. It looks like a bad high school actress trying to express wild broken-hearted passion.
I cannot honestly say I liked either of these films, and I cannot honestly recommend them as technically brilliant pieces. HAMLET is uneven, and ALL THE KING’S MEN is just plain upsetting in a way that for me creates fear rather than indignation. I feel the need to indulge in some fluffy, happy escapism. Hopefully the 1950s will offer me some of that.
Up Next: Some thoughts on the 1940s winners, and then All About Eve (Best Picture, 1950) and An American In Paris (Best Picture, 1951)