al pacino, american film history, american film institute, books, brad dourif, crime drama, dark, entertainment, godfather, history, hitchcock, jack nicholson, lord of the rings, louise fletcher, michael corleone, movies, nerds, oscars, psycho, star trek
The Godfather, Part II (Best Picture, 1974)
It feels like a sacrilege of sorts that I don’t like these movies more. It’s not the same kind of cultural pressure to love CASABLANCA or GONE WITH THE WIND. More of an intellectual pressure. The GODFATHER trilogy is one of the most technically brilliant and well-respected American films of all time, as well as being one of the most widely-known and widely-quoted. I don’t dislike the movies, exactly. I guess I can compare my reaction to how I feel when I watch MAD MEN.
It’s a technical masterpiece, from the lighting to the cinematography to the editing to the script. The trilogy is a rarity in film history to have two of its three movies win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Problem is, I’m not invested in the characters. I find I don’t much care about their fates and I’m neither shocked nor pleased by any deaths.
However, this brings me to a thought that is one reason for THE GODFATHER’s prominence in film history. According to the Wikipedia page for GODFATHER PART II, Michael Corleone was voted the 11th greatest villain in the American Film Institute’s list “100 Years… Heroes and Villains.” The main character of this film is a villain. This by itself is a drastic change from previous decades of film history, when the main character had to be morally redeemable at the least and preferably solidly within the “admirable” range.
If Michael Corleone, as the main character, is one of the greatest villains in film, perhaps THE GODFATHER PART II has no protagonist. Coppola proves that a film can be great and influential with an antagonist as its primary character. The Code of Standards and Practices is well and truly gone.
A few days ago I finished reading The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder, by David Thomson, a noted film critic. I’ve commented before that the 1970s Best Pictures are grim. Frankly, they’re bumming me out. Thomson’s analysis of PSYCHO and the death of the Hayes Code explains this in a way that makes a lot of sense. Describing the “silver years” of American film in the 1960s and 1970s, Thomson writes, “The films were often dark. They seldom had happy endings. But they were pictures of an authentic American paranoia, something trained in us by the events of the ’60s, but something was also instilled by abstract expressionist painting; the novels of Mailer, Bellow, and Styron; the uncovering of dysfunction in the plays of Williams and O’Neill; the lament in the voice of Miles Davis; and the sense of wasteland that I have talked about in Psycho, to say nothing of the terrible American failure in Vietnam and the domestic agony over civil rights.” (Thomson, page 148)
Thomson proposes that Hitchcock’s PSYCHO broke the last vestiges of the old moral censorship in American cinema. Films were now made with a younger audience in mind, people who had access to birth control and whose formative years were dominated by Vietnam, Watergate, and the so-called “counter-culture.” Censors remained, of course, but without the Hayes Code, darker stories could reach mainstream film audiences. THE GODFATHER PART TWO shows murder, of course, but also an interesting depiction of the Cuban revolution in the middle of the century. It shows Vito Corleone’s journey from an orphan in Sicily to being the Godfather we saw portrayed by Marlon Brando in part one.
So maybe this is why the 1970s winners are so grim. The Code is gone, and a large, younger audience is demanding a more realistic portrayal of the world in which they actually live. After all, sometimes the hero is a villain.
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (Best Picture, 1975)
I didn’t like this book when we read it in high school, and I can’t say I like the movie much either. I’m probably repeating myself, here, but I just have trouble liking a creation in which I don’t like any characters. Stories like this also make my stomach cramp a little from the stress of the unrelenting bad things. Perhaps it’s immaturity on my part, or lightness of mind, or perhaps it’s just a symptom of functioning at too high a daily stress level.
Anyways. There are a couple reasons to watch this film or read Ken Kesey’s original novel of the same name, even if they’re not exactly fun. It is a scathing indictment of the American mental health treatment programs in the 1960s. Not being a mental health worker, I’m not sure if these programs have improved much, but I’d like to think that at least regulation of staff behavior is better today so that nobody has to deal with a Nurse Ratched in real life. Ken Kesey could have taken the route that shows the staff are the ones needing help while the inmates are actually sane, if eccentric. But he didn’t. Instead, the approach is more along the lines of showing how everyone is insane in some way. McMurphy, in an iconic performance by Jack Nicholson, fakes mental instability in order to serve a jail sentence in a psych ward. But it’s unclear how much he’s actually faking – is he insane, or is he sane?
The film also includes an amazing lineup of American character actors, from William Duell (also played Congressional custodian MacNair in 1776) to Sydney Lassick (apparently in everything made ever, going by his IMDb record). The stammering Billy Bibbit, whose suicide instigates the climactic moments of the story, is played by a young and floppy-haired Brad Dourif. Dourif, of course, went on to shave off his eyebrows for a deliciously unpleasant performance as Grima Wormtongue in LORD OF THE RINGS.
The main reason I’ve been anticipating this film is not Jack Nicholson or the historical significance of the story. Instead, it’s Louise Fletcher’s quietly menacing Nurse Ratched. STAR TREK geeks in my audience may recognize Fletcher as Kai Winn from STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE. I haven’t seen anything else from Fletcher’s projects, but there’s a remarkable similarity between Kai Winn and Nurse Ratched. Both come across as gentle, sympathetic women in positions of authority that require them to listen, advise, and assist rather than command. Both are manipulative, ambitious, and just plain evil. There’s something about the gentle inflections of Fletcher’s soft and determinedly feminine voice that makes chills go up my spine. Perhaps that’s a sign of how Ratched (voted #5 Villain on the same list as Michael Corleone mentioned above) has entered the culture. Anyone who is too soft-spoken, too calm, too gently sympathetic makes us anxious.
We’re suspicious of people who come across as too good. There’s always this thought that the kindness is a veneer masking malevolence.
Up Next: Rocky (Best Picture, 1976) and Annie Hall (Best Picture, 1977)