I’m quite the sucker for 30s and 40s screwball comedies, and you’d be hard-pressed to find such a great example as 1944’s Arsenic and Old Lace, a zany, high-spirited glimpse at insanity in the family. Cary Grant plays Mortimer Brewster, the drama critic nephew to a pair of batty old aunts (played with great comedic skill by Josephine Hull and Jean Adair), who are hiding a well-meaning but altogether fateful secret in their basement. When he visits to get to the bottom of the situation, he’s met with his cousin Jonathon (Raymond Massey), a notorious murderer who resembles Boris Karloff, and his older cousin “Teddy” who’s convinced he’s President Teddy Roosevelt. All in all, the film is entirely about the antics that ensue as a result of all of these people descending on the aunts’ house. And that’s the beauty of screwball comedies – they’re screwy. This is probably Cary Grant’s greatest performance. He’s able to capitalize on his greatest talents, which are surprisingly not being a smooth-talker or a casanova; they are in fact physical, over-the-top humor. This movie, as well as #29 on my list, solidifies for me that Frank Capra was a true artist, despite the often light nature of his films. Arsenic and Old Lace is a brilliant showcase for the art of laughter, and Mortimer’s scenes with the hilarous Hull show that the best screen chemistry need not come from romantic inclinations. The Brewsters are a bunch of insane, mercy-killing, sweet-natured, off-their-rockers loonies, and they signify the epitome of slapstick.
Standout Performance: Though the supporting players are great fun (particularly Hull and Peter Lorre, as Jonathon’s semi-nuts face surgeon), it’s Grant that comes out the gem.
Well, it’s certainly been quite a while since our last roundtable discussion on a somewhat-randomly chosen annual Best Lead Actor Oscar lineup, but we’re back with a vengeance. So, the following is what transpired when Andrew of Encore Entertainment, Jose of Movies Kick Ass, and I discussed the merits of the nominees of 1985: William Hurt in Kiss of a Spider Woman (that year’s winner), Harrison Ford in Witness, James Garner in Murphy’s Romance, Jon Voight in Runaway Train, and Jack Nicholson in Prizzi’s Honor.
Luke: Shall we discuss that illustrious year of 1985?? I know how much you thoroughly enjoyed the apparent torture I put you through by picking this year… ha.
Jose: It wasn’t that tragic in the end.
Andrew: No torture here. Really, I liked this lineup…not all individually, but as a collective group.
Luke: Yeah, I feared the worst, but there was only one truly complete stinker in my mind.
Andrew: Wow, now I’m getting interested. Not to guess as to who that is, but can we start with Ford?
Andrew: For someone who’s so knowledgeable about Oscar trivia I always forget that Ford has a nomination.
Luke: He does seem like one of those people that is famous but never received a nod.
Jose: Nothing we hadn’t seen before, just got the nod cause he proved he could be interesting outside Spielberg and Lucas fare. The man is quite a limited actor, and I would rather have him be nominated for Han Solo or Indiana Jones than this dull attempt at “drama.”
Andrew: So there I sit, watching Witness and thinking…okay, what makes this performance special?
Luke: And I’m probably going to dissent with you guys on this one (uh-oh… this is Richard Burton all over again!) … but I actually rather enjoy Harrison Ford as a general rule.
Jose: I like him too, I just don’t think he’s that good of an actor.
Andrew: Hell, I wasn’t too sure what made the movie that special.
Luke: Really? I thought it was first and foremost a great action thriller. Although I grew up watching it, so perhaps I’m biased. This was the only one I’d seen prior.
Jose: I love his dramedy skills in Jones and Star Wars, but this movie robs him of any opportunity to be charming and show off his best skills.
Andrew: It’s fairly good, but all those Oscars and he doesn’t even stand out from the rest of the cast (for me at least).
Jose: Yup – the little kid was more interesting.
Luke: I thought he was a subtle hero, which I can appreciate. And he created some great chemistry with Kelly McGillis… no easy feat.
Jose: Eesh those sexual moments with McGillis were so awkward… Woman couldn’t muster sexual tension with Ford even if it bit her in the butt.
Andrew: Stop making me laugh! I don’t think it was that bad.
Luke: I sort of agree with that… She really did have more sexual tension with Jodie Foster in The Accused… Ouch! Well, I’ll just keep heralding the man amid all the hate… Pishaw to you all! 🙂
Andrew: Ford always strikes me as a less talented version of Michael Douglas (who I don’t think is that talented).
Jose: Hahaha, no I don’t hate him at all! You misunderstand me, I like Ford as a movie star, he’s just a bad actor and Witness doesn’t take any advantage of his skills.
Luke: Well we’re off to a stellar start here… I guess Harrison’s down for the count, 2 to 1… Okay let’s continue on to William Hurt…
Andrew: Ooooooh. Love this performance, and movie.
Luke: I’ve never been a fan of William Hurt’s brand of bland blah-blah-blah-ing, but this is easily the best I’ve seen him.
Andrew: Really, Luke. I think he was on a roll back then. This, Children of a Lesser God, Broadcast News, The Accidental Tourist. All great for me (performance-wise, not always movie-wise).
Jose: Yeah, the 3 consecutive nods were beyond deserved, he’s really one of the great American actors and he should have at least 2 Oscars by now. I actually feel his win was premature in the face of the fact that Raul Julia was snubbed.
Luke: Yeah, I definitely found myself wondering what it was about Hurt that put him above Julia. Was it just that his role was “braver?”
Andrew: Well, I think he and Julia should have both been nominated but I can’t really choose. The Julia snub was a bit weird.
Jose: I think it was because he played gay and you know how that’s always seen as “special” by AMPAS standards.
Luke: Right. That’s what I figured. I found myself preferring Julia for most of the movie, though.
Andrew: I think it’s because Julia isn’t really playing against-type (though he’s still good). I prefer Julia’s character, but I probably like Hurt’s performance.
Jose: Yeah, I agree, he was excellent, I wish he would phone me and tell me about movies he’s seen. I think with Julia and Hurt we have the same old AMPAS battle of method vs. theatrics.
Luke: That’s a good assessment. And we all know what they prefer, especially lately.
Jose: Julia was all about the inner part of his character while Hurt was very much playing Bette Davis.
Luke: Wait – are we all in agreement on one? Hooray! So, we all like Hurt’s performance to some degree, no? Okay – let’s continue to Jack Nicholson in Prizzi’s Honor.
Jose: I felt he seemed uncomfortable playing “dumb.”
Andrew: Okay well he’s obviously playing against type (albeit poorly at times), nothing mind blowing but funny enough.
Jose: I didn’t really get into the movie as a whole, the mood was quite weird.
Luke: Yes, I actually had seen this one years ago, but rewatched it for good measure. I’m usually a big fan of Jack, but the movie was a little disjointed… Plus Anjelica Huston was doing such good work, it was hard to see anything else.
Andrew: I like the movie more than Jack actually, he’s the weak link for me.
Jose: I guess I’m with Andrew, Jack is too slimy and manipulative to play the dumb guy. Cary Grant would’ve been perfect for that role for example. Jack felt superior to his character.
Andrew: Yes, very superior. I heard Huston kept telling him “remember you’re playing dumb” (according to IMDB) and he obviously still has inhibitions.
Luke: True – the whole movie seemed very carciaturey… Maybe that was on purpose though.
Andrew: It’s like when you’re doing school drama and playing the dumb person, but you still want everyone to know you’re NOT dumb.
Jose: I agree 100%. I didn’t find him funny I found him constipated most of the time.
Luke: Hahahaha… Okay, well…. okay.
Andrew: He and Kathleen do have excellent chemistry.
Luke: That’s because in the ’80s, Kathleen WAS chemistry.
Jose: Speaking of which I hate that she and William weren’t nominated for Body Heat, but that’s a whole other story…
Andrew: I hate that she wasn’t even nominated HERE. I don’t know who I’d throw out, but she’d knock out somebody.
Luke: All right, so let’s move on from the slightly one-note performance by Nicholson to James Garner.
Jose: Ugh OK – that whole movie made me want to enter permanent sleep.
Luke: Haha. Okay, yeah. It was sort of misadvertised as a “comedy.”
Andrew: Okay, I’ll go first because I think I’ll be alone. The movie was meandering but fine, and I do think Sally works so well in comedy (such an untapped genre for her). He’s not exceptional, he’s a bore at times but he’s still oddly charming (even though it seems at times as if he’s trying to be a younger version of Henry Fonda circa On Golden Pond).
Luke: It’s a toughie for me, because I do love Garner for his television work. But the movie was sort of misguided for me. Their “romance” was so forced it was hard to stomach it at times. Plus Field (who I also love for other work) is so scrappy and full of spunk that she seems more like a rambunctious kid than a grown love interest.
Jose: The thing for me here is that I never saw what Sally saw in Garner and because of that the movie doesn’t really work. Who the hell would even want to talk to this bitter guy?
Luke: Yeah, and Carole King, bless her, had one strange score for this movie. That sorta jazzy synthesizer thing (which I understand was very 80s) was totally bizarre.
Jose: OMG the scores for most of these movies are so dated! Everyone wanted to be Vangelis it seems. They should’ve had a little more vision and think of us modern twenty first century viewers haha.
Luke: I don’t really think this movie’s creators had any bit of foresight. Even the storyline and costuming and whatnot felt ultra-70s.
Andrew: Oh, the score is horrible. I don’t believe the movie one bit, with the romance especially… but then I don’t know what Annie Hall ever saw in Alvy Singer either.
Luke: But at least in Annie Hall, the leads had personalities and comedic timing. This one just sort of sank.
Jose: OK Andrew, Annie Hall is in another different league, even I fell in love with the Woodsman in that one!
Andrew: Oh, Jose. TRUST ME, Murphy’s Romance is no Annie Hall…
Luke: All right you guys… we’ll now be moving on to our final nominee. (And to answer the aforementioned question, the one I deemed a “stinker.”) Jon Voight in Runaway Train.
Andrew: (Sound ominous score)
Luke: I really was looking forward to this one. I’d heard it was such a surprisingly good action movie. And then after about ten minutes, I knew what I was getting myself into.
Jose: OK again here we have a case of let’s throw random schools of acting together and see what happens.
Luke: I’m just dying to sidebar really quick here – how in the HELL did Eric Roberts get a nomination for this???!!! It has to be the WORST Oscar-nominated performance I’ve ever seen!
Jose: Voight was doing opera and Eric Roberts was inventing Forrest Gump for Tom Hanks to copy later.
Andrew: The movie is horrible, horrible but I think that Voight is good, great and sometimes a few times even excellent.
Luke: So true on the Forrest Gump thing… and I’m dying to hear about when Voight was excellent, Andrew!
Jose: The movie and Voight are terrible.
Andrew: Yikes. Seriously? Why the hate. I really like Voight here. He has no real character, no acting support, virtually no movie but he has me interested throughout.
Luke: Can I just point out that the funniest (and most awful) scene had to be when they got to that train station office and Roberts kept talking about how he needed shoes… “Shoes, Manny. I need shoes. Shoes, man. Shoes, dude. Shoes. Shoes Shoes!” God, did he just need to constantly fill up any vacant aural spots in the movie??
Jose: Roberts talks shoes and he gets an Oscar nod, Sarah Jessica Parker talks shoes and she gets named a soulless, shallow creature. And OMG i think the train was more alive than Rebecca DeMornay, what a terrible performance she gives.
Luke: Andrew, didn’t you find Voight a tad hammy throughout?
Andrew: As I say, everything but Voight is poor for me. Yeah, but I like ham…he reminded me of Geoffrey Rush in Quills…I don’t know why.
Jose: Voight sorta makes sense in the whole Toshiro Mifune way. The story being written by Kurosawa and all, it sorta makes sense that Voight is doing kabuki acting.
Luke: He reminded me of his performance in Holes. But that’s a kids movie, in which he supposed to perform broadly. In this one, we’re supposed to be taking him seriously as a badass. He kept baring that “I’m crazy – just get a look at my crazy eyes!” look, and I wasn’t buying.
Andrew: Really we are? I mean I take him seriously but as a badass? More of a weirdass. I mean, hasn’t he been in solitary confinement for some time?
Jose: At least we know where Angie learned her Girl Interrupted quirks.
This one was probably one of the easiest choices in all the days of the meme. Sure, there are some great opening sequences, mostly of note to me are the recent ones from the Showtime series (United States of Tara, Dexter, Weeds, etc.) and some sentimental favorites (“I’ll Be There for You” from Friends comes to mind), but the truly best one has to go to Danny Elfman’s and the television animators’ wonderful collaboration on the opening for The Simpsons.
First of all, the creativity and sanity to bring a new touch to each and every opening sequence for 464 episodes and counting is astounding. We all know by now the running gag, even those of us who’ve managed to avoid seeing one episode of the show. Each episode Bart writes something new for punishment on the chalkboard, and it’s always worth avoiding the fast forward button. That’s how humorous these writers still are to this day. And then there’s the couch gag – which isn’t always new for each and every episode, but probably for at least half of them. And as the seasons go on, they seem to be more and more elaborate. But beyond the parts of the opening that change for each episode, there are also the wonderful detailed pieces throughout. From Lisa getting kicked out of band practice for wailing on her saxophone too creatively, to Bart skateboarding through a host of local characters, to Homer removing that pesky carbon rod from his safety suit, it’s all a visual smorgasbord.
Perhaps the most fun part of the sequence, beyond the chalkboard and couch bits, are the interactions between mother and daughter, Marge and Maggie Simpson. Starting in the grocery store as Maggie accidentally gets misplaced on the conveyor belt (she’s worth $847.63, fyi, apparently once the cost to raise a baby in the United States for a month), and then an alarmed Marge grabs her and hops in the car. From there you get a glimpse of Maggie maniacally driving the family car, only to zoom out and see that it’s in fact Marge, while Maggie is steering a toy steering wheel. Perhaps the reason I enjoy these two so much is that through it all, Marge and Maggie seem to be the best friends on display in the whole show. So thanks to the quirky fun and now insanely recognizable theme from Danny Elfman and the great attention to detail of the creators of the show, this ranks as my number-one opening title sequence.
Well big confession here – this was the day in the meme I was probably most looking forward to. I must admit that for a time – which is now seemingly dead – miniseries were actually quite good and dependable and a highly enjoyable method of entertainment. But as cable and network channels alike are abandoning the medium, I’d like to reminisce about the best one ever put to film, A&E/the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice.
In what amounts to a five-hour epic that is impossibly loyal to Jane Austen’s original work, this particular adaptation of Pride and Prejudice is not only the hands-down best, but it also would rank in my top 50 films of all time had it been a theatrical release. Not to knock the 2005 incarnation, for it certainly had its merits, but there’s no beating the Colin Firth/Jennifer Ehle match-up. Perfection. I know that viewing the masterpiece is a little bit of an undertaking considering its length, but its so worth your while. Aside from the genius subtle chemistry between the two leads, the series is jam-packed full of great character actors in the minor roles. Particularly of note are Alison Steadman and Benjamin Whitrow as Mrs. and Mr. Bennet. From things constantly “vexing on her poor nerves” to remarking on his daughters as “the silliest girls in all of England,” the Bennet parents are eccentric and wholly British fun. And Carl Davis’ score is a knock-out – check his comparable work on the film adaptation of Sense and Sensibility for a reference point.
But my miniseries-loving stage didn’t pass without yielding a few other favorites. Though none come even close to P&P, there were a few worth mentioning here. First, 2001’s ABC adaptation of Anne Frank’s story was surprisingly fresh considering how many times this story has been told. Particularly of note are the performances by leads Hannah Taylor Gordon and Ben Kingsley, as well as the fact that the production shows the before and after of the time in the attic, often to harrowing effect. Also, I may’ve been the only person to watch them, but 2000’s NBC epic miniseries The 10th Kingdom and ABC’s Arabian Nights from the same year were both highly entertaining works. The former for its creative use of pretty much every fairy tale you can imagine and the latter for its skilled performance from Mili Avital and well-thought-out story of Scheherazade. Finally, I’d like to give one more shout-out to the insanely long, but worthwhile Taken, the 2002 alien abduction epic from the Sci-Fi Channel that, though approaching 20 total hours, bests most full-on television series.