Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Overlooked by Oscar

On my way to the greenmarket on Saturday, I overheard this behind me:

She: "It's such a great movie."
He: "Yeah."
She: "Jeffrey Wright was so brilliant."
He: "Yeah."
She: "Honestly, I wasn't sure he could play Muddy Waters--"
He: "But he sure did."

I'm guessing they, like me, wondered why Cadillac Records didn't receive a single Oscar nomination.

Beside Wright as Muddy, the film was full of indelible, Oscar-worthy performances: Columbus Short as Little Walter, Eamonn Walker (Howlin' Wolf), Beyoncé Knowles (Etta James), Adrien Brody (Leonard Chess), in particular.

Granted, writer-director Darnell Martin took a few liberties with the facts--combining the two Chess brothers into one, leaving out Bo Diddley, etc.,--but no more than Hollywood films typically take with history. She brought a bygone world powerfully to life, and I left that world moved and exhilarated, feeling I'd seen one of the great movies of the year. I assumed it would be an Oscar contender in many categories, including script and direction, and was shocked when it didn't receive a single nomination.

What didn't Sony do to help this film find its audience? And why wasn't it on the Academy's radar?

Friday, February 20, 2009

Script First

Jack Webb may have been one of the world's most wooden actors, but as director of Pete Kelly's Blues, he had some pretty cool moves. One memorable shot early on is from inside a pizza oven, beginning as a pie is pulled out, flames coyly dancing at the left of the Cinemascope frame--as if from the point-of-view of the alchemy that turns dough into bread, or weaklings into toughs.

But my favorite moment in this atmospheric film has nothing to do with camera moves or plot twists or acting moments. It's part of the credits. They begin with Warner Bros. (of course) and Webb--but as actor, not director. Nothing is said about "a Jack Webb film" or anything else of that ilk. Instead, right after "Jack Webb as Pete Kelly" come words to warm this writer's heart: "in a screenplay by Richard L. Breen." Not "in a film by Jack Webb" or "in a Mark VII Production." It's an acknowledgment, rare these days, that the script comes first, that without it there would be no film: no producing, directing, gripping, gaffing, editing, and photographing; no roles for Jane Leigh, Peggy Lee, Lee Marvin, and their fellows.

They don't make 'em like that anymore, but I'd sure like to see somebody try. Maybe one of these days, a generous and innovative director will relinquish the usual vainglorious opening credit and put the script first again.