By Joan Ellis
In a clever move, Turner Classic Movies has made a documentary that is basically a feature length commercial for itself.
After a fairly dull introduction, it builds to a visual feast of the artistry that lies beneath the finished products we watch in our theaters. Helen Mirren puts it well: “In the end we are artists, and art is not about competition.”
In the late ‘20s the studio heads, those earthly Gods of Hollywood, were battling the rise of the unions. Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, married stars of the moment, helped found The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, parent organization of the Oscars, in order to honor the art while leaving the bosses and unions on the battlefield.
As Mirren said, “We all love a gold star.”
In short clips, we watch the delivery of that gold star to early Hollywood winners and then to Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable, Daniel Day-Lewis and Damon and Affleck who were as excited as schoolboys when their names were announced.
We are given a close look at the horrific damage Joseph McCarthy did with his blacklist as some Hollywood figures knuckled under and others fought back. A few, like the extraordinary Dalton Trumbo, continued to win Oscars while writing under pseudonyms.
The strength of the film comes when it looks at the less celebrated award categories. On script writing, George Clooney says, “You can’t make a good movie from a bad screenplay.” And on cinematography, Annette Bening: “No matter what you do, there’s something about you that the camera finds.” The cinematographer paints the film.
The art director can silence a theater with one stroke; the costume designer transports us to another era; the film editor puts the puzzle together, and then, of course, there’s the music. We hear a terrific description of how “The Social Network” became an entirely different movie with the addition of the Oscar-winning score.
“Schindler’s List” opened with the single touch of color in the film as the candles die in the dim light of the home of a Jewish family while the lingering smoke turns into the smoke from the ovens at Auschwitz. That was a punch to the heart by film editor Janusz Kaminski.
The film gives us a glimpse of that earlier day when the only screens in our lives were the ones that brought us movies. There was no such thing as the relentless celebrity culture that engulfs us now.
Oscar night was the only time we saw movie stars playing themselves. They were wrapped in dignity and glamour for one night, and before television, even that ceremony was delivered to us on film in a newsreel. The only other time we saw them was in their on-screen roles when they became whoever we wanted them to be. These weren’t real people; they were wonderful figments of our imagination.
Unlike theater, where real people do real things, movies are all about magic and illusion.
Joan Ellis’ address on the Internet, which contains her review library, is JoanEllis.com.