LOS ANGELES - Movies are historic documents. They chronicle the times in which they were filmed. Oscar-winning movies in particular, beyond their acknowledged cinema artistry and box office popularity, can illuminate the temper of the country at a point in time. They capture the styles, the social values, and a sense of the political climate of the year in which they won the Academy Award.
This year is the 75th anniversary of the Oscars. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been celebrating this Diamond Anniversary by screening all of the Academy Award winning Best Pictures in sequence most Monday nights at its Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. This past month, the Oscar winners from the 1940s have been screened. These award-winning films gave me a good sense of the spirit of this country during those turbulent times.
The 1940 winner was director Alfred Hitchcock's "Rebecca," starring Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, and Judith Anderson. The country was just emerging from the Great Depression and hungering for escape. The people wanted a break from the lingering gloom. Their romantic fantasy was the notion of happiness prevailing over adversity, come what may. Joan Fontaine played a beautiful but poor young housekeeper in a great manorial estate owned by Laurence Olivier, whose wife had recently died. She falls in love with the dashing young owner in spite of the relentless intrusions of a stern and mysterious head housekeeper played by Judith Anderson.
The film would be seen today as a piece of high-class soap opera. But it well captured the escapist appetite of a nation just shaking off the dreary dust of economic hard times. "Rebecca" is an entertaining, but transparently corny gauge of the period. This movie won for Best Picture over a much more substantial film that depicted the true hardships of the period with powerful realism, "The Grapes of Wrath." If I were voting then, this would have been my pick. The Best Direction award, aptly, went to the director of "The Grapes of Wrath," the great master, John Ford.
An added bit of fun with "Rebecca," on the other hand, was watching a young Judith Anderson as the sinister head housekeeper. Her career-capping movie was "Star Trek III: The Search for Spock" in which she portrayed the stern ancient Vulcan priestess. She seemed pretty stern in real life as well when we worked on that film. For her role in "Rebecca" she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar.
The 14th Best Picture Academy Award winner, "How Green Was My Valley," was released in 1941. The Oscar ceremony honoring it was nearly canceled. The award presentation took place on February 26, 1942 - two months after Pearl Harbor. The governors had been thinking of canceling the show after the surprise attack. But, after much debate, they decided to go ahead with a modified version. The tone was subdued, formal attire was banned, and there were no searchlights fanning the skies outside Los Angeles' Biltmore Hotel, where the ceremony was held.
The winning film still reflected the economic struggles of the nation rather than the now-raging world conflict. "How Green Was My Valley" is about the struggles of a Welsh coal mining family at the turn of the century. Parallel to the trials and tribulations of a tight-knit family gradually breaking up were the economic issues of unionization, labor versus capital, and class divisions. It was still a "fighting through hard times" movie. The film's director, John Ford, won his second Oscar, thus becoming the first director to win two in a row. He had won the previous year for "The Grapes of Wrath."
The Fifteenth Oscar presentation was on March 3, 1943, in the Coconut Grove of the Ambassador Hotel. This time, the Academy Awards ceremony radiated patriotism. Jeannette MacDonald sang the National Anthem. Marine private Tyrone Power and Air Force private Alan Ladd unfurled an industry flag announcing that over 26,000 members of the motion picture business were in uniform. For the first time, the bronze-filled, gold-plated Oscar statuettes were made of plaster due to wartime shortages. And the Best Picture of the year award went to "Mrs. Miniver," a film unabashedly glorifying the courage of an English family under wartime Nazi assault.
The Mrs. Miniver character, played by Greer Garson, personified heroic British spirit and resilience. The downed German pilot spouted Hitler's master race slogans like a robot. The devastation of war was heartbreakingly depicted. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called the film "propaganda worth a hundred battleships." I noted an interesting bit of the moral code of the times in the separate beds occupied by the loving wife and husband in their own bedroom. Greer Garson received the Best Actress and Teresa Wright the Best Supporting Actress Oscars. The director, William Wyler, won for his work on the film but could not attend the ceremony because he was stationed in England at the time. The world was engulfed in war and so, too, was the Academy Awards ceremony.
The Oscar ceremony of 1945 was moved back onto Hollywood Boulevard to the legendary Grauman's Chinese Theater. The news from Europe was looking hopeful
Within two months, Germany would surrender. The Japanese would follow suit in August. The country was feeling optimistic.
The Best Picture Oscar winner was the bright and sentimental Paramount Studios film, "Going My Way," starring Bing Crosby. It was also the first Best Picture to include the Best Song. Crosby, as the idealistic, easy going, crooner priest Father O'Malley, won as Best Actor and Barry Fitzgerald as the charmingly cantankerous Father Fitzgibbon, won as Best Supporting Actor. America had struggled through more than a decade of economic misery and now seemed victorious in a world conflict. We were feeling good. We felt upbeat about the future. "Going My Way" was a precise picture of the country.
This Academy series on the Best Picture Oscar winners set me to thinking on the films that might reflect the temper of our times.
Today, we could be said to be living in a time prickly with uncertainty. The air is filled with insecurity whether it is in the wild gyrations of the stock market or the fear of some startling terrorism in our land. News of rising unemployment is accompanied by conflicting reports of possible attack on Iraq. The air is tense with a vague anxiety. I saw a film earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival that I think brilliantly captures this societal unease. It is "One Hour Photo" starring Robin Williams in a chillingly fine performance. The film was recently released nationwide. "One Hour Photo" is one of the best pictures I have seen this year and a good candidate for Best Picture consideration.