Tag Archives: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Musicals at the Academy Awards

It came as little surprise to moviegoers when it was announced on January 24th, 2017, that La La Land had been nominated for 14 Academy Awards, tying the record for most nominations received by a single film (with Titanic and All About Eve). A critical and commercial success, La La Land is both a film made for modern audiences and a loving throwback to the Golden Age of the Hollywood musical. Time will tell whether La La Land will sweep the Oscars (although predictions skew in that direction), but its role is not without historical precedent.

To date, only ten musicals have won the coveted Academy Award for Best Picture. An American in Paris (1951) was the fourth to achieve this honor. In the following excerpt from He’s Got Rhythm: The Life and Career of Gene Kelly, authors Cynthia and Sara Brideson discuss the 24th Academy Awards, at which American and Kelly were to achieve special recognition:


If Gene believed that Hollywood and America as a whole did not grant him the recognition he deserved, he was soon to be proven wrong. The honor Hollywood lavished upon Gene after he left for Europe confirmed that his artistry was far from overlooked in his native country. Never in the history of film had a musical ever received as many Oscar nominations as Gene’s An American in Paris. The picture received nods in eight categories: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Musical Score, Best Art Direction and Set Decoration, Best Color Cinematography, Best Costume Design, and Best Film Editing.

Most significant, Gene was announced as the recipient of the annual Honorary Oscar. The category, created in 1948, acknowledged cinematic achievements not covered by existing Academy Awards. Gene was only the second dancer to receive such recognition (Fred Astaire received one at the 1950 awards ceremony). Though pleased with the award, Gene still voiced regret that he had not been nominated as Best Actor. “The idea that musical [actors] are less worthy of Academy consideration than drama[tic ones] is a form of snobbishness.”

In truth, the honorary Oscar did pay tribute to Gene’s acting ability as well as his dancing talent. On March 20, 1952, the night of the awards ceremony, the president of the Academy, Charles Brackett, stated that Gene had earned his statuette through his “extreme versatility as an actor-singer, director, and dancer . . . and because of his specific and brilliant achievements in the art of choreography on film.” From Europe, Gene requested that Stanley Donen accept the Oscar for him. Vincente Minnelli admitted that Gene’s decision hurt his feelings, particularly because Donen had had no part in the production of An American in Paris.

Gene was not the only one to receive an honorary Oscar that night. Arthur Freed took home the Irving Thalberg Memorial Award, given to a different producer each year. The Freed Unit was sweeping the Oscars; before Best Picture was announced, An American in Paris had already won two honorary awards plus Best Costume Design, Best Color Cinematography, Best Art Direction and Set Decoration, and Best Screenplay (not to be confused with Best Adapted Screenplay, which went to A Place in the Sun). However, in the Best Picture category, An American in Paris faced heady competition. In a year that sported such prestigious titles as A Streetcar Named Desire, The African Queen, and A Place in the Sun, a musical picture with a thin story line seemed the least likely to win the award. Presenter Jesse Lasky could not conceal his surprise when he opened the envelope. “Oh my!” he exclaimed. “The winner for Best Picture is An American in Paris.” The audience was silent except for a few gasps of shock. But slowly, hearty applause erupted, which only became more vigorous when Freed trotted up to the stage, clearly moved. As he cradled the statuette with the honorary one he had already received, he quipped, “It’s a double header!” He continued on a more serious note: “Thank you. And thank you from my brilliant associates who made this possible: Vincente Minnelli, Gene Kelly, and a great studio with real courage and leadership who supported me. Thank you.”


For those interested in learning more about the life of Gene Kelly, the Brideson’s new and comprehensive biography is available for pre-order here. Or visit our Twitter for details on how to win an advance copy of the book.

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5 Forgotten Films of Joseph E. Levine

Levine (center), pictured with his wife Rosalie and Howard Koch of Paramount

From the middle of January to the end of February, Hollywood finds itself in the midst of Oscar season, a time when the recent achievements of various actors, directors, and many others involved in the film business are celebrated widely. It is also be a time when the history of Hollywood is remembered for all its many characters. One such character was Joseph E. Levine, one of the most prolific producers of the middle twentieth century.

UKY05 Showman of the Screen Selected.inddBorn into the slums of Boston’s West End, Levine became a true American success story. His showmanship, boundless energy, and a fondness for both risk-taking and profanity made him one of the most recognizable personalities in show business. But despite being—by his own dubious accounting—involved in nearly five hundred films over the course of his life, Levine is barely remembered today. Showman of the Screen: Joseph E. Levine and His Revolutions in Film Production, a new biography by award-winning film writer A. T. McKenna, reveals the streetwise hustler, hawker, name-dropper and capricious and contradictory promoter who excited audiences and forever changed modern movie marketing. While he worked on films as notable as The Graduate (1967) and as notorious as Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964), he also produced many films that are now mostly forgotten. Presented here are just five, but there are many more.

The Oscar: Hollywood has always loved a story about itself (as recent critical favorite La La Land demonstrates) but rare is the film in which the Academy Awards themselves constitute a plot point. The Oscar (1966) goes against that trend to present the story of Frankie Fane, a self-absorbed actor who attempts to secure a Best Actor win after an unexpected nomination. Although it was, in fact, nominated for two Oscars (Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design), it was also labeled as one of the worst films of the year and ensured that Tony Bennett (who saw his film debut in it) would never play a dramatic role again.

Mad Monster Party?: The Rankin/Bass Christmas specials (Rudolph, Santa Claus is Coming to Town) have been a staple of American culture since their debut in the 1960s, but did you know that they also (in conjunction with Levine) released a monster mash theatrical film? In the traditional stop-motion style of their best known features, Mad Monster Party? sees Baron Frankenstein (voiced by Boris Karloff, in his last work in the Frankenstein mythos) summon the monsters of the world (among them Dracula, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, and The Creature From The Black Lagoon) to his castle to inform them of his discovery of the secret of total destruction. Shenanigans ensue, in typical Rankin/Bass fashion, and the film has since attained a cult status.

The Day of the Dolphin: In this 1973 film, George C. Scott plays a scientist who trains dolphins to speak English. After two of his dolphins are stolen, he learns of a plot to use them to assassinate the President of the United States by placing a mine on the hull of the President’s yacht, and must race against time to stop it. Although the film was met with critical ambivalence and weak box office returns, it was nominated for two Academy Awards, for Best Original Score and Best Sound.

Magic: Many remember The Princess Bride, but few know that its writer William Goldman also wrote Magic, a 1978 film in which Anthony Hopkins played a failed magician who turns to ventriloquism but soon finds himself killing friends and enemies at the will of his dummy. Originally, Gene Wilder was chosen to play the lead, but Levine refused on the grounds that he was making a serious movie, and the appearance of a comedian in the lead role would detract from that. Although widely praised on its release, the film has since passed into relative obscurity.

Tattoo:  The last film ever produced by Levine, Tattoo (1981) told the story of a disturbed tattoo artist (Bruce Dern) who becomes obsessed with a model and kidnaps her with the intent of making her into a canvas for his art. Although its promotional materials (which featured a woman’s legs covered in tattoos and bound by cloth) were met with uproar by some, the film failed to make any dent in the critical or commercial landscape.

More film stories as well as many anecdotes about Levine’s life (including details about his feuds with George C. Scott and Peter O’Toole, among others) can be found in Showman of The Screen by A.T. McKenna.

           

Take Two: Behind the Scenes with Pickford, Chaplin, Fairbanks, and Griffiths

As an actress, Mary Pickford had many personas. Ranging from the winsomely beautiful to the almost unrecognizable, even grotesquely plain, and playing the parts of child, adolescent, mother and everything in between, she emerged from the other actors at Biograph to become the first real star and the begetter of what would become the star system. More than just an incredibly versatile actress, Pickford was a leader in the solidification of the Hollywood film industry, co-founding both her own distribution company, United Artists in 1919, and acting as a founding member of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1927.

In this charming and candid video that captures the “between takes” of the historic formation of United Artists in 1919 with Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, and D.W. Griffiths, we get to see Mary Pickford in her other role: that of businesswoman. Already a star and producer, her co-founding of United Artists marked her transition to distributor, a move that continued to show her public and the men in Hollywood that she was a both a formidable businesswoman as well an incredible acting talent.

Enjoy this special clip that shows us the lighthearted comradery of the silent film giants who were part of an incredibly important moment in film history!

P.S. Don’t forget to enter this week’s cinema-themed giveaway, Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies by Christel Schmidt. Enter by Friday at 1PM for your chance to win!