Best Picturesque: The 16th – For Whom the Song of Casablanca Tolls

In this project, I’ll be watching each Best Picture winner, regardless of if I’ve already seen it, at random years, and then watching the two nominees with the most Oscar nominations for that year to find out, in my pompous assessment, if the Academy made the right choice. If I’ve already seen the subsequent nominee, I’ll move on to the next most nominated for that year.

The 16th Academy Award Best Picture nominees I watched: Casablanca, The Song of Bernadette (12),  For Whom the Bell Tolls (9)
bold = winner italics = losers (nominations) ]

When I watched these: March 11th – March 13th, 2018

The snacks: Pot stickers, and a whole bunch of peanut butter M&Ms

The year: 1942 and ’43, due to a strange technicality for Casablanca.

Did I skip any of the movies?: Nope.

So why did the other movies lose?

The Song of Bernadette begins with a dreary landscape of poverty, overlaid with an ominous score, telling the old tale of the exasperated father desperately looking for work in a society that seems to have forgotten him and his family. Enter Bernadette, a simple and naive teen who sees the Virgin Mary on a rock ledge near a creek.  We rally behind her alongside the small Catholic community, hoping that what she sees isn’t just a hallucination — and even if you don’t believe her, you want to see her win because,  y’know, she’s poor.  The subsequent visions and miracles confirm indeed she is not delusional, yet the skeptics (church authorities, local authorities — pretty much all the authorities) persistently attempt to suppress her, and ultimately fail to do so as their hearts gradually soften. It’s pretty clear why a film like this would never work today; we have an entire society of hardened hearts who would probably laugh at a film like this, and at those who might be swept up into its religious fervor.  But this is also the weakest aspect of the film — it’s somewhat agenda-driven and employs stereotypical characters and situations to get the job done. It seems to do everything right beyond this screenplay flub.

Where Song of Bernadette succeeded is where For Whom the Bell Tolls fails tremendously.  The film stars Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman, both highly regarded actors, yet they’re shoehorned into this ridiculous romance that defies the entire premise of the film, and the screenplay keeps going back to them to fill a bloated 3 hour sparse epic that’s really about something else. The film starts off with lots of bangs and one huge boom, and we immediately recognize its strengths: the battle sequences and and cinematography.  But we get stuck with Ilsa and Shane pining over each other, even laying outside in the cold in plain view of the enemy numerous times to satisfy their urgency to share their lives together, which we don’t really care about because dang it there’s a bridge to blow up. And if the bridge thing sounds familiar, it’s because Obi-Wan would also blow up a different bridge 15 years later in the aptly titled and way more engaging Bridge On The River Kwai. The bright spot of For Whom is Katina Paxinou as Pilar, a hardy woman who lives among the guerilla rebels in the rocks, who probably should’ve just blown up the bridge herself since she seems impervious to distractions.

So why did Casablanca win?

I’ve learned that Humphrey Bogart basically plays the same character in every movie: he’s a hardened dude set in his ways, talking smoothly out of the side of his mouth, treating women as sidekicks instead of actual romantic interests. Yet there’s something compelling about Rick Blaine, a character who is set up in the same mold, yet gets triggered once Ilsa (Bergman), a girl with some history, walks into his club.  Rick keeps a straight face — because he has to — but he starts to wonder if fate has finally come around to obnoxiously rap on the door of his heart. But Ilsa is married now, and contrary to Rick’s famously neutral stance is siding with her husband, an Allied sympathizer in a dangerous and complicated time. Yes, it’s a World War II film, but this is just the setting.  Whereas most films desire to encapsulate wartime, its horrors and the chess pieces playing within, Casablanca chooses to focus on the mildly affected folks who are just trying to live as normal lives as possible, doing so with brilliant fluidity and compelling drama.  We fall in love and sympathize with everyone on screen; no one is inherently evil. They’re just trying to live their lives and happen to bump into each other.

The movie that should have won: Casablanca

No movie released this year is remotely comparable.

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