By John H. Foote
Am I intentionally a contrarian? I have never believed so, but I do have my own mind and I have chosen to use it rather than follow behind like a lemming. When my friends at school were rabid Maple Leafs fans I was a Boston Bruins fan, my favourite goalies was Gerry Cheevers who never had the best GAA in the league but he won, whether it was 1-0 or 9-8 he won and that was all he cared about. Today he is in the Hall of Fame and won two Stanley Cups.
With film, I knew what I liked, and though it was tricky to see foreign language films or non-mainstream cinema, I did my best, driving into the city as often as I could to see these films. I felt I needed to see everything in order to learn. When I arrived at Humber College to study acting, I locked horns with one of my professors who had studied with Laurence Olivier, and every single day we learned about the magnificence of Lord Olivier. He caught me yawning one day and called me out about my feelings about Olivier so I told him exactly what I thought. Had he not heard of Brando, Nicholson, Hoffman, Jane Fonda, the great method actors of the fifties and seventies? It was something at the time I knew would get me in hot water, but it was honest, which I thought he would appreciate.
What I said was not a popular belief among those who had been trained in Britain. Today, I do not care what he thought and I think history has borne me out. Even today, there are beliefs within the film community I do not believe, an example being the latest super hero film to be raved about, Black Panther. It is OK, not terrible, but Best Picture? Seriously? The Dark Knight gets snubbed in 2009 but this is up for Best Picture? Craziness.
We all have them, our deep dark secrets that we guard ferociously lest someone find out or worse, challenge us. Should we be challenged no doubt it will lead to an argument of sorts (and I love confrontation) but I will not give in to you, my beliefs are firmly in place. I remember reviewing Heat (1995) and receiving a 22 page letter rebuking me, which was quite brilliant but it did nothing to change my mind. The same is true of the contrary beliefs I have explored below, you might argue with me, but no chance will my mind change. I have dug deep to come to what I believe, and in some cases it has taken years to come to these beliefs, many of which are not very popular.
I challenged such ideas on my way up, and I appreciated film students who would question beliefs when I was teaching. Did they have a right to ask? Of course, and I always answered them with absolute honesty.
Remember my belief is contrary to the heading for each.
10. GANDHI (1982) IS A GREAT FILM!
Armed with its eight Academy Awards and Best Picture prize from the New York Film Critics Circle, Gandhi came into theatres already declared a masterpiece. But on his way to the podium to collect his Best Director Oscar Richard Attenborough stopped to speak with Steven Spielberg to tell the younger director he truly deserved the award for E.T. – The Extraterrestrial (1982), one of his masterpieces. He was right of course, but the Academy was hellbent on being socially elite, and honouring Gandhi, the man, not the film, seemed more important than awarding a fantasy that had grossed hundreds of millions of dollars. Ben Kingsley was very good as Gandhi, but was his performance really stronger than Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie (1982), one of the greatest performances ever put on film? Gandhi is not even an accurate depiction of the Mahatma, leaving out key details and anything remotely controversial. According to Attenborough, he walked on water.
9. BEGNINI RICHLY DESERVED HIS OSCARS
How did this happen? How did this hyperactive comic maniac win the Academy Award for Best Actor in Life is Beautiful (1998) over stunning performances such as Edward Norton in American History X (1998), Sir Ian McKellan in Gods and Monsters (1998) or Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan (1998). Somehow there was a groundswell of love for Begnini and his irresponsible Holocaust comedy, yes, I said that, bamboozled audiences and Academy voters into thinking it was important. Steven Spielberg thought the film was shameful, as did Woody Allen, while Scorsese was offended by its very existence. Like an organ grinder monkey, Begnini bounces about the film trying to get laughs, but instead makes himself look like an utter fool. A year later, the Academy was regretting the win.
8. THE GODFATHER PART III (1990) COMPLETES THE TRILOGY
I remember sitting in the press screening, anxious, could not wait. The studio had allowed a guest so Sherri was with me and only she knew I was like a kid in a candy store. Three hours later only she knew and understood the depth of my despair and disappointment, as the film was a complete disaster. A few years later I would interview Francis Ford Coppola and he told me the whole story, that the studio refused to pay Robert Duvall the money he wanted, forcing a shutdown while the script was rewritten, which incidentally, cost them more than it would have cost to pay the Oscar winning actor. The script he was forced to rewrite had been masterful, as Tom Hagen finally betrayed Michael though at a terrible cost. The Pacino we left at the end of Part II has no connection to this “watch me Ma, I’m acting” Michael, who performs for everyone…poorly. What a stunning way to end this trilogy as opposed to the mess they made…or did not. And enough with attacking poor Sofia Coppola, her father should have known better. Because it does not exist…
7. THE ENGLISH PATIENT (1996) IS A MAGNIFICENT OSCAR WINNING FILM
Like Elaine Benes of Seinfeld, watching this epic was sheer torture for me, I loathed the film entirely. I first screened it with the Toronto press and, as they adored the film, I was in agony. During the great climatic moment in the cave, I was screaming inside, Die! For God’s sake die so we can all go home and forget this nightmare. I truly thought everyone else felt the same, but when the reviews came out, only I was the dissenter. Then 12 Academy Award nominations, then nine awards and I was looking like a fool. History however has borne me out, who remembers with any fondness The English Patient? Not this critic. I have endured the film one other time and will never do so again, unless I have a bout of insomnia, which this snooze fest will fix. Beautifully shot, the film is exquisite to look at at, but no one goes to the movies to watch still photography.
6. JAMES DEAN WAS AN EXTRAORDINARY ACTOR
Had he lived James Dean would have become just another fifties actor like Tab Hunter, Elvis, even Rock Hudson. His limitations as an actor show in the latter stages of Giant (1956) when the young man portrays his older self. Like a high school student playing old, he shuffles, he mumbles, he moves like he has messed his pants, he just cannot play it. George Stevens knew how to best use Dean, cast him as a supporting player, but once we get to Dean as Jett Rink in his fifties, man he fails badly, acting all over the place. He never convinces and I think had he lived his intensity would have become all too familiar and within a couple of years audiences would have tired of him. Forever young, his death in 1955 freezing him in time, he became a legend, but not for what he would accomplish, but what they thought he might. He would not have.
5. THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST IS EXPLOITATIVE
No, it is art. The experience was one of the most extraordinary I have ever had in a cinema, the film stunning, taking risks with this story no other picture had ever taken. Gibson made a masterpiece, funding the film himself when no studio would help him, thus freeing him to make the film anyway he wanted, with no interference. Using dead languages, gruesome but historically accurate violence, Gibson made clear he was exploring the last 12 hours in the life of Christ, therefore his death not his life, though we see glimpses of that in flashback. The scourging is one of the most punishing sequences in all of cinema, you wonder how the poor man will survive, and yet he does, and always moves forward, always moves toward the hill where the cross waits for him. I struggle with religion, though I believe Christ existed and was a very unique man, I do not believe he was the son of God. The film was among the most inspirational I have ever seen, and I think what did it for me was the fact that no matter how they broke his body and mind, he kept moving towards his destiny on that cross. A masterpiece that was robbed of Best Picture and Best Director nominees. No one, not even Gibson, could have predicted the blockbuster the film became earning Gibson personally over four hundred million dollars.
4. LAURENCE OLIVIER WAS A GREAT ACTOR…UM, NO!
To begin, yes, I have seen every single performance Olivier gave on film. Every one, which in some cases was an exercise in torture. While he may have been a sensation onstage, on film Olivier was as hammy and mannered as they got, wildly over the top in all but one performance, his superb Nazi dentist in Marathon Man (1976) in which he was truly terrifying. But in every other Olivier performance all I saw was an actor going over the top, acting all over the place, there was nothing organic or natural about his work. You could see the wheels turning as the lines were spoken, you could see him thinking ahead to the next set of lines. I had a teacher in college who had studied with Olivier and all we heard was how brilliant Olivier was, and I did not see it. For me the great American actors of the seventies, and Brando in the fifties, had long blown away the work Olivier was doing. We disagreed and I paid for it. Apparently Olivier was revered for his Shakespearean films, winning the Academy Award for Hamlet (1948). But while watching a back to back double feature of The Boys from Brazil (1978) and Dracula (1979) I saw Olivier give nearly the same performance, portraying both characters, one an old Nazi hunter, the other Van Helsing, as cliched, whiny, meddlesome old Jewish women without the dress. It was an embarrassment. The opinion that Olivier was a great actor of any kind remains embarrassing.
3. JOHN WAYNE COULD NOT ACT
Olivier was the god of actors but John Wayne was a joke. Well, bunk. The great film historian John Milius stated “John Wayne’s performance in The Searchers is the greatest performance I have ever seen, sometimes I think I dreamed it.” No he did not dream it. I concede that while Wayne might have been limited to certain roles, so many others are and have been declared great actors. In a western, war film and adventure, Wayne was untouchable. He did, however, save his greatest work for westerns, he felt at home in them, he felt like a part of the landscape. If Wayne possessed no acting talent there is no chance he would have lasted 50 years as an actor, eventually audiences would have tired of him. And this thought that “he always portrays the same character???” Watch his films. There is no connection to his Ethan Edwards in The Searchers to Thomas Dunson in Red River, nor any connection to Nathan Brittles in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon to either man, nor a connection to Sean Thornton in The Quiet Man to any character played previous, or John Chance in Rio Bravo. His Rooster Cogburn in True Grit is completely original and his final performance in The Shootist is one of elegance and haunting power, not one of them similar. Now that is a great actor. Could he have done Shakespeare? No, no more than Olivier could have done a western. ’nuff said.
2. HITCHCOCK IS THE GREATEST FILM DIRECTOR
Bunk!! I say loudly, baloney!! Essays hail him the greatest director in film history, it is said his work influences every director working and again I say rubbish. I do not count myself a fan of the work of Hitchcock other than Psycho (1960) was was at the time groundbreaking and wildly original, and Rear Window (1954) bolstered immensely by the performances of James Stewart and Grace Kelly in this intense, claustrophobic drama. I find his work over planned, without a shred of spontaneity or natural acting. It was said he saw the finished film in his head as he shot it; why then did he need actors, other than to do his whim. No collaboration was encouraged or welcomed. They were not collaborators to him as they were with others, they were not a part of the creative process. Sure he could set a mood, and draw suspense from the story, but so could Wilder, Wyler, Ford and Kazan. This will get me strung up, but I find Hitchcock very ordinary. Understand I am painfully aware I am in the minority with his opinion, but it is truly how I feel.
1. CITIZEN KANE IS THE GREATEST FILM EVER MADE
NO! A THOUSAND TIMES NO IT IS NOT!!!! I am not alone here, though I might be alone in having the guts to put it in writing. The Godfather Part II (1974) is by far the greatest American film ever made, followed by The Godfather (1972), and films such as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), Sunset Boulevard (1950), A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), On the Waterfront (1954), The Searchers (1956), Some Like It Hot (1959), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Graduate (1967) and so on and so on through the seventies up to present day. It remains the most innovative film ever made, no question and the most copied and influential, no question. Its use of the broken narrative, deep focus cinematography, sound, editing, miniatures, art and faux documentary has long been direction, metaphors, all has been surpassed. And come on, that shrill performance of wife number two … dated is the best way, the kindest way to describe it.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.