A Few Favorite Oscar-Winning Classics Sunday, Feb 26 2012 

As a movie fan, I thought in honor of tonight’s Academy Awards, I’d take a break from books and write about some of my favorite Oscar winning films. These are just a few of many, of course, but if there are any here that you haven’t seen, I hope you’re inspired to give them a try.

Gone with the Wind (1939)

The enormously successful film adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s novel, Gone with the Wind tells the story of fiery Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) and her many marriages and machinations in the years during and after the Civil War, including her passionate but difficult relationship with golden-hearted rogue Rhett Butler (Clark Gable). While I still believe the book is better, this movie features magnificent costumes, unprecedented cinematography, and all the romance and drama you could ask for in one film. The strong cast also includes Olivia de Havilland and Hattie McDaniel, the first African American to win an Academy Award.

Casablanca (1943)

It has its logical flaws, but Casablanca also has a great and oft-quoted screenplay and a cast that does a wonderful job of bringing it to life. Former lovers Rick Blaine and Ilsa Lund (Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman) are reunited in the Moroccan city during World War II, bringing back painful memories for Rick and drawing him into involvement with the Resistance, something he never intended before seeing Ilsa again. The result is a moving tale of love and sacrifice, and one of the saddest and most beautiful romances ever to come out of Hollywood.

All About Eve (1950)

One evening after a performance, aging Broadway actress Margo Channing (Bette Davis) meets young Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), who claims to be her biggest fan. Margo quickly takes Eve on as her new assistant. Little do she and her friends know at the time what Eve’s true ambitions are, and the lengths she will go to in order to achieve them. All About Eve features a wickedly clever screenplay and a fantastic cast that includes Davis and Baxter in career defining roles, as well as George Sanders as sharp-tongued theater critic Addison DeWitt, Celeste Holm as Margo’s sweet-natured but conflicted friend Karen Richards, and Marilyn Monroe in one of her earliest prominent film roles. It’s easily one of the smartest and most entertaining films ever made about show business, and it only gets better every time I watch it.

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Released the same year as All About Eve, this film takes an equally brilliant but much more tragic look at the entertainment industry. Down-and-out writer Joe Gillis (William Holden) accidentally finds himself at the home of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a former silent film star convinced that the public is still in love with her. Gillis agrees to help Norma with the screenplay that she thinks will be her Hollywood comeback, in exchange for a luxurious life in her spacious mansion. The two use and abuse each other for months as Norma becomes more and more delusional about a return to Hollywood; you’ll probably find yourself wondering who the real villain of this film is, if there is one at all. Equally haunting and entertaining, Sunset Boulevard explores the fleeting nature of fame and the disastrous consequences of not being able to let it go.

On the Waterfront (1954)

This exploration of union corruption and violence on the Hoboken, New Jersey waterfront is a tense and powerful film, one that is inspirational without becoming sentimental. Marlon Brando gives a brilliant, influential performance as dockworker Terry Malloy, who initially accepts the depravity of the union leadership but with the support of “waterfront priest” Father Barry (Karl Malden) and love interest Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint) decides to take action against it. Wonderfully acted and written, this film is an important meditation on the impact of silence and of speaking out, the role of religion in a troubled society, and what people can do when they choose to move beyond their failures.

The Lion in Winter (1968)

Although largely fictional, The Lion in Winter does a great job portraying the tense relationship between King Henry II of England (Peter O’Toole) and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn). Not only have Henry’s many affairs soured their marriage, but the two are also in conflict as to which of their sons should inherit the English throne. O’Toole and Hepburn are both at their very best here, giving James Goldman’s witty, brilliant script the treatment it deserves. Also noteworthy is the film debut of Anthony Hopkins, who plays Henry and Eleanor’s son Richard. Even if your knowledge of and interest in medieval history is limited, this is a must-see.

The Godfather (1972)

Marlon Brando won his second Oscar (which he famously declined) as Don Vito Corleone in this cinematic masterpiece, but The Godfather is primarily the story of Corleone’s youngest son Michael, played by then relatively unknown Al Pacino. Michael starts out with no intention of getting involved in the “family business,” but he gets drawn into Mafia operations and evolves from an idealistic young man into a ruthless, intimidating mob boss. The Godfather revolutionized the crime film genre by presenting mobsters as complicated characters and treating them (somewhat) sympathetically, rather than from the viewpoint of an outraged public. It’s a great story told through amazing actors, not to mention incredible artistic detail. No matter how many times I watch this film, I discover something new or think about it differently with each viewing. It may not be an imaginative answer, but when asked my favorite movie of all time, this is the film I name, with no hesitation. It simply never gets old.


Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré Tuesday, Feb 7 2012 

I don’t remember exactly when I added Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy to my very long reading list, but the release of the new film based on the book reminded me what it was about and that I wanted to read it. A thriller set during the Cold War sounded perfect for me.

The novel takes place in the early 1970s and centers on the British overseas intelligence agency MI6. George Smiley, formerly Deputy Head of the Service, has been retired from the agency for about a year after being forced out of the agency by new leadership. However, when Civil Service officer Oliver Lacon learns that there is a Soviet mole codenamed “Gerald” in the highest ranks of MI6, he recruits Smiley to get back to work finding and exposing the mole, with limited evidence and without the knowledge of MI6, as new agency chief Percy Alleline and his three closest deputies are all suspects. If you want to know more about the plot…well, you’ll just have to read the book.

This is a dense, complex novel, and I found it took some effort to follow. A great deal of spy jargon is used, and I found it took a while to get all the terms straight and remember what they all meant. There are many characters—a few known by multiple names—and many intricate details and subplots. This is a much heavier read than many thrillers or adventure stories, and the reader definitely feels almost as much tension in the search for the Soviet mole as George Smiley and his former protégé Peter Guillam.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is not for the impatient reader, but for those who can keep all the jargon, multiple identities, and plot complications straight in their minds, this is an intense, intelligent, and gripping novel. It presents an important side of the Cold War that doesn’t always come through in the history books, and it brings the intrigue and drama of “office politics” to a whole new level. John le Carré examines questions of loyalty, betrayal, and friendship throughout the novel, as well as the impact of losing one’s life’s work and of learning difficult truths about the important people in one’s life. Most importantly, it is an exciting story that combines intellect and action, always keeping both readers and characters constantly on their toes.

One of the most important aspects of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and what perhaps sets it apart the most, is the protagonist George Smiley. It is clear from his first appearance that he is not a James Bond type and probably never was. It also quickly becomes clear that Smiley was one of the best at MI6, and that his dismissal was a matter of office politics, not incompetence. As the novel moved forward, I found myself rooting not only for the mole to be found, but also for Smiley to expose the folly of the new MI6 chief and even regain his position in the agency. George Smiley, unlike many fictional spies (at least to my knowledge of the espionage genre), is far more substance than style, as fictional characters should be but often aren’t in the mystery/thriller genre.

The new movie of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is now nominated for a few Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Smiley. This is the kind of novel that I expect could make a great movie, and I look forward to seeing and reviewing it soon.