Monday, 27 February 2012


Meryl Streep, arriving at the 84th Annual Academy Awards ceremony last night at the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles
So finally it happened, at long last, after having been nominated 17 times - including two wins - last night Meryl Streep finally go to pick up her third Academy Award. 29 years after her last win for Alan J. Pakula's Sophie's Choice, in which she also won for Best Actress. 3 years prior, she'd received her first Academy Award, this one in the Best Supporting Actress category for her portrayal as the tormented mother in search of herself in Kramer vs. Kramer.

With 3 wins, Streep is practically in a league of her own. Though not quite ... she joins the likes of Ingrid Bergman, who also received two Best Actress Oscars (Gaslight, Anastasia) and one for a supporting role (Murder in the Orient Express). Ahead of both of them is Katherine Hepburn, who received a total of four Academy Awards, and all of them in the Best Actress category. Streep, though, is the undisputed champion when it comes to nominations. With a total of 17 she's four ahead of Hepburn. Still, it's a pretty exclusive club up there, consisting of a mere three women, all universally acclaimed and admired actresses, who were - are - legends in their own time. Already those actresses that have received two Academy Awards are few and far between. There is only a handful of them and their names conjure up all kinds of images, images that have burnt themselves into our collective memory: Liz Taylor, Bette Davis, Jodie Foster, and the only German actress ever to receive an Academy Award - Luise Rainer.

Three Oscars or four Oscars ... all of these women have written Hollywood history and rightly deserve their place in the Pantheon. However, I can't help feeling sorry for those who've been overlooked - like this year's Ryan Gosling and Michael Fassbender - or those who though picking up nods, kept losing out to their colleagues. One name that springs to mind is of course Glenn Close. She was Streep's biggest competition during the 1980s, receiving five Oscar nominations, mostly in years when Streep was also nominated. When Close's as well as Streep's careers took a nosedive some time in the late 1990s, Close found a new home in television, receiving critical acclaim for her roles in Damages and The Shield. Then, with The Hours Streep's career slowly but steadily took off again and in addition to her loyal following of gay men and middle-aged housewives - those, who were in the student movement when Streep made her first on-screen appearance in Fred Zinneman's Julia and Woody Allen's Manhattan - Streep now also became popular with the generation of their daughters: those who like to shop for Prada shoes or warble Abba songs under the shower. Films like The Devil Wears Prada and Mamma Mia finally made Streep a universal favourite, catapulting her back into the mainstream, made her the household name she always was but few households admitted to be aware of. Streep, today - at 62! - is an international megastar, someone who draws audiences from all walks of life. Just take her appearance at the Berlin Film Festival two weeks ago where she was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award. Outside the festival theatre thousands of fans - men, women - shouted and screamed and were close to hysteria. Inside, she was showered with standing ovations that lasted several minutes, prompting her in her acceptance speech to quip, "Oh I don't think I'll ever go home again!". The last time an actress of a certain age achieved a similar feat was nearly 80 years ago, when in 1933 the then 64 year old Marie Dressler was voted America's most popular actress.

Streep, receiving her Lifetime Achievement Award - bestowed by Jake Gyllenhall - at the Berlin Film Festival on February 14, 2012
But I got sidetracked ... While Streep (or her agents) managed to turn her career around, the same cannot be said of Close. Until last year. Being offered the lead in Alfred Nobbs was a rare opportunity for Close to once more show the world what she's got on the big screen. For her outstanding portrayal of a man in 19th century Ireland she was promptly rewarded with a string of awards and nominations, including one by the Academy for Best Actress. However, as luck would have it, once again she's up against Streep. This battle of two great screen icons up for a Best Actress Oscar reminds me of the year 1950, when Bette Davis and Gloria Swanson were both nominated for their roles in you-know-what-I'm-talking-about. In the end, both of them lost ... last night, though, the odds-on-favourite (?) won. Well, it did take long enough, given that Streep's last win was nearly 30 years ago. However, I can't help feeling sorry for Glenn Close ... ... 

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Possessed - The Life of Joan Crawford, By Donald Spoto

It may seem strange or even hard to believe that in spite of my interest in the history of American cinema I'd never read a biography or critical study on Joan Crawford until picking up Donald Spoto's book on her a few weeks ago. Having read several other of his books before, I knew roughly what to expect. In other words, Spoto knows what he's talking about, knows his Hollywood history, abstains from making undue claims he can't buttress, and tends to rely on a variety sources, including secondary literature, oral histories and empirical data. And indeed, this also applies to his book on Crawford, aptly titled Possessed, which refers to both the title of two of Crawford's movies as well as to that of her traits which best describes her. Possessed makes for compelling, engrossing reading. It is well written, well researched relying as it does on a slew of sources, among them the Joan Crawford papers at Lincoln Center.

What I found most intriguing though, is that in the book's introduction Spoto reveals the impetus not only for writing this book, but for his interest in Joan Crawford in general. For when Spoto was 11 years old, she answered his letter in which he expressed his admiration for her performance in Sudden Fear. As Spoto rightly pointed out, he had no expectation of ever receiving an answer to his, the letter of an 11-year old. Yet, the fact that he did get a reply says a lot about Crawford and the way she pushed herself, obsessed with being the star and remaining one, which included never letting down her fan base by also recruiting new ones, such as 11 year old Donald Spoto.

Aware of the importance and significance of our childhood experiences and memories, I can just imagine the impact Crawford's reply was bound to have on the eleven year old Donald, sparking a life-long fascination for one of the small handful of women - stars - whose names are forever linked with the golden age of Hollywood and which have become synonymous with glamour. Therefore it comes as no surprise that his book is full admiration for its subject. But don't be fooled, his is of course not the out-pour of some gushing fan. Spoto always retains a critical distance by also taking Crawford's detractors into account, including Crawford's adopted daughter Christina's infamous Mommie Dearest. However, where appropriate he disproves her and refutes her claims by providing evidence, usually oral histories of people who knew Crawford personally or professionally.

When after nearly 500 pages you get to the end of Possessed you're left with a biography of a woman in whose life glamour was but one aspect. Above all, Crawford was a hard worker, notoriously hard on herself - much more so than on others - and a woman possessed by perfection and who had trouble telling the woman from the star. Like others of her time - Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis - Crawford was the improbable product of the studio system, a system that tolerated no deviation or aberration lest it may damage the star's image and consequently box office receipts. But their, including Crawford's, glamorous image and relatively sudden rise to stardom stood in rank contrast to their modest backgrounds, which included an absent father and an almost complete lack of education, something even the most lavish Adrian gowns never managed to make up for, let alone cover. The result was incredible wealth and fame at the expense of a desolate, ultimately lonely, private life.

Possessed is a fascinating portrait of one of the most fascinating personalities spawned by Hollywood's golden age, one who was so central to the rise of MGM, which in turn was pivotal in the history of American film.

Possessed - The Life of Joan Crawford, by Donald Spoto, Harper Collins, 2010

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Berlin Film Festival 2012 - The Winners

Best First Feature Film:

Boudewijn Koole for Cowboy/ Netherlands

Special Mention/ Silver Bear:

Ursula Meier for L'enfant d'en haut/ Switzerland

Alfred Bauer Award for New Perspectives In Cinema:

Miguel Gomez for Tabu/ Portugal

Silver Bear for Best Actor:

Mikkel Boo Falkesgaard for A Royal Affair/ Denmark

Silver Bear for Best Actress:

Rachel Mwanza for Rebelle/ Canada

Silver Bear For Best Screenplay:

Nikolai Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg for A Royal Affair/ Denmark

Silver Bear For Outstanding Artistic Contribution:

Cinematographer Lutz Reitemeier for Bai lu yuan/ China

Silver Bear for Best Direction:

Christian Petzold for Barbara/ Germany

Silver Bear/ Grand Prix of the Jury:

Bence Fliegauf for Just The Wind/ Hungary

Golden Bear for Best Film:

Paolo and Vittorio Taviani for Cesare deve morire/ Italy

Monday, 6 February 2012

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Tomas Alfredson, UK 2011

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is an excellent spy-thriller. That is, if you're into spy-thrillers ...

Jokes aside, it is an outstanding film no doubt - dense, excellently paced, to say nothing of the actors who are all at the top of their game, without exception - but truth be told: as far as I'm concerned Tinker, Tailor falls under that category of films which don't do much for me, yet their brilliance is nevertheless obvious, even to me, and I can see why they are a cut above the rest (of similar such spy-thrillers).

If you are into spy-thrillers - unlike myself - then you may love this film, but be warned: it is the opposite of what you'd expect from your average, run-of-the-mill James Bond movie. That Alfredson has stripped the genre of all the glitz, the pretty girls, the ritzy locations and the gallons of dry martinis which have falsely sugar-coated the genre of the spy-thriller ever since Bond, James Bond first stepped out of his Aston Martin with a Chanel-clad Ursula Andres by his side, surely is part of Tinker, Tailor's brilliance. Alfredson's spies are a tired-looking, lonely, bunch of middle-aged, droopy shouldered, men wearing badly cut suits in various shades of grey and that murky, 1970s, brown. The only pretty girl in sight is an indeed stunningly pretty Russian spy who gets violently killed halfway into the film.

It seems obvious that Aldredson has given Martin Ritt's equally brilliant but equally elliptical, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold a good look for its mood, theme, and general atmosphere, are very reminiscent of Tinker, Tailor, and I don't think that's just because both are based on novels by John le Carre.

Having not seen the 1979 television version of Tinker, Tailor, I have no idea how the two compare. However, I do know that it probably helps if you've seen it - if only to make the plot-line and the goings-on that much clearer. I'm aware that like in most spy-thrillers, the viewer has to just accept some of the unfolding events as a fact. No questions asked. Trying to question or get to the bottom of this, that or the other element in the plot is bound to get you nowhere. At least, I didn't. I tried.

Nevertheless, that I did try, tells you that I liked the movie well enough to care.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Berlinale 2012 - Programme/ Competition/ Now Complete

The programme for the International Competition is now complete, the Berlin Film Festival has announced.

Though due to the rescheduled date for the Academy Awards ceremony which has once again been brought forward, the programme does feature less US productions than usual. However, in my opinion that is a loss the Berlin film fest can live with. If anything, it's a gain, not because US films are so bad - no! - but because these films will eventually be released the world over, anyway, and therefore don't really need the support of a major film festival as a launching pad at all.

Let's face it, the main reason why Hollywood used to feature so prominently in the Berlinale's Competition was because of the Hollywood glamour these films added to a festival which otherwise has a dearth in star power - stars, that is, that are known the world over. Not that any film festival - let alone one like the Berlinale which for years has been known as a political festival, and one with a focus on Asian and eastern European cinema - necessarily needs star power or Hollywood glamour. But it's the sponsors that require it. Like everywhere else - money talks, and it's the sponsors providing much needed cold, hard cash, that are calling the shots. At least to a degree. For if French cosmetics giant L'Oreal agrees to shell out some dough they expect to be associated with the likes of Scarlett Johannson or, if unavailable, Paris Hilton (or perhaps not Paris Hilton ...), rather than some, in their eyes, C-List ding-dong from some eastern European country Paris Hilton wouldn't even be able to pinpoint on the map. But every time I see these so-called Hollywood stars schlepping across the red carpet in Berlin's - usually - freezing cold weather, answering the - usually - silly questions by the German media, for some Berlinale entry which - usually - had its US release weeks ago, I'm finding this act, put on for the sake of the sponsors, increasingly ludicrous. Let's face it - Berlin will never be Cannes. Temperatures below zero, the non-existent palm-trees and, of course, the relative absence of Hollywood stars, just can't compete with the splendours of La Croisette. It is my opinion - and it has been for some time - that Berlin would be well advised to distance itself from Cannes. In other words, rather than trying to imitate it, the way to go is to focus on its reputation as a political festival and get completely rid of the titbits of glamour there were, including that silly red carpet. Berlinale discoveries that fall under this category are the festival's strong suit and are generally among the best films to be found in the fest's official programme. Best case in point is last year's Nader and Sirin, which went on to garner awards across the globe.

This year, however, there's little the sponsors can do, anyway, as Hollywood films are just not available for reasons mentioned above. All this, I think, is to the Berlinale's benefit which, in addition to being blessed with the strongest jury in years, now also has a Competition programme to match. And while I can't say much regarding the quality of the films selected yet, at least the programme as a whole seems more consistent, if not to say more interesting, featuring, as it does, an impressive number of films of little known directors, thus doing exactly what a film festival is supposed to do: providing an international platform for new talent.

Find the Berlinale Competition programme HERE!