Nadine: “I don’t wanna take up a ton of your time, but I’m gonna kill myself. I just thought an adult should know.”
Mr. Bruner: “Wow. I actually was writing my own suicide note just now. I have 32 fleeting minutes of happiness during lunch, which has been eaten up again and again by the same especially badly dressed student, and I finally thought I would rather have the dark nothingness.”
[ Hailee Steinfeld to Woody Harrelson, “The Edge of Seventeen” (2016]
In 1955 the film, “Marty” directed by Delbert Mann and starring Ernest Borgnine won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Director, and Actor along with winning Paddy Chayefsky an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. The movie was a romantic drama that told a simple story about a single, thirtyish butcher in the Bronx still living at home who was fat, unattractive and, like so many individuals living on the lower economic strata, generally lonely and frustrated about his lot in life. This short 90-minute film was different for a number of reasons. First, it was Director Mann’s first film and based on Chayefsky’s acclaimed 1953 television play also originally directed by Mann. Second, for Borgnine, it was his first lead role, since the majority of his previous roles had him playing mostly bad guys with maybe his most memorable one being the terrifying and sadistic “Fatso” Judson in “From Here to Eternity” (1953). Third, it only cost $340,000 to make and had no other name actors in any of the roles. Fourth, and last, it was independently produced with United Artists having only distribution rights. Despite all of these things supposedly against it, it was a huge box office and Academy Award-winning hit! The success of “Marty” sent shock waves throughout the entire American motion picture industry. It proved that independently produced and, at times, low-budget productions with lesser-known casts could compete and win acclaim, awards, and achieve box office success. It also further enhanced United Artists reputation as a place for daring artists and independent productions to be made as well as providing the impetus for a number of the other major film studios to do the same. In this month’s Blog Post I will discuss this film phenomenon highlighting a number of other little films that received acclaim along with highlighting others that should have, but unfortunately, did not!
After “Marty,” Mann would continue to work on similar types of films with original screenplays also provided by Chayefsky. A couple, that I want to briefly mention, were “The Bachelor Party” (1957) and “Middle of the Night” (1959). “Party” was about a young married bookkeeper (Don Murray) who goes out with a bunch of his fellow co-workers to a bachelor party for one of them, and as the evening progresses it showed all of their frustrations with their current lives and relationships. “Night” was about a widowed and older clothing manufacturer (Frederic March) who takes his much younger receptionist (Kim Novak) to dinner and slowly, a May-December romance develops between the two of them along with the corresponding disapprovals from both individuals’ family members. These films were intimate relationship dramas which also populated the TV airwaves back then. My own feelings towards them were that even though these films were well made with fine screenplays, directing, and acting, they all sort of looked the same after a while, and none of them could transcend either their stage or TV play limitations and that included “Marty,” which I never really liked much at all. Such angst driven fifties big city/suburban melodramas laced with despair were harbingers for other future films like “Interiors” (1978), “The Ice Storm” (1997), “Little Children” (2006), and “Manchester by the Sea” (2016). However, television in the nineteen fifties was also a fertile proving ground for other fine writers like Rod Sterling, Horton Foote, Reginald Rose, etc., and directors like Robert Mulligan, John Frankenheimer, and Sydney Lumet. These individuals, along with others back then, would make some different, and better, little films with big impact later on.
Two fine little ones were made in the early nineteen sixties. The first one was “David and Lisa” (1962) directed by Frank Perry. This film was a drama with romantic overtones about two young adults with serious psychological issues in a high-end psychiatric facility. David (Keir Dullea) is cold and distant while possibly suffering from an obsessive-compulsive disorder who reacts violently, whenever he is touched. Lisa (Janet Margolin) suffers from a split personality with one personality only speaking in rhymes and the other personality not speaking at all while only communicating by either writing or drawing. David, taken by Lisa’s sheer presence alone, slowly starts to interact with her by also communicating in rhyme and slowly, ever so slowly, they both start to change. This was an unusual love story that was really quite touching and a big motion picture hit even though it was a fanciful and false representation of mental illness and corresponding psychiatric care. Director Perry was never either a good or even much of a success as a director. However, this was the one real time that he struck gold. Helped by a fine screenplay by his then wife, Eleanor Perry (both of them were Academy Award nominated), he elicited a pair of fine performances from both Dullea and Margolin (it was her first film role) in believingly showing two mismatched souls slowly changing before your very eyes. Despite the fact that “David and Lisa” was made with less money than what you could find in a piggy bank, the viewing audience loved it… and so did I.
The other one that I want to praise was “Lilies of the Field” (1963) directed by Ralph Nelson. This picture starred Sydney Poitier as Homer Smith, an African American itinerant laborer traveling from job to job through the American southwest in his station wagon which is also where he resides. While stopping solely to get some water for his overheated radiator, he discovers that the nearby building is a convent occupied by five Catholic nuns mostly German and with only one, Mother Maria (Lilia Skala), speaking the most English. Although the nuns exist on a bare subsistence level and have almost no money, Mother Maria believes that Homer was sent by God to, at first, fix their roof, and second, to build them a chapel. Only problem is that (1) Homer, at first, doesn’t know that they have no money, and (2) once he finds out what they really want, he definitely doesn’t want to build their “frigging” chapel. Now Dear Reader, unless you have also been living in monastic seclusion all your life so as to have never seen this movie, it is a light as a feather comedy drama. And it’s wonderful!
Director Nelson, who previously directed another great little film, “Requiem for a Heavyweight” (1962) is even better here. Although this film only had a budget of around $247,000 or less, was filmed on location in Arizona in only fourteen days, had no art director, and was so cash strapped that Nelson had to even put up his own house as collateral, he actually did have some aces up his sleeve. First, he had as his cinematographer former Oscar winner Ernest Haller who previously won his Oscar for a “little” movie called “Gone with the Wind” (1939). Second, he had future Oscar winning composer Jerry Goldsmith’s delightfully folkish film score which matched the overall lightness of the picture. Third, he had a great Academy Award nominated screenplay by James Poe which was both humorous and ultimately, touching. And lastly, he had two fine performances: (1) Skala’s Academy Award nominated performance, and (2) Poitier’s Oscar winning performance for Best Actor.
Poitier, who took a smaller salary and a percentage of the profits so that this film could be made, also made history by becoming the first African American actor to ever win an Oscar in a leading role. Supposedly, Poitier felt that the reason the Academy gave him his Oscar was because they were treating him as a token African-American and not, as someone who actually deserved the Academy Award. Whatever his feelings were, he shouldn’t have been concerned. As far as I’m concerned, he definitely deserved it. He showed a light comic touch that he had never previously revealed as an actor before. Also, as Homer Smith (or “Schmidt” as Mother Maria calls him), Poitier created a character who, while exasperated at times by Mother Maria’s not so subtle manipulations, still demanded that she treat him, not as just an instrument of God in building her chapel, but as “the actual individual” who built his chapel. This aspect of his character along with Homer’s initial stubborn refusal from anyone to physically help him build the chapel until he is finally overwhelmed by everyone helping him in various ways, make Poitier’s portrayal fascinating. Great performance! Great film!
Now there were other fine little films made, just in the nineteen sixties alone, that I could also talk about such as “Séance on a Wet Afternoon” (1964), “The Pawnbroker” (1964), and “A Patch of Blue” (1965) for example. However, at the beginning of this Blog Post, I mentioned that I was going to discuss other fine little films that should have received more acclaim but mostly did not. Since these pictures are more recent, I want to discuss a number of them. The first two that I want to highlight are “Genius” (2016) and “Indignation” (2016). Both pictures were directed by individuals who were not known for film directing and concern subjects that one might not necessarily consider as being film worthy. For example, “Genius,” was the film directing debut of Michael Grandage, who was better known for his British theatre productions. “Genius” is a biographical drama about Maxwell Perkins (Colin Firth), the famed literary editor of the publishing house, Scribner’s and his relationship with writer, Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law). As a historical footnote, Perkins was probably the greatest literary editor that ever lived. It was through his efforts in both discovering and helping writers to streamline and better develop their novels, while at the same time, act as an advocate for their works to be published, that they ultimately found success and lasting fame. What authors you may ask? How about Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Jones, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and others. Although Law gave the showier performance, Firth as Perkins, gave a more subtle and thoughtful performance of someone who was cajoling, and persuasive, almost like a father confessor, while helping to guide the temperamental, self-serving, and self-destructive Wolfe into creating his great literary masterpieces. Grandage’s fine direction portrayed, in painstaking detail, the slow process of what a great literary editor actually does, and how this unique person helped so many great authors to achieve the success they did. Unfortunately, this film was not a success either critically or financially which was a shame. By the end of this picture, maybe the actual “genius” in “Genius” was the lesser-known Maxwell Perkins, himself!
“Indignation” was also the film directing debut of James Schamus who was better known as a top film screenplay writer and producer. Based on a novel by Phillip Roth, it starred Logan Leman as Marcus, a young Jewish soldier currently fighting in the Korean War who reflects back to how he ultimately wound up there. You quickly find out that he previously won a scholarship to a small elite private Christian College in Ohio where the studious and introverted Marcus meets and starts to date Olivia (Sarah Gadon), a beautiful, freethinking, and sexually adventuresome student who is emotionally and psychologically fragile, and as alienated from her immediate surroundings as Marcus. Marcus soon draws the attention of Dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts) when he requests a change to a single room because of his annoying roommates. It is in this film’s one on one discussions between these two men that the reason for this film’s name is made crystal clear. “Indignation” is about Marcus’s confrontations against the conformity prevalent in the nineteen fifties personified by the self-righteous, subtly antisemitic, and offensive bullying of Caudwell. Caudwell’s slow show of interest in this student soon devolves into his questioning, on a personal level, everything about Marcus from things like how he originally filled out his school application, why he resents going to mandatory chapel attendance, why he flees disagreement rather than just working things out with others, and even more. Much, much later, things will come to a head when, after Marcus arranges a meeting with the Dean after discovering that Olivia has mysteriously left the college and his wanting to find out why, he is outraged by Caudwell’s manner along with the Dean’s s not so subtle questioning of whether or not Marcus previously raped and impregnated Olivia. Marcus’s open defiance to conformity, and the personal choices he makes because of it, will ultimately provide the answers as to why he was now a soldier in Korea.
“Indignation” is a terrific picture thanks to Schamus who also wrote the screenplay as well as being the producer too. He slowly lets the scenes build between the various individuals by letting the dialogue carry the action. Yet the scenes do not feel stagey but are instead, engrossing thanks to fine restrained cinematography by Christopher Blauvelt. The slow burning confrontations between Caudwell and Marcus (who more than holds his own against the Caudwell) are worth the price of admission. Yet, the scenes between Marcus and Olivia are also both awkwardly touching, and ultimately, sad. Letts, Leman, and Gadon shine in their roles, and this is one little picture, that did receive critical acclaim and even some box office success. It still should have received a whole lot more.
Subjects such as alcohol and drug addiction, or physical and sexual abuse have been found to be popular, and at times, controversial storylines for films. Some good ones were “Days of Wine and Roses” (1962), “Drugstore Cowboy” (1989), and “The Woodsman” (2004) for example. However, two little films about these subjects which deserved more acclaim along with the actress who starred in both of them were “Smashed” (2012) and “All About Nina” (2018) both starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead. In “Smashed” Winstead plays Kate, an elementary school teacher who loves her job and also loves her husband, Charlie (Aaron Paul). Unfortunately, they both also love alcohol, way too much. They are alcoholics, and Kate’s addiction, like for so many addicts, is causing her life to spin out of control. Fortunately, she decides to start getting clean and sober. Unfortunately, Charlie does not! Now her effort to attain sobriety is at risk. “Smashed” was a true independently produced little 81-minute movie. It only had a budget of $500,000 financed by independent investors and filmed in only 19 days. As an addiction movie it was not, other than the fact that the main character was a young adult trying to get sober, anything original. “Flight,” a big budget movie about addiction starring Denzel Washington released that same year got far more recognition than this movie. The only thing is that “Smashed” is a far better picture due to the fine acting by Aaron Paul and an incredible standout performance by Winstead. Her character of Kate is very natural and believable. It’s an ordinary story about an ordinary person who is scared, awkward, funny, embarrassed, hesitantly brave, and, in a matter-of-fact way, slowly persevering whenever she has a setback. It’s a very realistic and honest portrayal, and one where she should have been nominated for an Academy Award (but she wasn’t). Unfortunately, her performance, while critically praised, didn’t help the film at the box office either. It didn’t even make back its original production cost.
For the dark comedy drama, “All About Nina”, Winstead had an even more difficult role. Here she starred as Nina Geld, an “in your face” standup comic whose raw unfiltered performances have given her a cult status following in cheap comedy clubs. However, her performances act as a buffer in hiding hidden traumas from her past while also making her personal life a disaster, especially with regards to developing and maintaining stable relationships. Escaping from an abusive relationship in New York City by heading to LA, she might have a change in her fortunes by (1) having an audition for a producer (Beau Bridges) to include her in his one-hour comedy special, and (2) possibly starting a new relationship with an actual “too good to be true” stable guy named Rafe (Common). That is, unless her self-destructive side doesn’t sabotage everything first. In “Nina,” Winstead’s standup comedy scenes are hysterical combining explosive raunchiness with insightful humor. Both on stage and off she combines laughter and sorrow together to make her portrayal unpredictable and original. Late in the film with her life possibly becoming irreparably untethered, she does a serious confessional about her past to her comedy club audience that is emotionally and heartbreakingly, spellbinding. Unfortunately, this little movie was neither promoted nor distributed very well despite praise, once again, for Winstead’s performance, and as a result, its box office returns were abysmal. However, despite the scattershot directing debut by Eva Vives, an unconvincing performance by Common, and a weak and possibly rushed film ending, “All About Nina” could easily have been renamed, “All About Mary Elizabeth Winstead” because she just completely takes over the entire movie all by herself. If you can find it, see it!
Lastly, in closing, since I just reviewed a little dark comedy film, I’ll highlight one other little comedy film. However, for this one, it won’t be so dark this time. That movie is the coming-of-age comedy drama, “The Edge of Seventeen” (2016). Now I will admit that this one isn’t quite like the other “little” films that I previously mentioned. First, it had a much larger budget ($9 million). Second, it also did very well at the box office ($19.4 million). However, it did have a couple of factors that could put it into the “little” film category. One, it was Kelly Fremon Craig’s directing debut (and who also wrote the screenplay), and two, it had lower tier stars like Hailee Steinfeld and Woody Harrelson in the two main roles. Steinfeld stars as Nadine, a seventeen-year-old high school junior who, as the film begins, walks into the empty classroom of her teacher Mr. Bruner (Harrelson) and tells him that she is going to kill herself and that she wants him to listen to her. Thus begins her tale which goes all the way back to when she was age seven becoming best friends with her current girlfriend Krista all the way up to when her father died of a heart attack when she was age thirteen, and onward up to the present day and her continually butting heads with her mother and her popular older brother Darian. Feeling alienated and totally frustrated after having a falling out with Krista and emotionally acting out with everyone, lucky (???) Mr. Bruner is her natural choice to hear her continual venting (AKA whining!).
Usually, coming of age stories, whether big budget or small, are pretty stupid and inane. Too often, these types of movies have bad acting, bad screenplays, bad storylines, and/or uninteresting characters with, when all else fails, copping out by just throwing in a dump truck load of either gross out humor or some teenage nudity/sex (“Porky’s” anyone!) to keep the viewer interested. “Seventeen,” refreshingly, does none of that. The characters are well developed and the storyline, while not original, still holds your interest. Craig’s direction strikes a nice balance mixing dramatic elements in with the comedy. And the screenplay is terrific. It is laugh out loud funny while capturing the general quirkiness of all of the characters even if they are not always, complimentary. Best of all are the performances of Harrelson and Steinfeld. Harrelson is droll and deadpan funny as Bruner, and you never know if he is either disinterested or just feigning annoyance with Nadine. Steinfeld, outstanding in the lead role, is great with her various exasperating outbursts, at times, so outrageous that you can see her face change halfway through one of them almost as if she is just starting to realize that what she just said, did, or is about to do is plain ridiculous and really embarrassing. Both of them should have been Academy Award nominated (they weren’t). However, whether you want to classify “The Edge of Seventeen” as either a “little film” or not, you should at least classify it as a great film comedy!
Well, this closes yet another Blog Post. I hope that you will check out some of the little movies that I just mentioned here. Happy or sad! Mundane or interesting! Little films, like their much larger counterparts, can provide something for everyone.
All you have to do is look for it!
See you next month!