My Fair Lady (Directed by George Cukor)
The Nominees: Becket, Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Mary Poppins, Zorba the Greek
Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Directed by Stanley Kubrick)
My Nominees: A Hard Day's Night (Richard Lester), A Shot in the Dark (Blake Edwards), Goldfinger (Guy Hamilton)
|In Nineteen Sixty-Four the British struck cinematic gold and if you don't believe me just look at both the academy's choices and my choices for Best Picture nominees. The Best Picture winner was the most popular movie of the year, George Cukor's My Fair Lady, based on the hit musical which was adapted from George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion", which tells the story of Professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) who makes a bet that he can take uncouth flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) and turn her into a pillar of social graces.
The songs are memorable and the two characters have a certain charm but as a musical it is only mediocre. Harrison's Higgins is so sharp that I have a difficult time believe that he would grow "accustomed to her face" and Hepburn is perfect as the refined socialite but I had a difficult time believing her as the unkempt urchin. As a musical it always feels like homework, as if I am suppose to like it. Revisiting the film again recently, I couldn't help thinking that a similar story was told much better with Eddie Murphy in Trading Places.
For this year, I wish the academy had given up it's prejudice against comedies and gone with my choice, Stanley Kubrik's immortal nuclear mishap comedy Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Praised and reviled at the time as one of the most controversial movies ever made, it has since gone on to become a comedy classic. Only Kubrick could have hatched the idea of a movie about an accidental nuclear holocaust so soon after The Cuban Missile Crisis and while our arms race with the Soviets was still hot.
Loosely based upon a very serious novel "Two Hours to Doom" by Peter George, the movie is a satire of the frightening notion that a nuclear strike could be initiated by one insane man and that a comedy of errors could be set in place to keep it from being called back. It kicks off when the paranoid General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) orders a nuclear payload dropped over the Soviet Union from a B-52 already in the air. Locked in his office at Burpleton Air Force Base, he has convinced himself that the Communists have put fluoride in our drinking water which has rendered him impotent and for this, they must be destroyed. Stuck between Ripper and the callback is Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers) a stiff upper-lipped British officer who could end this whole mess except for two things: 1.) Ripper won't give him the callback codes and 2.) He locked the door.
Meanwhile in The War Room, President Merkin Muffley (Sellers again) is informed about the mishap by General Buck Turgeson (George C. Scott) who tries and fails to effect a note of calm, then humor then a static tone that is suppose to keep the president from losing his cool. He confidently tells him (while repeatedly shoving gum into his mouth) "I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops. Uh, depending on the breaks". "I will not go down in history as the greatest mass-murderer since Adolph Hitler", the president tells him. "Perhaps it might be better, Mr. President" Turgeson reminds him, "if you were more concerned with the American people, than with your image in the history books."
The president makes an emergency phone call to the Russian Premier and calmly tries to break the news. The phone call is comic gold as the President slides into the ultimate bad news by informing him that "one of our Generals . . . well . . . he went a little funny in the head. Just a little, you know . . . funny" The perfect button on the moment comes just after he informs him that the nuclear payload has been ordered; there is a brief pause before the president says "Now . . . calm down, Dimitri".
The key to the movie is that Kubrick doesn't pad the story. He sets loose a situation that doesn't require it. The movie is made up of a handful of locations, the central situation and then rest are just words and personalities. The way the characters attempt to deal with the situation is probably not that far from how it would be handled in real life, it is so absurd that it has happened but even more absurd that no one has a plan for dealing with it. I love the comic invention late in the film as the men in the war room simply give up trying to defuse the situation and start discussing the ratio of surviving men to surviving women after the nuclear fallout. It is suggested that caves and mine shafts could be used to house the surviving men and woman to rebuild civilization. That leads to General Turgeson and Russian Ambassador Sadesky (Peter Bull) rolling around on the floor in an argument over suspicions that the Russians will attempt to compromise the American's cave space. Turgeson accuses the Russians of trying to create a “mineshaft gap”
Stanley Kubrick only made 11 films in his career, he made a film in every genre: Film noir (The Killing), a legal thriller (Paths of Glory), a historical epic (Spartacus), an awkward romance (Lolita), science fiction (2001: A Space Odyssey), horror (The Shining), a war film (Full Metal Jacket) and an erotic thriller (Eyes Wide Shut). He was able to take those standard genres and, using his unique style, give them a different spin. His films are cold and efficient, they contain multitudes, yet they never contain shots just to please the eye. Dr. Strangelove was his stab at comedy and he doesn't just set up jokes and watch them fall, he establishes a doomsday scenario and applies a cast of characters so bumbling and absurd that none of them seem capable of tying their own shoes.
Off the top, we meet General Jack D. Ripper, a cigar chomping ball of paranoia who wants the Commies dead for infiltrating our drinking water with flouride thus rendering him impotent (Freud could have written volumes).
There's the president, Merkin Muffley, a meager Gerald Ford type who places a call the Russian Premiere Kissoff to explain that one of our Generals went "a little funny in the head" and then after breaking the terrible news has to tell him "Now, calm down Demitre".
There's Major T.J. Kong (Slim Pickens), who commands the doombringing B-52 and when he gets his unusual orders, barks into the radio to the men on the plane "how many times have I told you guys that I don't want no horsing around on the airplane?" Ultimately, he has one of the most spectacular exits of any character in movie history.
There's the Russian Ambassador (Peter Bull) with the face of a bulldog and a distaste for capitalism, especially when he is offered a cigar "Thank you, no. I do not support the work of capitalist stooges".
And of course, there's Dr. Strangelove himself (Sellers once again), a creepy German scientist bound in a wheelchair who constantly grapples with his robotic arm which, at the wrong moment, malfunctions and gets locked in a Nazi salute.
But, by far, the best is George C. Scott as General Buck Turgeson, who tries with all his might to inform the president of the situation but then attempts to lay out unacceptable odds while keeping his composure. Of this, he fails miserably. Scott's performance at that moment is a brilliant juggling act of facial tics, twisted expressions, stutters, thoughts, re-thought thoughts and a whole lot of gum chewing. He has a perfectly modulated moment in that scene when he receives a call from his girlfriend on the red phone, he whispers sweet nothings into the phone then hangs up before turning back to the meeting with a look that only be described as "nonchalant sheepishness".
Dr. Strangelove is one of the funniest films ever made, it is one of those films that film fans talk and laugh about for hours. I have always thought it must have have some chutzpah to organize a doomsday comedy in the midst of such real-life dangers and settle it amid a group of characters you wouldn't trust to babysit your cat. But then, as I revisited the film not long ago, it struck me that no one would really be ready for a scenario like this, it is so far beyond human comprehension that when we watch this film we have to ask how we would react.