Sunday, February 24, 2019
SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.
It would be easy to dismiss this winner of the Best Picture Oscar for 1947 as being dated and preachy. Even its director, Elia Kazan, who won the Best Director Oscar for his work, said that it lacked passion, according to IMDb, probably because there are several times that the characters seem to be delivering morality speeches. But, because at the time of its making anti-Semitism was openly widespread, this film is courageous in taking on the subject of discrimination against Jewish people.
Phil Schuyler Green (Gregory Peck) is a journalist and a widower. He has gone by his middle name, which sounds like “Skyler.” The name sounds as if his head is in the clouds, not wanting to be grounded by earthly pragmatism. His last name allows for the possibility that it was changed by shortening it to avoid being labeled a Jew. But, it can also imply that he lacks knowledge about the extent of anti-Semitism at the beginning of his investigation. At the beginning of the story he is walking with his young son, Tommy, (a pre-teen Dean Stockwell) in New York City. They had moved with his mother from California. In a way Phil is on a journey, forced out of his West Coast comfort zone due to the death of his wife, and is in a mental zone where he is open to new discoveries. Tommy sees a statue of Atlas, and after Phil tells him about the myth, the boy says that is what his dad is doing, according to his grandmother, trying to shoulder the world’s problems. So, we immediately learn that Phil looks beyond the problems of his immediate life, and is concerned about the conditions of others.
Mrs. Green (Anne Revere) wishes Phil luck since he is applying for a writing job at a publication entitled Smith’s Weekly. He meets its publisher, John Minify (Albert Dekker), who says he is going to talk a while about an idea he has, which turns out to be a piece about anti-Semitism. Phil goes to a dinner party at Minify’s house. Phil meets a woman named Kathy Lacy (Dorothy McGuire), who is Minify’s divorced niece, and who suggested the article on anti-Semitism. Phil is surprised she was interested in such a controversial topic. She calls him on making his mind up too quickly about people, generalizing about who she is, “too well-bred, self-confident, artificial.” So, what she is accusing him of in a gentle way is being prejudicial himself by stereotyping the kind of woman she is. However, he admits to his prejudice, which shows he is open to criticism and the views of others, and that objectivity can lead to change.
Phil admits at breakfast with his family that he isn’t thrilled about his assignment at first because he isn’t sure how he can add to what has already been written about the topic. Tommy asks about anti-Semitism. Phil describes the basics, but, finds it difficult to explain why there is discrimination, and he feels uncomfortable describing such ugliness in the world to an innocent child. By focusing on Tommy here and elsewhere, the film shows how absurd bigotry is from the perspective of someone who hasn’t been corrupted by it. Phil says that religious beliefs transcend national boundaries. Unfortunately, that fact trumps nationality when it comes to hate. So, if one is an American Jew, what bigoted people see is not a countryman, but that aspect of the person they have been told to despise. What the individual is in all his or her complexity is ignored.
After Tommy goes to school, Mrs. Green says it was difficult to explain these issues to Phil when he was young, which points to how bigotry has persisted for so long even in America. She says that it would be beneficial if the problems with prejudice against Jews could be explained “well enough” so future generations wouldn’t have to continue to have this kind of “talk.” Phil appears to want to contemplate what she has said and takes a walk during his lunch break to consider his assignment.
Phil goes to Minify and says he decided to do the story because of how difficult it was to explain anti-Semitism to his son. He wants research, “facts and figures,” but Minify wants a personal angle on the story that will draw people in instead of cold statistics. Here is the important thrust of the movie. Minify doesn’t want to focus on the extremists, which are not a large section of the country, and can be dismissed. He wants to show how the problem of anti-Semitism has a “wider spread.” He wants to reach many people to show they can’t dismiss bigotry as an isolated problem.
Phil’s dinner with Kathy shows his own prejudice again about women. He seems pleased when she says she wanted to have “a nice home” with children, but when she talked about her uncle and his wanting to send her to Vassar, he “looked bleak.” She tells him that his “face takes sides, as if you were voting for and against.” So, the thrust here is that all of us discriminate unfairly, and we have to be called on it.
Phil has been working for a week to get a slant on how he wants to approach his story. He has a Jewish friend, Dave Goldman (John Garfield), who he feels would be a good person to talk the story over with. But he is in the military and deployed overseas. Phil gets the idea of writing the story about feelings, instead of statistics. Phil says he and Dave grew up together and had similar backgrounds, the only difference is that Dave is Jewish. Phil feels that Dave’s response about bigotry toward himself as an American citizen would be valuable. Phil starts to write a letter to his friend, but is not comfortable including the slurs and slights, and also he says it’s difficult getting second-hand feelings from another person. A symbolic image is inserted as the scene ends with Phil breaking some walnuts, showing how his situation is like a hard nut to crack.
Mrs. Green wakes up with chest pain. The doctor says that she can, even with a heart condition, live long if she maintains a healthy life. (It is funny to see the doctor prescribing lifestyle advice while smoking a cigarette). Phil says he feels defeated about the story and will tell his boss that he is quitting the assignment. He tells his mom that when he wanted to write about people from Oklahoma, he became one of them, or when he wrote about coal miners, he went into the mines as a worker, and didn’t just interview coal miners. While talking, he realizes he has to use the same strategy, that is, become Jewish for a period. His name, Phil Green, doesn’t designate him as coming from any particular origin. His appearance is average like his pal Dave, so he won’t be signaled out by bigots as belonging to a specific racial type. He sees Kathy and they start to kiss. He starts talking about marriage, but she hesitates because she was divorced and is not sure about another commitment. But she has fallen in love with him. And she accepts Tommy. He doesn’t tell Kathy yet about his plan.
When he tells Minify, they decide that they will be the only two, outside of his family, who should know Phil’s plan. They even decide to make it seem that he is Jewish in dealing with Phil’s secretary and others at the publication so that there will be no leaks undermining the investigative reporting. Here is where it can get complicated, because he will be subjecting himself to anti-Semitism without the safety net of saying it was a cover. They go before the editorial staff of the periodical. One man says Phil’s story will only stir things up, making the discriminatory situation worse. Minify says that if they don’t do the story it would be like adding “to the conspiracy of silence,” pretending anti-Semitism doesn’t exist. Phil, already establishing his cover, says to the staff that it’s a good idea, and has nothing to do with Phil being Jewish.
Phil tells his secretary to write letters of application to clubs, resorts, employers, apartment houses, and medical schools. He says to make duplicates, half with Schuyler Green on them, and the others from Phil Greenberg. But his secretary (June Havoc) is Jewish and says the Greenbergs will be rejected and the Greens accepted. She says if his first name was really Saul, he would already have experienced rejection, and wouldn’t have to go through this process. She changed her name from Estelle Walovsky. She applied for a job as Elaine Wales after she was rejected employment under her real name. Under the changed name she was hired. And this happened at Smith’s Weekly (a very non-diverse name), where they both work. So, Phil doesn’t have to go far to see where anti-Semitism is practiced. This scene shows how anti-Semitism exists even at a place that aims to expose it. She asks if he had changed his name like her, because she already heard that he was Jewish after the meeting with the editorial staff. Bigotry spreads its venom quickly, even at a so-called liberal establishment.
Phil talks to the physician who is treating his mother. Phil was given the name of a Dr. Abrahams at Mt. Sinai Hospital, but the doctor wants to refer him to other specialists. He says that Abrahams is a good man, not prone to charging too much or setting up too many office visits, “the way some of them do.” Phil asks by “them” does he mean doctors in general, or because Abrahams is Jewish. The doctor says he guesses that some non-Jewish doctors also charge too much, but he made it sound like it was a pervasive trait among Jewish doctors. When Phil says that he is Jewish, the doctor seems taken aback, caught in his narrow-minded assumption that because Phil isn’t Jewish because he doesn’t “look” like a Jew, that Phil will share in the physician’s prejudicial views. So, the doctor feels safe in exposing his own bigotry. He then covers up and says that he doesn’t believe in prejudice, even after exhibiting it.
Phil writes “Greenberg” under “Green” on his apartment mailbox. The superintendent sees him do it, says he has to change the name at the post office, and starts to scratch out “Greenberg.” He probably doesn’t want it known that a Jewish person lives in his building. Phil basically says that he was accepted as a resident there already, but because of a name change that may indicate he is Jewish, he is now viewed differently. He tells the man to leave the name alone.
He meets Kathy and tells him the angle of how he will write his story, but at first says that he will let it be known that he is Jewish. Because he doesn’t use the word “pretend,” she reacts by being surprised that he is Jewish, He reveals that he will be maintaining a cover story, but he is now sensitive to the problem and suspects prejudice on her part. She reassures him of her feelings against anti-Semitism, but points out the practical problem that even if he comes out after the article saying he is not really Jewish, people will doubt it. She does seem upset that even the employees at the magazine will think he is Jewish. She appears concerned about the fallout of the deception. The movie argues that it seems okay to protest injustice as long as one is insulated from being attacked personally. Their dinner together is quiet. He says that he has to go, and she responds in short sentences. He leaves without a goodnight kiss. He then reconsiders and goes back, and they kiss. She apologizes for being skittish, and he for being oversensitive, which can happen to someone who experiences being a target of bias.
Phil tells Minify about his secretary and the publisher voices his anger at the personnel department head, Lou Jordan (Harold Vermilyea), about the fact that his place of business has no Jews employed. Miss Wales finds out that there will be an ad in the newspaper for hiring people without discrimination as to religious background. She says if one “bad’ Jew gets in then it spoils it for all the “good” Jews. She uses the slur “kikey,” when referring to what she considers to be undesirable Jews. She says suppose the new worker is a woman who uses too much rouge or is loud and happens to be Jewish. Then, she feels, it will spoil it for what she considers to be upstanding Jews. Phil makes it clear that he won’t tolerate anti-Semitism from anyone, even if it comes from somebody who is Jewish. The scene illustrates how some people of a victimized group, who have been able to dodge personal bias, become paranoid and discriminate against members of their own ethnic background to protect themselves instead of fighting against bigotry in general.
Anne Dettrey (Celeste Holm, winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for this role) is the fashion editor at the publication. She goes out for a drink with Phil and they meet a fellow worker, Bert McAnny (Curt Conway). He asks if Phil was in public relations in the military because he’s clever. The implication is that by being a smart Jew he evaded combat. Phil picks up on the hint and asks why wouldn’t he be a just another G. I. Bert uses the usual fake liberal response by starting to say that some of his best friends are Jewish. Anne cuts him off and has Phil ask for the check to get rid of Bert. After he leaves she points out his phony liberalism.
Anne invites Phil to a dinner party and she seems disappointed when he asks if he can bring his girlfriend. When Phil picks up Kathy to go to Anne’s place, Kathy says her family wants to meet him. But she wants to be able to tell her sister and mother that he is pretending to be Jewish. Since his mother knows about his going under cover, Kathy makes the argument that it’s all in the family, stating that her sister and mother will be part of the family soon when they get married. He hesitates, worrying about the secret getting out, but seems to agree. The bigger red flag here is why does Kathy seem to be in a rush to tell her family? Is she upset about anyone thinking she is dating a Jew?
At Anne’s party they meet a renowned scientist, Professor Lieberman (Sam Jaffe). He makes the argument that he is not religious and so are many people who still say they are Jewish. He goes on to say that there are no generalized attributes that make someone Jewish. Yet, people will call themselves Jewish out of pride because “the world still makes it an advantage not to be one.” White Presbyterians don’t have to publicize their designation because they are not persecuted.
Back at Kathy’s place, Phil, after thinking about it, tells Kathy not to tell her sister about his pretending to be Jewish. But Kathy already has, and now her sister’s husband knows, too. Kathy wants Phil not to pretend to be Jewish at a party in Connecticut with the “suburban” types who would make it a messy situation for her sister. Her attitude reeks of phony liberalism, which promotes fighting bigotry, but only at a distance. She says that if he really was Jewish she would be able to “manage,” and he sarcastically says, “Thanks.” They fight and he leaves.
Phil gets a call from his friend Dave who is back in the states. He was offered a job and hopes to move his family to New York. Dave sees that Phil is upset, and he tells him about the fight with Kathy. Phil tells him about pretending to be Jewish for the story. Dave calls him a crazy fool. He says that Phil hasn’t been insulated from prejudicial treatment, so Phil has been feeling the sting acutely. Phil wants to know if in time one gets indifferent to the bigotry. Dave says no, but Phil is going out of his way to confront it, “telescopes” the problem, and gets the onslaught of prejudice all at once. That is why, Dave says, Phil is feeling it in a concentrated way.
At a restaurant, Phil and Dave, who is still in uniform, meet up with Anne. A drunk says he doesn’t like officers and when he finds out that Dave’s last name is Goldman, the man says he especially doesn’t like an officer if he’s a “yid.” Dave pushes the guy, and is ready to hit him, but holds off as an employee gets the man out of there. Dave still gets angry at being victimized, but he also has learned restraint, knowing how to pick his battles. Phil gets a phone call from Kathy. She says that she had it out with her sister and brother-in-law and feels good about telling them not to reveal Phil’s pretending to be Jewish. Throughout the film, Kathy seems to be waging an internal war about how she feels and how she should act.
At the party thrown by Kathy’s sister, Jane (Jane Wyatt), Kathy notes that several couples failed to show. Kathy tells her sister that they stayed away because they were avoiding being with someone who is Jewish. But, as Phil points out to Kathy as they take a walk alone, many people at the gathering were very pleasant to him and asked about the article he was writing. So, not everyone is anti-Semitic, even in an upscale Connecticut suburb. They go to the house Kathy had built where she hoped her husband and children would live. She never moved in there with her ex-spouse because by the time the cottage was finished, the marriage was done. She says she knew it while it was being built, but used the project to evade her marital problems. She says that she couldn’t live there with someone she didn’t love, and can’t live there alone. She says she was waiting for Phil, but would she be able to be there with him if he was really Jewish?
Kathy, Phil, and Dave, are with Anne who tells the engaged couple that they should know that having their honeymoon at Flume Inn will be troublesome because it is “restricted.” Dave says it’s difficult to pin down the people that are restricting access based on ethnicity because they know how to stealthily evade the accusations. Dave says he’s going home to where his family lives because nobody will offer him a decent place to live in New York. Phil says he’s going to confront the management of Flume Inn not only because of the anti-Semitism, but because prejudice in general goes against what the country “stands for,” the desire for equality and democracy. Phil is able to see the big picture, that if one doesn’t stand up against racism in one instance, it allows the problem to exist on a larger scale.
At the Flume Inn hotel registration desk, Phil says he has a reservation and asks if the hotel is restricted. The clerk calls the manager and he asks if Phil wants to make sure that there are no Jews staying there, or does Phil follow “the Hebrew religion.” The manager then looking for a way out of the situation says there are no vacancies, trying to evade the accusation that the resort is restricted. Then Phil states that he is Jewish and that the hotel doesn’t let Jews stay there. The manager just walks away, avoiding any more interaction, not providing any more evidence of the accusation, just as Dave said.
Back at his place, Kathy tells Phil that letting Dave stay at the cottage in Connecticut would only make him feel uncomfortable being around all the anti-Semites. She says there is another suburb that doesn’t sell or rent places to Jews. She says there seems to be a “gentleman’s agreement” to restrict access to Jewish people. Phil is outraged at the term “gentleman,” which is supposed to be a positive term, coupled with the “agreement” part which allows people to lead lives of covert prejudice. Kathy wants Phil to see that she is being practical, about how badly Dave will be treated in a restricted area, but Phil says he couldn’t live in the cottage now with Kathy knowing that bigotry exists in the area. They are interrupted by Tommy who is in tears because other children called him a “dirty Jew and a stinking kike.” Kathy tries to reassure the boy by saying that he isn’t Jewish and it’s just a “horrible mistake,” which sends the wrong message by making it sound better not to be included with the Jewish race. Phil immediately shuts Kathy up and consoles Tommy.
Afterward Phil is angry with Kathy because she tried to console Tommy by saying it was better to be a white Christian. What he sees now is that the so-called decent people act like anti-Semitism is just reserved for the lunatic fringe, “far away in some dark place with low-class morons.” But by avoiding to fight against prejudice, the “nice” people help bigotry to continue, “and wonder why it grows.” She says she is angry that she is forced to take sides on the problem and implicitly blames the Jews for making people have to force a confrontation. She is tired of feeling judged, and admits that she is glad that she is not Jewish, just like people would rather be healthy than sick, young instead of old, pretty instead of ugly. But her argument is flawed, since it is wrong to discriminate against any group of people by marginalizing their lives based on who they are. She says she hates Phil for taking away the hope of their future happiness. But what is a person if not his or her principles?
Phil tells Dave what happened to his son. Dave says it hurts the most when kids are targeted. His own children couldn't go to a restricted camp. A pal of his in the Army was hit by enemy fire and the last words he heard contained a racial slur.
Phil goes to the office and gives Miss Wales the first installments of the article. Since it’s entitled “I was a Jew for eight weeks,” she now knows that he is a “Christian,” (which sounds rather limiting as to the choice of religions one has in America) and is surprised. He says that he is the same person as before, only the labels have changed. Yet, she can’t understand why someone would give up the advantages of a Christian lifestyle. He tells her that she, although being Jewish, is acting like an anti-Semite by going along with the system that perceives Christians as being superior to Jews.
Phil sees Minify. He tells the publisher he is leaving and going back to California, since he feels there’s no need to stay if he’s not going to be with Kathy. Anne, just now finding out that Phil wasn’t Jewish, says that the piece is “dynamite,” and if everyone had to endure the prejudice he did, then it would end the discrimination overnight. She guessed that he broke up with Kathy since she wasn’t there when Anne and Dave came over to Phil’s place. She asks Phil over for dinner. Even though Phil doesn’t want to talk about Kathy, Anne persists, saying she can’t tolerate hypocrites, and puts Kathy in that category. Anne says that Kathy would rather not have Dave take the job than have him causing a fuss living in her old neighborhood. She says, “She’s afraid. The Kathys everywhere are afraid of getting the gate from their little groups of nice people.” They don’t fight, just do a little “griping,” while letting others do the tough work to end discrimination. She insists it has to be done with action. She says that she would want to bring up a child with someone who shared her own basic beliefs, and that if two people are made for each other, time will reveal their connection. This last part comes true here, although not as Anne had hoped. He asks if she is proposing, and she says maybe she is.
Kathy asks Dave to meet her at a restaurant. She asks Dave if he thinks she is an anti-Semite. He says no, and she informs him that it was her idea that she passed onto her uncle to have Phil write a story about anti-Semitism. She called Dave after she heard a man tell a racist joke about Jews. She says she felt ill afterwards and wanted to yell that what he said goes against what she and her friends stand for. But he gets her to confess that she didn’t do anything about her outrage. He says fighting prejudice is a different kind of war, but one derives satisfaction in fighting back against the enemy. Dave says that Phil understands that now. Dave asks if one lets bigoted remarks pass, when does one take a stand? Dave says that the guy telling the joke is out in the open, easy to bring down, but those that let the racist joke go are the hidden enemy. Kathy finally realizes that she became mad at Phil when she should have been angry at the bigots. Dave says a husband wants his wife, beyond being a mother and romantic companion, to be a “sidekick” who will “go through the rough spots” with him. (This of course accepts the sexist premise that a man should lead the way, but that is another battle).
Back at his place, Phil finds his mother reading his article. He says that “time is getting short. Not enough people, and the time’s running out.” The film is saying that there must always be vigilance against hatred based on prejudice. Otherwise, we surrender our freedoms and beliefs to those who seek an upper hand by exploiting fear and placing blame on those who represent social diversity. Mrs. Green gives the film’s optimistic message when she says she would like to live to be very old so that maybe she’ll see a day when everyone will live peacefully together. Dave comes in and says that he’ll be taking that job because Kathy is letting him live in the cottage, and she promised to fight back at anyone who gives him trouble. The film concludes on a hopeful note as Phil goes to Kathy’s place, and they embrace and kiss, at least providing a happy romantic ending. Although anti-Semitism isn’t practiced as openly now as when the movie was made, it still exists, like a beast always looking to be fed by unscrupulous people.
The next film is In a Lonely Place.
Sunday, February 17, 2019
I’ll be watching the entire Academy Awards show again this year, and will still be missing Billy Crystal. Without a host this year, who will order pizza, take a selfie of the stars, or bring tourists into the auditorium? I do not have many strong preferences among the top Oscar contenders this time, since, in many categories, the nominees are so tightly matched. There are also a few glaring oversights that I will discuss. Here are some of the major categories:
There is quite a range here, including the first superhero film to be nominated, Black Panther, which explores themes and character like no other movie in this genre before it. There haven’t been many foreign films nominated for Best Motion Picture, but this year is an exception with Roma, director Alfonso Cuarón's fictionalized memoir of his Mexican youth. The film has The Great Gatsby theme of how the poor must clean up the messes left behind by the careless rich. Vice provides us with a virtuoso piece of filmmaking, with many camera and writing techniques that make it an effective satire on Vice-President Dick Cheney’s life. The acting and writing in The Favourite are top-notch in this sort of Jonathan Swift satire on the diabolical nature of humans pretending to be civilized. There have been only two films that have won the top Oscar prize without having the movie’s director nominated for Best Director. Bruce Beresford was not considered, yet his film, Driving Miss Daisy, won. More recently Ben Affleck was not included among the nominees even though his motion picture, Argo, took home the statuette. I believe this year Green Book will join those two. The story connects with the audience on an emotional level as we see two characters, Tony Lip and Don Shirley, struggle with how they identify themselves in a racially divided nation. The Producers Guild awarded this movie the Best Picture prize, and it also won that accolade at the Golden Globes.
Pick: Green Book
Preference: Green Book, which only slightly bests Vice and The Favourite in my opinion.
This is a very competitive category. I don’t believe that Yalitza Aparicio in Roma should be included here. Except for a couple of scenes, she appears wooden in that film. Charlize Theron should definitely have been nominated for her portrait of a stressed-out mother in Tully. Also, Emily Blunt was very good in A Quiet Place, and she won the Screen Actors Guild award, but strangely, in the supporting acting category. The other women nominated gave strong performances. Lady Gaga shows she can act as well as sing in her role as the star on the rise whose love life ends in tragedy in A Star is Born. Olivia Colman in The Favourite gives us a queen who, despite her power, is vulnerable amid the schemers surrounding her. Melissa McCarthy shows us a wounded woman in Can You Ever Forgive Me who shields her pain with a tough, outsider facade as she can only be accepted as a writer through autobiographies of famous people, or pretending to be those esteemed people by writing fake letters passed off as genuine. However, Glenn Close has been nominated before and she has already won the Golden Globe and SAG awards. In The Wife, she shows a woman with the real writing talent imploding as her cheating, immature husband accepts the accolades she deserves, leading to an explosion of feminine rage. Since the only time there was a tie for Best Actress was when Barbra Streisand and Katharine Hepburn were chosen as joint winners for Funny Girl and The Lion in Winter, respectively, I believe Close will prevail here.
Pick: Glenn Close, The Wife
Preference: If it was up to me, Close, Gaga, Colman, and McCarthy would share the Oscar.
I am a fan of Viggo Mortensen, but I think his portrayal in Green Book of an Italian American bodyguard relies too much on exaggerated stereotypical elements. Willem Dafoe is good but is a dark horse here. Christian Bale’s Dick Cheney in Vice is a one-trick performance, but like Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump, and Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, Bale completely nails the side-smirking politician. Bradley Cooper does it all in A Star is Born, singing, playing guitar, and depicting a devastated man who can’t go on living while the woman he gave a chance takes center stage. But, Rami Malek’s Freddie Mercury is what makes Bohemian Rhapsody work. He hits all the notes (even though he didn’t do the singing by himself) as the rock singer who was one of the “Champions.” Malek has already won the Golden Globe and the SAG award.
Pick: Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody
Preference: Here I go again. Malek, Bale, and Cooper are equally deserving.
Best Supporting Actress:
Amy Adams, nominated numerous times, is up for playing Cheney’s wife, the driving force behind the man, in Vice. But she and Roma’s Marina de Tavira are not quite up to the level of the other three nominees. Emma Stone, playing the upstart but conniving usurper, Abigail, in The Favourite is matched by Rachel Weisz’s incumbent manipulator, Lady Sarah, with both performances dripping in venomous wit. However, Regina King in If Beale Street Could Talk, excels as the woman trying to give the young loving couple a chance at happiness in a country that has rigged the game against them. King won the Golden Globe, but was unbelievably excluded from SAG consideration.
Pick: Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk
Preference: King, Stone, and Weisz are equally impressive.
Best Supporting Actor:
Another strong group of actors, but I think Michael B. Jordan’s complex character in Black Panther deserved recognition. Although I admire the work of Adam Driver’s undercover cop in BlacKkKlansman, and Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush in Vice, they don’t rise to the heights attained by the other three men in this category. When I saw A Star is Born, I immediately felt that Sam Elliott’s portrayal as Bradley Cooper’s put-upon brother was Oscar-worthy. He is without artifice and completely believable in the role. Richard E. Grant’s turn as the sometimes friend, sometimes enemy of Melissa McCarthy’s character in Can You Ever Forgive Me would steal the movie if it wasn’t for McCarthy’s great acting. He is at times flamboyantly gay, and, at others, sad and suffering. But there will be no denying Mahershala Ali’s right to the trophy here. In Green Book, he gives us an unforgettable portrait of a gifted African American musician who yearns to play the classics, and who is caught between the black and white cultures in the America of 1962. He has already won the Golden Globe and SAG awards for this role, and he may be the best American actor working today.
Pick: Mahershala Ali, Green Book
Preference: Mahershala Ali, Green Book
It is satisfying to see Spike Lee among the nominees here for BlacKkKlansman, after making so many memorable movies, but I don’t think he will get the Oscar. The Favourite is primarily an acting and writing achievement. However, director Yorgos Lanthimos effectively uses Stanley Kubrick-like fish-eye camera shots to stress the warped world of his vision of eighteenth century British royal court life. Adam McKay is visually energetic in employing various cinematic techniques in Vice as he makes the movie funny and frightening, which is quite an accomplishment. Alfonso Cuarón places the camera in Roma in the back of a movie theater, or at a bit of a distance on the street, to simulate a person observing the action, moving one’s head around to take in the events. A friend of mine suggested that since it is the director’s memoir, the camera takes the place of a child viewing what transpires. But, the technique, if seeking objectivity, is also uninvolving. Cuarón, an Oscar winner for Gravity, has already won the Golden Globe and the Directors Guild of America awards for Roma.
Pick: Alfonso Cuarón, Roma
Preference: Adam McKay, Vice
Best Original Screenplay:
Vice breaks the fourth wall, substitutes Shakespeare’s lines to satirize the lives of the Cheney and his wife, and economically shows the erosion of American democracy by self-involved power-hungry people. The dialogue in The Favourite is ruthlessly sharp. Green Book has scenes that expose racism, but also shows how people of different backgrounds can come together once they get to know each other.
Pick: Green Book
Preference: I would jointly award Green Book, Vice, and The Favourite.
Best Adapted Screenplay:
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a short story collection from the Coen Brothers, who I greatly admire, is uneven, sometimes entertaining, but also tedious. I don’t think that If Beale Street Could Talk successfully adapts James Baldwin’s novel. The film has too slow scenes with moody music that act as speed bumps, inhibiting its powerful message of institutionalized racial injustice. A Star is Born and Can You Ever Forgive Me work mostly because of the acting. I think Spike Lee will get the Oscar for BlacKkKlansman, which smartly inserts words and scenes that show how past events resonate with America today.
Best Film Editing:
There are cuts in Bohemian Rhapsody that enhance the song performances and reveal the power of music, especially the ending involving the Live Aid concert. I do believe that Vice excels in this area with its edits that exhibit numerous events over the passage of many years, focusing on what counts to get the satire across.
Best Original Song:
“When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings” from The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is really funny. But, when I heard “Shallow” while I watched A Star is Born, I knew that it would win the Oscar, and I’m sticking with that feeling. In fact, the whole soundtrack from that film is great.
The next film to be analyzed is Gentleman’s Agreement.
Monday, February 11, 2019
SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.
Since I recently did a post on The Edge, I thought I would do an analysis of this other collaboration between Anthony Hopkins and Bart the Bear. Make no mistake about it though, this movie focuses on Brad Pitt’s character, and it is his symbolic relationship with the bear and its association with the forces of nature that matters. This film centers on the bonds that bind a family, with elements of Greek tragedy involving uncontrollable forces such as fate, sex, and love that can tear a family apart. The movie also takes a dim view of the actions of national governments.
The story takes place in Montana, and the scenery is gorgeous. But, living there and dealing with the elements is challenging. One Stab (Gordon Tootoosis), a Native American, narrates the story, but his comments share time with spoken letters from the other characters, as well as regular narrative action. He says, “Some people hear their own inner voices with great clearness, and they live by what they hear. Such people become crazy or they become legends.” Too much self-knowledge may be too much to take for these persons. But, if they can survive such truth, they live legendary lives, and stories, like this one, are told about them. Tristan Ludlow (Pitt) is such a man, and he seems almost otherworldly in this tale.
Tristan was born in a year of a terrible winter and his mother almost died giving birth. Strong forces surround his life from the beginning. His father gave him to Stab, initiating him immediately into the spiritual and primal world of the people connected to nature. Stab taught Tristan the art of the kill, of basic survival, but which is also connected to the spiritual. Tristan as a youth cuts out the heart of the creature he hunts and sets its spirit free its spirit, according to a Native American belief. The scene is an ironic foreshadowing of what is to happen to his brother.
Stab says that Colonel Ludlow (Hopkins) considered Tristan his favorite son, perhaps because of the boy’s independent ways. The Colonel has become a fierce individualist, wanting nothing to do with society and governments. As a commander in the military, he wanted to help the Native Americans, but was frustrated by the forces of U. S. Federal Government. In a flashback scene, we see him throw down his sword in contempt for his orders, and Stab says he went his own way, which is the major theme of the film. Stab says the Colonel, “wanted to lose the madness over the mountains.” But, in the end, it is difficult to escape human madness. Alfred (Aidan Quinn) is the oldest brother and Samuel (Henry Thomas) is the youngest. Stab says that the brothers would do anything for Samuel, and guarded him like a “treasure.” This statement is also ironic as the story shows that in the end, nothing can be protected against certain forces. Their mother, Isabel (Christina Pickles), left the Montana ranch. She could not handle the winters and was afraid of the bears. Stab says, “She was a strange woman, anyway.” People like him can’t understand living any other way, disconnected from the land and the forces and creatures of Nature.
Tristan’s world revolved around Stab as he grew up. The Native American applied markings on Tristan’s face, anointing him as part of a tribe connected to the wilderness. Stab says that “Every good warrior hopes a good death will find him, but Tristan couldn’t wait.” The youth early on was daring to the point of being recklessness. He seeks out a grizzly bear, as if to escape whatever confines him in the human world. He touches the sleeping bear, as if wanting to connect with it, but it awakes and attacks. The bear wounds him with his claw, but Tristan takes a part of the bear’s power with him, cutting off one of the animal’s sharp nails. The Colonel chastises him, but also joins Stab in his admiration for his courage.
Stab is an old man telling this story, and hands over letters sent between the Ludlow family members, passing them on to an unseen man (the author?) to write about the legend. The Colonel writes that he may not have made the right choice to raise their sons in such a wild place, since he knows nothing about children. But Isabel writes that the boys are willful, like their parents, and will lead their own lives. This correspondence implies that trying to shape outcomes may be fruitless. The boys have grown up into young men at this point, and Isabel says that Samuel fell in love with a woman named Susannah (Julia Ormond), to whom he is engaged. Samuel brings her back to meet his father and brothers. When Alfred sees her, the look on his face reveals that he is immediately attracted to Susannah, which is the beginning of the one of the fractures that will threaten to break apart the solid foundation of the family. Tristan is off somewhere when they meet, showing his separateness. Isabel wrote that the loss of Susannah’s parents at an early age has left Susannah feeling very alone, and possibly made her fragile. This fact may be why she clings to the different brothers as she seeks release from that loss.
Samuel is concerned about the politics and war going on in Europe, but his father says not to use the word “civilized” when talking about the affairs of countries. In contrast, they talk about Stab, a model of individuality. He won’t “lower” himself to speak English, reversing the idea that Native Americans are “savages,” because Stab believes the truth, like the Colonel, to be quite the opposite. He does understand the language, though, showing his knowledge.
Tristan greets them on their way to the house. He looks ruggedly handsome, riding with the majestic mountains framing his arrival. He does not speak at first as he looks at Susannah, possibly also taken with her beauty. The brothers horse around (an appropriate phrase here), amicably wrestling after Alfred says that Susannah’s dog has better “breeding” than Tristan, emphasizing Tristan’s unrefined character.
Whites join with the Native Americans here, probably as a result of the Colonel’s preferring “Indian” culture to his own. The hired hand, Decker (Paul Desmond), is white but his wife, Pet (Tantoo Cardinal) is a Native American. Their daughter, who at this point is thirteen, is called Isabel Two, showing her connection to the Ludlow family. She tells Susannah that she will marry Tristan in the future, showing her wanting to continue being intertwined with the Ludlow family. But she is drawn to the one that has the most in common with her native side. This vow from her is a prediction of what is to come. Susannah says to her that then they will be sisters, since she is engaged to Samuel. This prediction comes true, but in an unexpected way. Alfred joins the two females, but the Colonel says that he should come inside and stop “mooning” over Susannah. Alfred dismisses his dad’s comment, but the Colonel has hit upon the latent attraction that Alfred has for his brother’s fiancée.
At dinner, Samuel talks about the German Kaiser’s unacceptable behavior, and he notes that England is mobilizing to join the fight. The Colonel wants no talk of war in his home. When it is mentioned about their feeling removes from concerns about these events that shape the world, the father’s response is that they are lucky to live at a distance from the world’s problems. In response to Samuel’s remark about how the Colonel wouldn’t want them to shirk their duty, he says, “Don’t I?” Thus, here is discussed an issue that continues to be debated in America. On the one hand there is immediate safety offered by isolationism, since it means not joining a war effort. There is also the belief that the nation should not interfere in the affairs of other countries. In contrast is the feeling of responsibility to reach out beyond one’s borders to help others.
After dinner, Samuel sings as Susannah plays piano. The other men listen, enchanted. But the words to the song that Thomas sings are an omen as they talk of love for someone that loves another. In a letter, the Colonel writes about how strange it is to have a cultivated woman in the house again, since these men are cut off from civilization in the wilderness. The Colonel says it is “intoxicating,” which is an apt word to describe Susannah’s effect on the men. For the Colonel, he is glad to have his sons under one roof, and says the situation, “fills me with such a deep, quiet satisfaction that I thank God.” He doesn’t seem to appreciate that Samuel’s talk of world politics and the impact of Susannah will undermine any sense of joy.
Susannah learns to ride, rope, and shoot as the men admire her as she adapts to the rural surroundings, exposing her wild side. In tandem with her transition, a wild horse runs by and Tristan goes after it. He is later thrown in a coral from that same horse that he was able to bring back. But, he does the horse whispering technique, and is able to bond with the animal, since he is closer to the natural world than the human one. More trouble can be seen brewing as Susannah looks at Tristan adoringly from her bedroom window. There is a scene which clashes a civilized activity, in this case playing tennis, with a rustic one, as Tristan rides the wild horse he has connected with. He wittily comments on how the others seem out of place there in their fancy clothing by saying they look like “ice cream cones.”
Samuel wants to talk to Tristan about Susannah who he says has his mind “spinning,” which implies that she may be too much for him to handle. He says to the experienced Tristan that she is passionate, Tristan gets right to the point, asks if they are both virgins, and if they will wait until they are married to have sex. Samuel is reluctant to talk so frankly, but that is Tristan’s way. Samuel talks about wanting to “be with Susannah,” whereas Tristan uses profane language which is in keeping with his primal nature.
Two brothers, John T. O’Banion (Robert Wisden) and James O’Banion (John Novak), who own a new mercantile store, show up with the Sheriff Tynert (Kenneth Welsh), looking for Decker, who they say is wanted by the law. The Ludlows protect him, saying he was around several years prior and left for Hong Kong. The family’s providing sanctuary for Decker illustrates the animosity that the Colonel has for the authorities. The O’Banions seem to have control over the law as they won’t divulge what Decker is wanted for. The men say it’s of a private matter, but the Colonel rightly says that the Sheriff holds a “public” office, showing he sees the corrupt nature of what is happening.
Samuel reads a newspaper and finds out that the British are losing to the Kaiser’s army. Samuel says that with his fluent German he can be an officer. Alfred is also upset, noting that they lost two cousins in the war. Their father says they didn’t even really know the dead men, which shows how narrow he has drawn the circle around whom he cares about. The Colonel loudly declares that there will be no more talk of war. Tristan is quiet here, not really connected to the affairs of men, in part because he is like his father, but more so because of his preference for the wilderness. Samuel announces he is going to Canada to enlist, and Alfred says he will go with him, since America is not in the war yet. Samuel has not informed Susannah of his decision, and she is surprised and upset at the announcement.
Alone, Tristan tells Susannah about a book his father wrote to try and convince the government to change its policies involving the territories and the Native Americans. The implication is that the book was not taken seriously since it is still with them. Later, alone with Tristan, Susannah says Samuel won’t change his mind, but Tristan tells her to change it for him. She starts to cry, and hugs Tristan, at first for consolation, but their embrace lingers as do their hands on each other, and their staring into each other’s eyes reveals their shared attraction. Alfred enters, and without saying anything, his face registers outrage as Susannah and Tristan look embarrassed.
The Colonel says in a letter to his wife that he has tried to shelter their sons from the world’s “madness” and they now, by enlisting in the military, ironically, go to “seek” it. Tristan goes to help protect Samuel. Isabel Two hugs Tristan, not wanting to lose him. The Colonel does go out to say goodbye, hugging his sons, and the Colonel tells Tristan to take care of Samuel, which he promises to do. The fact they he won’t be able to adds to the sadness of the promise.
That the Colonel and Susannah eat dinner alone seems pointless to the Colonel, and they join Decker’s family eating in the kitchen. Susannah tells Isabel Two that in the ancient tale Tristan’s love was named Isolde. The story of the two characters is one of tragic adulterous love, and is fitting in this film which depicts a woman promised to two brothers while loving another of the siblings. The Colonel and Susannah promise to teach Isabel Two, to enrich her life. They must homeschool her, because as Decker points out, society would reject her as a half-breed, which shows the narrow moral views of the time.
It is 1915, and engaged in the war in Europe shows Samuel being of two minds. The horror of the loss of men is overwhelming and not what he, in his admitted naive way, imagined. Yet, Samuel still wants to fight for personal glory, to distinguish himself in battle like his father did, although the Colonel now disavows that distinction. He does admit despair about the loss of human decency in times of war. Alfred is wounded in a charge and requires convalescence. Samuel says in a letter to Susannah that his brothers seem estranged, and he does not realize that it is due to Alfred surprising Susannah and Tristan. The sad fact is that Samuel and Susannah didn’t consummate their love before he left.
Tristan leaves Samuel to do some translating and he visits Alfred who will receive a medal and be sent home because of his leg wound. Alfred says he should be with his men, being an officer. Tristan calls Alfred’s commitment to the military “horseshit,” which reflects how Tristan mirrors his father’s feelings about the armed forces. Again we have the opposing ideas presented concerning allegiance to a country and whether that devotion conflicts with the welfare of individuals. The brothers learn that Samuel volunteered to take the place of a wounded man at the front. Alfred blames Tristan for leaving Samuel alone, and Tristan charges off to look for his brother. Samuel is gassed, which happened to soldiers in that war, which causes him to be blinded, which symbolically stresses how war can also affect moral vision. German soldiers use a machine gun to shoot Samuel after he becomes tangled in barbed wire, again implying how patriotism can turn into a snare (a scene which is echoed later in the film). Tristan arrives a moment too late to save his brother. He cuts out his heart, to free Samuel’s spirit, as Stab taught him.
Tristan saves the heart and uses the blood as war paint. The spiritual plane where Tristan seems to be able to inhabit is shown by having Stab seem to sense what is happening to Tristan thousands of miles away. Tristan looks like an Indian brave instead of a soldier as he goes off and kills and scalps the enemy for tribal, not patriotic, reasons. The loss of Samuel devastates Tristan, and he appears to be in a trance when Alfred talks to him. Tristan writes that he has been discharged from service, but cannot come home. He will go out to sea, which shows he is adrift mentally at present. He sends the heart home with Alfred to be buried. Susannah says that despite what Alfred saw before they left, she reassures him Samuel was the one she loved. Alfred does not seem reassured as she hesitates when he mentions that Tristan will return some day.
Susannah was supposed to leave, but again circumstances beyond her control force her to stay because of the harsh winter. The Colonel says the house was too empty without his other two sons, and his home was still her home. Stab says the Colonel should have let her go, but he did not know what was to happen. There is almost a Greek tragic feeling of humans struggling against predestined fate here. Stab says that Susannah “was like the water that freezes inside a rock and breaks it apart. It was no more her fault than it is the fault of the water when the rock shatters.” She may not want to do any harm, and not look capable of destruction, but danger can inadvertently come in many shapes. Alfred talks to Susannah at Samuel’s grave, and says that even though he loved Samuel, he is in love with her, and wants to know if she can “learn” to love him, so that they could have a “happy” life. Alfred’s approach is more pedestrian, practical, and can’t compete, unfortunately, with the strong passions that can rule a person’s heart. She says she doesn’t think they can be together because she will only cause him “pain.” She does warn him, but he says he will be the judge of that, being in denial.
Stab, because of his connection to the land and to Tristan, can hear his return before Decker can. Tristan rides up over the hill, and the Colonel and the others are happy for his arrival. Susannah is mesmerized at his appearance. When Alfred joins her at the door, she can’t look at him, and leaves because she wants to hide her affection for Tristan. The next scene has Tristan crying at Samuel’s grave, the pain of loss is so great that he presses his head as if it will explode. Susannah comes to him, and he cries as he says he couldn’t save his brother. She consoles him. Alfred makes a sarcastic comment at dinner, asking Tristan if he had a nice ride earlier, since he saw him with Susannah. Tristan angrily leaves dinner, but is joined by Susannah, and they release their sadness by capitulating to their passions for each other.
Alfred and Tristan have an angry confrontation the next day. Alfred says Tristan must marry Susannah, but Tristan, sarcastically, asks if that will make “an honest woman” of her, according to society’s dictates. Alfred and Tristan are on opposite sides throughout most of the movie as to rules of behavior. Tristan says he will marry her if she will have him. Alfred asks if he loves Susannah, which Tristan does not actually answer. Alfred says it was very convenient for Tristan now that Samuel is not there. Tristan strongly warns him, because he knows that Alfred loves Susannah, that only “once” can Alfred say that, or else they no longer will be brothers. He tells Alfred that he will try to make Susannah happy. Alfred says with finality in his tone, “You will fail.” He knows his brother’s history of putting his individualism first.
Alfred can’t remain and tells Susannah he is leaving. Alfred moves away from the rural ranch to the now modern city of Helena, a populous place, almost in revolt against the Colonel’s withdrawal from society, and the presence of his favorite son, Tristan. He writes his mother that there he thinks he has found his place in the world. He makes many acquaintances, as opposed to his father’s isolationism, and starts his own store, building a reputation for fairness and hard work. She can understand his disappointment in love, as she has also experienced it. But, he says he prays for the ability one day to be able to forgive Tristan.
Tristan continues to be haunted by Samuel’s death. He comes across a calf that is entangled in fencing, reminiscent of what happened to Samuel, an innocent entwined in something beyond its control. He can’t free the suffering animal, and shoots it to end its earthly agony, but it just reminds him of his brother’s death. Tristan looks like he is in a trance, as Susannah talks about having children together, and that she loves him and that he will “tolerate” her. Already, their union appears doomed.
While cutting wood with his father, the Colonel mentions how Tristan’s mom said that Alfred is doing well in Helena, but, he comments, apparently he can’t be well with them on the ranch. Tristan owns all the blame, for the loss of Samuel and now that of Alfred. The Colonel says that Samuel’s loss was in God’s hands, but Tristan doesn’t want to submit to the idea of being the victim of destiny. Decker and Stab say that there is a grizzly around, and Tristan asks if it’s “his” grizzly. Stab says that they spilled each other’s blood, and legend has it that when that happens, the two became one. So, when given the chance, Tristan can’t shoot the creature, because it would be like killing a part of himself.
Tristan’s bear-like wildness rears itself in a bar scene where the bartender won’t serve Stab. The Colonel warns Tristan not to antagonize the man because he has a club under the counter and will beat him to death. The Colonel calmly demands the beer for Stab and then Tristan gets the upper hand on the bartender and beats the man with his own club. His father looks alarmed at the recklessness he sees in his son. Stab says that it was the bear in Tristan “growling in dark, secret places.” Tristan rides his horse wildly near the cliff where Samuel is buried, almost trying to dare himself to go over the edge, physically as well as mentally. In bed together, Susannah touches Tristan and he pulls out a knife, almost stabbing her before recognizing her. He saddles up to leave. Susannah says that she can make it better for him, and he says that even having a child would not make a difference. She says she will wait for him (which doesn’t turn out to be true). Stab says he will return. Isabel Two runs after him, the other female in love with him, seeing him go off again.
Tristan travels to exotic, distant places, and sends back a necklace with ancient writing on it, as he seeks the primal. We see him making trades with natives. Susannah writes that cattle prices are falling, and there has been a never-ending winter. Alfred is expanding his business and is involved in other financial matters that extend to cities as far away as Chicago. Isabel Two won’t go away to school, waiting for Tristan to return. Susannah writes the letter to herself, since she has no knowledge of Tristan’s location.
It is now 1919, and Tristan writes to Susannah, saying he has become a hunter and has killed animals so exotic as not to be found in imaginative writings. He says he has killed them all, seeming to try to release the spirits of all animals as he did in accordance with Native American tradition. Or, he may be surrendering to the animalistic, predatory side of himself. After seeing a heart is taken from a zebra, we see Tristan engulfed in mental anguish, still torn apart by the death of his brother. He writes to Susannah that he is dead and she should “marry another.”
Alfred visits the ranch with other men and asks for his father’s blessing to run for Congress. The Colonel asks what do these men want in return if they get his son elected. He is cynical about the workings of politics and says that Alfred should not believe that these men support him purely out of patriotic feelings. He says he worked for the government when it dealt with the “Indians,” and he says that there is nothing “so grotesque as the meeting of a child with a bullet.” He says the natives were slaughtered as they slept. He says that there is nothing that shows that government has changed in gaining wisdom, common sense or humanity. Alfred smooths things over, but with an edge in his voice. He says that as his father’s son he will attempt to bring wisdom and humanity to Congress. He says sarcastically that he deeply respects his father out of that respect for him, he will run for office, and thanks the Colonel for his blessing. He obviously hoped his dad would have been happy for him, and is very disappointed.
Alfred goes out on the porch and sees Susannah crying. He says that Tristan was always wild and that is probably why she loves him. She reluctantly agrees, since she is drawn to his literal animal attraction. He consoles her saying that Tristan does love her, and wipes tears off her face. The Colonel sees this affectionate gesture, and yells that he should back him off since she is to be Tristan’s wife. Alfred counters by saying that the Colonel might remind Tristan of that. Alfred yells that Tristan abandoned her and his father, and he implies that he also abandoned Samuel. The angry Colonel accosts Alfred, saying that it wasn’t Tristan’s fault. He tells Alfred that Samuel was a soldier and soldiers die, sent to their deaths by governments, which were run by “parasites,” like Alfred. The Colonel tells Susannah to be damned, too, probably because he feels that Tristan’s love for her caused him to run away out of guilt after what happened to Samuel. But Alfred argues that maybe the Colonel’s angry at Alfred because he also loves a woman who doesn’t return that love. He declares that Tristan stole Susannah from Samuel before he went off to war. He hands him the letter that Tristan wrote saying Susannah should marry someone else. Alfred says that he loved Susannah and still does, saying she deserves to be happy. As was stated by Clint Eastwood's character in Unforgiven, “deserving” has got nothing to do with it, and this is a tale of loss and sadness. Susannah is physically beaten down by this confrontation which paints her as the instrument that drives a wedge between the forces that bound this family together, and she collapses to the ground in uncontrollable misery.
Stab says that after this confrontation and reading Tristan’s letter, the Colonel suffered a stroke, his hair turning white overnight, due to the pain that came from the wrenching turmoil in his family. Tristan wrote no more letters. Stories came to them, “strange stories,” says Stab, about Tristan going to places where no white man had ever ventured. Stab’s words almost sound mythic, like a hero being challenged, needing to go into the wild to be tested and purged of his sins. Years went by, but Stab felt that the bear inside Tristan would go silent and he would return.
After much time has passed, Stab, always connected to the land, hears something. Tristan comes back riding with a stampede of horses, the symbols of masculinity in art, and showing his majestic merging with nature. But his father can hardly walk, and writes on a small chalkboard to communicate. He scrawls that he is happy and wants to have a drink to celebrate. Tristan says he is happy too, as Stab calls out a Native American chant. Tristan gives them gifts, a significant one to his father, a rifle, that will figure later in the story. He says he has other gifts, including something for Susannah, who he discovers has married Alfred, now a Congressman, and lives in Helena. Tristan says that it is as it should be. Decker informs Tristan that they lost everything with cattle prices collapsing and the Colonel gave up hope. But now with Tristan back, some of his old passion returns. Decker says that Alfred voted for Prohibition, so Tristan sees that his father wants him to be a bootlegger in defiance. The Colonel, giving the “finger,” says, “Screw the government,” and Tristan agrees.
Tristan visits Susannah and she is looks like an angel in white clothes, almost foreshadowing her fate. She sees him, and says that “forever” turned out to be too long to wait for him. She wants to give back a bracelet, but he heard it was magical and protects who wore it, which turns out to be another irony. He says Alfred probably would not want to see him, and offers his congratulations to him. Tristan goes to the barn on the ranch, and now finds a grown-up Isabel Two, very beautiful, and educated, as she knows that the ring he brought her is from Crete. She puts on the jewelry, it looking like an engagement ring, but small, as she points out, meant for a little girl, since that is how Tristan remembered her.
Tristan starts to get into the bootlegging business, and Stab says that Tristan was now in the quiet time of his life, the bear part of him sleeping. He is more amenable to dwelling in the human sphere of existence. Alfred tells Susannah that he heard that Tristan is back, and she reveals that she knows since he came to visit. He reveals that Tristan is to marry Isabel Two, which seems perverse to Alfred since she was like a sister to them. Susannah is shaken, but hides it. She writes to Tristan that it seems that it was always meant to be that he should marry Isabel Two, named after his own mother. There is almost a suggestion of Greek tragic incest here, a sort of inbreeding among the principal characters. Her words are spoken as we see the Colonel’s wife making a surprise return visit to the ranch, offering her wedding gown to Isabel Two. It seems fitting that Tristan should marry a “half-breed” since he himself seems to be part Native American in spirit, and wedded to the land. Tristan works on the ranch as time passes and he and his wife welcome a boy, Samuel, who represents a way for Tristan to carry on his brother’s legacy in the family. Susannah in a letter offers her congratulations, but reveals that she and Alfred can’t have children, which adds to her feelings of losing out on what she wanted with Tristan.
Alfred and Susannah meet Tristan and his family, which now consists of an additional child, in Helena, where Tristan is conducting his bootlegging business. There is a feeling of reconciliation between the two brothers because it seems as if they have found their respective happiness. But it is an illusion, since Susannah’s depression is eating at her, as she talks to little Samuel, who reminds her of the man she was to marry. The boy says that he can have Uncle Samuel’s gun when he is older, but it just hits home to her of how he died. And the men who supported Alfred did want something in return, since they are making a lot of money at bootlegging as the result of Prohibition. They threaten Tristan for muscling in on their business. While they talk to Tristan he has his knife out to show his defiance as the men tell Tristan that he is alive only because of his brother.
The O’Banions see Tristan making new transactions, and they hypocritically confront him with the police to arrest him for violating the Volstead Act that prohibits transporting whiskey. The criminal element is in league with the authorities, again backing up the Colonel’s view of government. The police shoot off a machine gun at the side of the mountain, causing the bullets to ricochet and kill Isabel Two. This sideways act of destruction symbolically shows how fate intervenes to destroy human plans for happiness, and how the evil forces of government cause collateral damage. But, it also illustrates that by association with Tristan, others suffer the domino effect from the forces he can challenge, but which others cannot survive. They bury Isabel Two next to Samuel’s grave, depicting how the losses are increasing. The Colonel won’t even talk to Alfred because of his governmental association with the those who brought about Isabel’s death.
Tristan beat and almost killed one of the policemen, and Alfred says he must serve thirty days for the assault, or else things will be worse for him and his family. To show how the government fails to dispense justice, the man who actually shot the machine gun is not punished. Tristan restrains himself for now and agrees to serve the time. Susannah visits him in jail, and breaks down, holding Tristan through the bars, implying they could never be together as husband and wife. She says that she dreams of having children with him. She says maybe she secretly wanted Samuel and Isabel II to die, which shows the power of selfish human passions. Her guilt over these feeling is devastating for her, as it was for Tristan concerning Samuel’s death. He tells her what was told to him by his father, that she had nothing to do with the deaths of Samuel or Isabel Two, and she should go home to Alfred.
After his release from jail, Tristan and Decker plot the deaths of the men who brought about the death of Isabel Two. Decker shoots the policeman who fired the bullets that killed his daughter. Tristan ambushes one of the O’Banion brothers in the warehouse where he keeps his booze. There are intercutting shots of young Samuel’s face painted by Stab as the Native American chants, adding a ritualistic, hunter’s feel to the happenings, and a sense of primal justice being carried out. In the fight at the warehouse, Tristan impales O’Banion on a pitchfork, the man ironically dying in the place which houses the liquor that made him his money at the expense of others. Also intercut at this climatic part of the story are scenes of Susannah cutting her hair, a sure sign in films that there is to be a change in a woman’s situation. Her despair resulting from her guilt and not having Tristan overtakes her. She picks up a gun and ends her life.
The other O'Banion brother finds his dead sibling and goes to avenge his death. Tristan knows that they are after him and is ready to leave. But, he gets a telegram from Alfred that says, “You have won her. I am bringing her home.” Susannah can only be with Tristan in death, which again stresses the danger of existing within Tristan’s sphere of existence. They bury Susannah at the same spot as the others. Here the story stresses its theme when Alfred says to Tristan, “I followed all of the rules, man’s and God’s. And you, you followed none of them. And they all loved you more. Samuel, Father, and my … even my own wife.” The film seems to have an admiration for the individual who breaks the rules, and presents how we may have a perverse attraction to the anarchist in us all.
Tristan says to his father as he is ready to leave that he has damned himself and others around him. But his father adamantly says that he is “not damned.” The Colonel does not see Tristan as a force for evil, just a force. O’Banion and the police arrive and say they say they are not there to arrest him, which means an execution is about to occur. The Colonel comes out and has that rifle that Tristan brought him and kills O’Banion and a cop. Crooked Sheriff Tynert is ready to shoot the Colonel as Tristan jumps in front of his dad. But Alfred is there, and kills Tynert. Alfred has returned to the fold, putting family above corrupt governmental forces. The Colonel now embraces his Alfred, welcoming him back. Tristan must leave and asks Alfred to take care of his children. Alfred says “Brother, it would be an honor.” The family regains its unity despite the adversities.
In an emotionally effective ending, Stab sums up what made Tristan who he was. He says he thought that when Tristan was a boy, because he was so daring, that he “would never live to be an old man.” As the graves are viewed, Stab admits to being wrong. Tristan was almost superhuman in his durability. Stab poetically says, “It was those who loved him most who died young. He was a rock they broke themselves against, however much he tried to protect them. But, he had his honor and a long life, and he saw his children grow and raise their own families.” (Stab must have been really old if he saw Tristan age). Tristan died in 1963. His grave is unmarked since he “always lived in the borderland, anyway, somewhere between this world and the other,” somehow inhabiting an almost supernatural dimension. He died fighting his grizzly, and Stab says, “It was a good death.” The film ends in a tableau shot, man and animal in a frozen image, looking like a sculpture, to exist for eternity. It is a mythic end, one that lends itself to legend.
Next time, Oscar picks and preferences.