[originally published in The Weekly, November 9, 1983]
The Right Stuffis the biggest, brightest, busiest movie of the year, exhilarating in its largeness of spirit, in the sheer physical scope of its achievement, and in the breadth and complexity of its ambitions. It’s also an exasperatingly difficult film to review, for its strengths and weaknesses frequently lie side-by-each, and although the former far outweigh the latter, both must be acknowledged.
Anyone setting out to make a film from Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff faces an awesome challenge: how to take 16 years’ worth of aviation history teeming with event, detail, character, and information, and shape it into a coherent, let alone an engrossing, movie. In this, writer-director Philip Kaufman has stunningly succeeded. Against all odds, unintimidated by the shifting currents of history and changing fashions in American heroism, his Right Stuff rushes along a breathlessly clear narrative line for 3 hours and 13 minutes. It’s a joyride with substance, the sort of experience that leaves even classy kiddie-kar entertainments like Raiders of the Lost Ark and ReturnoftheJedi looking trivial by comparison.
By all rights, the 1946 homecoming drama The Best Years of Our Lives (Warner, Blu-ray) should have been another well intentioned film left to the dated dustbins of history, but World War II vet William Wyler (working from an original Robert Sherwood script) put more soul into this picture than anything else in his career. Clocking in close to three hours, the characters creep up on you: stiff Dana Andrews whose displaced working class joe can’t seem to find himself again, moral authority Fredric March as a family man and frustrated bank manager, and Harold Russell, a real life paraplegic war survivor as a kid dealing with the emotional and physical challenges of life without arms. They come from different services (Army, Navy, Air Force), different ranks, and different home life situations (upper class husband and father, middle class family son, working class newlywed adult), covering a lot of bases of experience. All they have in common is the same hometown and the same ride home. They get to know one another in the nose of a transport plane as they hop their way across the country. It’s enough to give them a camaraderie and a connection that even their loved ones back home can’t fill.
It’s easy to see the script designed as a “statement” about the experience of the returning veteran and the state of the nation after the end of the war, and there is something sturdy and square about the film, but it fits the subject matter and the gravity of the film. Wyler takes his time to let the characters out slowly, feeling their way back into lives they don’t quite fit into anymore. March won an Oscar for his witty portrayal of a man whose values have been knocked off-balance by the war. Though he’s the least scarred by the war, he’s the first to lubricate his discomfort at social gatherings, getting drunk to avoid facing serious emotional situations or distasteful business obligations. It’s not like he’s an alcoholic (or at least Wyler isn’t quite making that case) but it’s also not as cute as Nick and Nora at cocktail time. He’s getting drunk to escape in a way his buddies do not. And Russell won two Academy Awards for his debut as the easy-going, self-effacing vet who uses humor to deflect pity before it gets spoken but can’t help but feel like he’s come back less a man than he was – the only performer to ever win two Oscars for a single performance. But it’s Andrews who gets the everyman part, the confident American guy who made officer and commanded men under fire yet comes home to find nothing but the same dead-end service job waiting for him. He doesn’t want much, just a chance, and even that seems out of reach in the town the passed him by.
Wyler and Sherwood resist any temptation for flashback illustrations (the closest they get is Andrews’ recurring nightmare of a bomber crash, all noise and shadows under his cries) and Wyler is very tender with their experiences. We twice see Russell’s ritual of removing his prosthetic arms and it is a quietly humbling experience that, when it’s over, leaves him dependent on others. Russell exhibits no self-consciousness in the scene, no self pity. It’s about vulnerability, helplessness, trust, and his willingness to be so naked in front of the camera invests an otherwise amiable performance with a life that the movies only previously showed in terms of horror or tragedy. Here, it’s just life and it goes on.
Interestingly enough, Myrna Loy gets top billing for a supporting role (and frankly, she is given little else to do, though she does it with grace, humor, and mature sexiness so little seen in the movies in any era), and Cathy O’Donnell, who went on to become the quintessential fragile or broken innocent of film noir, gets “introducing” credit. And while Virginia Mayo gets a rare dramatic role as Andrews’ fun-loving wife disappointed to find the dashing officer she married now a mere working class civilian, it’s bubbly Teresa Wright as the headstrong daughter of March and Loy who takes a decisive role in their drama.
It won seven Oscars in all, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. The Blu-ray debut is very handsome (Blu-ray can give black-and-white movies such visual depth!) and features a video introduction by Virginia Mayo and interviews with Mayo and Teresa Wright.
The Right Stuff (Warner, Blu-ray), Philip Kaufman’s adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s acclaimed portrait of the original NASA astronauts, is *the* American epic of the last great frontier and a genuinely romantic take on the first generation of space cowboys. In fact, we know that Kaufman’s heart lays with test pilot cowboy Chuck Yeager, played by Sam Shepard as a man who rides horses when he’s not punching a hole through the sound barrier. The three-hour-plus film, narrated by Levon Helm in a storyteller’s drawl as if recounting a myth, follows the story of the race to claim the skies from the competitive culture of the test pilots in New Mexico to the rush to beat the Soviets to the moon after they put the first man in space. The shift in national priorities (“You know what makes those ships go? Funding!”) and public attention left Yeager and the jet cowboys behind and gave us new American heroes: the astronauts. And while Kaufman clearly reveres Yeager, he celebrates the courage and the commitment of the original astronauts and gives them their own mythic resonance.
Everybody gets to gripe about the Academy Awards. Sometimes it’s a matter of “How could you nominate that mess for anything but oblivion?” Sometimes it’s disbelief at a great performance or great camerawork being passed over to reward something not-necessarily-bad but not nearly as good. Then there are the compensation awards — giving somebody an Oscar for second-tier work because their first-rate achievements have somehow never won in the past. (Certainly not meaning you, Martin Scorsese!)
Those are all fun conversations to have, but in this case we want to call attention to something different — some amazing, mostly appalling oversights. There’s a surprising abundance of great and/or universally admired and/or culturally indispensable and/or dearly beloved films that were ignored by Oscar the year they came out. In some cases, totally ignored: not even a nomination, let alone a statuette.
Fortunately, most of our candidates have been, or will be, redeemed in the fullness of time — in many instances outlasting and outshining the pictures that beat them in their day. Better yet, all of them are available for us to resee and reevaluate. Pass the popcorn.
The Searchers (1956)
What movie most influenced the “American renaissance” filmmakers of the ’70s? If you answered The Searchers, take a cigar, pilgrim. This towering Western, acclaimed as the supreme example of its genre, the masterwork of director John Ford, featuring the best performance ever given by John Wayne, and firmly ensconced as one of the Ten Best Films of All Time in international polls devoted to such things, has left its DNA in dozens of later movies, from Taxi Driver to Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars. Each year, new audiences discover its visual grandeur, shattering power, and the enigma of its monstrous hero Ethan Edwards: long before it became fashionable to take a “revisionist” view of frontier life, Manifest Destiny, and the Indian wars, Ford and Wayne had wrestled with the demonic side of Western myth and achieved a deeper, more disturbing complexity than anyone would afterward.
And yet in 1956 The Searchers came and went as just another, perhaps slightly above-average Western. The film, director Ford, John Wayne, supporting actor Ward Bond, the never-more-vivid Technicolor and VistaVision cinematography by Winton C. Hoch — none received an Oscar; none was even nominated. Probably they didn’t expect to be, given the way both the industry and the culture regarded Westerns then. As Ethan Edwards would say, “That’ll be the day!”
And the 1956 Oscar went to … “Around the World in Eighty Days”