Friday, February 20, 2015

William Wyler's THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES

 The Best Years of Our Lives is an example quality Hollywood production that has the kind of screenplay, written by Robert E. Sherwood, that does a smart thing with this kind of material: it's all about the characters. Sure, there could've been more 'plot', but that would have taken away from the experiences that three soldiers (Dana Andrews, Frederic March and Harold Russell) have after flying home together to their small hometown.

The name of the town escapes me, but no matter - this is supposed to be representative of practically all small towns at the time (albeit not that many minorities, but aside from that in the 1946 Hollywood style I suppose). I mean, Andrews worked, and then his character Fred Derry works, as a soda jerk. But what makes Sherwood's script so completely compelling, and Wyler's attentive, even sensitive direction (in the best possible attuned-to-actor's-nuances sort of way), is that the representation of coming back to civilian life after a war is realized from all sides. It's about their experiences, sure, even, of course, some Shellshock (as they called it then), but also how other people react.



The characters here are varied, but still are the types of men who have families, or want to have them, and there are conflicts here and there with that: Frederic March's Al is a banker who is probably the best out of the lot of them, with a loving, dutiful though not subservient wife (good ol' Myrna Loy, who sneaks in as great a performance as the Oscar-winner March); Fred, who comes home to a wife who is kind of cold to him, you know, not being able to get a big-time job with his limited experience (throwing bombs on people may get commendations, but isn't great on a resume; and Russell's Homer is the outward cripple of the lot, with his blown hands which, we see, are not faked. While the men seem to adjust to life somewhat with ease, the troubles for them really are under the surface and seem to bubble up more than they'd like to - and this also feeds into insecurities and trouble in their relationships, primarily a love that blooms between Andrews and Teresa Wright, and Homer with his fiancé (Cathy O'Donnell).

This may be the stuff of melodrama, or even soap - in less capable hands. Wyler and cinematographer Gregg Toland elevate scenes to wonderful cinematic art, when at its best, through how they move the camera and let the actors dig a little deeper into their roles. Again, thanks to the script, but the little moments and revelations really stuck with me; watch as Loy admits to her daughter, with March by her side, that things haven't always been so easy in their marriage, and they've had to "fall in love over and over again". Or that tense scene between March and Andrews when the father tells the younger man to stay away from his daughter - it's not over the top in the slightest, as it could have been. On the contrary it's as if the blood has drained from their faces, and things are calm, too calm, so the emotions seem ready to bubble up.



So much of the cast is excellent here, which elevates what could be at times sort of telegraphing things to the audience about what it's really like for those coming back from war - here, context of the period counted, and this opened up people's eyes past the rosy 'Everything is Awesome' image of the war won. March has a tricky character to play, along with Loy, more than anyone here, the people who seem to be doing the best out of anyone, but there's still signs of trouble (drinking, mostly, for Al and Milly having to sort of put up with it or try to curb it, these scenes reveal deep wells of feeling for Loy and March, when he has to give that speech about being a banker, is exceptional in what is said and vs what is felt). Andrews is very good too, though maybe a little closer to being kind of the matinée idol - he and Wright have excellent, old-school Hollywood chemistry (not *too* hot, you know, but pleasant, easy-going, sweet even in a genuine way). And Mayo as the 'I Hate This Poor S***' wife is really fun to watch as one of the characters closest to an antagonist, though she has depth as well.

Though I still love the movie, and encourage everyone interested in the period and just solid dramatic epics to see it, there is a sort of weak spot in the film: Harold Russell. The writing for the character is quite good, and there's no more or less subtlety or depth than a anyone else. If anything it's a character who is and isn't complex, a former athlete star who now can't function without help. It's consistently striking to see just the image of these hook-hands throughout the film, and brave of Wyler to go for this image as something to get over and deal with on just a cinematic-image level.

But Russell as an actor... he's not up to par. He's not terrible, but there's a stiffness to his voice and just presence I couldn't get over. It feels like a terrible thing to say, but on, simply, the basics of delivering this level of dialog and up against majors like March and Loy and even Andrews, he's not up to task. And some of that may be on Wyler casting a non-professional - sometimes this sort of thing is just hit or miss.

Anyway, here's your moment of Zen - he won best supporting actor AND an honorary winner... and he never acted again
But this isn't enough to derail the film in any big way. And there are some effective scenes with the actor, mostly when, frankly, he starts to lighten up and not get bogged down in having to play gloomy and despondent, which isn't his strong-suit. When he plays chopsticks on the piano with his uncle - a fascinating scene for the levels going on for March too as he knows what he's just said and done with Andrews - it works, completely. So much here works as entertainment for the masses, yet the sort of polemical drama (a rare kind, especially in those days) that doesn't pander or ask for easy sympathies.

The characters present themselves truthfully, in the writing and acting, and so the audience can react the rest of the way. It's a class-A picture that deals with topics truthfully as it can, for the time being; other films would come later with bigger teeth on PTSD (i.e. Coming Home, the best parts of American Sniper). But for then, it deserved its best picture Oscar.

2 comments:

  1. I found this review very comprehensive and agree with most of it. I appreciate that it is reviewed within the context of the time. To compare it to Coming Home or American Sniper is borderline fair - again considering that PTSD wasn't a socially accepted illness as it is now. Overall another excellent insightful review by Mr. Gattanella. Thank you.

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