Tim Burton in Wonderland

WRITTEN BY: CHRIS HALLAM. FIRST PUBLISHED IN GEEKY MONKEY MAGAZINE IN 2017

From Batman to Beetlejuice and Big Fish to Big Eyes, Tim Burton’s unique movie combinations of fantasy, sentimentality and horror have illuminated our cinema screens for over thirty years now. But with nearly twenty full length films under his belt and Burton himself approaching his sixties, how long can the magic continue?

WORDS: CHRIS HALLAM: TRY SAYING HIS NAME THREE TIMES IN FRONT OF A MIRROR AND SEE WHAT HAPPENS (BASICALLY NOTHING)

Almost nothing about Tim Burton career makes any sense.

Consider: much of his appeal rests in part on the maverick oddball nature of his work. The release of a new Tim Burton film is an event, with many people eagerly making a point of seeing everything he does. He is hip in a way neither Disney or Pixar could never be.

Yet, In reality, his reputation as an outsider seems odd. He has never been an obscure or unpopular director. His films nearly always do very well at the box office and always have done. He is currently ranked seventh on the list of the biggest grossing directors in Hollywood. Indeed, partly thanks to his outlandish Edward Scissorhands-like appearance is probably more recognisable than any of the other six with the possible exceptions of Steven Spielberg and onetime Happy Days star Ron Howard.

The world isn’t supposed to be like this. Offbeat, funny looking directors with unhappy childhood memories might direct one or two cult classics but that’s usually about it. Burton has directed hit after hit after hit for years and years and years. He has directed a film more or less every other year since the mid-Eighties.

At a time in which Hollywood has often been often accused of lacking inspiration and originality, Burton has frequently demonstrated he has both in droves. Although it’s true, he usually doesn’t write his own screenplays (Edward Scissorhands being an exception), Burton has always drawn far and wide for his sources of inspiration. The visual look of his films is frequently remarkable with impressive visuals even on his worst films like Planet of the Apes (2001) and Alice in Wonderland (2010).

Most of us will probably now feel we have our own preconceived notions of what to expect from a Tim Burton film. Yet really we have no idea what to expect. Miss Peregrine’s School For Unusual Children (2016), for example is nothing like his previous film, Big Eyes (2014) nor is that like and Frankenweenie (2012) and so on. There is really no good trying to guess what he might do next. Although it might be worth placing a bet that Jonny Depp will be in it.

For all his success – his combined grosses have exceeded those of George Lucas, J.J. Abrams or any of the Harry Potter directors – there seems little logical about how Burton’s films have performed at the box office. Alice In Wonderland (2010) for example, is far from Burton’s best film but it is by some way his biggest grossing blockbuster. His Planet of the Apes (2001) is also one of Burton’s biggest grossing films but might actually be his worst. Other much better films such as Ed Wood (1995), meanwhile, came close to flopping entirely,

Another oddity is the lack of correlation between Burton’s critical success and Oscar recognition. Generally speaking, with the notable exceptions of Planet of the Apes, Dark Shadows, Alice in Wonderland and Mars Attacks! all of Burton’s films have been well received by the critics, often overwhelmingly so. Yet not one Tim Burton film has ever received an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. Two of his films, The Corpse Bride (2005) and Frankenweenie (2012) have received Oscar nominations for Best Animated Feature, but that’s it. Even allowing for the Academy’s traditional antipathy towards sci-fi and fantasy (nearly all of Burton’s films could be defined as the latter), this oversight seems surprising.

In short, screenwriter William Goldman’s old adage that in Hollywood “nobody knows anything” seems truer than ever when applied to the career of Tim Burton.

BURTON BEGINS

Burton’s feelings of being an outsider are not an act. Despite being born to apparently “hypernormal” parents in Burbank, California in 1958, he felt lonely and retreated into a fantasy world of his own imagination from an early age.

“When you don’t have many friends,” he later mused of his early life. “You’re at a distance from the rest of society, you’re kind of looking out of a window…But there’s enough weird movies out there so you can go a long time without friends”.

Burton later played homage to the B-movie horror movies of his youth in films like Ed Wood and Frankenweenie. Soon he was making as well as watching films. One such animation Stalk of the Celery Monster (1979) attracted the attention of Disney.

Paul A. Woods has written that “though he has sometimes dumped derision on the Disney name (Burton) is also a child of Uncle Walt,” and it is certainly true that while often a frustrating period for him, his years at Disney producing short dark films like Vincent and the later remade Frankenweenie were crucial towards the evolution of the unique combination of sentimentality and gothic horror which became Burton’s trademark. That said, by the mid-Eighties, he had left Disney and was directing his first full length feature film.

British audiences have never entirely “got” Pee-wee Herman. A children’s character created and played by Paul Reubens, he was never popular in the UK, his status later overshadowed by Reubens’ 1991 arrest for indecent exposure at an adult cinema where he was “enjoying” the film Nancy Nurse Turns Up The Heat. Reubens has since come back even recently resurrecting the Pee-wee character. Burton was generous to the disgraced Reubens even during his difficult period, giving him roles in Batman Returns (1992) and The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993).

But all this was in the future. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985) was a far from inauspicious debut for Burton proving a critical hit and making an impressive $40 million on as budget of $7 million. But it would be Tim Burton’s next film which would see his distinctive style really coming to the fore for the first time.

IT’S SHOWTIME!

Beetlejuice (1988) was an unusual film by any standard. For one thing, the two likeable young romantic leads (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis) are killed off in the first ten minutes, the star (Michael Keaton) has only eighteen minutes of screen time, for another. It is also contains a surprising number of moments of horror for a PG rated comedy. The waiting room scene, for example, features a scuba diver with his leg still down the throat of a shark and a chain smoker who appears to have burnt to as cinder after an accident while smoking in bed.

Beetlejuice was almost a horror film and occasionally it shows. It was also a glorious success and launched Burton further along an impressive directorial career which continues to this day.

Though none of his films are full blown horrors, this dark element is a regular feature of Burton’s work. Though sentimental, the title character of Edward Scissorhands (1991) certainly looks he should be a horror character and seems like a Frankenstein’s monster stitched together by a creator played by Vincent Price. The casting of the horror legend (in fact, in his final role) is no coincidence, of course. The late Christopher Lee another horror iconic movie veteran also appeared in five Burton films. Sleepy Hollow (the first of Lee’s Burton appearances) based on Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, the tale of the headless horseman is closer  to being a horror than any of Burton’s other works, while the animations The Nightmare Before Christmas (in fact, directed by Henry Selick) and The Corpse Bride as well as the live action Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children all contain unsettling elements which expose Burton’s love of horror.

Appearing in nine of his films to date, Johnny Depp has become synonymous with Burton’s work. Though as a famously good looking film star, Depp has proven a good fit for Burton’s out of kilter world view, effectively becoming Robert De Niro (or, if you prefer) Leonardo DiCaprio to Tim Burton’s Martin Scorsese. Burton’s former partner Helena Bonham Carter has also been a regular collaborator appearing in seven of his films since the start of the 21st century.

If there was a point where Burton might have been expected to have “sold out” it was with Batman (1989). Having enjoyed early successes, one would have expected being given the reins to Warner Brothers’ massive superhero franchise would have crushed any independent spirit out of him, like hiring Orson Welles to direct Star Wars or perhaps more aptly hiring David Lynch to direct Dune. But instead Burton did what all the best directors do, making Batman a hit while clearly marking his own independent stamp on the end product. He also produced a film that was considerably darker than any superhero film Eighties cinema audiences were used to. In Batman Returns (1992) Burton produced a sequel, still darker, weirder and more Burton-esque than what had gone before.

WHEN BURTON GOES BAD

Every director has a few turkeys in their closet but in truth, Tim Burton has far fewer than most. Even where his films have gone down badly, the record is so mixed it’s hard to write them off completely as total flops.

In 1995, after a decade of spectacular directorial success, Burton experienced his biggest ever box office failure with his biopic of Ed Wood. Wood, played by Johnny Depp, was notoriously “the worst film director ever” behind such cinematic monstrosities as Plan 9 From Outer Space. Burton himself chose to take the experience as a salutary lesson: “Any of my movies could go either way, they really could, and so the line between success is a very thin one,” he said. “Who knows, I could become Ed Wood tomorrow.”

But in truth, Ed Wood is a fine film and well-reviewed at the time. Martin Landau even won an Oscar for his portrayal of the has been horror legend Bela Lugosi, the only acting performance in a Burton film to ever receive one. Perhaps audiences were simply put off by it being in black and white.

“Hi Jack: loved you in Mars Attacks!” joked the late Robin Williams to Jack Nicholson at an award ceremony. This was funny, of course, because supposedly Tim Burton’s sci-fi comedy was so awful, Burton’s first major flop (Ed Wood, had at least, been cheap to make) and surely a source of embarrassment to Nicholson who had taken two roles in it. At least, that’s the story.

In reality, Mars Attacks! (1996) is Burton’s most divisive film, sitting in odd comparison to the much duller but much more successful box office smash Independence Day which was released at about the same time and which it comes across almost as a direct spoof of, even though it isn’t. Speaking personally, I and the mostly student audience I saw it with in Aberystwyth laughed our heads off at it and many people love Mars Attacks! to this day. I would suspect it went down better in the UK than in the US. But lots more people seem not to and on reflection it is perhaps a bit of a mess. “Often what I think is funny, other people don’t find funny,” Burton admits, perhaps explaining why few of his other films have been pitched as full-blown comedies.

Less equivocation is needed in summarising Burton’s “reimagining” of Planet of the Apes (2001). Tim Roth gives a good villainous (unrecognisable) performance. Most of the make-up is decent and Danny Elfman’s score is fine. But that’s it as far as good points go: the film is otherwise irredeemably horrendously dreadful. One wonders what the hell Burton was thinking.

It’s not actually just that the Planet of the Apes suffers by comparison with the 1968 version of the story. Even if you don’t like Franklin J. Schaffner’s earlier film (which despite it’s marvellous ending does rather go on a bit), Burton’s film is still awful, hampered by a weak lead performance (Mark Wahlberg), a botched and doomed attempt to make Helena Bonham Carter’s ape more attractive than the others (moral: apes are generally only attractive to other apes), a dreadful script and an ending which makes no bloody sense whatsoever. It is Burton’s worst film. Ten years later, Rupert Wyatt made the far superior reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) perhsaps rubbing salt into the wound. But against all the odds, The Apes of Roth proved a hit. Critically mauled, Burton’s film was nevertheless the ninth biggest movie at the box office of 2001.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2006) was another hit but many feel it is unbalanced by Johnny Depp’s overly sinister portrayal of Willy Wonka (a performance reportedly based on Michael Jackson). Comparing Willies can be a controversial game but most viewers seem to prefer the late Gene Wilder’s Wonka from the 1971 version of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s story. Alice In Wonderland (2010) is also something of a mess and generally overuses CGI, yet it too was a big hit: indeed Burton’s biggest hit to date.

Only one film in fact Dark Shadows (2012) based on an obscure US TV series of the Sixties and Seventies about a darkly gothic family, constitutes both a commercial and critical flop. With Burton having directed nearly twenty films to date his really isn’t a bad record.

And truth, be told, even Dark Shadows isn’t all that bad.

BURTON BEYOND

Ultimately, probably the worst that could be said of Tim Burton is that while he has undoubtedly produced an impressive overall body of work, it is harder to identify an individual movie of his which is universally revered as a truly great film. For what it’s worth at the time of writing, not one of Burton’s films ranks in IMDB’s 250 Top Rated Movies. This might also explain why none of his films have yet received any Best Picture nominations. It could also simply be that his films are too offbeat for the Academy.

This is to dwell on the negative, however. Tim Burton’s career has been a magical glorious success. Burton turns sixty next year and we can only hope he continues to direct with such aplomb as he approaches old age.

For let us picture the following: Beetlejuice smiling malevolently as Lydia (Winona Ryder) says his name a third time. The mournful look on the face of Edward Scissorhands. The young Edward Bloom (Ewan MacGregor) looking up to Karl the giant (the late Matthew McGrory) in Big Fish. The Caped Crusader confronting the Joker. A Martian invader gleefully vaporising more victims. The macabre humour of Sweeney Todd.

The fact that there are simply too many good Tim Burton films to discuss here is testament to his brilliance in itself.

CHRIS HALLAM

THE BURTON FACTOR

Which Tim Burton film is the most Burtonesque of them all? Watch as our unscientific survey settles the matter once and for all. And remember, the final score is based on how ‘Burtonesque’ the film is: not how good it is. So there!

Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)

Did Danny Elfman do the score?: Yes.  Are any major Burton regulars in it?:  No. Is it animated?:  No. Musical?:   No. Funny?: Yes.  Scary?:  No. Summary: Generally ore of a Pee-wee Herman film than a Tim Burton one although some Burton trademarks are already in place. Burton Factor: 4.

Beetlejuice (1988)

Did Danny Elfman do the score?: Yes.  Are any major Burton regulars in it?: Yes: Michael Keaton, Winona Ryder, Catherine O’Hara. Is it animated?: Mostly not.  Musical?:  No. Funny?:  Yes. Scary?: Fairly. Summary: The distinctive blend of comedy and humour is already there. Burton Factor: 9.

Batman (1989)

Did Danny Elfman do the score?:  Yes. Are any major Burton regulars in it?:  Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson. Is it animated?:  No. Musical? Well, aside from Prince. Funny?:  A little. Scary?: Slightly.  Summary: Gentlemen! Let’s broaden our minds! Tim retains his credentials even when going all blockbustery on us. Burton Factor: 8.

Edward Scissorhands (1991)

Did Danny Elfman do the score?:  Yes. Are any major Burton regulars in it?: Johnny Depp, Winona Ryder. Is it animated?:  No. Musical?: No. Funny?:  Scary?:  Ish .Summary: The essence of Burton. He even looks a bit like him. Burton Factor: 10.

Batman Returns (1992)

Did Danny Elfman do the score?:  Yes. Are any Burton regulars in it?:  Michael Keaton. Michael Gough is also in this and a few others. Christopher Walken and Danny DeVito also return later. Is it animated?:  No. Musical?:  No. Funny/Scary?:  A bit of both. Summary: Batman + 10% added Burton. Burton Factor: 9.

Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

Did Danny Elfman do the score?: Yes.  Are any Burton regulars in it?: Catherine O’Hara, Paul Reubens and Danny Elfman.  Is it animated?:  Yes. Musical?:  Yes. Funny?:  Yes. Scary?: Kinda.   Summary: What’s this? The most Burton-esque film of them all and he didn’t even direct it! Burton Factor: 10.

Ed Wood (1994)

Did Danny Elfman do the score?: No. Are any Burton regulars in it?:  Johnny Depp, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jeffrey Jones. Is it animated?:  No. Musical?:  No. Funny?: Yes. Scary?:  No, despite gothic elements. Summary: An enjoyable homage but none of the usual fantasy elements. Burton Factor: 6.

Mars Attacks! (1996)

Did Danny Elfman do the score?:  Yes. Are any Burton regulars in it?:  DeVito and Nicholson return from Gotham, Sarah Jessica Parker. But most of the large cast are non-Burtonites. Is it animated?:  Partly. Musical?:   When I’m Calling You Oooo-oooo. Funny?: Yes. Scary?: No Summary: A bit of an odd one even by Burton’s standards. Burton Factor: 6.

Sleepy Hollow (1999)

Did Danny Elfman do the score?:  Yes. Are any Burton regulars in it?:  Depp, Michael Gough, Walken, Jeffrey Jones. Is it animated?: No.  Musical?:  No. Funny?:  No. Scary?:  Yes. Summary: It seems odd that this is the only one with Christina Ricci in. It sort of feels like she should be in all of them. Burton Factor: 7.

Planet of the Apes (2001)

Did Danny Elfman do the score?: Yes.  Are any Burton regulars in it?:  Helena Bonham Carter. Is it animated?:  No.  Musical?: No. Funny?: Not intentionally. Scary?:  No. Summary: More sci-fi than most Burton efforts. Also: RUBBISH. Burton Factor: 4.

Big Fish (2003)

Did Danny Elfman do the score?:  Yes. Are any Burton regulars in it?: Bonham Carter, Deep Roy, Danny De Vito.  Is it animated?:  No. Musical?: No. Funny?:  Not really. Scary?: No. Summary: Moderately Burtonesque. Burton Factor: 6.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)

Did Danny Elfman do the score?: Yes.  Any Burton regulars in it?:  Depp, Bonham Carter, Christopher Lee, Deep Roy. Is it animated?: No.  Musical?:  Yes. Funny?: Intended to be. Scary?:  No. Summary: Ingredients: 50% Dahl. 50% Burton. Burton Factor: 7.

The Corpse Bride (2005)

Did Danny Elfman do the score?:  Yes. Are any Burton regulars in it?: Depp, Bonham Carter, Christopher Lee, Deep Roy.  Is it animated?:  Yes. Musical?:  Yes. Funny?: A bit. Scary?: Creepy.  Summary:  A Nightmare Before Christmas One and a Half. Burton Factor: 8.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)

Did Danny Elfman do the score?: No, all Stephen Sondheim.  Are any Burton regulars in it?:  Depp, Bonham Carter. Is it animated?:  No. Musical?:  Yes. Funny?: Yes.  Scary?:  Gory. Summary: A good choice for Tim B. Burton Factor: 8.

Alice In Wonderland (2010)

Did Danny Elfman do the score?:  Yes. Are any Burton regulars in it?: Depp and Bonham Carter, Christopher Lee. Is it animated?:  Lots of CGI. Musical?: No. Funny?: A little. Scary?:   No. Summary. Burton’s biggest hit. Curiouser and curiouser… Burton Factor: 8.

Dark Shadows (2012)

Did Danny Elfman do the score?:  Yes. Any Burton regulars in it?:  Depp and Bonham Carter in their fifth Burton film together in a row. Eva Green. Is it animated?: No. Musical?: No.  Funny?:  Scary?: A bit.   Summary: Burtonesque, certainly, although the formula seems less potent than usual. Burton Factor: 7.

Frankenweenie (2012)

Did Danny Elfman do the score?: Yes  Are any Burton regulars in it?:  Quite a few on voices including Winona Ryder. Is it animated?:  Yes. Musical?:  No. Funny?:  Yes. Scary?:   Eerie, yes Summary: Resurrected from the age of Burton past. Burton Factor: 8.

Big Eyes (2014)

Did Danny Elfman do the score?:  Yes.  Are any Burton regulars in it?: No.  Is it animated?: Mostly not.  Musical?:  No. Funny?:  No. Scary?:  No.  Summary/rating: With very little fantasy element at all, you might easily not notice who the director is. Burton Factor: 2.

Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children (2016)

Did Danny Elfman do the score?:  No.  Are any major Burton regulars in it?:  Eva Green. Is it animated?:   No. Musical?: No.  Funny?: No.  Scary?:  Yes. Summary/rating: Burton fans will recognise the mixture of childhood fantasy and horror. Burton Factor: 7.

THE ELFMAN COMETH

He is the Elfman, or rather Danny Elfman. Ten things you may not have known about Tim Burton’s favourite composer…

  1. Elfman has scored all but three of Tim Burton’s eighteen studio releases to date.
  2. The exceptions were: a) Sweeney Todd, which is based on a musical by Stephen Sondheim. b) Miss Peregrine’s School For Unusual Children, was scored by Matthew Margeson and Mike Higham as Elfman had a scheduling conflict due to scoring Alice Through The Looking Glass, James Bobin’s sequel to Burton’s own Alice film. c) Ed Wood: Howard Shore scored this one as Elfman and Burton had briefly fallen out.
  3. Danny Elfman provided the singing voice for Jack Skellingon in The Nightmare Before Christmas. He also voiced Bonejangles in The Corpse Bride and the Oompa Lumpas in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
  4. He used to be in a rock band called Oingo Boingo. In recent years, he has complained of hearing loss as a result. He is 63.
  5. He composed the iconic TV themes for The Simpsons and Desperate Housewives.
  6. He has composed loads of film scores for many other films too amongst them Nightbreed, the Men In Black and Sam Raimi Spider-Man films, Oz The Great and the Powerful, The Girl On The Train and many many more.

Full Metal Kubrick

First published in Geeky Monkey magazine in 2016.

Regardless of whether he was making heist thrillers, anti-war dramas or historical epics, director Stanley Kubrick was always a force to be reckoned with. However, it was his move towards science fiction and horror in the sixties and seventies which brought out his true genius as director and saw the creation of four of his greatest films. But what was the price of Kubrick’s lifelong battle for perfection? Over the years, the director’s obsession with power and control brought him close to the brink of madness

WORDS: Chris Hallam

It’s easy to see why some people might think director Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999) was an obsessive, controlling character. It’s there in his work. As the journalist Lewis Jones has noted; “All his films have an intensely painstaking air, an overpowering feel of perfectionism. They are all hugely ambitious… and all his films are driven by some kind of fear – fear of war (Paths of Glory, Dr Strangelove, Full Metal Jacket), of crime (A Clockwork Orange), of computers (2001), of creative failure and madness (The Shining), or sex (Lolita, Eyes Wide Shut)”.

The image of Kubrick as an obsessive telephone-fixated recluse may be an unfair stereotype. It is, after all, perfectly possible to feature certain recurrent themes in your work without necessarily exhibiting them within your own personality. There is also something of a lazy media tendency to label any celebrity who doesn’t do regular interviews “a recluse”.

Between 1963 and 1980, effectively the middle period of his career, Kubrick, already an established director, thanks to the likes of The Killing, Paths of Glory and Lolita, embarked, intentionally or not, on an exciting new journey. With the notable exception of his period piece 1975’s Barry Lyndon, Kubrick departed from real world scenarios as the subject matter for his films. Dr. Strangelove occurs against the backdrop of imminent nuclear war. 2001 and A Clockwork Orange both depict very different versions of the near future, while The Shining is set in a world in which ghosts and the supernatural exist.

It was undeniably the most creative period of his entire career. But it was also the period during which Kubrick’s own behaviour reportedly grew most eccentric. As Kubrick’s subject matter increasingly moved further and further away from real world scenarios, did his own grip on reality start to loosen too?

Dr. Strangelove (1964)

In October 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world closer to nuclear war than ever before. To give just one example, on learning that the Soviet Union had deployed nuclear missiles on the island just 80 miles off Florida, the initial reaction of President Kennedy’s team was that the US should invade Cuba. The president’s brother Bobby talked them out of it fearing the US would come across looking like a bully. Thirty years later, it was revealed: officials on Cuba were under orders to launch a nuclear strike on the US if they had attempted to invade. That’s how close the world came to nuclear holocaust.

Clearly, then, an obvious topic for a film comedy.

Nor was Stanley Kubrick, the obvious choice to direct a comedy. Although well-established in the movie business by his thirties, Kubrick who had directed Spartacus (1960) and the controversial Lolita (among other things) was not associated with comedy at all. Indeed, despite directing Dr. Strangelove, rated in 2000 by the AFI as the third best US comedy film of all time, he still isn’t. Ask anyone to describe Kubrick in ten words: more likely than not, the words “funny” and “hilarious” will remain unused.

The film did not start out as a comedy. Kubrick was fond of adapting novels as the basis for his films, in fact, every single Kubrick film after 1955’s Killer’s Kiss was based on a book (in the case of 2001, the short story The Sentinel was expanded by its author Arthur C. Clarke during production). Dr. Strangelove Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb, to give it its full title, was based on Peter George’s 1958 novel Red Alert released as Two Hours To Doom in the UK. The novel was quite different from the eventual film in that it was deadly serious, did not feature the character Dr. Strangelove at all and had a completely different ending. Nevertheless, the essential point that a US general goes mad and attempts to launch a pre-emptive nuclear attack on the USSR, is the same as the film (neither were directly based on the Cuban missile crisis). Kubrick increasingly came to recognise the dark humour in the Cold War arms race and with the help of co-writer Terry Southern, turned it into a comedy.

He was, of course, immeasurably helped by the comedy genius of his friend, the actor Peter Sellers. Kubrick indulged Sellers somewhat and would often be rendered hysterical by Sellers’ ad-libbing on set.  Sellers’ role in Lolita had been massively expanded from a very small one indeed in Nabakov’s book and had ultimately unbalanced the film. In Dr. Strangelove, Columbia Pictures insisted Sellers be cast in multiple roles as he had in Jack Arnold’s 1955 film The Mouse That Roared. This time, Sellers was given four roles including that of the missile-riding Major Kong. In the end, Sellers struggled to master the Texan accent and feigned a sprained ankle to get out of the Major Kong role. But he still did an impressive job on the other three assigned to him: the wheelchair bound ex-Nazi of the title, US president Merkin Muffley and perhaps most successfully, plucky British Group Captain Mandrake.

Madness is never far away in Kubrick’s films. In Strangelove, the whole real life scenario is as mad as the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (M.A.D.) itself, General Jack D. Ripper’s insane fear of bodily fluids is frighteningly convincing, while general Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) and the Doctor himself are clearly little more balanced.

Kubrick originally planned to end the film with a custard pie fight (perhaps rather like the end of Alan Parker’s Bugsy Malone) and even got to the stage of filming it it but the sequence was never used. Peter Sellers’ own life was certainly plagued by personal instability and Peter George who had written the book and helped with the screenplay committed suicide in 1966. Was Kubrick suffering with private demons of his own?

In his biography, John Baxter argues Dr. Strangelove arose from Kubrick’s fear of nuclear war:

“His fears were legitimate, but they also smacked of the paranoia that would increasingly characterise his life and work…because he so distrusted his own mental mechanism, he came to distrust machines also. His films, always preoccupied with systems that fail and plans that don’t succeed, increasingly dealt with the same problems but on a global or cosmic scale…”

He could also be a hard taskmaster putting his set designer Ken Adam through hell creating the sets for the film. But Kubrick got results. The War Room, in the film, in particular, looks amazing,

“Moscow gold could not have produced better propaganda,” wrote one conservative US newspaper about the film. But it was a hit and like many Kubrick films, it would prove initially controversial before eventually achieving classic status.

Kubrick’s eternal struggle for perfectionism had begun.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

The success of Dr. Strangelove gave Kubrick the power to do pretty much anything he wanted. He thus decided to settle permanently in the UK, grow a beard, team up with science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke and make the most ambitious film ever made.

Nearly fifty years after it first appeared, 2001 has lost none of its power to both awe and baffle audiences. Even the fact, the year 2001 has long since passed hasn’t really changed this, though it must be said, for a man who predicted that the first moon landings would occur in the year 1970 as far back as 1945 (he was only one year out as they happened in 1969), Clarke managed to be some way out in his prediction of how far advanced space technology would be just 33 years hence. It is doubtful that even by 2101, we’ll be as flying to Jupiter as the film suggests. We certainly weren’t by 2001 as Clarke, though not Kubrick sadly, would live to see.

The film rather defies conventional story synopsis, but broadly speaking some apes in prehistoric times are excited by the arrival of a large black monolith. The monolith seems to have a civilising effect on them and soon they are able to demonstrate impressive examples of cinematic match cut technique. Much much later, in the year 2001, in fact, a ship is sent to investigate another such monolith which has appeared on Jupiter. The mission goes wrong when the ship’s computer HAL (voiced by Douglas Rain) malfunctions and kills most of the crew before being gradually shut down by sole survivor Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea). This surprisingly touching sequence is probably the best loved of the film. Counterculture hippies of the time, however, preferred the psychedelic lightshow precipitated by Bowman flying into the monolith. And then a giant space baby appears, something which er… obviously needs no explanation.

Not everyone liked the film at the time. Roger Ebert later wrote that: “To describe that first screening as a disaster would be wrong, for many of those who remained until the end knew they had seen one of the greatest films ever made… But not everyone remained. Rock Hudson stalked down the aisle, complaining, ‘Will someone tell me what the hell this is about?’ There were many other walkouts, and some restlessness at the film’s slow pace…” A producer’s wife threw up during a screening although that might not have been because of the film. Influential critic Pauline Kael dubbed it “monumentally unimaginative” but unlike many things from the 1960s, the film has aged well and is now considered one of the greatest ever made. Though not “full of stars” (Leonard Rossiter is about the most famous person in it), it was a big hit at the time too, ultimately inspiring an okay sequel (2010 directed by Peter Hymans in 1984), Solaris, essentially a Soviet version (remade by Steven Soderbergh in 2002) and influencing everything from Interstellar (2014) and The Martian (2015) to TV’s Red Dwarf.

The film was the making of special effects guru Douglas Trumbull but he didn’t enjoy working with Kubrick at all. In the generally sympathetic documentary, Stanley Kubrick: A Life In Pictures (2001), made by Kubrick’s brother-in-law, Trumbull says:

“After working with Stanley on 2001, I swore I’d never work for anybody again. Stanley was a hell of a taskmaster. He was difficult. He was demanding. His level of quality control was astronomically close to perfectionism…his mind was so insatiable. I saw that he lived his work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I think he had a hard time keeping up with his own intellect.”

Demanding… perfectionist ..insatiable Turnbull would not be the last person to use these words about Stanley Kubrick.

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Kubrick’s next film was also a science fiction film set in the near future. But it could hardly have been more different from 2001.

Based on Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel of the same name A Clockwork Orange tells the tale of four young thugs in a violent Britain of the late 20th century. Aside from Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) who loves the music of Beethoven, the gang seem to have no interests other than drinking milk and inflicting acts of violence and rape upon the surrounding populace.

Like the book, much of the film’s dialogue is in Nadsat, a futuristic slang, derived from Russian and Yiddish, devised by Burgess. Although different in certain key respects, the film actually follows the book very closely with large sections of the text reproduced almost verbatim. Despite this, Burgess was annoyed that the substantial attention and controversy the film attracted, transformed a book which he had considered a very minor work into easily the most famous thing he had ever written.

Malcolm McDowell, the young star of Clockwork Orange had a famously complex relationship with Kubrick. On the one hand, McDowell loved playing a part he felt (perhaps rightly) he had been born to play and developed a strong friendship with Kubrick during filming. On the other hand, it was a tough shoot. McDowell suffered cracked ribs during filming and at one point was temporarily blinded when his cornea was scratched accidentally.

At one point, McDowell found the director alone in his office listening to something on his headphones. Some Beethoven perhaps? McDowell wondered, wrongly.

 “Another near miss at Heathrow,” Kubrick reported. The director had a tremendous fear of flying,

Kubrick, was in turn, greatly amused when McDowell spontaneously began singing “Singin in the Rain” during one violent scene and immediately bought the rights so Gene Kelly’s most famous song could be used in the film. Kelly had previously been on friendly terms with Kubrick. He blanked him the next time he saw the director and never spoke to him again.

McDowell, then in his late twenties was himself deeply hurt by the brutality with which Kubrick severed all ties with McDowell once production was over. Some of McDowell’s interviews in the years afterwards reflect some bitterness when discussing the director, even bizarrely claiming Kubrick was very badly organised in one.

What happened next couldn’t have helped. After a year of showings, Kubrick withdrew the film from release in the UK. It would not be shown again in the UK (legally) until the year 2000, a year after Kubrick’s death.

McDowell is now in his seventies and has had a good and varied career from playing the lead in Lindsay Anderson’s public school based If..(1968) to recent performances in Amazon Prime series Mozart in the Jungle. It would be understandable, though, if he was a little aggrieved that his most iconic performance was withdrawn from public view in his homeland until he was well into his fifties.

The suppression of the film did not happen because of its lead actor though. For many years, the official line was that Kubrick had intervened due to a number of copycat attacks allegedly linked to the film. Controversy continues to reign as to whether these widely publicised attacks really had been inspired by the film anyway. But in in fact, Kubrick had made the decision on police advice after a series of death threats made towards him and his family.

Kubrick’s next effort Barry Lyndon (1975) is the odd film out here, an 18th century set period drama which flopped on release but has since received considerable critical acclaim. But it was Kubrick’s next film which would see move back away from reality and towards the horror genre and which would bring out the greatest excesses in his character.

The Shining (1980)

Author Stephen King has never liked the film of The Shining much.

Speaking earlier this year, King said:

“The character of Jack Torrance has no arc in that movie. Absolutely no arc at all. When we first see Jack Nicholson, he’s in the office of Mr Ullman, the manager of the hotel, and you know then he’s crazy as a shithouse rat. All he does is get crazier. In the book, he’s a guy who’s struggling with his sanity and finally loses it. To me, that’s a tragedy. In the movie, there’s no tragedy because there’s no real change.

“I think The Shining is a beautiful film and it looks terrific and as I’ve said before, it’s like a big, beautiful Cadillac with no engine inside it … I kept my mouth shut at the time, but I didn’t care for it much,” said King.

King has a point. Nicholson’s Torrance seems crazed even before he begins his job interview for the position at the Overlook Hotel. Whether King did keep his “mouth shut” at the time is more questionable, author Roger Luckhurst says King “conducted a press campaign” against the film at the time of its release.

What’s not in doubt is that The Shining was a tough shoot. “cast and crew… quickly tired of the relentless regime,” writes John Baxter. “Scatman Crothers (who played caretaker, Dick Halloran) had no experience of working methods like Kubrick’s and found the multiple takes gruelling…Kubrick demanded eighty five takes in the middle of which Crothers broke down and cried in frustration. “What do you want Me. Kubrick?’ he screamed.” What do you want?!”… Nobody was sure if the exhausting system bore fruit or if it didn’t simply prop up the mystique of a director who would go to any lengths to achieve his ends.”

Thanks to the Making of the Shining documentary made by Kubrick’s daughter Vivian we get an unstinting portrait of life on set. The footage is all the more remarkable bearing in mind Stanley insisted on approving it first (not an unreasonable demand in the circumstances). Kubrick insisted some scenes unflattering to him and some shots of some members of the cast doing cocaine be excised. But the sequences in which Jack Nicholson intervenes to prevent Kubrick badgering the ageing Crothers are still there as are Kubrick’s relentless haranguing of female lead, Shelley Duvall, at one point accusing her of “ruining the whole movie”. Duvall, had an especially tough time and is in the Guinness Book of Records for enduring 127 takes before one scene was completed.

 There were also reportedly incidents off camera, director SK (Kubrick) not endearing him to the author SK (King) by reportedly calling him at all hours to ask him random questions.

“I think stories of the supernatural are fundamentally optimistic don’t you?” Kubrick reportedly asked King at one morning at seven. “If there are ghosts, then that means we survive death!”

“How the hell does that fit in with the picture?” King asked, perhaps not unreasonably.

“I don’t believe in hell,” the director answered.

Kubrick again, got results. The set for the Overlook Hotel hotel was then the largest ever built at Elstree up to that point and looks spectacular.

“Who wants to see evil in daylight through a wide-angled lens?” complained critic Pauline Kael, spectacularly wrong once again. “We are not frightened.”

But, of course, we were and are. The Shining is now held in higher regard than almost any other horror film. Like Coppola after Apocalypse Now, Kubrick was not quite the same afterwards.

Kubrick made fewer and fewer films over time. Four Kubrick films were released in the sixties, two in the seventies, two in the eighties (seven years apart) and Eyes Wide Shut completed at the end of the 1990s and at the end of Kubrick’s life. Kubrick regretted the fact he was not more prolific. Full Metal Jacket had a brilliant first forty-five minutes but neither it nor Eyes Wide Shut are amongst his best films, Unrealised projects included AI (2001) a sci-fi film later made by Spielberg, though a disappointment and a biopic of Napoleon. It has been argued Kubrick saw himself as a Napoleon-like figure, obsessed with power and terrified of defeat.

Kubrick’s widow Christiane Kubrick has gone to some lengths to argue that her late husband’s controlling reputation is undeserved. In an interview with journalist Lewis Jones she said:

“Yes, Stanley was a perfectionist, but not in the nerdy way that is sometimes reported. And the actors were on his side, because he wanted them to feel that there was all the time in the world.”

There is certainly some truth in this last claim. Actors such as Jack Nicholson and Malcolm McDowell who initially struggled with Kubrick, often ended up amongst his keenest champions.

Kubrick’s portrayal as a paranoid loner also does not generally fit in with the contented family man he so often seems to have been. His unparalleled decision to withdraw A Clockwork Orange from UK distribution, does seem to have occurred not as a result of megalomania but from genuine concern for the wellbeing of himself and his family.

And yet, there is evidence here too, home video footage of Kubrick bullying his children from behind the camera as if he is on a film set. Then there is the 17-page list of instructions for looking after his cats while he went on holiday. well-meant but undeniably obsessive.

Mental illness is, of course, not an issue to be treated flippantly. Just because Stanley Kubrick made films about people as unbalanced as Dr. Strangelove or as violent as Alex DeLarge or Jack Torrance, it does not follow that Kubrick was in any way like that at all. Indeed, he definitely wasn’t.

But did he have a tendency to be paranoid, bullying, obsessive and controlling? The evidence is too strong to suggest otherwise. And as this was undoubtedly essential to his method. We would not have his brilliant array of films otherwise.

Section: What exactly is science fiction anyway?

There has been plenty of discussion about exactly what science fiction is over the years. Thankfully, discussing her own book Onyx and Crake in The Guardian in 2003, Margaret Atwood sorted the matter out forever. “Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen,” she told the paper. “Oryx and Crake is a speculative fiction, not a science fiction proper. It contains no intergalactic space travel, no teleportation, no Martians.”

Is that all clear? No? Well, it shouldn’t be because it isn’t true. Sci-fi may contain intergalactic space travel, teleportation and Martians but these certainly are not essential ingredients for anything to qualify. The Terminator, The Time Machine, Planet of the Apes and Jurassic Park contain no one of these things. Yet all are clearly science fiction.

Intergalactic space travel, teleportation and Martians incidentally are all things which COULD exist in the future. Test tube babies didn’t exist when Huxley wrote about them in Brave New World. Cloning also didn’t exist once outside the realm of science fiction. And spaceships exist already.

In fairness, there are different definitions around. For the purposes of this feature, science fiction will be defined as any piece of fiction where the major problem has a clear scientific explanation. Clear? So The Thing is science fiction and horror as it has aliens in Apollo 13, meanwhile, is based on real events so is not.

This is tricky in the case in the case of Dr. Strangelove but thankfully film journo, Angie Errigo has already written about this:

“Dr. Strangelove is a black comedy,” he wrote. “It’s a savage, surreal political satire. It’s a cautionary Cold War tale. It’s a suspense farce. And it is also science fiction. Sci-fi is not confined to stories of space exploration, the future, or extra-terrestrial life. Science fiction is speculative fiction about human beings exploring themselves and their possibilities. Crucially — and this is the science bit — it often does this by dealing with humans dealing with technology. Technology running away with us is the basis of Dr. Strangelove.”

I would add that 2001 is clearly sci-fi as it clearly based around a high technology future. Stephen Spielberg appears to deny even this in the film Stanley Kubrick: A Life In Pictures (2001) but let’s ignore that for now. A Clockwork Orange is also set in the future and is also science fiction as are both Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale and Onyx and Crake whether Atwood wants them to be or not.

Which just leaves The Shining. Which has no scientific basis whatsoever. But it is definitely horror and Geeky Monkey magazine covers that. Happy now?

The Oscars: A timeline

1927:

The first ever US Academy Awards are held. First World War-based thriller Wings wins the first ever Best Picture Oscar.

1933:

 In a scene reminiscent of the early scenes of the 2001 comedy film Zoolander, comedian Will Rogers opens the Best Director envelope and says, “Come and get It Frank!” Unfortunately, there were two directors called Frank nominated in that year. Frank Capra was half way to the podium before Rogers clarified that it was Frank Lloyd, director of Cavalcade who had won, not Capra. Happily, Frank Capra later won for Mr Deeds Goes To Town in 1936. In future years, the awards are always announced in a heavily scripted way, in the hope of preventing such an embarrassing error ever happening again.

1940:

Hattie McDaniel becomes the first black woman to win an acting Oscar (Best Supporting Actress: Gone With The Wind). Having been barred from the film’s Atlanta premiere due to the state’s racial laws, she is made to sit at a segregated table during the Oscar ceremony. She is only allowed to attend at all due to the Ambassador Hotel making an exception to its usual strict ‘no blacks’ policy. Her white agent sat with her at the ceremony.

1941:

How Green Is My Valley beats Citizen Kane for Best Picture. Citizen Kane subsequently became the most critically acclaimed film of all time.

1964:

Sidney Poitier (Lillies Of The Field) becomes the first black actor to win an Oscar.

1968:

A very rare occurrence: A tie in the Best Actress category. Barbara Streisand wins for Funny Girl. Katharine Hepburn also wins for The Lion In Winter (her third). As most Oscars are determined by votes from several thousand Academy members, a tie is a frequent possibility.

1970:

George C. Scott wins Best Actor for Patton. He chooses not to attend and instead stays home and watches a ball game on the other channel.

1972:

Native American Sacheen Littlefeather surprises viewers by attending to reject Marlon Brando’s second Oscar won for The Godfather on his behalf. t “He very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award. And the reasons for this being are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry,” she says. She is actually not a political activist herself but a small-time actress who later appears in Playboy magazine.

1973:

In a famously impromptu remark, host David Niven comments on a streaker who disrupts the ceremony:  “Isn’t it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings?

1974:

Robert De Niro wins his first Oscar playing Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II. Marlon Brando played the same character in 1972’s The Godfather. It is the only time two actors have won Oscars for playing the same (fictional) person.

Tatum O’Neal becomes the youngest ever person to win a competitive Academy Award (Best Supporting Actress – Paper Moon). She is ten (she turned nine during filming).

1978:

Annie Hall beats Star Wars for Best Picture. Director and star Woody Allen begins a long tradition of not attending the Oscars (choosing to perform jazz music elsewhere on Oscar Night instead). He finally attends in 2002.

British actress Vanessa Redgrave (Best Supporting Actress: Julia) is audibly booed after she attacks opponents of her documentary film, The Palestinian as “Zionist hoodlums”. She also attacks former President Nixon.

1979:

Jane Fonda (Best Actress: Coming Home) uses sign language during her acceptance speech to highlight awareness of deafness. It is her second Oscar: she also won for Klute in 1972.

1981:

Robert De Niro wins his second Oscar for Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull. The timing is awkward as the new President, former actor, Ronald Reagan has just been shot and wounded in an assassination attempt. His attempted assassin John Hinckley was reportedly inspired by Scorsese and De Niro’s 1976 film Taxi Driver and a desire to “impress” his teenaged co-star Jodie Foster (she is not impressed).

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1982:

Katharine Hepburn wins her fourth and final Oscar for On Golden Pond. No other actor, male or female, has ever won four Oscars. Cate Blanchett later wins one for playing Hepburn herself in The Aviator in 2004.

Hepburn’s co-star Henry Fonda becomes easily the oldest ever Best Actor winner at 76. Too ill to attend the ceremony, his daughter and co-star, Jane Fonda collects the award on his behalf (he dies a few months later).

Screenwriter Colin Welland shouts “The British are coming!” following the success of Chariots of Fire this year. In fact, the next decade will prove a very lean one for British cinema, although Gandhi does win Best Picture in 1983.

1984:

Sally Field wins her second Oscar for Places In My Heart. “I haven’t had an orthodox career, and I’ve wanted more than anything to have your respect,” she says. “The first time I didn’t feel it, but this time I feel it, and I can’t deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me!” Seen my many as overly sentimental, Field’s speech is often misquoted as: “You like me, you really like me!”

Mar 26, 2000; LOS ANGELES, CA, USA; NORTH AMERICAN SALES ONLY 72nd Academy Awards: OSCARS 2000. Best supporting actress ANGELINA JOLIE. Mandatory Credit: Photo by Chris Delmas/ZUMA Press. (©) Copyright 2000 by Chris Delmas

1991:

Whoopi Goldberg (Ghost) becomes only the second black actress to win Best Supporting Actress.

1992:

Silence of the Lambs wins in all of the “Big Five” categories: Best Film, Actor (Anthony Hopkins),  Actress (Jodie Foster), Director (Jonathan Demme) and Adapted Screenplay. This is the only the third time this has ever happened (the previous films were 1932’S It Happened One Night and 1975’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest).

Rumours abound that Jack Palance read out the wrong name during his announcement of the Best Supporting Actress winner Marisa Tomei (My Cousin Vinnie) In fact, though a surprise result, Tomei undoubtedly won. That said, Palance did seem to be in a somewhat “tired and emotional” state as he announced the award.

1993:

Couple Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon use the Best Film Editing category as a political opportunity urging the government to let HIV-positive Haitians being held at Guantanamo into the US.

1994:

“Oh, wow. This is the best drink of water after the longest drought of my life.” Steven Spielberg (Best Director: Schindler’s List) finally wins. Schindler’s List is the first black and white film to win Best Picture since The Apartment (1960).

1995:

Tom Hanks wins two Best Actor Oscars in consecutive years for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump, a feat not achieved since Spencer Tracey in the 1930s, He delivers highly emotional acceptance speeches both times, inadvertently “outing” a high school teacher as gay in the first (a moment which later inspired the Kevin Kline film In and Out) and in the second stating “I feel like I’m standing on magic legs.”

Samuel L. Jackson (Pulp Fiction) loses the Best Supporting Actor Oscar to Martin Landau (Ed Wood). Lipreaders can see Jackson clearly says “shit” on hearing the announcement from 12 year old, Anna Paquin. Jackson is unrepentant afterwards, arguing he deserved to win.

1999:

George Clooney, Nick Nolte, Ed Harris and many other actors refuse to stand or applaud Elia Kazan’s Lifetime Achievement Oscar. The On The Waterfront director testified to the notorious House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952

2002:

Halle Berry (Monster’s Ball) becomes the first black winner of the Best Actress Oscar.

2003:

Filmmaker Michael Moore (Best Documentary: Bowling For Columbine) provokes a mixed reaction with an attack on President George W. Bush: “We live in the time where we have fictitious election results that elects a fictitious President. We live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons…Shame on you, Mr. Bush, shame on you. And any time you’ve got the Pope and the Dixie Chicks against you, your time is up.”

Adrien Brody (Best Actor: The Pianist) kisses actress Halle Berry on receiving his award.

2004:

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King becomes the third film to win eleven Oscars. The others are Ben-Hur (1959) and Titanic (1997). All About Eve (1950) and Titanic remain the most nominated films (14 each). The Return of the King is the only fantasy film to win Best Picture (no sci-fi film has ever won it) and only the second sequel (the first was The Godfather Pt II in 1974).

2007:

Martin Scorsese finally wins (Director: The Departed) after years of being overlooked. “Could you double check the envelope?” he quips.

2010:

A showdown between Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker and James Cameron’s Avatar. The Hurt Locker wins Best Picture. Bigelow becomes the first woman to win Best Director (she and Cameron were married between 1989 and 1991).

2012:

The Artist is the first black and white film to win Best Picture since 1993’s Schindler’s List. Contrary to popular belief, it is not technically a silent film. Wings, the very first Best Picture winner, remains the only silent winner in this category.

Christopher Plummer (Best Supporting Actor: Beginners) becomes the oldest ever performer to win a competitive actor Oscar. He is 82.

Meryl Streep wins her 17th nomination (and her third win) for The Iron Lady joking: “When they called my name, I had this feeling I could hear half of America going, ‘Oh no. Come on… Her, again?’ You know. But, whatever.” No actor has ever been nominated as many times as Streep has: Katharine Hepburn won four times but was only nominated a still impressive 12 times. In 2018, Streep received her 21st nomination for The Post. Her other two wins were for Kramer Vs Kramer and Sophie’s Choice.

2013:

Daniel Day Lewis wins his third acting Oscar for Lincoln. Only five other actors have achieved three Oscar wins: Katharine Hepburn (who, as previously mentioned, won four), Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson, Walter Brennan and Ingrid Bergman.

2014:

John Travolta messes up his introduction to a performance from Frozen by Idina Menzel: “Please welcome the wickedly talented, one and only Adele Dazeem,” he says.

2016:

The Oscars are widely criticised for a lack of racial diversity in the nominations.

Leonardo DiCaprio finally wins Best Actor for The Revenant.

2017:

In an embarrassing cock up, La La Land is briefly announced as Best Picture, instead of the actual winner, Moonlight. The mistake – which seems to have resulted from veteran actor Warren Beatty being given the card revealing La La Land actress Emma Stone’s Best Actress Oscar in error, and Beatty and Faye Dunaway’s understandably confused reaction – is only corrected after two minutes (“There’s a mistake. Moonlight, you guys won best picture…This is not a joke. Moonlight has won best picture”) by which time the La La Land team are midway through their acceptance speech.

Casey Affleck wins for Manchester by the Sea despite widespread controversy over sexual harassment allegations. Actress Brie Larson, an advocate of sexual assault victims, presents the award to Affleck, but seems unhappy with the result.

2019:

Comedian Kevin Hart steps down as host of the Oscars after controversy emerges over a slew of allegedly homophobic tweets he sent in the past. It is decided the Oscars will not have an official host for the first time since 1989.

President Evil? Fictional US presidents on screen

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Frank Underwood  (Kevin Spacey) is back, this time as US president in the third season of hit US TV drama House Of Cards. Scheming and manipulative, Underwood is definitely a bad sort. But which other fictional presidents, candidates and politicians both good and evil have graced our screens in the last fifty years or so? Here are some of the most memorable ones…

Senator John Iselin (James Gregory) in The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

A buffoonish take on the malevolent Senator Joe McCarthy, Iselin is a drunken idiot leading an anti-communist witch hunt effectively inspired by his scheming wife (Angela Lansbury).

 William Russell (Henry Fonda) in The Best Man (1964)

Gore Vidal’s screenplay essentially replays the 1960 Kennedy vs.  Nixon contest. There are a few odd twists, however.  Unlike the Democrat JFK and the Republican Nixon, both candidates are competing within the same party for the nomination. And here it is Cliff Robertson’s Nixon type who has the glamorous wife not Henry Fonda’s JFK.

President Jordan Lyman (Frederic March) in Seven Days In May (1964)

Lyman’s liberal president is ahead of his time by about a decade in seeking détente but unfortunately provokes an attempted right wing military coup by Burt Lancaster’s General Scott in the process. Can Kirk Douglas save the day?

President Merkin Muffley in Dr Strangelove (1964)

“You can’t fight in here: this is the War Room!” One of three characters played by Peter Sellers in the film, resembles twice defeated 1950s Democrat presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson.

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Unnamed President (Henry Fonda) in Fail Safe (1964)

Oops. After the US blows up a Soviet city by mistake, the US agrees to sacrifice New York to appease the Russians. Henry Fonda plays the president (Richard Dreyfuss reprised the role in the 2000 live TV version) and soon finds his decision will take on a tragic personal dimension.

Bill McKay (Robert Redford) in The Candidate (1972)

Robert Redford’s candidate sacrifices so much in his campaign for the Senate that he doesn’t know what to do once he’s won.  Quite a tame film by modern standards.

Senator Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris) in Taxi Driver (1976)

Bland presidential candidate who narrowly escapes assassination by Travis Bickle. This unfortunately probably partly inspired the real life assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan in 1981.

President Richard Monckton (Jason Robards) in Washington: Behind Closed Doors (TV: 1977)

Basically it’s Richard Nixon, although Robards stops short of actually impersonating him.

President Barbara Adams (Loretta Swit) Whoops Apocalypse (1988)

The first woman president tries and fails to prevent Peter Cook’s mad British Prime Minister from starting World War III in this largely unfunny British satire.

Bob Roberts (Tim Robbins) (1992)

Director/star Tim Robbins plays the country western singer turned right wing 1990 Senate candidate in this winning mockumentary. His defeated liberal opponent is played by Gore Vidal.

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Dave Kovic/Bill Mitchell (Kevin Kline) in Dave (1995)

A professional presidential lookalike Dave stands in for the nasty US president temporarily. When the president has a stroke during a sex act, however, the job becomes more permanent.

President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) in The American President (1995)

One of many Nineties “like Clinton but a bit better” liberal dream presidents, Shepherd is a widower leaving him free to woo lobbyist (played by Annette Bening) much to nasty Republican opponent Richard Dreyfuss’s glee.

President Thomas Whitmore (Bill Pullman in Independence Day (1996)

Hurrah! Bill Pullman’s heroic US president saves the world from alien invasion.

President James Dale (Jack Nicholson) in Mars Attacks! (1996)

Hurrah! Jack Nicholson’s over the top US president fails to save the world from alien invasion.

President James Marshall (Harrison Ford) Air Force One (1997)

There have been two presidents Harrison and one Ford, so why not President Harrison Ford? In a slightly bizarre premise, the president ends up machine gunning lots of terrorists who have invaded his plane while female Veep Glenn Close rules the roost on the ground. A spoof called Vatican One in which an ex-martial arts champion becomes Pope was sadly never made.

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President Beck (Morgan Freeman) in Deep Impact (1998)

It may be the end of the world as we know it but President Beck feels fine.

Governor Jack Stanton (John Travolta) in Primary Colors (1998)

You remember Bill Clinton? Basically, it’s supposed to be him.

Senator Jay Billington Bulworth (Warren Beatty) in Bulworth (1998)

Beatty’s Senator basically has a crisis and arranges his own assassination. After snogging Halle Berry, however, he soon regrets this decision.

President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) in The West Wing (TV: 1999-2006)

Perhaps the most fully realised fictional US president, Bartlet is a hugely intellectual New England academic who serves two terms as president in the long running series, surviving MS, scandal, government shutdowns, assassination attempts, the kidnapping of his daughter and numerous political reversals along the way. Sheen had played JFK in a memorable mini -series nearly twenty years before and is no less brilliant in this.

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President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) in The Contender (2000)

Perhaps the most laidback president ever, there’s more than a hint of Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski about Bridges’ Democratic incumbent in this West Wingy style drama. He even likes bowling.

President David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) 24 (TV: 2001-2007)

Before there was “No Drama” Obama there was “Even Calmer” David Palmer. A black US president, Palmer’s presence on the series ended before Obama’s first presidential campaign got going.

President Mackenzie Allen (Geena Davis) in Commander In Chief (TV 2005)

Taller than Bartlet, Geena Davis is easily the best thing in this short lived drama about the first woman president. Like most fictional women presidents, Allen comes to power as a result of her predecessor’s death, rather than being elected herself.

Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney) in The Ides of March (2011)

Anti-big business, anti-car, handsome and charismatic Morris seems to be the perfect presidential candidate for the Democrats in this drama. But lo and behold: campaign aide Ryan Gosling soon uncovers skeletons in his closet.

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The Oscars: myths, legends and statistics

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Four score and seven years ago (or thereabouts) the Oscars burst onto the world. With this year’s ceremony fast approaching, let’s take a look back at the highs and lows of Academy Award history…

1927: World War I based thriller Wings wins the first ever Best Picture Oscar. It is the last silent film to win until The Artist wins in 2012.

1933: In a scene reminiscent of the early scenes of Zoolander, comedian Will Rogers opens the Best Director envelope and says “Come and get It Frank!” Unfortunately, there were two directors called Frank nominated in that year. Frank Capra was half way to the podium before Rogers clarified that it was Frank Lloyd, director of Cavalcade who had won, not Capra. Happily, Frank Capra wins for Mr Deeds Goes To Town in 1936. In future years, the awards are always announced in a heavily scripted way, to avoid such a cock up happening again.

1941: How Green Is My Valley beats Citizen Kane, subsequently the most critically acclaimed film of all time, for Best Picture.

1968; A tie in the Best Actress category! Barbara Streisand wins for Funny Girl. Katharine Hepburn also wins for The Lion In Winter (her third).

1970: George C. Scott wins Best Actor for Patton. He chooses not to attend and instead watches a ball game on the other channel.

1972: Native American Sacheen Littlefeather picks up Marlon Brando’s Oscar for him to promote Native American issues (it is Brando’s second. This one is for The Godfather). She is actually not a political activist herself but a small time actress and later appears in Playboy.

1973: David Niven remarks of a streaker at the ceremony that “the only laugh that man will ever get is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings”.

1974: Robert De Niro wins his first Oscar playing Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II. Marlon Brando played the same character in 1972’s The Godfather. It is the only time two actors have won Oscars for playing the same (fictional) person.

1980: Robert De Niro also wins his second Oscar for Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull. The timing is awkward as President Reagan has just been shot. His attempted assassin John Hinckley was reportedly inspired by Scorsese and De Niro’s 1976 film Taxi Driver.

1981: Katharine Hepburn wins her fourth and final Oscar for On Golden Pond. No other actor, male or female, has ever won four. Cate Blanchett later wins one for playing Hepburn herself in The Aviator in 2004.

1992: Rumours abound that Jack Palance read out the wrong name during his announcement of the Best Supporting Actress winner Marisa Tomei. In fact, this is impossible: only one name is ever on the card, the name of the winner. Marisa Tomei in fact thoroughly deserved to win for My Cousin Vinny (even though it was a surprise result). That said, Palance did seem to be in a somewhat “tired and emotional” state as he announced the award.

1995: Tom Hanks wins two Best Actor Oscars in consecutive years (a feat not achieved since Spencer Tracey in the 1930s) for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump. Both times he delivers excruciating acceptance speeches inadvertently “outing” a high school teacher in the first (a moment which inspired the Kevin Kline film In and Out) and in the second stating “I feel like I’m standing on magic legs.”

1995: Samuel L. Jackson (Pulp Fiction) loses the Best Supporting Actor Oscar to Martin Landau (Ed Wood). Lipreaders can see Jackson clearly says “shit” on hearing the announcement (from 12 year old An Paquin). Jackson is later unrepentant, arguing he deserved the award more than Landau.

2003: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King becomes the third film to win eleven Oscars. The others are Ben-Hur (1959) and Titanic (1997). All About Eve (1950) and Titanic remain the most nominated films (14 each).

2012: Meryl Streep wins her 17th nomination (and her third win) for The Iron Lady. No actor has ever been nominated as many times as she has. In 2014, she won her 18th nomination for August: Osage County. Her other wins were for Kramer Vs Kramer and Sophie’s Choice.

2013: Daniel Day Lewis wins his third acting Oscar for Lincoln. Only five other actors have achieved this: Katharine Hepburn (who won four), Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson, Walter Brennan and Ingrid Bergman.

Trying to guess who will win this year’s Best Picture Oscar? Why not let the past be your guide?

Sixteen of the last fifty Best Picture winners were based on true stories (for the record, I am counting The French Connection as “true” but not Shakespeare In Love). This, of course, means that around 68% of the last fifty Best Picture winners were entirely fictional. The most recent “real life” winners were and 12 Year’s A Slave.

Comedies hardly ever win the Best Picture Oscar. Only around five of the last fifty Best Picture winners were comedies. Annie Hall, Forrest Gump, The Artist, Shakespeare In Love and American Beauty. And some would dispute that American Beauty or Forrest Gump are comedies.

Nearly half of the past fifty Best Picture winners had either a British director, lead actor or actress, a British setting or has other heavy British involvement.

No science fiction film has ever won Best Picture. Gravity, Avatar, Star Wars and A Clockwork Orange were all nominated but didn’t win in this category.

Only two sequels have ever won. The Godfather Part II (the first Godfather film also won) and the third Lord of the Rings film.

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Underrated: Rob Reiner

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Rob Reiner has directed some of the best loved films ever made.

He has mastered different genres to such an extent that you might not have realised that some of his films were even made by the same person. Who would, after all, assume A Few Good Men was linked to This is Spinal Tap? Or that Misery had anything to do with The Princess Bride? Or even that When Harry Met Sally was directed by the same man as Stand By Me?

Reiner directed them all.

Reiner has a long background in comedy. His father Carl Reiner was a noted US comedy star (now in his nineties) and directed the Steve Martin classic The Man With Two Brains. And like Ron Howard, Rob Reiner was a familiar face to US TV audiences long before he became a director. He was a regular on the long-running Seventies US comedy show, All In The Family. This is reflected in the fact that a good number of Reiner’s films have been comedies.

Just take a look at this list of Reiner’s incredible output between 1984 and 1996. Chances are, at least one of your favourite movies will be here:

This Is Spinal Tap (1984)

Reiner himself plays interviewer/director Marty DiBergi in this celebrated rock documentary parody about a fictional English band famed for their punctuality and their tendency to lose drummers: one spontaneously combusts on stage. Another chokes to death on vomit (somebody else’s vomit).

Nigel: “It really puts perspective on things though, doesn’t it?”
David: “Too much. There’s too much fucking perspective now”.

The Sure Thing (1985)

A lesser spotted Reiner but still very much a cult favourite, this stars John Cusack and future ER actor, Anthony Edwards and centres round a college road trip.

Stand By Me (1986)

Funny, poignant and moving, this coming of age drama based on a Stephen King novella (The Body), actually improves on its source material in its depiction of four boys embarking on a macabre camping expedition into the woods to see the body of a local boy in the 1950s. With great performances from its young cast and a number of classic scenes, this is Reiner’s greatest film.

“I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesusdoes anyone?”

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The Princess Bride (1987)

Inconceivable! But true. Rob Reiner also directed this hilarious and wonderful fairy tale which features everyone from Robin Wright, Peter Cook, Billy Crystal, Mel Smith, Andre the Giant to Peter Falk.

“Hello! My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die”.

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When Harry Met Sally (1989)

Famous for launching Meg Ryan’s decade of stardom and for “that scene” (Reiner’s late mother is the one who says “I’ll have what she’s having”), this Woody Allen-esque romantic comedy is endlessly watchable.

“When I buy a new book, I always read the last page first. That way, in case I die before I finish, I know how it ends. That, my friend, is a dark side.”

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Misery (1990)

Reiner’s second crack at Stephen King features a chilling Oscar winning turn by Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes the “Number One fan” of unfortunate writer and captive Paul Sheldon (James Caan). By my reckoning, two of the four best Stephen King adaptations are by Reiner (the others would be Frank Darabont’s Shawshank Redemption and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining). Which isn’t bad going.

“I thought you were good Paul… but you’re not good. You’re just another lying ol’ dirty birdy”.

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A Few Good Men (1992)

Courtroom drama starring Jack Nicholson, Tom Cruise, Demi Moore and an Aaron Sorkin script. Reiner’s biggest ever box office hit.

Col. Jessup: You want answers?

Kaffee: I think I’m entitled to.

Col. Jessep: You want answers?

Kaffee: I WANT THE TRUTH!

Col. Jessup: YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!

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North (1994)

The big exception during this period, this all star comedy was a total flop and is often rated as one of the worst films ever. Reiner, arguably, has never fully recovered from this. The critic Roger Ebert famously opined: “I hated this movie. Hated, hated, hated, hated, hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it.”

The American President (1996)

Aaron Sorkin again with a film that effectively launched Michael J. Fox’s late Nineties Spin City TV comeback and foreshadowed Sorkin’s huge TV hit The West Wing. US president and widower Michael Douglas woos lobbyist Annette Bening. Fairly unambiguously aimed at helping President Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign, this is still a good, if perhaps not great film.

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Even ignoring North, it’s an incredible record. I make that six iconic great films in the space of a decade (Spinal Tap, Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, Misery and A Few Good Men). Compare this to James Cameron who directed four iconic films over the same period (the two Terminators, Aliens and if you’re feeling generous, True Lies).  Fellow ex-sitcom star Ron Howard directed Splash in 1984 and then ten other movies over the same period up to 1996. Only one of these, Apollo 13, could conceivably described as “great”. So Reiner did very well indeed.

Why then is Rob Reiner not held in higher regard?

There are several reasons:

  1. He has genuinely gone off the boil since the mid-Nineties: there’s no denying this. With the possible exceptions of The Bucket List in 2008 (which is only okay), Ghosts of Mississippi, The Story Of Us, Rumor Has It… Alex & Emma and The Magic of Belle Isle were all total duds.
  2. The fact that his films are so different from each other is to Reiner’s credit. However, his successes have been so diverse that he has probably suffered from the fact that he is hard to pin down. What is a typical Rob Reiner film? This is difficult to say.
  3. His politics may have harmed him. South Park ridiculed him for his anti-smoking stance. He has campaigned for Al Gore, Howard Dean and still campaigns for Hillary Clinton. None of these presidential campaigns was successful.
  4. Even his successes were not always huge box office smashes. Even Spinal Tap and The Princess Bride were only modest hits at the time.
  5. Unusually, Reiner’s screenwriters – Nora Ephron, Aaron Sorkin and William Goldman have often received more credit for his films than he has. All were admittedly great.

But credit where credit’s due, Rob Reiner: six great films. That’s six more than most directors manage in a lifetime.

Media manifesto

Ten great ideas to transform the world of TV, film and music…

  1. A new series of 24 should be made in which Donald Sutherland plays Jack Bauer’s evil estranged father.
  2. A new Bond film should be made in which an elderly Bond played by Sean Connery is called out of retirement for a final mission.
  3. All theme tunes should include a version which includes the title amongst the lyrics in the manner of Anita Dobson’s Anyone Can Fall In Love (for EastEnders) if they do not already do so. Particularly: Star Wars, the 70s and 80s Superman films, Coronation Street and Last of the Summer Wine.
  4. Why Do You Think You Are? A new documentary series which forces celebrities to justify their existence.
  5. None of the Carry On films (with the possible exception of the first one Carry On Sergeant and the later Carry On Regardless) feature any characters saying the title of the film at any point. This is disappointing. Digital technology should be used to insert a character (perhaps Charles Hawtrey) saying the line at the end. This should occur even when Hawtrey is not actually in the film, regardless of whether the film is in colour or not or whether the film’s title makes grammatical sense (as with Carry On Follow That Camel or Carry On Again Doctor).
  6. Some films and TV shows feature characters who have the same name as the actor playing them e.g. Jack Torrance (Nicholson) in The Shining, Rik (Mayall) in The Young Ones and Miranda (Hart). This should be made compulsory for one character in every production from now on as it will reduce time wasted by actors missing their cues.
  7. The use of robot voices in songs, such as in ‘Something Good’ by the Utah Saints, once commonplace, have sadly become a rarity. All songs past and present should feature a robot voice at some point including instrumental classical pieces. Please sort this out.
  8. Films in which samples of dialogue are used as the title are always rubbish and should be banned. Consider: Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead, Slap Her She’s French, Stop Or My Mom Will Shoot and the obscure Dustin Hoffman film Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying These Terrible Things About Me? An exception should be made for Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia (and all Carry On films: see above).
  9. Doctors In The House: New sitcom in which all the surviving ex-Doctor Whos plus K9 share a house in London. Tom Baker is the zany one and is constantly frustrated when the other characters interrupt his attempts to narrate each episode. David Tennant is the charming likeable one. Christopher Eccleston is the moody, artistic one. Colin Baker is the pompous one. His glasses are occasionally knocked out of line rather like Captain Mainwaring’s. An old Tardis is used as the house phone which forms a central part of the set as does a dartboard with a photo of Matt Smith’s face attached to it. In episode one, a family of Daleks move in next door.
  10. Not A Penny Moore… New sitcom about the Moore family. Demi is the cougar of the household, desperately competing with her younger sister Mandy. Roger plays the elderly granddad, wheelchair-bound and always with his cat. Alan plays the moody bearded uncle who rarely leaves his room. The late Sir Patrick Moore plays the eccentric great uncle perpetually spying on his neighbours through his telescope in the attic who he suspects of being German. He is constantly bothered by young children looking for cheats for Zelda III.

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