This year marks the 40th anniversary of “Testament” leaving first-time viewers speechless from Telluride to Hollywood to New York and beyond. The following feature article by Sheila Benson tells the story of the film directed by Lynne Littman starting as a fictional diary that became a script, that worked its way through the early days of independent film financing, the making of the film and its distribution as a feature film that gripped its audiences unlike a film had quite done before. It shows Sheila as a reporter, story teller and champion of film talent.
Herman Hong, January 16, 2023
The Story of Testament by Sheila Benson, 1983
“Testament,” a quiet, determined picture full of love and anguish, seems to leave its audiences devastated in a way I have never seen before, in a pretty substantial number of years of movie going. It may also be one of those rare films which makes
an impact on the world at large. It might never have been made had its director, Lynne Littman, not had her first baby, and found herself unemployed and feeling “without an
Until this point she had been known as a director of documentaries. “Number Our Days,” a work about elderly Jews in Venice, California had won her an Academy Award. “Once a Daughter” was a probing study of four mother-daughter relationships.
So it was, with an infant son, that late one night Littman read Carol Amen’s “The Last Testament” in Ms. magazine of August of 1981. A memorable piece of fiction in diary form, it recorded three months in the lives of a family after a nuclear attack.
Many people had been after Amen (self-described as an inspirational writer, whose story had originally appeared in the magazine of the Franciscan Friars). None, apparently, had Littman’s tenacity. Rights in hand, she set about after funding, trying for 6 months to get it from anti-nuclear organizations.
Enter Lindsay Law, of PBS’ American Playhouse, a man Littman calls “responsible for an entire, new movement in American films,” who gave her $500,000 “with no interference and with complete support. It was a dream situation.” John Sacret Young began the screenplay adaptation; the expectation of all was that this would be a 60 minute film for American Playhouse, and have no other life.
Then two things occurred: when Young’s script came in it was for a 90-minute film, and Arco, a principal supporter of American Playhouse dropped out as a second-season backer of the series. One-third completion money was needed before the film could be begun. The script was shown to prospective backers, who, Littman recalls, “wept and passed. But John’s script was really wonderful. It was seductive to backers, beautifully written, and at that time the subject hadn’t been dealt with.”
Through Littman’s co-producer Jonathan Bernstein, Lawrence Vangor of Entertainment Events Inc., an American company whose financing comes primarily from Europe, saw the script. An Englishman who describes his company as “active, not passive investors,” Vangor felt “vehemently that this was the kind of piece they were interested in.” They provided $250,000, the remaining third of the production’s costs (which totaled $750,000). So, under American Playhouse auspices and, in Littman’s words, “in a production which retained American Playhouse integrity,” the film was made, on a 28-day shooting schedule, with a 5 month editing period. (The average television film is shot in 19 days, edited in 3 weeks.)
Littman co-produced and directed. She says with pride that by storyboarding the entire film and through the stringent care that she and co-producer Bernstein exerted (he had learned thrift while executive producer of “The Chosen,”) the film was brought in under budget.
Entertainment Events Inc’s arrangement with American Playhouse stipulated that if, within 90 days of receiving the finished film, EEI could get a theatrical feature, the film would be allowed a “window,” a theatrical release preceding its American Playhouse television debut.
Littman had her first screening at the Writers’ Guild in Los Angeles, and the first inkling of the film’s effect. It began that morning, when the head of CFI labs, a man who had extended “Testament” great breaks without ever having seen it, decided to see for himself what had been occupying so much of his lab’s time. He watched it, went heavily back to his office, cancelled his appointments and left work for the day. Littman was stunned, but the reaction was repeated that night.
“People wouldn’t leave. They stood in the lobby, just stood there, stood in the street. In some way I don’t think they wanted to leave what had happened to them in that room,” she recalled.
There was a single screening in New York, for the Asia Society in their screening room, and the same reaction. It was here that Carol Green of United Artists Classics saw the film and, in her words, “Fell in love with it.” She had gotten access to the screening because of her previous television contacts; since it was financed by television, it was a work that television rather than film people knew about.
Green, who believed the film would have a major impact on Americans wherever it was shown, also felt “the film showed very clearly the enormous talents of Lynne Littman, of John Sacret Young and of Jane Alexander, whose performance I think is worthy of an Academy Award.” She cannot, under legal advice, comment on the details of the arrangement which followed, since in her words it is United Artists Classics’ position that “We had a deal, we still have a deal.”
On the West Coast, Charles Schrager of Columbia’s Triumph Films was immediately taken by the film, but since there were no cable rights available, passed on it himself. He did, however, call it to the attention of Telluride co-director Tom Luddy, who brought Bill Pence down to look at it and the two took it immediately for Telluride.
Two weeks before Telluride, Littman showed it to two Paramount executives, its president, Michael Eisner and Jeff Katzenberg, head of production, “to get work for myself.” They were deeply impressed.
What happened next becomes delicate: In Telluride, Littman was telling audiences that United Artists Classics would distribute her film. Vangor, off mountain climbing, was not present, but says now that her announcement was “very premature and in advance of there being a contract.”
The Hollywood Reporter of Wednesday, Sept. 14, 1983, basing its item on Littman’s Telluride remarks, reported that “Testament” would be distributed by United Artists Classics.
Carol Green, believing the film was her company’s, went to the Venice Film Festival, held almost the same time as Telluride.
After Telluride, but before a lengthy piece discussing the film appeared in the Los Angeles Times’ Sunday Calendar section, Paramount chairman and chief executive officer Barry Diller also saw the film. On Wednesday, Sept. 28, 1983 Variety carried the announcement that Paramount would distribute the film.
Green, speaking in a gentle voice but describing her reactions as “disappointed and angry at the way the events have evolved,” could make one other comment:
“This is the first time a classics division has come into competition with a major studio. As we start developing more interest in what is a classics division art film, and what is a major release, I think we will see more and more such cases. There are advantages to both kinds of distribution, which are obviously very different, and in each case, a producer must examine very very carefully what is the best path for the proper exploitation of his film.”
So “Testament” may become a landmark film in more than one arena.
I was part of that first commercial audience Saturday afternoon at Telluride Film Festival, last Labor Day weekend. It was the weekend of the Korean airliner tragedy and “Testament” may have had a heightened impact on us up there, removed and remote in the San Juan Mountains in Colorado. There was a ludicrous but nevertheless real feeling of isolation/safety where we were, mixed with worries about more distant families and the sinking thought that the lives of possibly everyone–in the world–depended upon Reagan’s reactions in a crisis.
Festival co-director Bill Pence’s notes in the program were astringent: “‘Testament’ was how one family living in a small California town handles a crisis.” From the first homey section it was pretty clear what that crisis was going to be. There were too many unrelieved tensions between husband Bill Devane and wife Jane Alexander; too much macho father and son competitiveness between Devane and his pre-teenage son Ross Harris; too much passive aggressiveness on Alexander’s part, to get back at her husband’s superior and slightly snide behavior.
But before this could become “Kramer vs. Kramer” West, and with an unexpectedness that caught you like a mugger on your own doorstep, the lives of all these decent, unremarkable people in “Testament’s” world changed. And as you heard a sharp, electric pop on the 6-year old’s constantly-playing television set, then an announcement from the civil defense station that this wasn’t a test, what translated itself to the audience was the sickening knowledge that this is exactly how it would happen. Before you got around to stocking up on drinking water or batteries. Before you had prearranged a meeting place for separated family members. Before you’d taken that new Red Cross class you’d meant to take for so long. Now.
In the 90 minutes that Littman takes to tells her story you are led from loss to a sort of pioneer inventiveness, to desolation and finally to the area that anyone who has ever had a child knows as unthinkable, that of a parent who outlives his or her child. And then beyond that, to a level of human behavior which can only be called nobility. The extreme naturalism of the picture, John Sacret Young’s quietly elegiac script and the straight-ahead simplicity of Jane Alexander’s performance are the keys to the way this succeeds.
Most crucially “Testament” is a film with which people seem to identify deeply. Entertainment Tonight’s coverage of the Festival revealed a silent, shattered audience streaming out into the overcast afternoon, no one willing to speak to questioning interviewers. They turned away from the camera, clung together, sat numbly, wept or stood quietly. When Littman emerged from the theater, it was to a spontaneous burst of applause, which seemed to startle her. Not everyone at one of Telluride’s three showings of the film fell completely under its spell. Some felt it sentimental, some manipulative. Eastern Bloc filmmakers there from Poland, Hungary, the U.S.S.R. roundly disliked the film, apparently because the American anti-nuclear movement seems dangerously naive to Eastern Europeans. Non-Europeans not in its camp found themselves in hotly debated arguments for the rest of the weekend. Without doubt, it was the cause célèbre of Telluride.
It would seem that one of Littman’s remarkable abilities as a director is her intimate work with her actors, old and young, those in their first film or their 100th. (She has, among others, Leon Ames, Lurene Tuttle, Lilia Skala, Mako). Her child actors, Ross Harris, young Lukas Haas, Roxana Zal are extraordinary. She has revealed a quality of simplicity, warmth and beauty in Jane Alexander, quite apart from an almost pioneer strength, that I can’t recall in any of her other work. And Devane’s presence is so strong that it fills the film by its very absence–a sentence that doesn’t make much sense until you see the film. Ask Littman about her strongest qualities as a director and there is a little pause.
“In the documentaries, my people got to tell me things they didn’t know they were going to. It seems to me it’s the same thing–you just don’t let go until they tell you the truth.”
© 1983 by Sheila Benson & the Los Angeles Times. All Rights Reserved.
To find Testament for viewing go to http://www.justwatch.com/us/movie/testament
The Railway Children
Sheila Benson was a great admirer of the 1970 children’s film, The Railway Children. She wrote about it for the National Society of Film Critics’ collection, For Kids of All Ages. With a new version of The Railway Children—once again featuring Jenny Agutter— recently released, we’re happy to share an essay of which Sheila was particularly proud.
Chuck Wilson, September 25, 2022
The Railway Children Or Life Without Father – Movie Review by Sheila Benson, 2019
Lionel Jeffries’ lively, loving film of E. Nesbit’s enduring novel The Railway Children, is a tribute to the deepest bonds of family, set in the Yorkshire countryside in 1905, a more innocent time and place. Made in 1970, director-screenwriter Jeffries’ adaptation has outlasted all the TV versions, including the BBC’s simpler, sappier efforts.
Jeffries stages the adventures of three uprooted London children with crisp straightforwardness, buoyed by Johnny Douglas’ rollicking score, heavy on music hall piano. There is a nice modesty to Jeffries’ work, nothing show-offy about it, even when half a hillside is tumbling onto railroad tracks, or when a train is rushing into a tunnel where we know someone is trapped. He also understands the power of withholding – of making an audience want something, want it even more, then finally giving it to them. The way Jeffries handles the giving is what has made the film a classic.
The Railway Children is a case where the writer, largely unknown in America, has a hallowed place in British fiction, and it behooves her director/adaptor to tread carefully. E. (for Edith) Nesbit’s more than 40 books for children – still in print, every one, after more than 100 years – may turn to magic at times and even to time-travel, but they are anchored in recognizable Edwardian settings, not fantasy worlds. And of them all, The Railway Children is the most securely anchored in the recognizable everyday.
It’s clear from the rich Christmas opening sequence that Jeffries, a notable character actor himself, respects, even relishes every detail of Edwardian family life. This is not Uncle Walt, having his way with P. L. Travers.
Jeffries sets things in motion in an upscale parlor crammed with every delight and invention, as the Charles Waterbury family gathers for Christmas night dinner: ebullient, mutton-chopped Father (Iain Cutherbertson), Mother (Dinah Sheridan, exemplary), eldest daughter Bobbie (Jenny Agutter), her younger sister Phil (Sally Thomsett), and their younger brother Peter (Gary Warren), clutching his perfect model train engine.
As befits the best melodramas, everyone’s life is changed with a knock at the door. Without explanation, the three children and their Mother watch as their “perfect” Father (a high level Foreign Office diplomat) is taken away in a carriage by two official-looking men.
With their father’s disappearance shrouded in mystery, certainly from his children, and in drastically reduced straits, Mother moves the family to a three chimneyed stone house high in the Yorkshire countryside. From there it’s a short run and tumble down to the railway station, where gleaming brass and mahogany steam engines stop daily. For London-bred children – and train lovers – it’s heaven.
(Middle-class Edwardian “poor,” we discover, still require that Cook functions in the kitchen and that there is someone other than Mother to wash and iron the girls’ pinafores every day. Mother, modeled on Nesbit herself, sets about writing children’s stories, which seem to pay exactly as well then as now. When she sells one, there are buns for tea.)
As the children’s remarkable adventures begin, the train station, its tracks, its tunnels, even its passengers become part of the fabric of their daily lives. And there at the station they find Perks, the harried station master (the great Bernard Cribbins), a character as richly dimensional as any in Dickens, and as rewarding to revisit.
The Railway Children is criss-crossed like train tracks by a series of fortuitous meetings. Meeting Perks leads to meeting his struggling wife and their great many children (as well as an agonizing misreading by the Railway trio of how Good Works can backfire.) Meeting a collapsed foreign gentleman at the station leads to restoring a dissident Russian writer to his wife and children. Meeting the very elegant, silk hatted Old Gentleman, who regularly rides the train, leads to, well. . . more or less the jackpot of chance encounters. Family unifies them all, warming us in its afterglow.
Among the three Railway Children – brave, resourceful, bickering and marvelously curious – family bonds frequently fray, but they never truly snap. Jenny Agutter’s soulful Bobbie is the film’s grounding performance. At 15 she’s the most aware of their mother’s struggles and most deeply affected by the loss of her father. Balancing at the edge of maturity, at once compassionate and yearning, Agutter glows. Garry Warren’s Peter manages a nice balance between brashness and brotherly concern. And as slightly dense Phil, “who means well,” Sally Thomsett is just dim enough.
(Agutter and The Railway Children have become inseparable. She played Bobbie in TV versions before and after Jeffries’ film and moved up to the role of Mother for BBC’ in 1970.)
You may notice the bones of E. Nesbit’s politics poking their way through this turn-of-the century fabric. Nesbit and her husband were founding members of the socialist Fabian Society, and Bobbie seems to have gone to their meetings, and taken notes.
Forever needing the services of the local village doctor (to treat life-threatening influenza, the perilous health of the escaped Russian writer, the broken leg of a dashing 16-year athlete) Bobbie proposes that the doctor create a “club” for his patients, just like the one their Cook belongs to: “She only pays two pence a week for her doctoring!” Bobbie says presciently.
In a film with more than its share of harrowing moments, Jeffries saves the fullest rush of emotion for his conclusion, holding back, making the audience peer through smoke and steam, until Bobbie’s call of “Daddy, oh my Daddy!” comes through the mist — enough to crack the most hardened heart.
© 2019 by Sheila Benson & the National Society of Film Critics. All Rights Reserved.
As Kino Lorber releases the Blu-ray of the 1989 comedy Some Girls, starring a young Patrick Dempsey, we recall that it was Sheila Benson who helped this modest film find its audience. In Los Angeles, Some Girls played in one shoebox theater at the now defunct Beverly Center theater. MGM, no doubt fulfilling contractual obligations, surely expected the movie to play to near empty seats but Sheila’s glowing review brought people in, and a one-week run extended for weeks and weeks.
Movie lovers trusted Sheila, and relished her prose. She had a gift for bringing to life not only a film’s story and performances, but its physical and emotional textures. Sheila was a filmmaker’s dream. She picked up on subtle thematic cues laid within the production design and music, and then raised those influences up to readers, who would then go to the cinema more fully attuned to the screen than they might otherwise have been. Planting such seeds of discovery was Sheila’s job, and few have done it so skillfully, and with such love for both film and audience.
Chuck Wilson, September 18, 2022
Some Girls – Movie Review by Sheila Benson, March 13, 1989
Who could guess that behind an unprepossessing ad and the sort of title built to keep audiences out of theaters, there lurks a radiantly beautiful, even memorable film about the ineffable mysteries of women? Some Girls is the victim in question, a smart, enticing enchantment that may be the first sexual comedy to look like an Art Nouveau fairy tale.
Love brings Eastern born Michael (Patrick Dempsey) to Quebec City for his Christmas holidays, and into the sophisticated, utterly eccentric milieu of the D’Arc family, author/father (Andre Gregory), mother (Florinda Bolkan) and their three delectable daughters, 24 to 13 years old, each more ravishing than the next.
It’s the middle one, his college classmate Gabriella (Jennifer Connelly) who has invited Michael up, then kept him waiting forlornly at the airport. She will show up, unapologetic, in a fur hat and red, red lipstick, like a fairy tale princess. Her arrival is delayed just long enough for us to understand that the references to the Three Graces on the vast Botticelli poster behind Michael are hardly accidental. They are no less deliberate than Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik bubbling charmingly in the background. For the greatest part of its running time, the completely contemporary Some Girls will come with the beauty of Botticelli and the delicacy of Mozart.
Michael’s introduction to the family is a beaut. Father, who hates to be encumbered by clothes when he writes, is a cheerful agnostic; mother, an obedient Catholic with a family confessor at her elbow. The electricity has failed, the stained-glass, tapestries and Art Nouveau paneling are lit by fantastic candelabra, and if the servants came over from their off-days at the palace of Beauty and the Beast it would feel exactly right.
But there are no servants, here everyone pitches in; the D’Arc’s wealth is intellectual and spiritual, not showy. This is one of those close-knit, artistic families that England also specializes in—they get by; one-isn’t-exactly-sure-how, but with a sure touch and lashings of style.
Sweet Michael, not brash and not as cool as he imagines, is wildly over his head. Hard not to be, but it reduces him to remarks like, “Great door,” the sort of cotton-brained comment induced by these dazzling surroundings. His distress is compounded when Gabriella announces she’s not in love with him anymore, but he might as well stay out the week.
And so the stage is set for Michael’s initiation into the heady, open-handed, uncompetitive world of the D’Arc women: Gabrielle, flowing-haired Irenka (Sheila Kelley), and “little” Simone (Ashley Greenfield). He’s drawn, too, into a roundelay of innocent bedtime visits by sisters other than Gabriella and fierce spot checks by their ferociously protective mother, who is “only looking for Beowulf” the family dog. It will be Michael’s lot to be innocent when things look worst, and to attract disastrous sexual situations with the sureness of blue serge and lint.
Last of the dynasty to surface is Granny (Lila Kedrova), Bolkan’s mother, whose memory lapses and gradual downward spiral have all the women in her family deeply concerned. However, on her first sight of Michael, Granny brightens: to her he is her deceased husband and nothing will sway her from that belief.
If Rupert Walters’ screenplay teeters at times into farce, its farce of an innocent, hilarious nature, and when it takes a turn for the mystical, it’s delicately achieved. Director Michael Hoffman may get carried away at the film’s end by careening action which is too broad by far, but his work with actors is marvelous.
He seems to have drawn the best and most delicate performances from everyone, but most especially from Patrick Dempsey, who doesn’t have a strained moment in the piece, and from Andre Gregory, whose musing on the mysterious nature of women is the film’s highlight.
Dempsey has had major roles earlier, but nothing before has hinted at his range, his perfect comic placement or his capacity for tenderness, wonder and a certain wild apprehension, all at the same time.
All three sisters are a joy; individually glorious, they are also wonderful at creating a mood of mutual appreciation and almost-subliminal rapport. Kedrova can be iffy: as she has demonstrated more than once, she can be as mannered as Luise Rainer or as innocently fey as she is here. This role is one of her best, and since her rapport with Dempsey is crucial, it’s nice to be able to say that it seems extraordinary, lifting the story to its final, tender plane.
Some Girls was produced by Hoffman’s usual partner, Rick Stevenson (Restless Natives) for Robert Redford’s Wildwood Enterprises, and Nicoletta Massone’s evocative costumes and Ueli Steiger’s rich, glowing camerawork deserve special mention.
However, there’s another element: no lover of superior production design should miss Eugenio Zanetti’s astonishing work, which creates the world of this wildly eclectic family with wit and absolute authority. If this had been a production budgeted at twenty times more, Zanetti’s work would still be stunning; to have done it on the budget reported for this production is something close to a miracle. You might hope that this is the sort of achievement that would not go unnoticed when awards for artistic ingenuity are being considered.
© 1989 by Sheila Benson & the Los Angeles Times. All Rights Reserved.
The Godfather at 50
As The Godfather celebrates its 50th Anniversary, we recall the moment—25 years ago–when Sheila took stock of the film’s timeless appeal.
Chuck Wilson, 2022
Thinking about The Godfather
by Sheila Benson
Francis Coppola took Mario Puzo’s informed, pulpy best seller about a fictional Mafia family and made a great American saga, at the same time he launched the careers of Al Pacino, Diane Keaton and James Caan and gave Marlon Brando his most towering character. Now 25 years later, these early days of the Corleones are still riveting and impeccable, as Pacino’s Michael is drawn into the family business after a nearly-fatal attack on his father, and intramual Mafia killings sweep the families. To see this masterwork, godfather of endless, seedy copies, is to realize how far American filmmaking has fallen since.
Henry Hill, the Lucese crime family wiseguy made infamous later by Good Fellas, came out of The Godfather twenty-five years ago, stuck his hand in his pocket, tucked his gun in his waistband, and said, “Wow! I’m part of that world.”
At least, that’s how he remembered it, a quarter-century later. That’s when a TV film crew came to talk to him for yet another crime documentary, this one on the first hundred years of the New York mob.
You’ve seen that show: the grim-faced narrator, a procession of black and white stills of middle-aged guys lying dead in large pools of blood. But “Empire of Crime” had what passes for panache in that genre: it also sought out the pompadoured daughters and girlfriends of mob bosses, breathtakingly into denial, and it went for details of mob life.
The most riveting detail was the role of The Godfather in the lives of these mobsters: it was their training film. Like Henry Hill (who couldn’t become a fully “made”man because he was only half Sicilian) , a lot of the young Mafiosos hadn’t grown up in the tradition, so to learn how to behave, they flocked to The Godfather.
It’s such a nice mental picture. Scuzzy wiseguys studying Francis Coppola’s flourishes: the kissing of hands, the granting of favors on a wedding day. Rolling the words around in their mouths, “Luca Brasi [or fill in the names] sleeps with the fishes,” and that unrefusable offer. A return to elegance, but don’t slip on that blood there.
Yet a movie’s catch phrase is just that, as lasting as a comet. You shudder to think how many people are trying out Donnie Brasco’s range of “fuhGETaboutids” at this very moment, but at least you know it’ll be gone before the summer. What made The Godfather something so different? How did it travel so quickly and so deeply into the DNA of our culture — something I suspect a twenty-fifth anniversary re-issue will only reinforce.
First, it was daring. Cinematographers did not keep their characters’ eyes shadowed and unreadable before The Godfather. They did not light interiors so you’d be hard pressed to read your newspaper indoors. Coppola’s masterly Gordon Willis did. (He’s not nicknamed The Prince of Darkness for nothing.) It’s hard today – when The Godfather’s rich murkiness has become the international standard – to realize just how bold it was. (Try Harlan Lebo’s exceptionally thorough new book, “The Godfather Legacy,” a detailed account of the trilogy, and among its delights you’ll find Willis’ guiding principals for the look of the films.) These cameras didn’t zoom or dart or whirl around. They did go high up for an occasional, majestic overview but generally they framed the action in a painterly fashion, what Willis calls tableau style.
The Godfather was measured and it was thoughtful. Coppola was brave enough to fly in the face of the Thirties’ gangster tradition of fast movement and snappy, barked speech. As though he didn’t know that Mario Puzo’s best seller was supposed to be pulpy sensationalism, he gave it weight and moral heft. Souls were being lost here; for this he gave his characters the time that was due them.
After the toll booth massacre, the camera studies the scene for a long interval; there’s that little sound as a piece of bullet-riddled glass falls, then a minute of emptiness. This was not the tempo of American movies at this time. Even Bonnie and Clyde¸ the model for this bullet-riddled execution, stayed closer to its victims than this bleak, pensive still life does, inviting you to remain unsentimental.
Because The Godfather is so immaculate historically, it will never date. If you’ve seen a DeMille “historical” epic, reeking of the year in which it was shot instead of the period in which it was set, you know that’s not always a given. You might wish that Diane Keaton’s hairdresser had access to the imperceptible wigs that have come along since 1972, but Dean Tavoularis’ production design isn’t just accurate, it’s brilliantly selective. As a result, The Godfather remains as reliable as an Alfred Steiglitz photograph; you can believe that this is exactly how one slice of America lived from the mid-Forties to the mid-Fifties.
To all this, add the acting of an extraordinary ensemble, perfectly cast and working in an amazingly understated style, considering that the basic stuff of the story was melodrama. What young audiences can’t appreciate is that these young stars, Al Pacino, James Caan, Diane Keaton were made by their performances here, and the studio fought nearly every bit of casting, including and especially Marlon Brando.
There was, and there is, something powerfully satisfying about Coppola’s vision of this crime family as a family, even one this devoted to a bloody perversion of the American dream. There was a howl, originally, that his skill as a filmmaker had made the Corleones undeservingly mythic, but one thing about myths: the stuff they’re made of is universal and enduring.
© 1997 by Sheila Benson, Microsoft’s Cinemania Online. All Rights Reserved.
Two Minute Oscars
Sheila created an annual column called “Two Minute Oscars” with an eye toward celebrating one-scene wonders—those actors who’d achieved a measure of movie immortality with a well-delivered zinger or a perfectly timed shrug. The idea was pure Sheila, who had a special place in her heart for artists who were content to practice their craft as part of a whole, with no expectation of glory. Sheila threw a little glory their way for many an Oscar season, first in Interview magazine, then in Microsoft’s Cinemania Online and other publications.
Chuck Wilson, 2022
Two Minute Oscars for 2005
The Two-Minute Oscars were created more than a decade ago, to celebrate great but fleeting performances, fully rounded characters who live in our memory well after their time onscreen. Their roles may not even have a name or a full page of dialogue, but because of these actors’ commitment — and sometimes decades of experience — their films acquire a true sense of proportion. Best recent example: the great Lois Smith, keeper of a dangerous greenhouse in Minority Report.
Here are this year’s best, a Two-Minute Oscar to each of them:
1) Roberta Maxwell, as Jack Twist’s deeply understanding mother at the end of Brokeback Mountain. When the mourning Ennis visits Jack’s room, you know who has maintained it, in one of the few gestures of love tolerated under his father’s flinty, queer-hating meanness.
2) Graham Greene as the courtly, romantic Texas rancher, Calvin Manygoats, in Transamerica, struck mightily by trans mom Felicity Huffman, but possibly not the man to learn her whole story. . .quite yet.
3) Winsome Brown, a red-haired lamppost of a beauty in Heights, who injects Glenn Close’s Manhattan birthday gala with brio and her demonstrated theory that everything sounds funny when spoken with an Aussie accent.
4) Mario Schiano as the sage professor of medicine in The Best of Youth who warns new graduate Nicola to take his talent and go far away from Italy, “a dying country, run by dinosaurs,” thus forecasting Italy’s immediate future while recognizing that he himself is one of those dinos.
5.) Ralph Fiennes, absolutely terrifying and completely otherworldly as Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, whose towering power comes from acting chops, not make-up — or even the absence of a nose.
6.) Allie Mickelson, as Laura Kinney, the poised, quiet Kansas high school girl who finds her schoolmate’s body as Capote opens. Later, when Truman and Harper Lee interview her, Laura’s empathy with his “outsider” status makes her entrust them with her best friend Nancy’s diary.
7.) Omar Metwally, the Palestinian who meets Eric Bana’s Israeli assassin on a staircase in Munich, and brings so much young energy and passion to what is essential a political treatise that you miss him when he’s cut down, virtual seconds later.
8.) Rachel Nichols, the hot, flashy teenage baby sitter from The Amityville Horror, who takes particular glee in telling the new occupant’s children about the house’s gruesome murder-history, only to become so terrified herself moments later that she becomes a literal ambulance case.
9.) Walid Afkir, the Algerian son from Caché whose confrontation scene with beleaguered TV intellectual Daniel Auteuil is knife-edge perfection: it can be taken either as the fury of an innocent man or as a barely-disguised threat.
10.) Dallas Roberts as Sam Phillips in Walk the Line, who won’t listen to amateur singer Johnny Cash’s wan imitation gospel, and single-handedly goads him until “Folsom Prison Blues” and the true Cash sound comes into being, right there in the studio.
© 2005 by Sheila Benson. All Rights Reserved.
Two Minute Oscars for 1996
Movies that stick with us are made not only by their stars but by their ensembles. They get their texture when small parts are played with throwaway authority. The Academy doesn’t have a slot for these great miniatures, it’s up to us.
Thus, The Two Minute Oscars, for roles too small to be nominated, too fine to be forgotten.
For examples from The Two Minute Hall of Fame, think of Helena Kallianiotes in Five Easy Pieces, as the motor-mouthed hitchhiker obsessed with “filth.”
Think about Jeff Goldblum in Annie Hall, desperately trying to remember his mantra. Remember Martin Scorsese in Taxi Driver, one of Travis Bickle’s creepiest fares, watching his wife silhouetted in another man’s window, with murder on his mind. Think of Mickey Roarke’s arsonist in Body Heat. (On second thought, considering that career, think about Ishtar’s blind camel.) In retrospect, these scenes also pegged the times in which they were made as indelibly as a Nehru jacket or a beehive hairdo.
There were more great Two Minutes than usual to choose from this year, a hopeful sign, I think. When scripts get pared down to the hero, his buddy, the girl and the bad guy, the skeleton cast of too many big American movies lately, you lose more than detail and nuance. You lose the kind of delight that people used to carry away with them, remembering moments as good as these.
1.) Susan Barnes, as the furious motel manager in Leaving Las Vegas, her bayonet smile fixed and shiny, who orders Elisabeth Shue and Nicolas Cage to take their liquor and their loud talk and leave.
2.) Lisa Nicole Carson, as the zestful, life-loving Coretta in Devil in a Blue Dress¸ a woman who knows everything about just what hits the spot, and makes sure that Easy Rawlins does too.
3.) George Segal, with a faint corporate sheen of sleaze, as To Die For’s convention keynoter, a TV exec only too happy to give Nicole Kidman a little private coaching on how to get ahead in television.
4.) Madeleine Kahn, as that irrepressible straight-shooter Martha Mitchell, the scourge of politics, the bane of her Attorney General-husband’s life, but absolutely the gusto of Nixon.
5.) Hugh Laurie, as Sense and Sensibility’s curmudgeonly husband. Afflicted with a non-stop-talking wife, Mr. Palmer comes out from behind his newspaper just long enough to reveal his genuinely generous and noble character.
6.) Kim Staunton, as the staunch wife of Heat’s parolee Dennis Haysbert, whose attempt to go straight has brought him to a kitchen job from hell. Her scene as she tells him her pride in him is one of the film’s most haunting; she raises our emotional stakes in the furious action scene to come.
7.) John C. Reilly, as the exquisitely delusional drummer in Georgia, somehow convinced that his heroin problem is behind him and best in the mad, funny scene as he and Jennifer Jason Leigh drink to their future as they effectively obliterate their present.
8.) Richard McCabe, the chunky, inconsolable Captain of Persuasion, whose fiancée has died while he was at sea and whose only solace is poetry.
9.) Elliott Gould, as the sports-fan-father of one of Kicking and Screaming’s perennial students, a man almost terminally befuddled when his wife announces that she’s thrown in the towel.
10.) Penelope Wilton, as the flamboyant Lady Ottoline Morrell, Carrington’s party-giver extraordinaire. Wilton manages eccentricity without caricature, her Ottoline is a woman who can stroll her gardens with five leashed pug dogs or throw herself into London’s latest dance rage with the same élan.
© 1996 by Sheila Benson. All Rights Reserved.