As we head into Independence Day weekend, for those who'd like to move beyond the evergreen "Yankee Doodle Dandy", I want to suggest some classic titles scattered over the decades that each in their way evoke our country's unique character -- to paraphrase a favorite movie title, encompassing the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly...
If you haven't seen any of these for a while, well now's the time.
Mr. Deeds Goes To Town (1936)- Simple country boy Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper) inherits an immense fortune from a distant relative he doesn't even know, and must then navigate a sea of handlers and hand-out requests to make sense of his new life as multi-millionaire. But those who think they can manipulate this tuba-playing rube are soon in for a rude awakening. This charming slice of Americana from director Frank Capra is one of Cooper's most appealing comic forays, as his plain-talking homespun reflection of rural America-foxes all those smug and greedy city-slickers. Thus the movie reinforces the recurring Capra theme of solid individual integrity over the mob of established, monied interests. The husky voiced Jean Arthur delivers a note-perfect turn as Babe Bennett, a hard-nosed lady journalist who first ridicules, then falls for Longfellow, much to her surprise. One of the screen's authentic classics, this is pixilated comedy at its very best.
Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)- Charting the early life experiences of Abraham Lincoln (Henry Fonda) in Springfield, Illinois, this fictionalized biopic follows the future Civil War president from his first political speech in 1832 and the tragic death of girlfriend Ann Rutledge (Pauline Moore) to his first trial case as a lawyer. Throughout, we glimpse moments of anguish and triumph in the making of a moral leader, as well as his courtship of society belle Mary Todd (Marjorie Weaver). The film culminates with Lincoln summoning uncommon ingenuity in defending two young men accused of murder. Fonda, who originally declined the role because of his awed reverence for Lincoln's legacy, embodies Abe with plainspoken assurance and gutsy idealism. Weaver, as the future Mrs. Lincoln, and Alice Brady, as the mother of two sons presumed guilty of murder, round out a luminous studio cast. Don't miss this stunning, mythic portrait of American greatness personified, by the legendary director of Stagecoach.
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)- The great Sam Goldwyn produced this first, most ambitious movie about the plight of returning servicemen at the end of the Second World War. The film follows the unique readjustments to civilian life faced by three veterans: Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), a young officer coming back to a dead-end job, Al Stephenson (Fredric March), an older soldier returning to a loving family and stable career, and Homer Parrish (Harold Russell), a sailor who has lost both his hands in combat. Each character is subtly drawn under William Wyler's expert direction, evoking the complex challenges that confront veterans of all ranks -- making sense of their own war experiences while readjusting to a changed America. Even with the requisite dose of sentimentality and romance, the film never strays far from its central premise that no matter what you return to in a time of peace, war changes you forever. Oscar-winner for Best Picture, Best Actor (March) and Best Supporting Actor (Russell, an amputee veteran, and non-actor!).
Picnic (1955)- Hal Carter (William Holden), a down-and-out former college football jock, hops a freight to Kansas to ask his wealthy former roommate Alan Benson (Cliff Robertson) for a job. Alan's thrilled to see him (at first), but others distrust the rugged stranger, including Flo Owens (Betty Field), the socially ambitious mother of the girl Alan's been dating, town beauty Madge (Kim Novak, in her film debut). She senses the potential chemistry between Hal and Madge, an attraction that might hurt Hal's job search, and ruin Flo's carefully laid plans for her daughter's future. Matters come to a head at the town picnic. Joshua Logan's adaptation of the hit William Inge play captures the feeling of mid-twentieth century small town America as few other pictures have. Location shooting (in Technicolor) helps, with the crowd shots of real Kansans enjoying themselves during the picnic sequence particularly evocative. The two romantic leads do indeed heat up the screen, particularly during their memorable dance to the fifties standard, "Moonglow". Robertson, Field, Rosalind Russell and Arthur O'Connell round out a first-rate cast. Attend this Picnic.
Medium Cool (1969)- TV cameraman John Cassellis (an unrecognizable, pre- Jackie Brown Robert Forster) meets and falls for struggling single mom, Eileen (Verna Bloom), against the least opportune of back-drops: the turbulent 1968 Democratic Convention, when brutal police reaction to student demonstrations put the city of Chicago in chaos. John and sound-man Gus (Peter Bonerz) must capture the unfolding crisis for posterity, and in this volatile situation, it appears nothing is safe, including any future for John and Eileen. Haskell Wexler's one-of-a-kind film seamlessly blends narrative and documentary forms, as the actors actually played their scenes as the Chicago riots were exploding all around them. The heightened sense of immediacy and danger is palpable. Extremely well-played by Forster and Bloom, this is a fascinating, irreplaceable American time-capsule for the ages. Look for Peter Boyle as an impassioned right-winger.
Breaking Away (1979)- This strikingly buoyant coming-of-age picture set in Indiana tells of four local boys (and recent high-school grads) who must face their futures, but not before enjoying one last carefree summer. Protagonist Dave (Dennis Christopher) is obsessed with cycling, and on learning how many cycling champions come from Italy, cultivates an appreciation for all things Italian, much to the consternation of his conventional parents (Paul Dooley and Barbara Barrie). Dave's cycling skills will eventually be tested against the snobby college guys in Bloomington's annual bike race. Director Peter Yates's heartfelt, life-affirming movie will prove a winner for older kids and adults. Christopher is appealingly quirky in the central role and the film also showcases the budding talents of future stars Dennis Quaid and Daniel Stern as two of Dave's buddies. Dooley is outstanding as Dave's bewildered father, a solid Middle American you might actually buy a used car from.
Tender Mercies (1983)- Mac Sledge (Robert Duvall), once a successful country music balladeer, has a severe drinking problem and has finally hit bottom. It's no surprise that when alcoholics reach this sad crossroads in life, they either wither away entirely or climb back up into the world. With the help of patient widow Rosa Lee (Tess Harper) and her young son, Mac gradually finds the strength to reclaim his life. This quiet, unadorned gem, beautifully realized by Australian director Bruce Beresford from a brilliant Horton Foote screenplay, is an actor's showcase, and Duvall makes the most of it, turning in a bravura performance that won him a well-deserved Oscar. (Trivia note: screenwriter Foote had also done the script for Duvall's first film twenty years earlier: To Kill A Mockingbird, where the actor played the mysterious Boo Radley).
Born On The Fourth Of July (1989)- This riveting biopic of Vietnam protester Ron Kovic (Tom Cruise) opens with his all-American upbringing in Massapequa, NY, and entry into the war as a deeply patriotic enlisted man. Later, Kovic returns home disillusioned and psychologically scarred from a bullet wound that's left him paralyzed from the waist down. Alienated and adrift in Mexico, the hard-drinking vet eventually begins to pull his life together, devoting his energies to anti-war activism. Helmed by Vietnam vet Oliver Stone, Born is a profoundly moving portrait of a macho athlete whose horrific battle experience causes him to reassess his politics and reorient his give-'em-hell attitude. Cruise, in an ambitious turn away from heartthrob roles, plays Kovic with precision and conviction, especially at his darkest moments, delivering the finest work of his career. Co-written by Stone and Kovic, Born reflects the pain and anger felt by an entire generation of returning US soldiers, and will leave a lasting impression.
American Beauty (1999)- Leading an empty suburban life with his uptight, real-estate-agent wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening), and depressed teenage daughter, Jane (Thora Birch), sardonic forty-something Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) decides to overhaul his body -- and his life -- when he falls madly in lust with gorgeous nubile Angela (Mena Suvari), Jane's flirtatious best friend. This superlative drama by theater director Sam Mendes peers at the dark side of American middle-class life with ripe, risqué humor and aching poignancy. Both screenwriter Alan Ball and cinematographer Conrad L. Hall were honored along with Mendes at the 1999 Academy Awards for their evocation of suburban alienation, but Kevin Spacey, whose cool, cynical narration constitutes the film's central nervous system, deserved all the acclaim he received for bringing Lester to life (including a Best Actor Oscar). Working in a subplot involving Lester's new neighbors, an unhinged Marine (Chris Cooper) and his artsy, drug-dealing son (Wes Bentley), Mendes gives this Beauty a gut-wrenching finale that completes Lester's transformation.
Transamerica (2005)- Just a week before pre-operative transsexual Bree Osbourne (Felicity Huffman), formerly Stanley, is about go under the knife to complete her male-to-female transformation, she learns that she has a 17-year-old son named Toby (Kevin Zegers), who's in trouble with the law. Encouraged by her therapist, Margaret (Elizabeth Peña), to come to grips with her past, Bree bails Toby out of jail and takes him on a cross-country road trip to Los Angeles. Expertly handled by first-time director Duncan Tucker, this funny, touching film belongs to a tradition of beautifully observed movies about nontraditional American families. Huffman is riveting to watch, especially in the scenes with her disapproving mother, Elizabeth (Fionnula Flanagan). But it is her rapport with Zegers, perfect as the troubled Toby, that gives the film its heart and soul, especially as he believes Bree is a goody-goody church type-not his father. Their trip-so often the arc of growth in great road films-is mutually nourishing and eye-opening. Settle in with Transamerica for a frank, heartfelt outing.
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