A good movie, said Howard Hawks, is one that has “three great scenes and no bad ones.” It shouldn’t be too much to ask that a Best Picture Oscar winner should live up to this, right? A day or two ago I asked the readership to answer how the current Best Picture candidates measure up to Hawks’ law. Nobody bit so I’m trying again.
(l to. r.) Bennett Miller, Howard Hawks, Alexander Payne.
Most of us know what “great scenes” are but I’ll define them anyway. Great scenes are ones that hit a solid truth note. They’re emotionally true in whatever way, or they deliver some bedrock, put-it-in-the-bank observation about life or human behavior or just the way things are. Great scenes sink in and touch bottom without any manipulation of any kind. They just deal the cards plain and straight, and when they’re over you always say to yourself, “Wow, that’s good…that’s how people are all right.”
It’s my sincere belief that they’re isn’t a single great scene in The Artist, but maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps someone can name one or two? Just don’t say the opening movie-premiere scene with Jean Dujardin‘s bowing and prancing around and grinning at the audience because that’s just amusing set-up and exposition. Okay, the dancing finale at the end is pretty good — it’s happy, sparkling — but it doesn’t exactly push a truth button.
The Descendants, on the other hand, has several great or near-great scenes. Shailene Woodley‘s Alexandra diving underwater to let her grief out. Sid the doofus (Nick Krause) telling Clooney’s Matt King about his good points and then mentioning what happened to a family member the previous November, and Clooney silently absorbing that without talking about it. Clooney and Woodley visiting the Kaua’i vacation home of Matthew Lillard and Judy Greer (i.e., Brian and Julie Speer). Robert Forster‘s cranky granddad chewing out Clooney for not providing better for his “loyal” wife. Clooney looking at the photos of his late relatives on the wall of a family compound. Julie visiting the hospital room and letting Clooney know that she knows. Clooney and the girls watching TV at the end. That’s seven — four more than necessary.
Moneyball has a few also. I’m not saying the ones I’ve listed are great-great but they’re at least half-great and some are better than that. Brad Pitt‘s Billy Bean having his “who are you?” chat with Jonah Hill‘s Peter Brand. The Billy-introduces-Peter-to-the-scouts scene in the conference room. All of the firing-of-players scenes, but especially Brand’s firing of first-baseman Carlos Pena. All confrontation scenes between Billy and Phillip Seymour Hoffman‘s Art Howe, but especially the one when Billy explains that he can’t start Pena. Billy’s daughter (Kerris Dorsey) asking him if he’s going to get fired, and his telling her “don’t go on the internet or read newspapers or talk to people.” The bitter argument scene between Billy and Grady Fuson (Ken Medlock). The “whaddaya havin’ fun for?” scene in the locker room. The phone-trading scene with Billy and Peter and the offscreen A’s owner. The Boston conversation between Billy and Red Sox owner John Henry (Arliss Howard). That’s nine. Subtract one or two and you’ve still got a surplus.
It’s too early to get into War Horse but I’ll admit that the middle section has two very good scenes — the attack-on-Aquaba horseback charge and the Paths of Glory infantry attack followed by Joey running through the chaos of battle scene. But these are spectacle and choreography scenes, for the most part. They don’t deliver any “bedrock truths” except that war sure is threatening with all the bullets and shrapnel flying through the air and war sure is scary and upsetting to an innocent horse.