Sunday, August 07, 2016

OVP: Johnny Belinda (1948)

Film: Johnny Belinda (1948)
Stars: Jane Wyman, Lew Ayres, Charles Bickford, Agnes Moorehead, Stephen McNally, Jan Sterling
Director: Jean Negulesco
Oscar History: 12 nominations/1 win (Best Picture, Director, Actor-Lew Ayres, Actress-Jane Wyman*, Supporting Actor-Charles Bickford, Supporting Actress-Agnes Moorehead, Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction, Cinematography, Original Score, Film Editing, Sound)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 3/5 stars

It has sat for years (alongside Becket) as the most Oscar-nominated film I'd never seen, and this morning, while deciding what to do with my life (a conversation I have daily with myself these days-I've been a bit adrift for months now), I decided that perhaps tackling a film perched on my DVR that for some reason I'd never gotten around to was a wonderful suggestion, so after years of wondering what exactly the title even meant, I figure it was time to investigate Johnny Belinda and the dozen Oscar nominations that come with it.

(Spoilers Ahead) The film is perched in that period of the 1940's when Oscar seemed to only like issue films, and as a history lesson to modern AMPAS (which also occasionally gravitates into that direction), issue films are my least favorite types of movies because they rarely age well.  The best kinds of issue films are ones that are either extremely honest (Do the Right Thing) or don't have the issue at the centerpiece of the movie and rely on something more traditional to sell the picture (Brokeback Mountain).  Johnny Belinda at least starts off in the latter's direction, since the film wants to desperately push a love story.  The movie is about a woman named Belinda (Wyman), who is a deaf-mute frequently referred to by the villagers and even her own father (Bickford) and Aunt Aggie (Moorehead) as "Dummy."  A kindly doctor in the village named Robert (Ayres) befriends her and begins to teach her sign language, which she picks up ridiculously quickly.  The film follows as she is assaulted by a local drunk, whose girlfriend and eventual wife Stella (Sterling) is smitten with Dr. Robert.  The film goes on with Belinda getting pregnant, her father is killed by her rapist, and eventually the town tries to take away her baby in hopes of giving it a "respectable" home.  A trial after Belinda kills her rapist (who is trying to steal her child) ends quickly with everyone realizing the truth.

The film has to be considered somewhat groundbreaking if only because it's the first major motion picture to deal with the subject of rape.  The film doesn't shy away from the subject (it's very clear that it doesn't condone the action and doesn't pretend that the baby was of an immaculate conception), though the word is never actually uttered.  The film grapples with the concept of shaming Belinda (everyone in town just assumes she is loose, and blames the doctor for sleeping with her and getting her impregnated), but like all issue films the entire situation surrounding the subject ages badly, with most of the cast drawn in relatively two-dimensional lines and the treatment of Belinda as bright, but also at the same time simple, would eventually be countered in films like The Miracle Worker 14 years later.  Still, the film is heavier than you'd expect, and while the villains are all very broadly drawn, the heroes get some levels of grey, particularly Belinda's father, who is both spiteful to her for causing him so much hardship and also enamored with her, particularly as she continues to learn how to communicate with her.

The movie's twelve Oscar nominations aren't shocking, though I'd argue none of them are exactly outstanding.  The cinematography is lovely, trying to paint a Nova Scotia vastness even if it was entirely filmed in California, and the editing is strong, particularly in a fight scene (though you can clearly see that it's a dummy and not Charles Bickford falling down that cliff).  The acting is not great, to be honest.  I think Bickford, broadly drawn but felt quite sturdy in the role, is probably my favorite.  He's an actor that I always forget what he looks like (he never really had that distinctive role or movie that made him stand out in a major way other than he got relatively high-billing in most of his pictures), but he makes an impression and is missed once he's gone in the movie.  Moorehead is always wonderful to behold, but this is a role that she could do in her sleep; honestly, she overplays too much of her hand and it's a small miracle that Orson Welles managed such brilliant work from her in her two most iconic dramatic roles, since she always relies heavily on her strength-of-persona and rarely on any sort of internal mechanics happening for her onscreen character.

As for the two main actors, I am usually pretty "ehh" about both of them in general, and that didn't change with this picture.  The movie is not bad, by any stretch of the imagination (I liked the structure, it was well-timed, and it never drags), but the two leads could not be more bland if you try.  It's like watching a slice of Wonder Bread fall in love with another slice of Wonder Bread.  There's something to be said for the physicality of learning how to sign and be deaf, but a one-trick is not going to help Wyman make her character anything more than what the script acts, and frequently she goes for less-she makes her Belinda something to pity rather than someone worth fighting for, and Lew Ayres' as her smitten but personality-free paramour is hardly any more interesting.  The love story feels hopelessly underwritten, and part of me wanted a Heathcliff/Catherine style moment for the two of them just to live up to that soaring Max Steiner score (there's a cliff right there, after all), just to get swept into some sort of movie star glamour.  As it is, it's a finely told story that may feel a bit dated but isn't in the same league as something like Gentleman's Agreement in that regard, and surely would have made a much stronger play.

Those are my thoughts on this classic film-as it's long been celebrated, I'm hoping you have some thoughts-won't you share?  How many of the twelve nominations did the film actually deserve (I'm guessing about 4-5, though I'm not super well-versed in 1948 quite yet), and should it have received more wins?  What are your thoughts on Wyman and Ayres in general, and do you think I'll ever find a film that causes me to feel the love?  Click below to start a dialogue!

No comments: