Who have thought that Jack Nicholson’s devilish grin would suit the smart comedic and heart-warming charm of James L. Brooks’ As Good As It Gets? Before 1997, Nicholson’s grin was suited to the sadistic humour of the Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman reboot. But as with that fine turn, the casting of Nicholson as Melvin Udall is one of genuine genius.
Indeed the evil traits of the Joker and neuroses of his former characters aren’t all that far from our memory when we meet Melvin Udall in the opening act of As Good As It Gets when he throws his neighbour’s dog down the garbage chute in an apartment building. A misanthropic, obsessive-compulsive germ-a-phobe (note: not the technical term) and novelist, Melvin Udall goes on to encounter a series of characters and forms unlikely friendships which throughout the film prove to be a catalyst for his recovery and change of personality. It all begins when Melvin is enlisted to help his gay artist neighbour (who has been brutally attack in an attempted robbery) by looking after his dog- forcing him to confront his crass homophobia and his irritation of animals.
Furthermore, one of the few stable ‘friendships’ (if at the start of the film we can dare to call them that) in his life is with the waitress at his regular eating place (with his own plastic cutlery) called Carol played by Helen Hunt. Her own story becomes clear as we learn that her young son suffers from acute asthma and is as much a debilitating victim of the illness as of a poor health insurance policy. Melvin becomes fond of Carol and her ability to kerb his grouchiness with finesse, and when events transpire that Melvin’s daily routine which has allowed him to settle into a life of cantankerous behaviour is disrupted, Melvin sets out to fix it- insulting and surprising a lot of people along the way.
Despite all the signs which indicate that Nicholson’s character is bound to be dislikeable to watch, the sharpness of the script written by Mark Andrus and James L. Brooks turn this film from two hours of the grumbles of a matured man stuck in his ways into a cinematic gem of a similar kind which made actors like Walter Matthau so enjoyable despite their character’s obvious flaws. Brooks clearly knew how to direct and write for Nicholson (having worked together previously on Broadcast News and Terms of Endearment)- every line seems to have been meant for Nicholson to utter and have all the snarling style that fits the timbre of Nicholson’s voice and technique. One also cannot forget Helen Hunt as Carol who becomes Melvin’s human element and the driving force behind the decision to change his life. Hunt and Nicholson are equal sparring partners on screen, and though some critics have seen the journey of their relationship as being overly sentimental towards the end of the film, I think it a fitting end to a film which at least to some extent alludes to optimism from the outset- the movie posters after all graces a hopeful Nicholson smiling towards to the sky. Both actors won Best Actor and Best Actress at the Academy Awards, and deservedly so. Greg Kinnear (who plays Simon, Udall’s neighbour in need) was also nominated for Best Supporting Actor, and his character gets a significant amount of screen time in order for us as viewers to fully comprehend his character’s plight and own eventual emotional salvation during the course of the film. A scene in which Simon learns of his near-bankruptcy from his friend who has to use prompt cards in order stop herself from crying is particularly heart-breaking.
During his acceptance speech at his AFI Life Achievement Award ceremony in 1994 Nicholson ended what was already a rapturous evening with the words: “You ain’t seen nothing yet!”. Three years later he would win third Academy Award for this film and go on to become the second most nominated actor of all time. As Good As It Gets is a film with a star still at the top of his game. And he knew it.
We begin our classics series with Random Harvest, the 1942 Oscar-nominated black and white film starring Greer Garson and Ronald Colman. Set during the years after the end of World War One, Random Harvest is a sentimental, tear-jerker movie which delivers shocks and heartbreak aplenty.
Shellshock and amnesia victim John Smith (Ronald Colman) escapes from the asylum in which he has been recovering on the night World War One ends, after suffering terrible injuries in combat. Showgirl Paula (Greer Garson) takes pity on a disorientated and near-mute ‘Smithy’ and almost instantly falls in love with him. After a remarkable recovery, the two decide to marry and seem to live the perfect life together with their newborn son and a promising writing career ahead for ‘Smithy’. After a call to Liverpool for a permanent post at a newspaper, ‘Smithy’ travels up north and is caught in a shocking road accident which brings his life before the war hurtling back. John Smith becomes Charles Rainier, an industrial businessman with a fortune. And that’s just the start of it.
Charles Rainier’s and Paula’s (now Margaret) lives continue to spin along and meet once again (for reasons which I shan’t reveal) and reach a conclusion which will surely have the hardest of hearts reaching for a box of tissues.
Perhaps overshadowed by Garson’s other film Mrs Miniver released the same year (which was a winner of six Academy Awards including Best Actress and Best Picture), Random Harvest still earned a healthy seven nominations including Best Director for Mervyn LeRoy. The film is an emotional spectacle with twists and shocks-aplenty, perfect for those unused to the genre of Classic Hollywood or reluctant to watch a black and white film (how very dare you!). Greer Garson’s staggering beauty and Ronald Colman’s appealing vulnerability and emotional journey throughout the piece capture the sentimentality and dogged hope of a mid-Second World War period.
In the spirit of the Olympics and the spectacularly British Opening Ceremony, I thought it appropriate to revisit an oldie of the now distinguished Danny Boyle repertoire: Shallow Grave.
Shallow Grave (1994) starring Kerry Fox, Christopher Eccleston and Ewan McGregor is a bold and dynamic first film by the man from Bury. Known for dabbling in a multitude of genres, Shallow Grave is an exercise of the Hitchcockian traits in films such as Vertigo and Psycho and the dark humoured gaze of the Coen Brothers. Shots of spiralling staircases and sweeps of blood red colour the screen throughout and though essentially a gory film with a stack of dead bodies upon reaching its conclusion, Shallow Grave can go hand in hand with Trainspotting (Boyle’s second film) as a narration of the corruptive and addictive power of living in the post-Thatcher world. Often described as a narrator of the British underworld and youth culture of the 1990s; Danny Boyle kick-started his career with a slyly powerful debut which packs a punch, right through to its gripping conclusion.
Shallow Grave is a tale of a flat, two guys, a girl and a suitcase. However it is no ordinary suitcase. This suitcase is filled with cash and has been left by the bedside of their reclusive new flatmate who has mysteriously died. The rest of the film hinges on one decision: to ring the police, report the death and hand in the money OR to keep the money, dispose of the body and any trace of his existence in the flat. A visit to the DIY store later, and a decision has been made. The three players: Kerry Fox, Christopher Eccleston and Ewan McGregor do not present the most likeable troop of protagonists, and this film is a parable of the perils of impulsiveness and over-caution as all three portray the downfalls of those human traits. A doctor, a chartered accountant and a journalist living in an echoingly large converted flat, it soon becomes clear that their decision to keep the money is equally one of boredom as of greed. A standout performance by Christopher Eccleston and an increasingly fond portrayal by Ewan McGregor (who begins the film as simply the egotistical ring-leader); the set-up of the three flatmates is a ménage a trois of sexual tension, obsession and youthful naivety.
With 82 minutes of running time, Shallow Grave is short and bittersweet. Any longer and the tension would become grating and the character’s dilemma: un-engaging. A confident, noir thriller debut from a future British directorial icon, Shallow Grave is a masterclass in horror- a dynamite stick with an unlit fuse and Danny Boyle holds the match.