THE DVD SHELF: Blu-rays of Oscar Winners "Grand Hotel," "Mrs. Miniver," "Driving Miss Daisy," "On the Waterfront"

By Steven Suskin
February 10, 2013

Oscar Season has officially approached, and with it new Blu-ray releases of at least four of the 84 Best Picture winners (thus far).



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Not only did these titles win the Big Prize; they took a combined 19, with 34 nominations overall. Awards only mean so much, of course; these happen to be four excellent films, though, each of which holds up well as many as 80 years later.

The earliest of the four is M-G-M's Grand Hotel [Warner Home Video], and grand it is indeed. Producer Irving Thalberg stocked the movie with some of his biggest stars, led by Greta Garbo (who indeed says "I vant to be alone"), John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery and Lionel Barrymore. This is the granddaddy of those interwoven melodramatic tales, with several stories taking place simultaneously. Here we have an aging ballerina (Garbo) whose career is fading away, an indigent Count (John Barrymore) whose fortune is faded away, a luckless stenographer (Crawford) whose hope is fading away, a bullish industrialist (Beery) whose reputation is fading away, and a mousey bookkeeper (Lionel Barrymore) whose life is fading away. All rushing in and out through the revolving door of the Grand Hotel, Berlin.

All the characters — and all the performers — are compelling. Most arresting upon this viewing was John Barrymore. Through every scene he seems to be weighing his options, thinking things out while the others are speaking, and fully aware of his inevitable doom. We are told that Barrymore was one of the great actors of his day. This performance came relatively late in his career — he was already 50y, and died at 60 — but watched closely, Barrymore gives us quite a lesson.

While this was indeed the 1932 Best Picture winner — in the fifth year of the Oscars — it holds a record as the only Best Picture not to be nominated in any other categories. Beery did win the Best Actor award that year, tied with Fredric March for "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." But Beery won for "The Champ," not "Grand Hotel."

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Ten years later came William Wyler's Mrs. Miniver [Warner Home Video], a propaganda piece which successfully accomplished its aim. The titular Mrs. M. (Greer Garson) is a suburban housewife who spends her days taking the train into London to buy expensive hats. In a mere moment, war comes and changes life for all, high class and low. She has an architect husband (Walter Pidgeon), who becomes a member of the civilian patrol; an 18-year old son at Oxford (Richard Ney), who becomes an Air Force Lieutenant with such speed that his parents are stunned with dire forebodings; and two younger children who gamely develop a stiff upper lip. They are balanced by the old Lady of the Manor (Dame May Whitty) and her heroine of a daughter (Teresa Wright), who deserts her class to marry young Miniver as he rushes off to war.

Thanks to Wyler and his screenwriters, what might have been a mild drama is at turns patriotic, humorous, heart-rending, and eventually wrenching. I have always considered Wyler's 1946 "The Best Years of Our Lives" — made just after he left the Air Force — to be the best of the WWII-related films of the war years; a true masterpiece it is. "Mrs. Miniver," which Wyler made just prior to service (and just prior to America entering the war), makes a worthy runner up. "Miniver" took six Oscars, including statuettes for Wyler, Garson and Wright. Wright made quite a splash in Hollywood, with nominations for her first three films — all released within two years. Her first (and only) win came on her third try, in which the competition included Dame Whitty as her mother. She was simultaneously nominated for Best Actress — as Mrs. Lou Gehrig in "Pride of the Yankees" — but lost to Garson. The other nominees that year were Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn and Rosalind Russell; pretty impressive company for the 24-year-old Wright. Who started her career, by the way, as the Emily Webb understudy in the original production of Our Town.

And then there's the 26-year-old Richard Ney. He boosted his career the following year by marrying his screen mother, the much older Ms. Garson. He soon scuttled his career by treating her miserably, with accusations of abuse ending in divorce in 1947. Ney's other claim to show biz infamy was as producer of the 1957 Broadway fiasco, Portofino. This is the one about which Walter Kerr wrote that he would not "say that Portofino is the worst musical ever produced, because I've only been seeing musicals since 1919." Garson herself came to Broadway shortly thereafter, replacing the aforementioned Ms. Russell as Auntie Mame. She returned in 1979, as coproducer of On Golden Pond. Back in the days when Broadway plays could make do with only two producers.

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Our third film — fourth, chronologically, but the third brought to us on Blu-ray by Warner — is the 1989 winner Driving Miss Daisy. The film version is, understandably, quite different from Alfred Uhry's Pulitzer Prize-winning play; to begin with, the cast of characters is expanded from three to many (which made room for the post-Anything Goes Patti LuPone, as Daisy's annoying daughter-in-law Florine). The theatricality of the original is sacrificed, yes, but Uhry's film adaptation turns the piece into something equally compelling.

Daisy is played by the 80-year-old Jessica Tandy. who had 40-odd years earlier created the role of Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. Tandy gives a luminous performance, which was rewarded with her only Oscar (to go along with three Tonys and an Emmy). Top-billed over Ms. Tandy is Morgan Freeman; he had originated the role of Hoke on stage, and his film performance made him a full-fledged movie star. He is, needless to say, wonderful. Dan Aykroyd is surprisingly strong as Daisy's long-suffering son, Boolie. Australian Bruce Beresford ("Tender Mercies") directs, and well, too. Oddly enough, "Driving Miss Daisy" was a rare Best Film winner for which the director was not even nominated. The first since "Grand Hotel," as it happens. And who knows? It could happen again soon. Very soon.

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Our Academy Award-winning quartet is rounded out by one of Hollywood's most strikingly provocative films. Elia Kazan's 1954 masterpiece On the Waterfront [Criterion] coulda been a contender, shoulda been a contender, and was a contender — taking a total of eight Oscars (and only the third film to do so, although the record has since been surpassed). "Waterfront" is riveting on many levels. The story of waterfront corruption in New York Harbor was ripped from the headlines; the plot was based on Malcolm Johnson's series of articles in the New York Sun, which won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1949. That year's Drama winner had been Arthur Miller for Death of a Salesman, directed by Kazan and starring Lee J. Cobb (who co-starred in "On the Waterfront").

In between, the former-communist Kazan had made riveting headlines of his own by naming names before the House Un-American Activities Committee. This turned him into a pariah in many circles, although it didn't prevent him from continuing to make great movies. But former colleagues saw him as a stool pigeon — and that is precisely what "On the Waterfront" is about. Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando), a well-connected dockworker who unquestioningly takes orders from union boss Johnny Friendly (Cobb), falls in love with local girl Edie (Eva Marie Saint). Her brother is murdered before being able to testify against Friendly before the Waterfront Crime Commission. When Terry shows signs of cooperating with crusading waterfront priest Father Barry (Karl Malden), Terry's brother Charley (Rod Steiger) — Friendly's top lieutenant — tries to protect him; he ends up dead, too. Terry ultimately testifies, is brutally beaten, but rallies in one of the cinema's all-time great scenes.

To say that Brando, Malden, Cobb and Steiger are phenomenal in these roles is to state the obvious. Breathtakingly good, all of them. (In one of those cruel twists of Oscar fate, Malden, Cobb and Steiger received featured actor nominations against each other, allowing a lesser actor in a lesser film to sneak in and take the prize.) Saint matches them, in her film debut; she won the Featured Actress award, while Brando took Best Actor.

Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg won awards as well; it was an "On the Waterfront" juggernaut that year. The main loser among the production staff was composer Leonard Bernstein. Loser of the Oscar, that is; his score for "Waterfront" is one of Hollywood's best, and Bernstein fans who don't know this music should stop what they are doing right now and order a recording of his "Symphonic Suite from On the Waterfront" (which can be found on the Naxos collection "Chichester Psalms" among other CDs). The score can be seen as Bernstein's critical step toward West Side Story in 1957.

But the score is only one of the elements. Everything — and every major participant — is at their best in "On the Waterfront." A true classic, with the Oscar-winning cinematography (by Boris Kaufman), art direction (by Richard Day) and editing (by Gene Milford) enhanced by Criterion's new Blu-ray restoration. The two-disc set is packed with special features, with previously available bonuses mixed with a handful of new interviews (with Eva Marie Saint, Martin Scorsese and others) plus a new documentary on the making of the film. Criterion also gives us a fascinating booklet including one of the original Malcolm Johnson articles from the Sun; a piece by Schulberg; and Kazan's defiant defense of his testimony before the HUAC, which he ran as a paid advertisement the next day in the New York Times.

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(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes," "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," the "Broadway Yearbook" series and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's Book Shelf and On the Record columns. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)