Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "From Here to Eternity" (1953)

Scene from From Here to Eternity
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

From Here to Eternity
Release Date: August 5, 1953
Director: Fred Zinnemann
Written By: Daniel Taradash (screenplay), James Jones (novel)
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr
Genre: Drama, Romance, War
Running Time: 118 minutes

Oscar Wins: 8
-Best Picture
-Best Supporting Actor (Frank Sinatra)
-Best Supporting Actress (Donna Reed)
-Best Director (Fred Zinnemann)
-Best Adapted Screenplay
-Best Cinematography
-Best Sound
-Best Editing

Oscar Nominations: 5
-Best Actor (Montgomery Clift)
-Best Actor (Burt Lancaster)
-Best Actress (Deborah Kerr)
-Best Costume Design (Black and White)
-Best Score (Drama or Comedy)

Other Best Picture Nominees

-Julius Caesar
-The Robe
-Roman Holiday

And the winner is...

When one thinks of director Fred Zinemmann's From Here to Eternity, there is one scene that comes to mind. Even if you don't know the actors, you know the moment that has been lampooned and memorialized throughout all of pop culture. It is a moment in which a loving couple sprawl across the sands of a beach, kissing as the waves overpower them. For most, there is no context beyond this. However, it is a moment, like many moments here, that are more impressive for mainstream American film than it is given credit for. Despite its now tame depiction, the film was as controversial as they get not only for this scene, but for its general attitudes towards war and class.

James Jones' book was already a bestseller and everyone was aware of it for being controversial. Many considered it unfilmable because of its content as well as its 800+ pages of content. There were stories about prostitutes and anti-military subplots that made the film initially easy to resist. Producer Harry Cohn was famously a prude when it came to the production of the film. Now considered "Cohn's Folly," it wasn't entirely clear why he would buy the rights to produce a book that was very controversial. He was rather staunch, not even wanting to hire star Montgomery Clift because he might have been a homosexual. He had his own vision of the film, which would have starred Edmund O'Brien, Rita Hayworth, Julie Harris, and Eli Wallach. Even with his grumpiness that Zinnemann got so much say on the production - including shooting it in black and white to add emotional depth - Cohn eventually was fine with the production, which may have been "sanitized" by Jones' recollection - including various changes to sexually explicit elements - but still very risque for its era.

Among the casting decisions, there were two unlikely candidates. Donna Reed wasn't known for playing sexually attractive women, which initially turned off Zinnemann from hiring her. It was Cohn who believed that her playing against type would work. Since Zinnemann had a lot of say already, he accepted the role. Meanwhile, Frank Sinatra was a more controversial bet with a rumor that he was in the film because of mafia ties. In reality, it was his wife Ava Gardner who suggested to Cohn that he star in it. Because of having low stock, this was a good enough idea that Sinatra even considered working for free (he ended up working for $8,000). Among those that didn't make the cut was Joan Fontaine, who claims that passing on the role was the downfall of her career.

The glue to the production came with Montgomery Clift: the most professional of the actors. For starters, he learned to play the bugle so that despite being dubbed, it would look convincing. It would also help his co-stars perform better. Burt Lancaster was nervous during the shoot, so he shook and couldn't concentrate. This caused Clift to feel dismissive towards Lancaster. However, Clift brought his own troubles to the set with his alcoholism. It was so bad that in a scene where he was forced to play drunk, he was too drunk to pull it off. Likewise, Sinatra was going through his own personal problems that once caused him to confess that he considered killing himself. Likewise, many thought that George Reeves' scenes were cut short because of his recent recognition in the TV series The Adventures of Superman. While Zinnemann had to condense the film to meet Cohn's two hour running time, he denies this happening. This rumor was later presented in Hollywoodland as truth.

The movie's most famous scene wasn't in the script and was a last second addition. Fred Zinnemann had the idea to change it from a different location that was in the script. In the original version, the scene with Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr was supposed to take place standing up. Because Zinnemann liked the idea of waves crashing on his stars, he filmed it the way that was eventually seen. Because the film was shot in a brief 41 days on a budget of $1 million, a lot of the scenes were also shot rather quickly. The famous bombing of Pearl Harbor sequence was shot in half of a day. Because Cohn didn't want to spend money on Sinatra's audition tape, the actor improvised his scene by drinking and shooting pool. That moment was shot for the film unchanged.

Depending on who you ask, the film was a success. For Zinnemann, he considers it to be among his proudest achievements. For the military, there were many who were upset about the depiction of the service being corrupt. The Defense Department suggested changing the film's name to avoid affiliation with the book that was dubbed "From Here to Obscenity." This obviously didn't happen. Cohn was fine with it, even if he suggested tamping down the more sexual elements and adding a skirt to Kerr's bathing suit when he thought it was too revealing. Then there was Jones himself, who had previously attempted to write the screenplay and had appeared momentarily in the film playing piano by Ernest Borgnine (who shot the film in between his work on Marty). He considered it to be too sanitized and completely disowned it.

This didn't stop the film from racking up attention at the Oscars. Alongside Mrs. Miniver, it is one of the few films to receive acting nominations in all four categories. It was also tied with Gone with the Wind for most Oscars won with eight (both starred George Reeves). The record would be tied the following year with On the Waterfront. Despite the risky casting of Reed and Sinatra, both ended up winning Oscars and in the case of the latter had a career resurgence. Many believe that because both Lancaster and Clift were nominated for Best Actor, it caused a split in the vote that resulted in William Holden in Stalag 17 winning the category. Holden didn't waste any time, as his Oscar speech ("Thank you") ranks among the shortest.

The film was also a success financially, earning $18 million theatrically. The film helped to popularize Aloha shirts. There was a pilot shot for a TV version of the show, but it wasn't picked up. The only downside of the legacy is that Zinnemann didn't get his wish. He included the song "Re-enlistment Blues," which he hoped would be as popular and recognizable as Best Original Song winner "Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling" from High Noon. He included the song for that sole purpose, but was disappointed when it didn't become a popular tune. At the time, it was Columbia's highest grossing movie and the second highest grossing of 1953 behind fellow Best Picture nominee The Robe. It would end up being the 10th highest grossing film of the decade while producing one of the most satirized scenes from a Best Picture winner with the famous beach scene. While not a scene, the story of Sinatra's ties to mafia inspired the scene in The Godfather where Vito Corleone says "I'm going to make him an offer he can't refuse."

So while From Here to Eternity may not be as racy as it once seemed, it is still a film flowing with passion and conflicting characters. It may be known for one scene, but it has so much more going for it. On top of restarting Sinatra's career, it introduced one of Hawaii's most popular clothing items to worldwide audiences. It is a war film that showed that there could be trouble in paradise and while the studio tampered to keep it from being too sexually explicit, allowed the story to be ripe with passion. Even if there's still complaints that it may not be the greatest depiction of the military, it is one of the most enjoyable and unique to ever win Best Picture. It wasn't about the war or the politics. It was about the people and their loneliness - whose desire to be loved was all that mattered. It was a story that ranks among the best of cinema, even if there's plenty that people disagreed with.

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