The 10 Best at Playing Politics on the Screen

By Tom Titus

Before we lift the curtain on this blogger’s choice for the best movies of all time, let’s turn to a subject most of us have had enough of this year – politics.

Herewith, the top 10 political movies, as chosen by yours truly, starting at number 10 and working our way up.

10. “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” Jimmy Stewart should have gotten his Oscar for this one rather than for “The Philadelphia Story.” This oldie from director Frank Capra pits a green congressman against the system and he filibusters his way to victory.

9. “The Candidate.” Can outsider Robert Redford campaign his way into Congress? Sure he can in this watchable exercise in political stumping.

8. “Dave.” Could a look-alike citizen replace the president temporarily? Kevin Kline gives us the answer in this light-hearted political comedy.

7. “Nixon.” Anthony Hopkins “cannibalizes” the script of Oliver Stone’s searing account of political bloodshed in the top ranks of government. If Meryl Streep can play Margaret Thatcher, then why not a Brit as Tricky Dick?

6. “The Best Man.” Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson vie for their party’s presidential nomination in Gore Vidal’s literate look at politics. Lee Tracy as the former prez and Shelley Berman as a wild card spice up the roiling brew.

5. “The American President.” Can POTUS (Michael Douglas) enjoy a romantic life while in office with journalist Annette Bening? Martin Sheen is his chief of staff, getting his feet wet in the Oval Office before his own turn comes on TV.

4. “Advise and Consent.” Henry Fonda, Walter Pidgeon, Don Murray and a show-stealing Charles Laughton play politicos at the crossroads over a controversial secretary of State appointment. Watch for George Grizzard’s dogged dissenting voice.

3. “Seven Days in May.” Burt Lancaster is a power-mad general aiming to run the president (Frederic March) out of office by force and Kirk Douglas is his top aide and strong opponent. Of the many pictures Burt and Kirk made together, this is the finest, with a terrific script from Rod Serling.

2. “Lincoln.” Daniel Day-Lewis earned his second Oscar as the 16th president, pushing his Emancipation Proclamation through Congress as the Civil War rages. Another feather in director Steven Spielberg’s war bonnet.

1. “1776.” The founding fathers fight over independence, musically, with John Adams (a great performance by William Daniels) leading the way. This cinematic version of the Broadway hit is first in war, first in peace and first in Intermission’s political poll.

Next up, a look at the top romantic movies before the best flicks of all time are revealed.

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The Best Military Movies of All Time

By Tom Titus

Ten-hut. Here are the top 10 military-themed movies of all time, in this columnist’s humble opinion, starting at the base and ascending to the summit.

10. “Paths of Glory.” Kirk Douglas starred as a French commander in World War I forced to pick three scapegoats from his regiment to be court-martialed and executed.

9. “Take the High Ground.” Richard Widmark at his best as a hardened platoon sergeant preparing young men for a shooting war in Korea. With the solid Karl Malden, the ravishing Elaine Stewart and a young, athletic Russ Tamblyn.

8. “Battleground.” The Battle of the Bulge pits a combat-weary platoon against the nasty Nazis with Van Johnson, John Hodiak and James Whitmore leading the charge.

7. “Stalag 17.” William Holden won his Oscar for this prison camp drama which featured Peter Graves, Don Taylor and Otto Preminger. Powerful doses of drama and comedy (Harvey Lembeck and Robert Strauss).

6. “The Dirty Dozen.” Lee Marvin rounds up a squadron of condemned Gis for a mission behind the lines in World War II. He deserved the Oscar for that one, not for “Cat Ballou.”

5. “The Caine Mutiny.” Herman Wouk’s brilliant novel brought to the screen by a superb cast – Humphrey Bogart, Van Johnson, Jose Ferrer, Fred MacMurray and a young, short-lived Robert Francis. Tops also is Dimitri Tiomkin’s musical score.

4. “From Here to Eternity.” The best picture of 1953 stars Burt Lancaster and Montgomery Clift as soldiers based in Hawaii as World War II approaches. Oscars to Frank Sinatra and Donna Reed in splendid support.

3. “Patton.” This was the Oscar winner in 1970 but George C. Scott turned down his well-deserved “best actor” statuette. Karl Malden lends strong support as General Omar Bradley.

2. “A Few Good Men.” Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson face off in this masterful drama with the latter’s blast (“You can’t handle the truth”) living on in movie trivia annals. Aaron Sorkin’s words cut like a knife when employed by these two.

1. “Saving Private Ryan.” Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece (okay, one of several) about the search for a family’s survivor led by the great Tom Hanks. The first 20 minutes, the D-Day landing, are brilliantly captured. No best picture Oscar here; the award went to (are you ready?) “Shakespeare in Love.”

We’re almost ready to take the wraps off the best movies of all time (at least in my opinion). Stay tuned.

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The Best of the West – Top 10 Westerns

By Tom Titus

We now turn our attention to that legendary Hollywood staple, the western. While most of the genre belong on the second half of a Saturday afternoon double bill, several have emerged as somewhat memorable.

I was tempted to list “Blazing Saddles,” but that one already finished second in the list of top comedies. Here, in this writer’s opinion, are the 10 greatest western movies of all time, starting at the bottom and working up.

10. “The Shootist.” John Wayne wound up his career, while battling cancer in real life, as a retired gunfighter facing one last shootout. James Stewart was aboard in a cameo as his doctor.

9. “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” Wayne and Stewart again, but this time it’s Jimmy’s star turn as a mild-mannered lawyer faced with a psychotic gunfighter (Lee Marvin). When the legend becomes truth, print the legend.

8. “High Noon.” Gary Cooper won his second Oscar as a sheriff who chooses to stand his ground (rather than honeymoon with Grace Kelly; go figure) when some old foes arrive. The music makes this movie a cut above the rest.

7. “True Grit.” The Duke again, winning an Oscar as a one-eyed sheriff helping a young girl (Kim Darby) get justice. Glen Campbell is along for the ride.

6. “Duel in the Sun.” Gregory Peck and Jennifer Jones are the duelees in this spectacular epic. Joseph Cotten provides solid support, as does the legendary Lionel Barrymore.

5. “The Alamo.” In a list of top westerns you’d expect to find John Wayne more than once. Here he’s in a powerful triumvirate with Richard Widmark and Laurence Harvey defending the famed Texas landmark to the death. Oh yes, Wayne also directed.

4. “Red River.” The ubiquitous John Wayne once more, this time paired with Montgomery Clift as cattlemen disputing the herd’s destination. Probably the Duke’s best, although there are a lot to choose from.

3. “How the West Was Won.” Made for Cinerama, this epic adventure focuses on several pioneers on the road to the Pacific. And, yes, John Wayne was among them, as was Jimmy Stewart.

2. “Broken Lance.” Wayne must have been unavailable, so the great Spencer Tracy played the role of an embittered rancher with four grown sons (Richard Widmark, Robert Wagner, Hugh O’Brien, Earl Holliman) clashing over the right of succession. A truly great, and underrated, movie.

1. “Shane.” By far the best western ever made. Director George Stevens captured the sprawling Wyoming countryside and honed in on the simple drama of a former gunfighter (Alan Ladd in his best role) trying to settle down. Top performances emerge from Van Heflin and Jean Arthur as homesteaders, Brandon DeWilde as their young son, Emile Meyer as a villainous rancher and Jack Palance as his hired gun. The “showdown” between Palance and Elisha Cook Jr. is a classic scene.

There they are, this corner’s choices for the western movie hall of fame. Next time we’ll take a shot at the top military-themed pictures.

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The Sounds of Music from 10 to 1

By Tom Titus

Let’s strike up the band for the top 10 movie musicals of all time – at least in one columnist’s opinion. We’ll start from the bottom and work our way up to the summit.

10. “The Band Wagon.” Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse lit up this Broadway backstage flick about turning a dismal flop into a megahit production. The extended number near the end is right out of Gene Kelly’s playbook.

9. “Kiss Me, Kate.” Shakespeare gets an assist on this one, Cole Porter’s revitalized version of “The Taming of the Shrew” with Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson headlining. Comic relief abounds with Keenan Wynn and James Whitmore brushing up their Shakespeare.

8. “The Producers.” Broadway-themed shows were never funnier than this musical reworking of a vintage Mel Brooks comedy. Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick hit all the right notes in creating “Springtime for Hitler.”

7. “The Sound of Music.” This Oscar-winning story of a young woman who chose marriage and instant motherhood over the convent truly warms the heart. Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer head the cast.

6. “Chicago.” The first musical to win a best picture Oscar in 34 years, it’s a snappy story set mostly in a women’s prison. Catherine Zeta Jones (Oscar for best supporting actress) and Renee Zellweger head the cast along with hotshot lawyer Richard Gere.

5. “An American in Paris.” Also an Oscar winner, this 1951 dazzler celebrates the music of George Gershwin and the prodigious talents of Gene Kelly with a teen-age Leslie Caron making swell screen debut. Kelly choreographed his classic ballet sequence.

4. “My Fair Lady.” Like the last three, also an Oscar winner. Rex Harrison recreated his stage triumph with Audrey Hepburn playing the Cockney flower girl while the actress who created her, Julie Andrews, won that year’s Oscar for “Mary Poppins.”

3. “Singin’ in the Rain.” Hollywood’s transition to sound inspired this outstanding musical comedy with Gene Kelly as the soaked singer, ably assisted by a young Debbie Reynolds and the brilliant comic Donald O’Connor.

2. “West Side Story.” This 1961 adaptation of the 1957 Broadway hit won the Oscar, as did performers Rita Moreno and George Chakiris. The Jets and the Shark duke it out with tragic consequences, while director Robert Wise put his Oscar beside the one for “The Sound of Music.”

1. “Les Miserables.” This cinematic adaptation of the Broadway smash isn’t perfect (Russell Crowe and Sasha Baron Cohen disappoint), but Hugh Jackman’s tremendous Valjean and Anne Hathaway’s wrenching Fantine help to place it on a lofty pedestal.

That’s one moviegoer’s opinion, but the only one that counts in this column. Next we’ll head out west to assess the best of the horse operas.

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The Top Movie Comedies of All Time

By Tom Titus

All right, moviegoers, here, as promised, is the first “top ten” list. It’s all about movie comedies and is not the results of any complicated poll, just the incontrovertible opinions of your humble correspondent.

Let’s start from the bottom and work up.

10. “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein,” in a virtual tie with “A Night at the Opera.” Both of these oldies but still goodies represented the stars in the top of their form. The A&C flick had the bonus of two original horror stars – Bela Lugosi as Dracula and Lon Chaney Jr. as the Wolfman. “Opera” was the best of the Marx brothers pictures and featured that overflowing full house scene in the ship’s cabin.

9. “One, Two, Three.” James Cagney called it a career in this madcap epic set in West Berlin during the cold war. Another gem from the directorial mind of Billy Wilder, whose surname perfectly described the circumstances.

8. “Soapdish.” Sally Field had a pair of Oscars, but she proved she also could handle comedy in this riotous entry with Kevin Kline, set around a soap opera environment. The climactic sequence is as funny as Hollywood gets.

7. “What’s Up, Doc?” Fresh off his triumph with “The Last Picture Show,” director Peter Bogdanovich demonstrated his comedic skills in this high-energy flick with Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neill. The big scene in this one is a breathtaking downhill chase on the San Francisco streets.

6. “High Anxiety.” Mel Brooks has three entries on this list, all well deserved. This backhanded tribute to the Alfred Hitchcock suspensers starred Brooks along with show-stealing villainous performances from Harvey Korman and Cloris Leachman.

5. “Outrageous Fortune.” Shelley Long and Bette Midler were hilarious as polar opposites on a crime-solving spree. George Carlin juices up the finale, but the funniest line in the show comes from Midler after viewing a body in the morgue, which can’t be repeated here.

4. “Young Frankenstein.” Brooks again, this time with the irrepressible Gene Wilder as the body-snatching baron’s uptight grandson. Star turns abound, from Marty Feldman, Madeline Kahn, Peter Boyle, Kenneth Mars (all, like Wilder, sadly no longer with us), along with the two best ones from Cloris Leachman and Teri Garr.

3. “Noises Off.” Director Peter Bogdanovich took the theater’s best comedy and turned it into a terrific cinematic romp with Michael Caine and Carol Burnett heading an all-star cast. For theater people, it’s must viewing.

2. “Blazing Saddles.” Mel Brooks’ magnum opus with Cleavon Little as a black sheriff in a bigoted town and Gene Wilder as the pixilated fastest draw in the West. Top honors also go to Harvey Korman as Hedy…ah, Hedley…Lamarr and veteran character actor Slim Pickens in his best role.

1. “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.” And it certainly was back in 1963 when just about every comedic actor in Hollywood hopped aboard director Stanley Kramer’s wild chase flick. Double Oscar winner Spencer Tracy headed the all-star ensemble, and don’t blink or you’ll miss cameos from Jack Benny and Jerry Lewis.

That’s it from this theater critic who grew up on movies and still appreciates the really good ones. Next time, we’ll have a look at Hollywood’s musical accomplishments.

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The Oscars That Got Away

By Tom Titus

Before we take a look at the best movies ever made (at least in this column’s opinion), let’s check out a quick list of some actors and pictures that should have thanked the academy on Oscar Night, but didn’t get that opportunity. In other words, those who were robbed.

Let’s start at 1941 and the picture that’s traditionally included in the triumvirate of critics’ choices for “Best Movies Ever.” That would be “Citizen Kane,” written by, directed by and starring Orson Welles. Welles got the Oscar for original screenplay, but was snubbed for acting and directing honors.

Another young director with an early-career magnum opus was Peter Bogdanovich, who brilliantly directed “The Last Picture Show” in 1971, but saw it lose to William Friedken and “The French Connection.” Pete’s only consolation were the supporting Oscars won by Cloris Leachman and Ben Johnson for their memorable characterizations in “Picture Show.”

Peter Ustinov won two acting Oscars, for “Spartacus” and “Topkapi,” but his signature role was that of the mad emperor Nero in “Quo Vadis” (1951). Can anyone who’s seen it ever forget his line: “Petronius? Dead? By his own hand? WITHOUT MY PERMISSION?”

Both Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole were tremendous actors, as well as drinking buddies. But each went to his grave without an Oscar, only a plethora of nominations. Burton should have won for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” while O’Toole was robbed for not scoring in “Lawrence of Arabia” or “The Lion in Winter.”

Angela Lansbury is a legend both on Broadway (“Mame” and “Sweeney Todd”) and on television (“Murder, She Wrote”). In Hollywood, she won an Oscar nomination in her first movie (“Gaslight”) and definitely should have won for her evil mother role in “The Manchurian Candidate.” So, in fact, should have her co-star in that flick, Laurence Harvey.

Rod Steiger, one of our most powerful actors, won for “In the Heat of the Night,” but he should have been honored years before for his outstanding performance as “The Pawnbroker.” Guess who beat him out — Lee Marvin in “Cat Ballou.”

In 1961, Maximillian Schell won the best actor Oscar for his role as the Nazi defender in “Judgment at Nuremberg.” But Richard Widmark was equally strong as his rival, the military prosecutor, and certainly outperformed the eventual supporting actor winner, George Chakiris in “West Side Story.”

Jack Lemmon was honored twice, for “Mister Roberts” and “Save the Tiger.” He should have taken home a third Oscar, for “The Days of Wine and Roses” (and so should have co-star Lee Remick), not to mention his great supporting performance in “Glengarry Glen Ross.”

Andy Griffith will be remembered as Mayberry’s sheriff and attorney Matlock, but he delivered a powerhouse performance in “A Face in the Crowd” as a low-life drifter who becomes a media demagogue. Out of character? You bet.

Frances McDormand won an Oscar as the pregnant police chief in “Fargo,” but another should have gone to the actor who played her quarry. William H. Macy was brilliant as the double-dealing car salesman and now he’s tearing up the TV screens each week on “Shameless.”

Leonardo DiCaprio finally got his Oscar, for “The Revenant,” after a string of award-worthy performances, one of the best of which was as Howard Hughes in “The Aviator.”

Finally, I bring up the name of an actor I once interviewed when he was directing a show at South Coast Repertory, but with whom you’re probably unfamiliar – Andy Robinson. This unheralded actor brilliantly played the psychotic serial killer in the first “Dirty Harry” movie and should have been Oscared on the spot.

Next time around, we’ll take a look at some of the best motion pictures in the first in a variety of categories. Stay tuned.

Making Movies and TV Audience Friendly

By Tom Titus

Readers of this occasional blog more than likely expect a comment or three about local theater. After all, that’s been my stock in trade for the past half century.

But I was a movie fan long before I discovered the wonders of live theater. And today I’d like to offer a few suggestions to the motion picture and television industries that would prove beneficial both to them and, most importantly, to their audiences.

When did Hollywood start the abysmal practice of starting a movie without tellng the viewers the identity of the actors and actresses playing major roles in the picture? Today, it seems, we don’t actually know who’s in the flick until the closing credits roll.

Let’s return to the traditional “Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in ‘Double Indemnity’ “ opening credits (and, on that topic, don’t miss “Billy & Ray” at the Laguna Playhouse before it closes Oct. 30). I couldn’t resist throwing in that theatrical tidbit.

And, while we’re at it, how about borrowing a tactic from the producers of such movies as “The Dirty Dozen,” “The Great Escape” and “Take the High Ground,” among others. That is, why not identify each actor and actress with his or her picture as a sort of cinematic curtain call?

Turning to television, one of the industry’s most grievous faults is identifying actors at the start of a show, but not showing the character they play, as did programs like “Dallas” and “M*A*S*H.” Some shows still practice that laudable method – including “Criminal Minds,” “Law & Order” and “Blue Bloods.”

But watch a show like “Gray’s Anatomy,” for instance, and you get the names at the outset, but if you’re new to the program you have no idea who the people are portraying. Let’s see their likeness as they’re identified.

Those are just a few things I’d be attending to if I were in charge of movies or TV shows. In the next few editions of this column, I’ll take a look backward and come up with a few “top 10″ lists vis the IMOHO (in my own humble opinion) technique.

I’ll be starting with an honor roll of actors and movies that should have been honored by the Academy, but weren’t. Stay tuned.