Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Mom & I got it right: 'Star Wars,' 'Gone With the Wind' top 15 game-changing films

Did any of you watch ABC's "Countdown to the Oscars: 15 Films That Changed American Cinema" last night?

The one-hour special counted down the movies that were influential game-changers and had a large impact on the way subsequent films were made. Aside from two very questionable choices — "Easy Rider" at No. 8 and "The Birth of a Nation" ranked seventh — I largely agreed with the choices and what the talking heads of directors, actors and critics had to say about why each film was so influential.

"Gone with the Wind" was my mother's
favorite movie and novel.
Before the countdown started, I wrote down four films that I was positive should be included. (In the order I wrote them down, they are: "Gone With the Wind," "Star Wars," "The Godfather" and "Psycho.") Not to hurt myself too badly by patting myself on the back, but I'm pleased to say each of them made the list.

"Star Wars" ranked No. 1 (more on that later!), "Gone with the Wind" second, "Psycho" was No. 4 (credited for reinventing fear, its inferred violence, inspiring multiple "slasher films" and unfortunately, perpetuating the cliche of naked women being victimized) and "The Godfather Part 2" was 10th.

Even cooler than my four predictions — and you can only take my word for this, in my mind I said "GWTW" (as Dad called it) and "Star Wars" had to be ranked one or two.

Mom is looking down from heaven with a big smile on her face; "GWTW" was her favorite movie and novel. And the only film to outrank it is my favorite flick, "Star Wars" — the film that made me the fanboy and movie lover I am today. (Thanks, Dad!)

My late mother had seen "GWTW" multiple times and read Margaret Mitchell's moving book at least three times throughout her lifetime. Keep in mind, GONE WITH THE WIND is in excess of 1,000 pages, so that's saying something!

Naturally, being the son of a woman born in Birmingham, Ala., I pretty much was raised on "GWTW." I was a pre-teen when I saw it the first time and read the novel about when I was high-school age. I even read the well-written sequel, SCARLETT, and watched the TV movie.

As the talking heads said, the film addresses large issues, wrestles with the ugly reality of the American Civil War, features incredible special effects for the time and has one of the most complicated and fascinating relationships ever (Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler).

Yours truly hams it up in a lifesize "card"
for "Star Wars" action figures displayed at the
2014 Cincinnati Comic Expo.
Ranked No. 2 on ABC's list, "GWTW" also showcases some of the finest wardrobe choices in cinematic history and plus, there are many, many memorable lines of dialogue.

One thing amazingly not mentioned on the TV special was how accurate the screenplay is to the original material. Even at nearly four hours long, the film covers virtually everything in the novel, aside from a handful of O'Hara's children and at least one marriage.

Now some words on "Star Wars."

It should seem obvious as to why director George Lucas' masterpiece is the top dog, but keep all the following in mind. One thing people often forget about "Star Wars" is it was a relatively low-budget film at the time that many studios turned down.

And in the words of host Robin Roberts, "Star Wars" was the first movie to expand its influence outside of the movie theater.

This is a set of the original "Star Wars" action figures.
Nobody had heard of such a merchandising onslaught until 1977. (There was Beatlemania in the early 1960s and a ton of KISS products created in the late 1970s, but this was the first time a movie had inspired such mayhem.)

To this day, "Star Wars" toys, clothing and other items are stocked perpetually in stores. The books and animated projects are too numerous to count. People attending comic-book and sci-fiction conventions are guaranteed to see fans dressed as Chewbacca, Darth Vader, Stormtroopers and of course, "Slave Leia."

"Jaws" (ranked No. 12) jump-started the idea of the summer blockbuster, but "Star Wars" blew the concept away. Moviegoers of my age (I'm 45) will remember the massively long lines people waited in to see it and those same people went back to theaters multiple times to once again enjoy the sci-fi film.

As Oprah Winfrey mentioned in the special, one of the themes in "Star Wars" is "the spiritual elevation" inferred in The Force.

Yes indeed, Oprah, audience members were getting a sneaky dose of theology at the same time they watched a battle of good vs. evil. (Early in January 2013, I posted a two-part article about the difference between Christ-figures and superheroes on the original home of Cary's Comics Craze.)

Much like Vivien Leigh in "Gone With the Wind," Lucas cast an unknowns as the Big Three of "Star Wars": Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker, Harrison Ford as Han Solo and Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia. Ford had been in Lucas' "American Graffitti" and Fisher had the star background of being Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher's daughter, but nobody had really heard of the trio at the time. Sir Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing were the only cast members with any Hollwood clout at the time "Star Wars" was cast.

Keep in mind this was Hamill's first movie and in turn, casting unknowns became a thing (as it were) in Hollywood. Granted, it was to varying degrees of success, but obviously "Star Wars" and "GWTW" set precedents of casting an unknown quantities in Big Roles.
The Big Three of the original "Star Wars" trilogy are
on location while filming "Return of the Jedi":
Harrison Ford as Han Solo (left), Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia
and Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker

Some of these decisions worked brilliantly -- the late Christopher Reeve as Superman/Clark Kent jumps to mind, Reeve's performance was so brilliant, it's hard to think about casting a live-action Superman — or even thinking about the Man of Steel at all — without mentioning him.

In other cases, casting unknowns has been a disaster. Ironically, the biggest example here is Lucas and his "Star Wars" prequel trilogy. Imagine how much much more compelling Anakin Skywalker's fall from grace would have been if someone other than Jake Lloyd and Hayden Christiansen had been cast.

But back to Lucas' brilliance. He auditioned his Big Three in an ensemble setting, looking to see what actors worked best together. This is something Hollywood — especially the producers of would-be franchise films -- need to do. Casting in a vacuum, to use my buddy David Hudson's idea, is a gamble. Group auditions are the way to go; they're a smart and logical way to truly to see if actors have chemistry and that hard-to-find Certain Something Together.

Thank goodness Hamill, Ford and Fisher had it and Lucas saw it. Their magical chemistry paid off and helped make the entire "Star Wars" as great as it is.

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