Best Years of Our Lives, TheReviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 02/10/05 16:09:42
I keep thinking how wonderful it is that one of my favorite performances to ever grace a movie screen comes from a person who never acted before and who retired from acting immediately after winning an Academy Award for his work. What we get it one of the most natural performances in cinema history; it’s clumsy and touching and confused and honest, just like reality. There’s never a second when I find myself doubting the role.The performer is Harold Russell, a WWII G.I. who lost his hands in an explosion during a training exercise. He was fitted with two complex “hook” devices as prosthetic replacements, which he took to using so well that he soon was placed in an Army training film. Based on that lone appearance, he was cast to play the role of disabled veteran Homer Parrish in the post-war epic drama “The Best Years of Our Lives.”
Consider Russell’s performance for a moment. Homer is a role that requires great emotional depth - here’s a guy who’s come to terms with his loss of his hands, but is now loses that comfort when he’s faced with coming home to a family and a girlfriend who has yet to see (and adjust to) his hooks. He’s no longer in the world he called home for years. (For contrast, watch how comfortable fellow soldier Al Stephenson, played by Frederic March, is in handling the hooks - it’s something he’s probably seen dozens of times before - then watch Homer’s family and neighbors, who, in Homer’s eyes, tiptoe around the subject or even treat him as a curiosity piece.) Homer is quickly becoming filled with self- doubt and self-pity, too blind to realize that his family and his girlfriend, Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell), will always love him without reserve, and no war injury will ever change that.
Russell - an amateur - gets all of this perfectly. He’s comfortable around his fellow veterans but introverted around those whom he left behind. Like the other vets in this film, Homer is a changed man finally having to go back home and make the new man fit in an old place. There is a tenderness and a heartbreak to this performance that’s a sucker punch to the gut, and thanks to Russell, you’re so taken by the Homer character that by the final scenes, it’s impossible to keep the tears away.
For his efforts, Russell won not one but two Academy Awards, making him the only person in Oscar history to win two trophies for one performance. When the governing board felt he was a shoo-in to lose in the Best Supporting Actor category (he was up against such heavyweights as Claude Rains and Clifton Webb), he was given a statuette “for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance” in the movie. What the Academy didn’t expect was for him to win the other award as well. But if ever anyone deserved the double honor, it was Harold Russell.
(A final note on Russell. He decided to quit acting and focus instead on philanthropic work instead, working with both veterans and disabled advocacy groups. Russell did return to acting decades later, as a bit player in 1980’s “Inside Moves.”)
But on to the rest of “Best Years.” The Homer character is only a third of the film, which follows three vets as they head home to “Boone City,” a generic all-American anytown. Homer meets Al and Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) on the long flight home, and they quickly bond. All three wind up having problems adjusting to their old lives: Homer has to contend with his family and with Wilma; Fred must come to terms with a pre-war whirlwind marriage to a new wife (Virginia Mayo) who turns out to not be the catch he thought she was; and Al, in addition to fitting back in with the family he hasn’t seen in years, must return to his old banking job, which now involves approving loans for vets.
The screenplay, from Robert E. Sherwood (The Petrified Forest), expertly weaves the stories of these men. Not only do we care for them as people, but they each also become symbols for the greater problems of all returning veterans. Fred must face the ugly reality that while he was a captain and a decorated bombardier, he was just a lowly soda jerk before that. And now he must return to the dreary reality of the part-time, bottom-level paycheck. It’s impossible to find a better job; as one character comments, “nobody’s job is safe with all these servicemen crowding in.”
Al, meanwhile, must contend with the bankers and businessmen who did not go to war and therefore cannot understand his new world view. On a more subtle level, Al’s become an alcoholic. The film does not address this touchy issue right out, but it’s there, the problem of substance abuse that may soldiers faced. There’s rarely a scene in which Al is not holding a drink, or at least mixing one, and without saying it expressly, this is something that’s definitely hurting Al’s life.
Not to make this film just a series of veteran issues, Sherwood (working from a novel by MacKinlay Kantor, itself based on a 1944 Time article) constructed a powerful drama around them. A good chunk of the film involves a potential romance between Fred and Peggy (Teresa Wright), Al’s daughter. This love story is far less soapish and far more engaging than it sounds. Even without the veteran issues that surround it, this story would make for great stuff.
At a whopping 170 minutes, and with no action and only some minor comedy to help it along, it would seem like so much story would be too much for a straight-on drama. But we’re so wrapped up in the lives of these individuals that not only do we not mind the length, we demand it. We want as much time with these people as possible.
Director Wyler, who would win the second of his three Best Director Oscars for his work here, handles the massive running time by letting the film find its flow - big moment, quiet moment, big moment, etc. He’s not afraid to get intimate with his characters, to find comfort in merely sitting back and watching the emotion unfold from their seemingly average lives. But he’s also not afraid to go for the Big Scene, like the part where Fred comes across an airplane graveyard. The man who spent years in airplanes now sees them as he feels, torn apart and ready to be thrown away without a second thought. Wyler goes for the heavy sell here, and it works.
It’s important to note that “Best Years” ends on an up beat, making this a hopeful picture acting as inspiration for former troops. (It worked. Upon its release, the film became the biggest box office success since “Gone With the Wind.”) Its message here is the adjustment is difficult, but absolutely doable - compared to such post-Vietnam works as “Coming Home,” the optimistic “Best Years” is certainly a product of its time.But while it is hopeful, it is certainly not naive, or shallow, or unaware. Not once does it pause in its efforts to show that for veterans, the return home wasn’t as rosy as it seemed. It’s a bold, daring work, one that expertly blends social commentary with gripping storytelling. Wyler and producer Samuel Goldwyn have made a glorious “intimate epic,” one worthy of every honor bestowed upon it.
|© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.|