Betting on the Academy Awards is a sucker’s game, but there’s one thing the Oscar watcher can rely on: When it comes to Best Picture, the winner is going to be the film that makes Hollywood feel good about itself.
And for such an alleged bastion of liberalism, Hollywood usually has a conservative regard for its own image — at least as represented by Oscar. (You saw it last year when the noble “Spotlight” beat the brilliant but bloody “Revenant”; when the self-serving “Crash” beat the landmark “Brokeback Mountain” in 2006; when “Gandhi” bested “E.T.” — and “Tootsie,” and “The Verdict” — back in 1983.) Just in time for this year’s Academy Awards, two iconic American pictures — one chosen “Best,” one not — are the subjects of two dissimilar but engaging new books.
“We’ll Always Have Casablanca: The Life, Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie” (W.W. Norton & Company, 334 pp., $27.95) may sound like hyperbole, but is it really? Author Noah Isenberg brings an appropriate passion to his pop analysis of the film, along with a delight in details and some savvy reassessments — the fact that so many actual wartime refugees were playing wartime refugees in the movie’s 1941 North Africa, for instance, probably gave it a verisimilitude that wouldn’t have been planned, or even consciously perceived, in the ’40s.
Isenberg reiterates a lot that moviegoers probably know about the film — yes, it was based on an unproduced play, “Everyone Comes to Rick’s”; no, Ronald Reagan was not the first choice to play the role now synonymous with Humphrey Bogart; yes, Howard Koch took more than his fair share of credit for the sublime screenplay, co-written with the ebullient Epstein brothers, Philip and Julius. Among the things we maybe didn’t know: Jazz star Hazel Scott was entertained as a sub for Sam, the singer/pianist played so memorably by Dooley Wilson.
Isenberg is good at addressing what “Casablanca” has meant to the American psyche: Rick Blaine, the seemingly hardhearted saloon keeper, wears the mask of a cynic, but beneath it he is pure American — or, rather, how Americans like to see themselves. Rick has also had his heart broken, which adds to his mystique — and helped Oscar voters choose “Casablanca” as the Best Picture of 1943.
The picture that wasn’t “Best” was 1952’s “High Noon,” a film that came to symbolize defiance in the face of a blacklisting, fear-ridden Hollywood establishment. It was the establishment that won the day on Oscar Night, 1953: Cecil B. DeMille, redbaiter extraordinaire, walked away with Best Picture for his leaden circus epic, “The Greatest Show on Earth.”
In “High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic” (Bloomsbury, 377 pp., $28), Glenn Frankel, a Pulitzer-winning former Washington Post writer, isn’t so interested in the Oscars, though they provide a tidy capper for what he does create: An energetic, close-to-exhaustive study of Hollywood’s post-WWII left and its persecution amid anti-Communist hysteria. Much of his broader story has been told before, and Frankel sometimes manages the neat trick of spinning out prose that is both breathless and burdened with minutiae. But by surveying the era through one film, he both distills and refines.
Frankel sets up the shootout that was “High Noon” by tracing the trajectories of the protagonists — among them Gary Cooper, an actor who had arrived in Hollywood out of rustic America with an uncannily natural affinity for the aw-shucks material that he made his own. He was one of Hollywood’s biggest names in the ’30s and ’40s, but by the time of the red scare he was desperate enough to take a role in a film that was quite obviously sending a message about a terrible time.
The movie’s father, screenwriter Carl Foreman, who would be blacklisted, used a cherished American genre — the Western — to create an allegory of the McCarthy era, with Cooper playing the lawman abandoned by his townsfolk because killers are coming to gun him down. The Hollywood right, including John Wayne, saw the film for what it was, and railed against it. Wayne would accept Cooper’s Best Actor prize on Oscar Night, disingenuously expressing anger and dismay that he hadn’t gotten the Will Kane role himself — a form of “alternative facts” before their time. “High Noon” — either the book or the movie — couldn’t be more timely.