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Process behind film institute's list creates bizarre choices

by Philip Wuntch, Film Critic

The Dallas Morning News, June 21, 1998, page 9C

It's a dangerous business, this list-making.

Before the American Film Institute's ranking of the top 100 American films, which was announced Tuesday night, I made my own list on these pages last Sunday. I'm still hearing pros and cons. The pros are gracious, the cons are delivered with the righteous wrath of the true movie fan. As the AFI has learned since the Tuesday announcements, hell hath no fury like a movie fan with a scorned favorite flick.

Under the best of circumstances, the AFI list couldn't help being a touch predictable. Could there be such a gathering without Citizen Kane, Casablanca, The Godfather and Gone With the Wind in the assemblage? But the list was not fashioned under the best of circumstances, and once you get beyond its top tier, the results are often baffling.

The institute has not revealed the names of the 1,500 voters, although such venerables as Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston were quoted in several stories. Voters came from the creative, executive and financial sectors of American filmmaking, and I consider that cast of characters a mistake.

Of course, the Academy Award race is governed by a similar group of participants, but there's a difference. Seasoned filmgoers consider the Oscars more a public relations gesture on behalf of the industry than a foolproof measurement of artistry. Besides, the Oscars keep coming back each spring. The AFI's 100 Years . . . 100 Movies is a one-time--only event.

Colleagues generally are not the best judges of merit. By virtue of both the film world's competitive nature and their own creative juices, moviemakers are emotional creatures. Various elements shape or at least shade an individual vote. Personal and professional friendships, possible financial gain and individual memories of candidates are among the factors that burden the voting procedure with too much subtext.

As anyone who follows the Oscars knows, the average Hollywood voter is basically conservative. And conservatism was obvious with some of the omissions, including those of Robert Altman and Spike Lee. Mr. Lee didn't even rate a nod for his startling Do the Right Thing, and it's easy to imagine what his reaction to that slight was. Mr. Altman was mentioned only once, and that was for M*A*S*H, which also happens to be his one commercial blockbuster. McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Nashville ultimately will have a longer life than that popular, irreverent comedy.

A lack of risk-taking was also apparent in such selections as Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Rocky, My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music. The Guess Who's Coming to Dinner citation may represent a collective nod to the Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn partnership, which has achieved the stature of Hollywood folklore. But there are better examples to be found - Woman of the Year and Adam's Rib, to name just two.

While the first Rocky remains the undisputed king of that overripe series, its touching simplicity doesn't qualify it for cinema championship. A host of root-for-the-underdog sagas, particularly such Depression Era dramas as Dead End and You Only Live Once, had a more lingering effect.

The listings of My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music seem like accommodations to popularity. Certainly, The Sound of Music has its fans. When I omitted it from my list, the result was possibly the most hostile phone call I've received in years of film criticism. ("There's no law that says I have to tell you my name," the good woman said, before adding, "but I do live in University Park.") Both My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music were skillful screen translations of stage plays, and the recent AFI tribute to Sound of Music director Robert Wise must have been fresh on voters' minds. Yet neither film boasts the cinematic imagination of two Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals, Top Hat and Swing Time. Don't voters consider Astaire & Rogers as strong a team as Tracy & Hepburn?

In the field of comedies, voters proved to have a weak sense of humor. Ernst Lubitsch and Preston Sturges were two of the most spirited and influential merrymakers in film history. The final scene in Mr. Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise, enacted by Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins, has often been borrowed by other filmmakers - including Walter Hill in 48 HRS., with Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte the unlikely participants. And Mr. Sturges' The Lady Eve is a brilliant comedy from both verbal and visual perspectives. It also showed a stunning comic side to Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda that their other film roles often neglected. Yet no films of either Mr. Lubitsch or Mr. Sturges rated a mention.

Voter sentimentality did not extend to Greta Garbo. She's frequently canonized as the greatest movie actress, which may be overstating her case. But she had an intuitive grasp of acting for the camera. Her masterpiece - also that of director George Cukor - was Camille, overlooked in the AFI ranks.

The Western selections also hinted at a saddle-sore disposition. The Searchers' relatively low rank of No. 96 is a puzzlement, considering how strongly it affected the works of Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and, among others, Paul Schrader. And what happened to Red River, usually deemed second only to The Searchers in vigor and force?

There are other bewilderments. Why honor the original Mutiny on the Bounty? Its action scenes seem ham-handed now, as does the Captain Bligh of Charles Laughton. If voters wanted to salute a film on the basis of pure adventure, The Mark of Zorro, The Prisoner of Zenda, Gunga Din and The Adventures of Robin Hood all displayed stronger filmmaking artillery.

The list of why's could continue indefinitely. Spokesmen for the AFI have said that one of their list's purposes is "to foster dialogue on American films." On that level, the list is a smash hit. But on the level of content, there's only one list you should trust. And that's your own.

© 1998 The Dallas Morning News

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