This week, we got some good old-fashioned Oscar blogger drama. It reminded me of the good old days before everything became like an extended cut of Orwell’s 1984. There was once a time when Oscar bloggers were still a thing, that we mattered beyond just positioning for the Iron Throne. Who was MOST INFLUENTIAL? Who was MOST LIKED? Who was the best PREDICTOR!?
There isn’t much left of the drama of old, but one story did pop up this week that was like flashing back to more simpler times. And that is the great crime of not having seen Casablanca. Clayton Davis has become the awards editor at Variety and has apparently not yet seen Casablanca.
Taika Waititi is right. No one except film fans ever remembers who directed Casablanca. Michael Curtiz was never particularly a household name. You don’t remember his name like you remember Alfred Hitchcock or Frances Ford Coppola. Some films that are beloved throughout history are directed by people no one knows, like Gone with the Wind the Sound of Music, Oliver! I would bet that most people don’t know or remember or have even heard of the names of the people who directed any of the Best Picture winners of the last ten years.
What was the last Best Picture winner that anyone would remember who directed it? And I’m not talking about Oscar bloggers or film critics. Argo, The Departed, No Country for Old Men, Million Dollar Baby, Return of the King, Gladiator, and Titanic. And of that very easy list, I imagine your average person now would only remember who directed Titanic.
Some directors make names for themselves and are rememberd, others not so much. Taika Waititi is correct that he’s probably in the group that won’t be remembered as such. But what makes Casablanca still worth seeing is not who directed it. That part of it doesn’t matter as much. The film itself stands the test of time the way few films do – and not to put too fine a point on it, but I would imagine nothing Waititi makes, or almost everything made in the past decades is likely not to be rememebred the way Casablanca has been.
This has probably always been true, but it’s even more true now. Movies are not what they used to be. They diverged at some point into the airplane analogy – people in First Class get one kind of meal, people in coach get another. If your movie plays to people in First Class, it’s likely not to be remembered. There is strength in numbers.
Casablanca is a movie almost everyone still knows because of its memorable dialogue. There are so many great lines that still mean so much. Like:
That keeps coming up because people tend toward hypocrisy.
“Here’s Looking at you, Kid.”
“Welcome back to the fight, this time I know we’ll win.”
“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all of the world she walks into mine.”
“Round up the usual suspects…”
But let’s ask a film professor:
And yes, today’s audiences would likely find some of its roles “problematic,” especially Dooley Wilson as Sam who calls Rick “boss,” and is referred to by Ingrid Bergman as a “boy,” but there is also the line, “I don’t buy and sell human beings” by Rick, which in 1942 was considered progressive. If you want to find things wrong with Casablanca from a social justice perspective, you won’t find that difficult.
I’ve always loved the movie, even as a kid, because the characters are perfectly written and the story is unpredictable and funny. I had no idea that it was set against the backdrop of WWII – knowing that later in life only deepens the experience of watching it. It’s really the archetypes in the film – tough, stoic, cool Rick who suffers no fools (“I stick my neck out for nobody”) but has a weakness for love. Watching him break down when he lays eyes on Ilsa is just great dramatic tension. And she wants to do the right thing and stand by her husband because she’s the thing that keeps him going, and yet, when she sees Rick she is potentially undone by love.
Through all of it, we know that this is in the middle of the war. France has fallen to the Nazis. America gets the to be the good guys, our shining moment when we saved the world. I think the idea that there is no ambivalence about that war – that the Nazis were the greatest evil the world has ever know (they have to be in the top five at least) – so the morality is crystal clear.
It’s funny, it’s sweet, it’s moving, it’s thrilling. But overall, we just become wrapped up in the characters — even if their problems don’t amount to a hill of beans — and we have to wait and see how it will all turn out.
Filmmakers have been trying to make a film as good as Casablanca for decades and no one has ever come close. Even the people making the film didn’t realize what they had until it was all finished. They were mostly writing the script on the fly, making it up as they went along. Even the actors didn’t know how it was going to end, whether she would end up with Rick or with Victor.
The film is nested into other films, like Play it Again, Sam and When Harry Met Sally:
As a sidenote: They’re talking on landlines and watching a movie on TV at the same time. These things no longer exist in our culture.
Yes, you should watch it because I’m not sure there has ever been a more perfect film ever made. You might not love it. It might not imprint in your heart. But at least you can say you’ve seen it.