13 August 2008

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

d. William Wyler / USA / 172 mins.

William Wyler's seminal film The Best Years of Our Lives is perhaps the most comprehensive appeal to the notion that the harshest battles for many veterans don't end with the close of a war. The three men at the film's center – Al (Frederic March), Fred (Dana Andrews), and Homer (Harold Russell) – each represent a different branch of the U.S. military and share the common struggle of re-integrating themselves into post-World War II society. On the home front, nothing is the same as it once was, but a more troubling development for the men is the discovery that they are not who they once were, either. Al's children have grown, his job feels alien, and he has become an angry alcoholic; Fred's marriage is in tatters and he's working again as a lowly drugstore attendant while suffering from trauma-induced nightmares; and Homer, having lost both hands, returns to a family and girlfriend who nervously tiptoe around his injuries.

At times the characters are treated with too much sentimentality, but the film balances it with some uncomfortable cruelty. Although The Best Years of Our Lives (what irony, eh?) is almost three hours long, it doesn't feel like it; three hours of one single character might have indeed become problematic, but by weaving the story expertly in and out of the three veterans' lives, the film does not become sluggish or stale. The touching script, Wyler's stream-lined and robust direction, and Gregg Toland's deep-focus cinematography boost the film, as do the spectacular ensemble performances. The three of the men portraying veterans all deliver fragile performances, as do the film's incredible actresses (Myrna Loy as Al's wife, Teresa Wright as Al's daughter, Virginia Mayo as Fred's party-girl wife, Cathy O'Donnell as Homer's fiancee).

Samuel Goldwyn is said to have to put the film into production after his wife read a news article about the psychology of serviceman returning home, and he is also believed to have stated, "I don't care if the film doesn't make a nickel. I just want every man, woman, and child in America to see it." It made more than a few nickels – at the time it was second only to Gone with the Wind in box office yield. The film also won eight Oscars. Hedging its bets, the Academy gave a special honorary Oscar to Harold Russell, an acting novice who had actually lost both of his hands in the war, in case he didn't win Best Supporting Actor. He did anyway, and in winning both he's the only person in the history of the awards to grab two statuettes for the same performance.


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