When Alexander Payne won his second Oscar, he dedicated it to his mom, Peggy. "After watching the show a few years ago, she made me promise that if I ever won another Oscar, I had to dedicate it to her just like Javier Bardem did with his mother," he said onstage at the 84th Academy Awards. "So, mom, this one's for you. S'agapo poli. And thanks for letting me skip nursery school so we could go to the movies."
The Nebraska-born writer, director and producer has earned seven Oscar nominations across his career and has twice taken home the award for Best Adapted Screenplay: For 2004's Sideways (shared with Jim Taylor) and for 2011's The Descendants (shared with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash). The auteur behind such films as Election (1999), Downsizing (2017), and most recently, The Holdovers, Payne is considered one of America's greatest humanist filmmakers — a distinction he remains somewhat conflicted over.
"It means I like stories that are about people, which is what I thought movies were supposed to be," Payne tells A.frame. "So, I'm at once flattered and kind of appalled that I'm singled out as a filmmaker of that ilk, because all of the movies we most love are movies about people, and life on this planet, and how weird and funny and horrifying and mysterious it all is... I was an American teenager in the '70s, and I'm still trying to make those movies which are just about people where their worth is measured by the story's proximity to real life, not distance from it."
"I think it's kind of an American phenomenon," he expounds. "Other countries remain concerned with genuinely human stories. I'm not the only one still doing it, but if I'm identified as a humanist the way we talk about Jean Renoir or Hal Ashby, then I'm happy and flattered. Because those are the kind of movies I like to see, and those are the ones I aspire to make well."
Below, Payne shares with A.frame five of his personal favorite films "that I am really happy to recommend to other filmgoers." "They're not so much films that have influenced me, per se, but they are five movies that I like to champion."
Directed by: William A. Wellman | Written by: Charles Schnee
Westward the Women is a completely neglected masterpiece, I feel. Directed by William Wellman and scripted by Charles Schnee, who's most famous for his screenplays of Howard Hawks' Red River and Vincente Minnelli's The Bad and the Beautiful — which is still one of the best ever movies made about Hollywood. But in 1951, Wellman took on this film that was written by Charles Schnee from a story suggested by Frank Capra. Oddly, Frank Capra had this idea and then decided he wasn't going to do anything with it and handed it over.
It's about the transporting of 150 women from Chicago to California to become wives. Robert Taylor — a fellow Nebraskan — is the star, and he's hired to arrange this huge wagon train of women to go across the country. These women are warned that about half of them are going to die along the way, and that's what happens. It's a really brutal, you could almost say pitiless film, but it's deeply moving and deeply emotional. It's a Western in which I cry about three times, and you just can't believe how good this movie is. You can't believe that more people don't talk about it. So, the first one I want to recommend is Westward the Women.
Directed by: Sam Peckinpah | Written by: N.B. Stone Jr.
The other Western that makes me cry is Sam Peckinpah's first significant feature, Ride the High Country. We remember Peckinpah more for his great Western from 1969, The Wild Bunch, which is a towering masterpiece and a phenomenal achievement. But Ride the High Country has a tenderness in it. Peckinpah could go back and forth between his violent, masculine side and what's called his elegiac side, that you see in movies like Junior Bonner and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. This one has both. This one has the muscularity of a Western and a lot of tenderness in it, in the friendship between these two aging gunfighters, one still a scoundrel and the other one trying to go straight as a do-gooder, played by Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott, who are both veterans of the Western and playing Western veterans.
It also takes place in that period that interested Peckinpah so much, which was the nineteen-tens. He's interested in that transition from a code, however noble or ignoble that existed in the West, to the modern era, and what was that transition period like? And it's interesting when directors are interested in epochal transition. You see movies like Visconti's The Leopard, and that's so interesting because, in one night, during one party, you see the transition from one historical era to the other, and Peckinpah has that similar interest. Anyway, people may have seen this movie, but it's worth seeing again. And I also mention it because it's a Western that makes me cry.
Directed by: Michael Curtiz | Written by: Ranald MacDougall
The Breaking Point is a movie worth championing, because a lot of people don't know it. It's directed by Michael Curtiz, who was still under contract at Warner Brothers. Of course, people know Michael Curtiz as having directed the paragon of perhaps Hollywood's most perfect movie, Casablanca. He's a phenomenal director, Hungarian born, and he did all of his early movies in Hungary before coming to the States. And he did all the Errol Flynn swashbucklers, and Mildred Pieces, as well. He worked in every single genre and was a phenomenal craftsman.
The Breaking Point was also John Garfield's penultimate film. He did this one and he did one more, He Ran All the Way, and then he died at 39 of a heart attack. Garfield's not credited as a producer, but he was very much involved in its evolution as a vehicle for him. It's a great Michael Curtiz movie, and it's a great story based on Hemingway, but it's interesting to watch for Garfield, because of his impact on the film. One of the dynamics of the film, as you see in many films, is a man caught between the Madonna-whore syndrome. He's got his beautiful, beautiful wife, and he's got the hottie who's trying to tempt him away from all of that. That's Phyllis Thaxter and Patricia Neal, and boy, was Patricia Neal tempting at that time. Phyllis Thaxter, she became famous in the '70s, because she played Superman's mom in Richard Donner's Superman with Christopher Reeve.
Anyway, at the end of the film, John Garfield has been wounded and he's taken off to the hospital, and there's a shot of Phyllis Thaxter looking at him in a beautiful closeup. And you're thinking, 'Why aren't you showing John Garfield? You're showing his wife...' And it's because Garfield told Curtiz, 'Stay on her. Look how good she is.' I mean, what a beautiful, generous actor. By the way, the cinematographer of this film is Ted McCord; he was a big Warner Brothers guy, but he shot Treasure of the Sierra Madre and he later shot The Sound of Music. He had a phenomenal career. It's a movie that I think directors of any ilk can study to learn about film directing, and then you take the lessons from it and then apply it however you want to apply it to your own work. But each shot is perfect. Each shot has a beginning, a middle, and an end. How he choreographs his actors to the camera is, I mean, the craft that Michael Curtiz had is phenomenal. And then working in a sort of miniature here, in a small intimate story, is really a lesson.
Directed by: Leo McCarey | Written by: Viña Delmar
Leo McCarey was a comedy director. He trained under Hal Roach. He supervised and directed, for example, a lot of Laurel and Hardy movies, then started doing talkies, and he directed arguably the best Marx Brothers movie, Duck Soup. And in 1937, he directed two movies — one of which he won the Oscar for Best Director: The Awful Truth with Cary Grant and Irene Dunne. The story goes that he ascended to the podium to get his Oscar for The Awful Truth and he held it and he said, 'Thank you, but you've given it to me for the wrong film.' And the film he was referring to is this one, Make Way for Tomorrow.
No big stars, not very funny, and it's one of the most shattering and heartbreaking movies ever made. It's about an elderly couple during the Depression who can no longer afford to stay in their home, and they have to go live with their kids. None of the kids want them, and then they wind up being separated, one with one kid, the other with another. I don't want to spoil it from there. Orson Welles said of this movie, 'It could make a stone cry,' and it also influenced one of the most famous Japanese movies, 1951's Tokyo Story by Yasujirō Ozu. Ozu was a big movie watcher and saw this one, and it showed up in his work about 15 years later.
I saw this movie projected yet again about three months ago at the Cinematheque, and it was like 10 in the morning, filled with hipsters with their hats and retro style clothes. And yet again, the lights came up and I would say about half of the audience couldn't get up out of their seats. As you do rarely in life, you have that feeling, where you leave a movie theater and, if it's daylight outside, suddenly the texture of everything you see is different. Like a movie that casts its spell, and with no loss of power nearly a hundred years later. So, I can't recommend Make Way for Tomorrow highly enough.
Directed by: Frank Capra | Written by: Robert Riskin
Finally, I'll recommend one that everyone has seen, but I say: See it again.
I was asked to appear in a documentary about Frank Capra last year, so I used the opportunity to rewatch a bunch of his films and see some ones I'd never seen. I'm doing these interviews for The Holdovers right now, and they're saying, 'What Christmas movies do you watch, and which ones do you like?' And I hadn't really conceived of this one as a Christmas movie, but I'm glad other people are. If they watch it every year, I get more residuals, so all good! But of course the one I do watch every year is It's a Wonderful Life. And like It's a Wonderful Life, like a lot of Capra's films, you may have seen it 20 times, but every time you see it somehow is the first time. You don't remember that bit of dialogue, or how rich that character is, or how delicious that actor is, or how this makes you cry. With It's a Wonderful Life, every time, you can never believe just how dark it is and what a kind of brilliant portrait of America it remains.
Of course, everyone knows It Happened One Night was the very first movie to win the perfect quinfecta of Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor, and Best Actress. A feat not realized again until One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, 40 years later. And It Happened One Night put Capra firmly on the map, it put Columbia Studios on the map, and you just can't believe how good it is. It's one of those movies where everything comes together magically, like it does in Casablanca, for example, where all the stars aligned. And for me, It Happened One Night is kind of the American Casablanca of the '30s. It's a perfect movie where everything came together. So, you think you've seen It Happened One Night, you watch it again. Those are my picks.