Picnic (1955)

picnic

Starring: William Holden, Kim Novak, Rosalind Russell, Susan Strasberg, Betty Field, Cliff Robertson, Arthur O’Connell

Director: Joshua Logan

Summary: A handsome drifter ignites passions at a small-town Labor Day picnic

Other Nominations: Director, Supporting Actor (O’Connell), Dramatic/Comedy Score, Color Art Direction*, Film Editing*

Positives

-The film is excellent on a visual level and it feels distinct for its time. The color is naturalistic yet warm in that signature Technicolor way, but the real star is the outstanding cinematography which inexplicably was not nominated; if it had, James Wong Howe might have won two Oscars that year, as he also won for best B&W cinematography for the next film I’m reviewing.

-I loved the score (which should have easily won over Love is a Many-Splendored Thing), and it reminded me a lot of Aaron Copeland’s wonderful score for Our Town (which also had William Holden)

-Holden is the name and O’Connell got the only nomination, but this is a movie about its women, who give mostly good performances. This was Novak’s breakout performance that led Hitchcock to cast her in Vertigo and while I wouldn’t call her great (either in this or Vertigo), but she gives a solid performance as a young woman who wants to be taken more seriously than just for her looks. I’m surprised Russell wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for her role as an old-maid school teacher trying to hold on to her youth (or a man), but apparently she refused to be nominated for Supporting Actress so that would be the reason. She’s a mostly positive mixed-bag, either hitting the depressing and desperate aspects of her character just right or going over the edge into camp. However, the best performance came from the 17 year-old Strasberg who gives a wonderful performance as the bookish younger sister of Novak who is the reverse of her: someone who’s smart, but wants someone to treat her like a woman. Strasberg was a major up and coming actress at the time, getting lauded for this and her performance next year originating the title role in The Diary of Anne Frank on Broadway. Unfortunately, she didn’t end up doing much as an adult.

Negatives

-The whole movie is an exploration of the themes of age, beauty and a woman’s place relative to men and to society, but it never quite gels. The biggest problem is that all the female characters are superficial and can be quickly summed up: the beauty who sometimes wishes she wasn’t, the brains who wants to be noticed, the old maid, and the mother who doesn’t want her daughter to make the same mistakes she did and go with the safe and reliable monied boyfriend. All of them are sexually frustrated in one way or another, and Holden becomes the (too old at 37) powderkeg that sets off everyone. The movie would have been improved if you had focused on just 2 or 3 of them and had removed Russell and O’Connor’s characters entirely, although that would have required they give those character a little more depth than they did

-I didn’t really like the ending, which as I expected, was changed from the original stage version that won the Pulitzer Prize because they wanted something more upbeat (and much less definitive).

Overall

The screenplay hasn’t held up that well (barring one memorable scene that still feels passionate), but there’s still quite a bit to like about it, especially on a presentation level.

Rating: B-

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