April 21, 2021

Sounding the Oscars from Riz Ahmed to Susan Hayward

By Stuart Mitchner

Describing the long strange trip behind the making of Best Picture nominee Sound of Metal, director Darius Marder tells screendaily.com, “Hollywood didn’t want to hear about two things — heavy metal and deaf people. Hollywood loves to pat itself on the back for representing this, that, or the other, but when you’re trying to do it, man, it got no love. It was the end of a conversation before it even began.”

Seventy-six years ago, after seeing a rough cut of Johnny Belinda, Warner Bros. boss Jack Warner reportedly told  the film’s director, Jean Negulesco, “We invented talking pictures, and you make a picture about a deaf and dumb girl!’’ The girl was played by Jane Wyman, whose Best Actress Oscar was among 12 Academy Award nominations Warner was referring to when he phoned Negulesco afterward and said, “Well, kid, we did it again! Next time we do a picture we’re gonna get fourteen nominations!”  As Neguelsco points out in The Celluloid Muse: Hollywood Directors Speak, this cozy familial  “we” came in spite of the fact that Warner had fired the director when he was about to shoot the film’s last scene.

Extending the Ending

Sound of Metal is the only film among this year’s nominees I wish I could have seen in a theater. The last scene channels the “this-is-the-way-the-world-ends” last stanza of T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” except for ending not with a whimper but with the distorted cacophony of a church tower bell beating out the hour. A cinematic experience that began with a crash-bang full-force fury of heavy-metal drumming ends with the drummer, Ruben Stone (Riz Ahmed) sitting on a bench listening to the dissonant fragments of a world of shattered sound, in which the bell in the tower he’s glaring at delivers one slow soggy heavy blow after another, splash-bang-crash, splash-bang-crash, as if the bell ringer were producing a sick-joke mockery of Ruben’s former occupation. You’re watching with him, in his head, when he puts an end to the charade by detaching himself from the super expensive cochlear implants, plunging himself, his surroundings, and the film into silence.

This is an ending that belongs in a theater. It needs to resonate; it’s too large for a living room. And how would an audience of in-the-moment witnesses react to the film’s protagonist taking matters into his own hands and shutting off the sound? After being shocked, disabled, humbled, enlightened, confused, and challenged by the storyline, Ruben takes full possession of the film, it’s all his now, as he makes the final move. The audience knows he’s got another life waiting in America, a community, and a culture, and it’s likely that as the significance of the moment sinks in, there would have been applause, perhaps cheers.

Since Oscar-savvy Amazon Studios did not release Sound of Metal (2019) until November 2020, half a year after the pandemic shut down theaters, chances are you will never know how it feels to walk directly from the film into the outside world with all its sounds and sights and with your senses stirred and your perceptions heightened. Referring to the psychic impact of the pandemic, Ahmed told the Washington Post, “For me, actually, it’s a journey that’s very similar to the one that Ruben goes on — Ruben and our society, both workaholics suddenly sent into lockdown, a kind of purgatory, by a health crisis that forces them to reassess what really matters, and who they are, and what gives them worth.”

“I Want To Live”

My wife and I were sitting on the sofa in what we call the TV Room when Ruben muted the world. Given the loss of theatrical space, the impact was seriously diminished; even so, we agreed it was a strong film, well worth seeing, etc. etc. Promising Young Woman, another Oscar nominee we’d seen a night or two before, had inspired a less subdued response (Do you believe it? Are they kidding? She’s great but what a mess! etc. etc.). As for Mank, The Trial of the Chicago 7, and Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, among other candidates for the top award, we’d have probably agreed on a score somewhere in the mid-70s on the Metacritic scale, with only Nomadland topping 80. For better or worse, any one of those films would have had additional impact if seen in the theater.

Meanwhile, I was thinking of a film that had an ending like Sound of Metal — a character with a hearing aid turns it off, reacting to something that just happened, like saying, “That’s enough. I don’t want to hear any more of this noise.”

Closing my eyes, I could almost see it: cars in a parking lot, honking, a chaotic scene, something that never should have happened had happened, a circus atmosphere, some great injustice, shades of USA 2021, only this was the mid-1950s, the building in the background was San Quentin, yes, and the film was I Want To Live; a woman had just been put to death in the gas chamber after being teased by a series of last minute calls rejecting clemency. The man with the hearing aid was the reporter who fanned the flames of outrage consuming the condemned woman before coming over to her side. He had just been handed a message from Barbara Graham thanking him for his help. You hear her voice as he reads it, so that the last words of the film are Susan Hayward’s. The cars keep honking, the reporter turns off his hearing aid, shutting out the world.

I had to talk my wife into seeing the film again. She was sure she remembered it too well. The TCM print was brilliant. So was Hayward’s Oscar-winning performance, and Robert Wise’s direction, and the state of the art film noir cinematography, and the gas chamber sequence, every detail cinematically flawless, beyond documentary, beyond the term biopic, and beyond most of this year’s nominees, including Sound of Metal. This was filmmaking on another level.

Containing Multitudes

Speaking of higher levels, Hayward’s performance is worthy of Whitman’s line, recently reprised by Bob Dylan, as in she “contains multitudes.” At the time I saw the film, at 19, she was one of my favorite actresses, which is only a classier way of saying I had a post-adolescent crush on her. She was sexy, spirited, funny, and cool. You get a sense of the range she was covering in I Want To Live from producer Walter Wanger’s description of Barbara Graham, as quoted in an August 1958 Los Angeles Examiner interview: “She was a bright girl, a stupid girl, a sexually attractive girl, a feminine girl. She had a wonderful heart. She was also a pathological liar. She had good taste in books and music. She was a good mother and, sometimes, not a good mother. She had a sense of humor that never left her to her dying moments.” I found the quote in Dennis Bingham’s excellent essay on the film, wherein he gives examples of Hayward as Graham, a part she plays with “self-conscious panache … at various times the heroine in distress” and “the tough woman who won’t let hostile men touch her, who won’t break down during a police ‘third degree,’ who insists on her way in the most institutional circumstances, playing jazz and wearing negligees in prison, simply to keep her own identity.” And don’t forget her little boy’s stuffed tiger, which she has close at hand almost to the gas chamber.

What Movies Can Do

All I know is that when I first saw the film I just sat there  while the theater emptied. I was devastated, I couldn’t move, and when I managed to walk out of the building, I experienced something like what I tried to envision for audiences exiting Sound of Metal. The Monroe County courthouse in Bloomington, Indiana, became a temporary adjunct of San Quentin, the cars going along and around the courthouse square like the detestable vehicles condemned to silence when the reporter turned off  his hearing aid. As I walked myself back to life again, “rounding the Square” as my friends and I used to say of that epitome of midwestern boredom, I began to see the familiar scene with the eyes of a survivor. Everything looked almost absurdly brilliant, really as if the power of cinema had magically rewritten history bringing a last-minute reprieve. This was what movies did, and when I turned on the television a few months later on Oscar night, there was Susan Hayward smiling and holding the statuette high, like Barbara Graham holding her child’s stuffed tiger in sweet spirited defiance of her fate.