Oscar Blindspots: The Heartbreak Kid/Lady Sings the Blues

It might be 50 years late, but I’ll be catching up on all the Oscar nominees and winners I have missed from the year 1972 through the month of May

While drastically different films, The Heartbreak Kid and Lady Sings the Blues shows how very different people can go through forms of self-destruction, but in very different ways.

The Heartbreak Kid
Directed by Elaine May

Sporting goods salesman Lenny Cantrow (Charles Grodin) marries Lila Kolodny (Oscar-nominated Jeannie Berlin) after a very short courtship. As they depart on their honeymoon, Lenny becomes annoyed with Lila’s every action. When they reach Miami Beach, Lenny meets the beautiful Kelly Corcoran (Cybil Shepherd). Lenny sneaks away from Lila at every opportunity to spend time with Kelly, much to the consternation of her father (Oscar-nominated Eddie Albert). Just five days into his honeymoon, Lenny thinks he made a mistake.

The brilliance of the film lies in Lenny’s characterization. May and Grodin are on the exact same page with how they want Lenny to come across. He sees himself as the hero, while any sane human sees him as the scumbag that he is. It just adds to the humor when no one else seems to notice this except Kelly’s father. The pair of ladies don’t really do anything wrong. Lila is just being herself but is seen as annoying just because Lenny continually reinforces that notion. Kelly leads Lenny on, but never implies anything. Lenny is the one doing all the pursuing.

Grodin leans into the more detestable aspects of Lenny’s personality, while applying a sheen of respectability. He is so despicable, but never views his abhorrent acts as anything other than following his heart. Berlin is the most outwardly comedic, but she is never doing anything less that what a young newlywed would be doing. She is continually hilarious and put-upon. Shepherd is meant to be a symbol more than a person, but she is the perfect embodiment of that symbol. Albert plays everything straight and quiet, but when he lets loose, it is hilariously vulgar and cutting.

The cringe comedy might be too much to handle, but May has deeper intentions than surface-level humor. If you can stand to watch it, the humor and acting quality is well worth your time.

Lady Sings the Blues
Directed by Sidney J. Furie

Billie Holiday (Oscar-nominated Diana Ross) was a legendary jazz talent. The film chronicles her life from teenager in Baltimore, to a lounge singer in New York city, and to a traveling musician on a grueling bus tour. Supported by her lover Louis McKay (Billy Dee Williams) and the piano man who discovered her (Richard Pryor), Holiday climbs the ranks of musical icons until she is derailed by heroin use.

The film feels like it has the best of intentions, but everything that happens is as paint-by-numbers at it comes. The ups-and-downs of Holiday’s life are unsurprising and unimpressive. There is no deeper context to Holiday’s struggles and the film makes it seem as though she started using heroin because she was just tired all the time.

Ross tries her best, but her lack of polish and experience is evident. Unsurprisingly, she excels when she is performing. Her impression of Holiday’s singing style is impeccable. Unfortunately, a great deal of the film involves her having to act. Williams comes across as a shining knight, but I couldn’t help thinking who this man was in reality. Despite appreciating his performance, the character felt disingenuous.

Running almost two-and-a-half hours, the film drags for long periods, while being staggeringly uninteresting for a film about such a narratively-rich individual. I had my problems with The United States vs. Billie Holiday, but it certainly wasn’t boring. I can’t say the same for Lady Sings the Blues.

Next week: A pair of films walk away with Oscars. A group of people dine together in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and a mother attempts to protect her disabled son in Butterflies are Free

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