Friday, 1 May 2020

Alternate Best Actor 1983: David Bowie & Tom Conti in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence

David Bowie did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Maj. Jack "Strafer" Celliers nor did Tom Conti for portraying the titular Lt. Col. John Lawrence in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is a more than decent film, though I think it struggles to find a proper denouement, about a WWII POW camp, controlled by a difficult camp commandant, though a damn fine composer.

The film is particularly off-beat in its approach to the POW story-line, as even the central character is shattered. The man you'd assume is the central character is Tom Conti's Lawrence, after-all he is in the title. His role though isn't that of personal discovery but rather personal examination. We have him rather in this way as the facilitator for the camp, due to his speaking Japanese. This largely seen through his interactions with Japanese Sgt. Gengo Hara (Takeshi Kitano). Conti's performance though is striking in portraying basically the part with an earthly understanding of the situation. This as Conti's work exudes the wear of the situation to be sure. This in his whole face just is that of a man who has been in this camp for a lengthy time and more importantly dealing with the sheer insanity of trying to maintain some sort of peace and safety for the British. Conti's work is interesting in the way he is this reactionary lead in a certain sense. Although he takes action, it is deferred based on trying to stay pace within the insanity of his captors. Conti wearing particularly well this careful face of the man, this as his eyes say so much in the man attempting to analyze a given situation careful and gauge each man to attempt to interfere best he can. The opening scene we see this as he tries to negotiate for even the life of a Japanese, who sodomized a prisoner. Conti's expression so well grating the humanity of the concern, but also the wagering of the man in deciphering the violence that may take place from the situation.

This differs greatly from Major Celliers portrayed by David Bowie. Although a musician turned actor is sometimes a dangerous prospective, that was not the case for David Bowie. This as not only did he almost immediately display a knack for it, he also manages to deliver that unique stage charisma and realize onscreen. That transference perhaps only otherwise has been seen in Tom Waits, in terms of offering something particularly idiosyncratic by the mere virtue of the actor's presence. Well that is the case for Bowie, whose casting does not only pay off but quite honestly is essential. This as Bowie delivers that enigmatic quality that quite honestly only Bowie could deliver in this way. This being particularly important given that Celliers's role, is more than just that of an individualistic soldier who shakes up the order of the camp a bit. This as we are introduced as that camp commandant Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto), attends a trial for Celliers who they are attempting to find charges to execute him on. Now in a way on one end Bowie simply delivers the expected swagger of a proper soldier as he stares down his captors in the trial, and speaks of his endeavors as a soldier with a calm reserve. Bowie showing a man in a way in control of himself at least within a situation where he technically is not. There is something more there, as Yonoi seems more than just intrigued by Celliers. This is very much where very much that Bowie in the performance is very much essential. This as Bowie has that sort of magnetism that draws in more than just a vague interest, and the Captain's near entrancement at him, does not seems some out of nowhere idea, why? because it's David Bowie, that's why.

David Bowie manages to find a careful ground within his performance that is rather notable. In that he's not quite ethereal however he is close. This as we take a moment where Celliers fake smokes waiting for his judgment, and Bowie does portray it as just a moment of sort self-joy eccentricity in the man, though such a gesture is all the more fascinating because of that Bowie presence. He however does not portray Celliers as whole detached. When the trial decide to do a fake firing squad as a bit of torture for Celliers, Bowie portrays effectively both the sense of determination not to show fear, while also conveying the sense of fear within the man still as a bit of internalization. He skillfully reveals both and in turn shows Celliers as a man very much of the moment, but there is something about him that makes him seem as though he isn't quite as tangible as the rest of the men. This continues as he is brought within the camp, even though he is responsive to the rest of the men including Conti's Lawrence. Lawrence of course though remains this peculiar figure of negotiator even in this regard. Conti is interesting in the way he plays his own sort of resilience oddly enough even in his haggard expression and exhausted manner. This even when he himself is frequently hit, this as the consistency in Conti's performance, effectively so, is the sense of calm of the man trying to keep the Japanese from killing anyone, but also keeping his own men, particularly the CO Hicksley (Jack Thompson), from spurring more wrath from their captors.

The two men do find some common bond then in their mutual endeavor of a kind of survival. There is a particularly terrific moment where Sgt. Hara comes to visit in the middle of the night to chat with Lawrence and to look upon Celliers. Conti is first wonderful in his scene with Kitano as they strike up an engaging chemistry. This in that Conti plays a certain bemusement at the soldier's belittling of the British army, even as he calmly states the reasons for surrender, but in this state Conti reflects in his eyes just a certain sense of genuine camaraderie. This just as he portrays an earnest sense of humanity in the conversation even if within the conversation they are still at odds. This is a bit different to when Sgt. Hara takes a look at Celliers, to which Celliers comments on Hara's face. Bowie again striking this unique balance in this certain near otherworldly quality of an idiosyncratic appreciation, however speaks the words with this convincing grace. A grace that again I'm not sure many actors could've mustered the way Bowie is able to do through his own idiosyncrasies. We see this interesting dynamic continue between these two men who becomes de-facto leaders of dealing with the Japanese. This includes Celliers having a funeral for a dead soldier, however defiantly saying the flowers for that were in fact for the sake of food. The moment of Bowie eating the food is something special in itself, as he carries again this particularly fascinating sense of defiance, where again we see in his eyes the sense of being above the man he's staring down, but again with that certain intangible quality that makes all the greater impact.

When we see the first confrontation between Celliers and Yonoi, Bowie is terrific in the way we see him brandish his charisma in a way. His eye darting that both creating the sense of reflection that Celliers is aware of the certain hold he has on the captain, but also portray his purposeful brandishing of that sense in an attempt to help the men. These actions though leave both Lawrence and Celliers in prison, in which both actors are excellent in portraying the differing natures of the men even as they reflect on similar thoughts. Conti being wonderful as he grants that sense of regret of what was not taken by him which fits right along within the man defined by basically a dogged exhaustion. This is again Bowie's portrayal of also a regret, however his performance is more internalized in this regard, his eye instead evoking a sense of the man piecing together his own regret. This regret being his betrayal of his hunchbacked brother in primary school where he did nothing to protect him from a mob a ridicule. Bowie's performance wears within that sense of basically a betrayal of duty, as he speaks with what is more refined regret, that positions as almost something that fuels Celliers's determination now. Although both men seem to have created a respite for a moment through their combined actions of negotiation and defiance, it is immediately shattered Hicksley forces Yonoi's hand by questioning the captain decision to make Celliers the CO of the POWs. I love the brief moment of Conti's delivery of disdain and terror as he berates Hicksley, showing the man who sees all his efforts lost in a second notice. This leading the climactic moment of the film, where Yonoi is about to execute Hicksley and Celliers takes action. Bowie is amazing in this scene, as even the way he moves across the field has this power to it, as we again see the man field a force of himself, as he saves the CO, by directly kissing Yonoi, essentially sacrificing himself and destroying the captain in  the same act. In this moment we get Bowie again using that presence of his honestly as a weapon, that makes this such a powerful moment, but he also grants the needed sense of the man acting with that conviction to attempt to deal with his former failure. The film then quickly wraps up, however we are left with a final epilogue where Lawrence visits an about to be executed Hara after the war is over. Although I think the scene itself in its thematic message isn't quite earned, the sentiment of it is all well created by the actors. Conti delivers on the sense of that former camaraderie to the man, now more openly shown, and so powerfully grants the sense of sympathy in Lawrence for his former captor. It is a poignant moment, as the performances create such a beautiful sense of the human connection between the two men formerly at war with one another. Although I again have reservations within the film, these two performances exemplify the best qualities of the film. Conti in his honest depiction of a man just trying to help everyone survive, and Bowie making the most of his onscreen abilities, to craft a wholly unique presence essential for the idiosyncratic dynamic at the center of the film.


Luke Higham said...

Louis: Ratings and thoughts on the cast.

And have you re-watched Reuben, Reuben yet for Conti.

I hope Krabbe's the final review.

Luke Higham said...

And thoughts on the score.

Lucas Saavedra said...

Louis: would you consider putting the ratings next to each actor like you did in the 2018 and 2019 rankings in the other years?

Luke Higham said...

Louis: Would you consider doing a write-up of Bowie's work in The Prestige.

Michael McCarthy said...

Something about the image of David Bowie eating a flower just feels right.

Calvin Law said...

Alright this is the most I’ve disagreed with you in some time Lous as I disagree COMPLETELY on the ending. It’s one of my favourite endings of the 80s actually and I feel like it built to it perfectly. But I guess we shall agree to disagree. And Bowie is a fairly easy 5 for me.

Really hope you’re saving Kitano despite your reservations with the film. Glad you loved the score anyway.

Louis Morgan said...


Sakamoto - 2.5(Well I guess I'm lowest on him here, but I have to agree with Sakamoto himself, he's not a very good actor. Although I'll have nothing but praise to his other contribution in a moment, I'll say I can see why he didn't have much of acting career otherwise like Bowie (who I wished honestly acted even more) or Takeshi Kitano who made the transition from comedian to dramatic. This isn't about his English either, it makes sense for his character not to speak it all that well, that is logical. Although I won't go as far as Sakamoto who thought he was terrible. Sakamoto's performance just doesn't capture the power or potential of the role. He's fine in doing sort of the sense of innate intensity, he doesn't real find nuance or power within that alone. The unsaid relationship between himself and Celliers I think was meant to have a far greater impact, however it doesn't in my mind because Sakamoto's work is so much on the surface, without granting a greater complexity to the conflict of the man essentially in love with another men, but also so connected to the code of Bushido. It's a fascinating role, but Sakamoto's own performance became an afterthought to me, being overshadowed by Lawrence/Hara relationship more than I think was intended.)

Thompson - 3(His role is pretty thankless however he does a good job in portraying the fierce foolishness of his character combined with though the right sense of genuine conviction. I like how while he shows the man is an idiot, he does portray in his final scene that his heart is technically is with his men.)

The score is quite frankly one of the best scores never nominated for an Oscar. Sakamoto's work once again, which he did so later so artfully with the Last Emperor, just is so soulful. His melodies here are just so beautiful, particular the main theme, which is just gorgeous in how it manages to be both beautiful yet so somber at the same time. I even loved the use of synthesizer, which often can be dated, however here I felt Sakamoto realized his score incredibly with here. This in granting a unique sound to the score, that managed to not at all seem out of place, and even more so just seem so well suited to the film's setting and themes.

Yes I love writing about Bowie's performances. I have to say it is such a colossal shame we didn't get his Wallace in Blade Runner 2049, as he would've perfect for the role.


No, I'm too lazy.


My specific reservation is with "Men who are right" line, as I don't think moral relativism works in most contexts with World War II, most wars yes...World War II, no.

Tim said...

what are everyone's favorite one-scene-wonder Performances? Like one or two Scenes, but still managing to be the part that sticks with you the most.
For me it would probably be Vanessa Redgrave in Atonement.

Calvin Law said...

Louis: that’s fair I suppose. I still think the scene works on the much smaller scale of just two individuals talking but I can see why you might have taken issue with the greater platitudes. Also disagree on Sakamoto to an extent, I thought he had a few iffy moments but he made the impactful moments hit hard for me.

Tim: Robert Duvall in To Kill a Mockingbird.

houndtang said...

Walken in Pump Fiction?

Calvin Law said...

Also what kind film would you have liked to have seen Bowie and Waits do together? A weird surreal but oddly touching buddy comedy by Jarmusch would be my shout. Also your thoughts on this modern day Mr Lawrence directed by Koreeda?

Celliers: Robert Pattinson
Lawrence: Josh O’Connor
Yonoi: Tadanobu Asano
Hara: Yōsuke Kubozuka

Bryan L. said...

Tim: Donald Sutherland in JFK, aka the best exposition scene ever.

Mitchell Murray said...

Tim: I would definitely include the likes of William Hurt in "A History of Violence" and Jackie Gleason in "The Hustler".

Bryan L. said...

Louis: Your cast and director for...

70s Winters Bone
50s The Killer Inside Me
80s Super Eight

Louis Morgan said...


Those who have already been mentioned and here are the few usual suspects:

Tsutomu Yamazaki - High and Low (Sorta)
Dean Stockwell - Blue Velvet
John Carroll Lynch - Zodiac
Montgomery Clift - Judgment Nuremburg
Alec Baldwin - Glengarry Glen Ross
Matthew McConaughey - The Wolf of Wall Street
Alec Guinness - Scrooge
Harry Dean Stanton - The Straight Story/The Last Temptation of Christ
Alfred Molina - Boogie Nights
Harvey Keitel - Pulp Fiction
Christopher Walken - True Romance/Pennies From Heaven

And some more obscure ones:

Aldo Guiffre - The Good The Bad and The Ugly
James Gandolfini - True Romance (An unsung performance from that film)
Tom Skerritt - Lucky
Lance Henriksen - Dog Day Afternoon
Gene Jones - No Country For Old Men
Charles Fleischer - Zodiac
Jimmi Simpson - Zodiac
John Hurt - The Proposition
Sam Waterston - Nixon
Ed Wynn - The Great Man
Ed Harris - Snowpiercer
Liam Cunningham - Hunger
Roberts Blossom - The Great Gatsby
Ralph Foody - Home Alone (Leave on the doorstep and get out)

To name a few...went overboard but I love one scene wonders


I do think it works on the individual level, just the platitude felt dishonest from a character who was routinely beaten by the other guy to say "Hey we're all the same".

That sounds like it would've been ideal for Bowie and Waits. The former who it is a shame didn't act more, and filmmakers need to try to get Waits in as many roles as possible....who just might fall into "can do no wrong" category.

Louis Morgan said...


Regarding the cast, I'd say go older for Lawrence, as I think the character should be a bit world weary. Pattinson's ideal, I'd swap Asano and Kubozuka though.


70s Winters Bone directed by John Huston:

Ree Dolly: Anjelica Huston
Teardrop: Harry Dean Stanton
Merab: Shelley Winters
Sheriff Baskin: Albert Salmin

50s The Killer Inside Me directed by Stanley Kubrick:

Lou Ford: Robert Mitchum
Joyce Lakeland: Gloria Grahame
Amy Stanton: Jane Greer

80s Super Eight...why pre-make that hack fest...even in my imagination...I've come to conclusion my feelings towards that terrible actor in Six Degrees of Separation in my review of Justin Theroux in Mulholland Drive were not harsh enough.

Bryan L. said...

Louis: Oops...fair enough. 80s cast and director for Sorry to Bother You, then?

Louis Morgan said...


Sorry to Bother You 1980's directed by Robert Townsend:

Cash Green: Robert Townsend
Detroit: Angela Bassett
Salvador: Damon Wayans
Mr....: Mario van Peebles
Sergio Green: Jim Brown
Langston: Ossie Davis
Squeeze: Dennis Dun
Steve Lift: Jeff Goldblum
White Voice 1: Robin Williams
White Voice 2: Rick Moranis
White Voice 3: Catherine O'Hara

Emi Grant said...

Tim: To add to those mentioned, Beatrice Straight in Network

Tahmeed Chowdhury said...

Louis: Your thoughts on retroscripting in film and television? I've always found it rather fascinating that it was used in Curb Your Enthusiasm and American Hustle, yet it was so much more effective in the former.

Louis Morgan said...


Although a viable form when done correctly it's something that I would say has its limitations. Mike Leigh, which isn't true retro scripting given the improvisation is done before filming, for example is an effective one in that it can create frankly scenes/interactions you probably wouldn't see in a script, same thing when used by Altman, though he typically had a script to begin with and would allow improvisation as well. Again though both make specific types of films, and when they move out of that, they are typically more scripted. It requires though immense talent on the part of who is improvising, hence why Christopher Guest films keep largely the same players, and even that isn't foolproof. The same with Curb Your Enthusiasm, which an episode's success is often built upon who David is riffing with. I'll say though to me the height of Curb, doesn't reach the heights of the scripted Seinfeld. Again as the comedy has to be largely in the dialogue, creating more limitations. In something like American Hustle, it shows how it can go wrong, as it just makes the whole thing seem like a mess, because plot/character development are lost on nonsense improvisation. So when used well it can be great, however definitely a limited technique I think, and one that rarely bests more refined screenplay, that maybe allow for some improvisation.

Michael Patison said...

Louis: I assume you’re talking about Abrams. I’ve always thought he’d have been better suited to be the sort of “story by” guy, and limited to TV. What are your thoughts on the idea?

Felicity and Alias are truly great shows. Lost, despite its hype, lags a bit in the middle for me.


Hey guys (except Louis)! Tell me your Top 10 best supporting actress and lead actress from 1983 ...

1º Susan Sarandon - The Hunger
2º Melinda Dillon - A Christmas Story
3º Brooke Adams - The Dead Zone
4º Debbie Harry - Videodrome
5º Cher - Silkwood
6º Rosemary Harris - The Ploughman's Lunch
7º Meg Tilly - The Big Chill
8º Jamie Lee Curtis - Trading Places
9º Joanna Pacula - Gorky Park
10º Michelle Pfeiffer - Scarface

1º Sandrine Bonnaire - To Our Loves / À Nos Amours
2º Fanny Ardant - Confidentially Yours
3º Catherine Deneuve - The Hunger
4º Julie Walters - Educating Rita
5º Meryl Streep - Silwood
6º Sondra Locke - Sudden Impact
7º Renée Soutendijk - The 4th Man
8º Jill Clayburgh - Hanna K
9º Jane Alexander - Testament
10º Bonnie Bedelia - Heart Like a Wheel

And you?

Louis Morgan said...

Michael Patison:

Well I haven't seen his shows so I can't speak to that, however his film writing endeavors are quite poor and his story ideas are possibly worse. Regarding Henry "I saw Knife in the Head, but I'll remove everything interesting about it" Armageddon (does more need to be said), Super 8 "It's sorta ET and Close Encounters, but remove anything interesting", The Force Awaken "It's Star Wars, again" and last and least The Rise Skywalker "Who cares lets just have STUFFFF happen".

Mission Impossible III is okay I guess.

Matt Mustin said...

I'd add Mickey Rourke in The Pledge to the list of great, unsung, one-scene wonders. He kinda steals the whole film for me.

Robert MacFarlane said...

Mission Impossible 3 was the worst of them, though! Or at least his worst-directed, that film is visually appalling. I guess it does have the benefit of Philip Seynour Hoffman after the scorched-Earth disaster of Dougray Scott (if I ever feel particularly cruel, I’m requesting that performance one day), but it’s so incompetently made that it boggles the mind that it’s even part of the same series as the rest. At least De Palma and Woo had their own stamp, quality aside (I actually like MI1 well enough).

Louis Morgan said...


Well I was referring to its writing...not that I'd qualify that aspect as anything special. I'd agree fully regarding the visuals of the film.

Bryan L. said...

Louis: Your thoughts on the direction and screenplay for The Right Stuff? Although the film actually did pretty well at the Oscars, I wish they had also recognized it in both of those categories as well, because it’s quite the accomplishment.

Anonymous said...

Louis: What are your top ten favorite Oscar wins (across all categories), just in terms of their being completely deserved/unexpected?

Tahmeed Chowdhury said...

Anonymous: 10 of my favorite decisions are-

Parasite- Best Picture
Kevin Kline- Best Supporting Actor
Heath Ledger- Best Supporting Actor
Braveheart- Best Picture
Spirited Away- Best Animated Film
Bong Joon-Ho- Best Director
Eminem- Best Original Song
Roger Deakins- Best Cinematography
Ennio Morricone- Best Original Score
The Social Network- Best Adapted Screenplay

Louis Morgan said...


Philip Kaufman's snub in the category is one of the most egregious around. I mean the sheer magnitude of the work alone should've easily placed him over the actual eventual winner...and probably would today, but alas...lazy best director winner choices were the norm of the day. Kaufman's work though is incredible because of how effortless it is. This in terms of grasping all that there is in the film in terms of the characters, the scope of the story, and the incredible visual effects (which is also a snub that is truly mind-boggling). All of that just is seamless by Kaufman. Although his work is amazing in the way he manages the tone of the film, that in turn makes it compelling throughout, a film I've heard some complain about its length however I think that is only based on that it is long, this as it moves so well, and there isn't a second I would cut from it. This as Kaufman in a way effectively switches the type of film he is making seamlessly. This as our "cold" open he grants a mythic quality of the maverick in the segment devoted to Yeager. How he shoots it is grand, with the colors at their most evocative and ethereal. After the sound barrier is broken he grounds it quite literally towards a brilliant satire of almost the commercialization of that same endeavor as we follow Mercury crew and the space race, with the right tongue in cheek mania. From there again though finds a more inspirational tone effectively as they do accomplish great things. Kaufman finds a natural segue in segment to create a naturally engrossing, yet also always dynamic portrayal of history. The history Kuafman makes inspiring, information, wondrous but also very funny.

Now how Kaufman was double snubbed is beyond me, as his screenplay is also brilliant, who is that he upset? Anyway Kaufman's screenplay is true greatness in that he manages to take such a sprawling story and turn it into a cohesive, compelling and rich narrative. The story never dictates the whole, this finding such a brilliant balance in developing each of the men who have the titular stuff, while also so well detailing that "stuff' that they have to go through to achieve greatness. Although his direction took it to the next level, the idea within the screenplay is the essential one as we see a story that is almost hypocritical it would seem, yet Kaufman's writing delivers this. This is as it is both grand in scale yet personal in how it develops each person. It is both sincere in showing the real achievements within the narrative, yet satirical in how it analyzes all the nonsense around it.

Louis Morgan said...


Well those are two different things in a sense. So in terms of the unexpected:

William Hurt - Kiss of the Spider Woman
Bong Joon-ho - Best Director
Kevin Kline - Best Supporting Actor
Olivia Colman - Best Actress
Chariots of Fire - Best Picture
Marisa Tomei - Best Supporting Actress
Whiplash - Best Editing
Adrien Brody - Best Actor
Divorce, Italian Style - Best Original Screenplay
The Lives of Others - Best Foreign Language Film