Six pictures into his filmmaking career, and Alexander Payne is establishing himself as one of Hollywood’s finest writer/directors. Of course, he didn’t write Nebraska, his latest Oscar-nominated road-trip movie, but it’s a Payne film from start to finish, infused with his offbeat comic sensibility, shot through with the wry poignancy that’s become his trademark, and beautifully acted. As commentators are fond of mentioning, Payne’s sensitive direction has helped guide seven of his cast members to acting nods at the Oscars, a fact guaranteed to elicit a warmer response than questions about Nebraska’s monochrome look. “What’s not fun is talking about ‘Why black and white?’,” he reflects when Empire calls him at his home in Omaha, “because I’ve answered that 500,000 times. But with an open heart, I’m very grateful for the interest in my movies.” Steering dramatically away from the subject, we asked him to recommend six films closely related to his Best Picture nominee as Nebraska heads to DVD and Blu-ray.
Middle Age Crazy (1980) / Drive, He Said (1971)
"I’ll just avoid the obvious Bruce Dern performances, like The Cowboys and Coming Home and The King Of Marvin Gardens, and mention a low-budget Canadian film called Middle Age Crazy. The title says it all: a fellow feels he’s wearing a cast-iron suit, does some things both wise and unwise to break free, involving that old cliché, the new car. I hadn’t since it since college, but I always remember it as a very good performance from Bruce. It’s got super-hot Ann Margret in it. An even better one was the first film directed by Jack Nicholson which was called Drive, He Said, in which Bruce plays an obsessed basketball coach. He’s great in that. It’s a lovely, strange film. Did I chat with him on the Nebraska set about this era? Not only did I get the chance to chat to Bruce, but he never stops chatting! He is a constant fount of anecdotes and reminiscences from his career. He had a big old time at the Oscars too.
The Spider’s Stratagem (1970)
“May people would say The Conformist for cinematography, production design and costume design, but they might not have seen the previous (Vittorio) Storaro / (Bernardo) Bertolucci collaboration, a wonderful film based on a Borges story called The Spider’s Stratagem. That’s a lovely film. Speaking of beautiful cinematography and that magical collaboration between Bertolucci and Storaro, I don’t think enough people have seen Luna. It was underseen and underappreciated when it came out in 1979. It was about a mother having an affair with her son which raised some eyebrows at the time, and that controversy overshadowed the film’s many pleasures, chief among which was visual. It evokes a wonderful, beautiful mood. What I look for in cinematography is the evocation of mood or time. Putting time in a bottle. Great cinematographers make their directors better: Gordon Willis taught Woody Allen how to make a film.
Crimes And Misdemeanors (1989)
“If the family is mature and thoughtful, 1987’s Babette’s Feast by the late Gabriel Axel is a supremely beautiful and terribly moving film. It won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film and it’s a wonderful family film. If you ask a 50 year-old guy what he watches with his family, well, I recently watched Woody Allen’s Crimes And Misdemeanors with my mother. That’s in Woody Allen’s top five. I remember when it came out, the Martin Landau story was startling and fantastic and we’d say to each other, ‘Why does Woody Allen put himself in his films? Just tell a fucking story!”. But watching it again I was much more forgiving to the [comic plotline]. Alan Alda is wonderful in it. Even if you’ve seen Crimes And Misdemeanors, see it again. That’s the thing about movies: you can watch them again as anew and appreciate them again from a new aspect. Old movies acquire a very loveable patina of “look at this wonderful older film that has quality that we don’t see much anymore”.
Paper Moon (1973)
“I watch (Peter) Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon once a year. It’s timeless, it’s a classic, and, for me, it’s Bogdanovich’s finest film. The situation is delicious: it’s as though they were still making ‘30s movies in the ‘70s, as if Frank Capra was making a movie in that era. It’s brilliantly cast too. (Nine year-old) Tatum O’Neal is exactly the right age: had she been six months older or six months younger, it wouldn’t have been the same. You see her smoking and you see her almost falling off a car as it comes round a bend perilously, neither of which you could get away with today. And the highlight for me is the performance of Madeline Kahn, who speaks, in my opinion, one of cinema’s greatest lines of dialogue: ‘So how 'bout it, honey? Just for a little while, let old Trixie sit up front with her big tits.”
Il Sorpasso (1962)
“I’m not a fan of road trip movies but there are two I like. Firstly, Il Sorpasso, Dino Risi’s film with (Vittorio) Gassman and Jean-Louis Trintignant, which has recently been restored. That’s a wonderful film and something of an influence on Sideways. Also, and I don’t know if new generations are appreciating this fine film, but Withnail And I.
Seduced And Abandoned (1964)
“My unheralded comedy – and it’s heralded in some quarters – is Seduced And Abandoned, ‘Sedotta E Abbandonata’, by Pietro Germi. All I can say is that it’s just the funniest movie in the world. It’s bristling with comic idea, both in terms of embroidery of characters and the way it’s shot. People may be more familiar with Germi’s Divorce Italian Style, but I feel that this is the superior comedy. It’s a comedy of social mores, of habits. It takes place in Sicily and it completely makes fun of Sicilians. [It’s perfect] just for the casting. If you were to make this movie today, could you find that same calibre of comic actors? In much the same as if you wanted to make The Wild Bunch, could you cast it? We don’t have Robert Ryan and Ernest Borgnine and William Holden and L. Q. Jones. We don’t have those grizzly stars. Films are prisoners or beneficiaries of the moment they were made, and Seduced And Abandoned really bears that out.
Nebraska is out on Blu-ray, DVD and digital HD now