Howard Hawks Wants To Know

It’s time once again to apply Howard Hawks’ definition of a quality-level film to this year’s Best Picture contenders. A good movie, said Hawks, is one that has “three great scenes and no bad ones.” It shouldn’t be too much to ask that a Best Picture Oscar winner should live up to this, right?

John Wayne and Angie Dickinson conferring with Mr. Hawks on the 1959 set of Rio Bravo.

In my first Hawks criteria piece, I wrote that “great scenes are ones that you can’t forget because they’ve sunk in or hit a solid crack note of some kind. They deliver some kind of bedrock, put-it-in-the-bank observation about life or human behavior or just the way things usually are, and when they’re over you always say to yourself, ‘Wow, that worked.’” So let’s review a few Best Picture contenders and see if they cut the mustard.

Best Picture contender: The Wolf of Wall Street. Three great scenes?: Yes, but more in the realm of over-the-top bravura scenes as Wolf is a dark fantasia of corruption and venality, and not, you know, a straight-from-the-shoulder “drama” in the business of conveying fundamental human truths. The Leonardo DiCaprio-Matthew McConaughey chest-thump lunch scene. The Leo gives a pep talk to the Stratton-Oakmont troops scene (“Pick up the phone”). The Leo chats with the FBI guy (Kyle Chandler) on the yacht scene. The quaalude meltdown scene. The yacht-nearly-sinks-at-sea scene. How many is that? Wolf is one engine-rev scene after another.

Best Picture contender: 12 Years A Slave. Three great scenes?: Seven, I would say. Paul Giamatti‘s slave auctioneer leading various buyers through a house where several naked slaves are waiting for inspection. That silent sex scene in which Chiwetel Ejiofor‘s Solomon Northrup and a slave woman couple wordlessly and instinctually in the dark. Chiwetel delivering beautiful payback to Paul Dano‘s plantation taskmaster, and then Chiwetel being forced to hang all day from a tree branch with a rope around his neck, his feet barely touching the ground enough to keep himself from strangling. Chiwetel running away and coming upon two slaves about be hanged for some infraction. Chiwetel being forced to whip Lupita Nyoong’o‘s slave character. Chiwetel appealing to Brad Pitt‘s Canadian abolitionist to deliver a letter. Chiwetel finally reuniting with his family at the end.

Best Picture contender: Gravity. Three great scenes?: The whole movie delivers greatness in a general sense, but as far as Hawks is concerned I think Alfonso Cuaron‘s film has only two real goodies. The opening seven-plus minutes is certainly legendary from a standpoint of pure visual splendor and the lack of editing. And the following scene when the debris starts hitting and everything goes to hell is also very strong. But I’m not persuaded that the remaining scenes are all that fantastic — they’re just very efficient. Boil Gravity down to basics and it’s a perils-of-Pauline movie, although rendered with high-end technical chops and superb visual panache.

Best Picture contender: Inside Llewyn Davis. Three great scenes?: Seven. Oscar Isaac‘s opening performance of “Hang Me” in the Gaslight. The “takes two to tango” argument scene in Washington Square Park between Isaac and Carey Mulligan. The recording studio performing of “Please Mr. Kennedy” by Isaac, Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver. The “surly commentary from the back seat” scene between Isaac and John Goodman. The “eyeballing the highway exit to Akron, Ohio” scene. Isaac’s Chicago audition scene with F. Murray Abraham. The “where’s the scrotum?” cat scene in the apartment of Isaac’s Upper West Side Columbia University benefactors.

Best Picture contender: Dallas Buyer’s Club. Three great scenes?: At least three. When Matthew McConaughey‘s Ron Woodroof takes offense as the dissing of Jared Leto‘s Rayon by Kevin Rankin‘s T.J. character in the supermarket aisle, and puts him in a headlock and demands that he apologize. That sad scene between Rayon and his rich dad (James DuMont) when Rayon comes asking for money. And the two or three scenes when Woodroff inveighs against the FDA officials and their sweetheart relationships with Big Pharma companies, which we might as well call One Big Scene.

It is now up to the readership to answer how many strong or great scenes there are in Saving Mr. Banks, Nebraska, Her, American Hustle, Captain Phillips and Before Midnight. And of course describe them. Plus any other films you might want to mention.

  • Eric

    It’s Chiwetel.

    • Jeffrey Wells

      If he would just relax and go with Chewy…

    • pizan܍amore

      If anyone is looking for Christmas gift ideas for our host, I found some personalized footwear:

  • Nick Antosca

    Wolf of Wall Street – agree with all the ones you listed. Add Jonah Hill & Jon Bernthal fighting in the parking lot to the list. Add Leo & Margot Robbie fighting and then making up in the nursery to the list.

    12 Years a Slave – Agreed. Add Fassbender taking Ejiofor outside to ask him if he tried to get Armsby to send a letter. Add Alfre Woodard’s scene.

    American Hustle – The nightclub scene where they meet Tallegio. Jennifer Lawrence mentioning the “IRS man” to Jack Huston, then tripping out to “Live & Let Die.” Cooper celebrating the final con.

  • SmaugAlert

    This list is incomplete until Wells sees HOBBIT TWO! Hobbit Two is a great scene from beginning to end.

    • nevalha

      We call that film “Trolling Mr. Wells”.

      • SmaugAlert

        Smaug will have his revenge.

  • Zach

    Re: Gravity – not to detract from your point, but I’m sure those first 7+ minutes required the most intensive editing in the entire film.

    • moviewatcher

      It’s still one scene/section of the film

  • Jeff

    I think its time to let Dallas Buyer’s Club go as a Best Picture contender. It’s fine. Solid to excellent performances. Story seems too predictable in a “we are making an Oscar contender” way without any directorial flourish.

  • Jesse Crall


    The scene with Hedlund’s arrest culminating in the cat making the smallest motion toward Llewyn as he closes the car door is the most cry-in-your-beer moment in the Coen’s whole filmography. I love their work often *because* they take a cynical, unsentimental look at life but that scene and the flick as a whole demonstrates their often latent gift for affecting filmmaking.

    In terms of other great movies this year…MUD’s one of my faves but I feel like it had more in the way of great *moments* as opposed to entire scenes. The kid seeing Spoon in the bar or getting blown off by the older chick was heartbreaking stuff, second-long shots that just devastated.

    BLUE JASMINE had Diceman chewing out Blanchett as she’s trying to hustle her way toward marriage, which was one of the year’s best scenes. Plus, her final breakdown that ends with her disintegrating in the park, Chanel & all was powerful stuff. Her rambling at the airport in the opening and the meeting with Ehrenreich at the Oakland record store were 2 other great scenes and I dug the whole flick.

    With NEBRASKA, lots to choose from. The old farts talking cars “It stopped running” “Yeah, they’ll do that” was classic. June Squibb squawking away at the cemetery should earn her a nod, and the final stretch where Forte lets his old man drive before they switch at the very end was a terrific ending. And even though it’s pretty minor, I LOVED the bit in the electronics store where Forte gets the chick’s name wrong. Such a classic display of haplessness.

    I’ll throw SAVING MR. BANKS a bone because it did have some excellent sections. The little dirt dig between Thompson and Giamatti was earnest and sweet. Farrell’s drunken bank speech was fucking torturous for the right reasons and I happened to love the section in which Hanks visits Thompson in England and talks about his childhood even though some critics are knocking it in their reviews.

    • bastard in a basket

      In Nebraska, don’t forget the brothers stealing the air compressor and it culminating with Squibb’s “they didn’t deserve that” line. One of the funniest scenes I’ve seen in years and for me a reminder of the hysterical scene in Payne’s Sideways when Church gets his wallet back from the waitress culminating in her naked husband running after the car.

      Also, Dern doing the walk through of his childhood home and the ever threatening Keach spilling the beans to Forte about his father’s affair.

      • Jesse Crall

        YES. How could I forget the compressor scene?

    • Brad

      I’ll add Cannavale’s breakdown in the supermarket, the secretary scene and Hanks screaming “about done with that coffee?” to Blanchett at the end,

  • Glenn Kenny

    I wonder if anyone who drags that tired-ass Hawks quote out and makes a religion out of it knows where it’s actually from. Because I’m damned if I can find out.

    • Jeffrey Wells

      If it’s. ” tired-ass,” it might not be valid any more.

      • Glenn Kenny

        As I suspected, it is in Joseph McBride’s great book “Hawks on Hawks.” Which people tend to cite by name when they want to point out what a fabricator Hawks was. Not so much when they want to make a religion out of one of his formulas.

        Interestingly enough, “His Girl Friday,” which I still see as great, even “Great,” has, in my opinion, one bad scene. Anybody wanna guess?

        • brenkilco

          Molly Malloy’s attempted suicide. Out of place in all the versions of Front Page IMHO.

          Not sure Hawk’s notion of a great scene would quite square with Wells. He wasnt talking about set pieces or scenery chewing epiphanies. He meant scenes, and sometimes just small moments, where the characters totally mesh. Who’s Joe?, Was you ever bit by a dead bee?, the horse racing discussion in Big Sleep et al.

          • Glenn Kenny

            Interesting observation. For me it’s Billy Gilbert’s bit, which sticks out like a vaudeville sore thumb in the midst of the movie’s otherwise thrilling modernity.

            Agree that for Hawks a good scene could mean a good moment. Little exchanges of understanding are a big part of what makes “Rio Bravo” so rich.

            • brenkilco

              Gilbert was a pretty broad and burlesquey. Didnt he spend most of his career in comedy shorts? But his exchanges with the irsacible character actor playing the mayor, whose name I don’t recall, are pretty funny.

              We’ll fix everything.

              My wife…..

              Yeah, we’ll fix that too.

  • bastard in a basket

    Just saw Inside Llewlyn Davis. What a beautiful and soulful movie it is. I think you can add to the list Llewlyn playing for his basically catatonic father and Llewlyn heckling that poor old lady. This is one of those movies (like The Master last year) that most people will think is pointless and where the main character does not change at all. But if you look closer, Davis’s journey perhaps provides him with just a touch of self awareness about what kind of impulsive asshole he is and how he is his own worst enemy. I certainly wasn’t expecting the “I love you” to Mulligan at the end. And that last glorious shot of the half smile on Llewlyn face was (for me at least) him telling himself that he deserved it.

  • Brad

    ‘Captain Phillips’. Three Great Scenes? Four. Phillips asking “about done with that coffee?”, Phillips talking about the boxes, the fire drill, Phillips checking the locks. OWNAGE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • bastard in a basket

      For some strange reason Wells doesn’t like Phillips all that much.

  • Ray Quick

    Always kind of a dumb and arbitrary rule that Hawks probably threw out as some snappy bullshit, but people have interpreted as gospel. Most of even the best movies, your favorite movies, have an embarrassing moment or clunker scene. Even GoodFellas has that EMBARRASSING scene with the tacky wives in distorted vision, even Jaws has Robert Shaw saying MY THIRD WIFE TO BEEEEEEEZ or whatever he says that’s hide-under-the-universe cringe-inducing…. even Godfather has some Caan palm-slapping bada-bing hamminess, even the Leone masterpieces have PLENTY of off-putting clunker scenes and bad comedy.

    And most of all, most HAWKS MOVIES have a nonstop parade of cringe-inducing moments when viewed today.

    • TheRealBadHatHarry

      You lose. You don’t get to deem a moment embarrassing if you don’t even know what it’s about. Quint is celebrating his “third wife’s demise” (jokingly pronounced “demeese”) when that big Chinese fella pulled him right over. It’s specific funny and perfect. So to hell with you, I say!

  • moviewatcher

    CAPTAIN PHILLIPS – first pirates assault; “I’m the Captain Now”; the minutes up to the shootout (jumping in the water and letter to family); Shootout and moments immediately afterward (Hanks’ reaction); scene in infirmary

    BLUE JASMINE – Jasmine/Ginger lunch with Chilli/Eddie; Hawkins/Clay scene in the bedroom when they’re both drunk; Blanchett meets Saarsgard; Jasmine/Son scene; Final Scene in the Park

    BEFORE MIDNIGHT – 10 minute shot in the car; “watching the sunset” scene; 20 minute hotel room fight scene; final scene— Okay, basically the entire film is one amazing scene

    BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR – Adele meets Emma; Adele & Emma on park bench; Dinner at Adele/Emma’s place; Emma breaks up with Adele; Adele/Emma at the diner; Adele goes to Emma’s exhibit. This movie is also filled with good/great scenes

  • Max Stephens

    Gravity: Kowalksi’s return and the return to earth.