TIME movies

D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation 100 Years Later: Still Great, Still Shameful

The Birth Of A Nation
Movie Poster Image Art / Getty Images A poster for D.W. Griffith's 1915 drama 'The Birth of a Nation'.

The most popular and notorious film of the silent era reaches its centenary with its cinematic splendor and racial notoriety intact

At earlier screenings in Los Angeles it was called The Clansman, after the Thomas Dixon Jr. novel and play on which it was based. But David Wark Griffith must have realized that his film deserved a grander title. For its New York premiere on Mar. 3, 1915, exactly a hundred years ago, he renamed it The Birth of a Nation.

Released on the 50th anniversary of the last full month of the Civil War, Griffith’s monument became a groundbreaking popular, technical and critical success. Produced for $100,000 and charging a top price of $2 (when tickets to most movies cost a dime), Birth was the seminal blockbuster of the silent-film period, and the most widely seen of all motion pictures until it was eclipsed by another Civil War epic, Gone With the Wind, in 1939. Griffith’s film is estimated to have earned $18 million in its first few years — the astounding equivalent of $1.8 billion today. In current dollars, only Avatar and Titanic have earned more worldwide.

In its bold editing and composition of shots, in its contrast of intimate scenes with spectacular battles and a final thrilling chase, The Birth of a Nation was the culmination of six years of pioneering artistry by Griffith, the would-be novelist who at first thought he was slumming when he began working in the movies in 1908, but who established, in the hundreds of one- and two-reelers he directed, a cinematic textbook, a fully formed visual language, for the generations that followed. More than anyone else — more than all others combined — he invented the film art. He brought it to fruition in The Birth of a Nation, an enormous risk that he embarked on without a real script, and using just one camera manned by his invaluable cinematographer, G.W. “Billy” Bitzer.

On Griffith’s death in 1948, TIME critic James Agee synopsized the achievement of the man who made movies move:

Before he walked on the set, motion pictures had been, in actuality, static. At a respectful distance, the camera snapped a series of whole scenes, clustered in the groupings of the stage play. Griffith broke up the pose. He rammed his camera into the middle of the action. He took closeups, crosscuts, angle shots and dissolves. His camera was alive, picking off shots; then he built the shots into sequences, the sequences into tense, swift narrative. For the first time the movies had a man who realized that, while a theater audience listened, a movie audience watched. “Above all. . . I am trying to make you see,” Griffith said.

(Read TIME’s Aug. 1948 remembrance of D.W. Griffith, here in the archives: Last Dissolve)

In The Birth of a Nation Griffith made audiences see the Civil War through his eyes — the eyes of the son of a Colonel in the Army of the Confederacy. The potent drama of the movie’s subject and method stirred President Woodrow Wilson to say, “It is like writing history with lightning; my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”

Or truly terrible. The most ambitious and powerful film of its time was also the most controversial, indeed notorious. The rhetorical fire it kindled makes recent arguments over the validity of such Oscar-nominated films as Selma and American Sniper seem like the most decorous debates in the Red Hat Society — for The Birth of a Nation not only was about the country’s history, it changed it, unarguably for the worse.

Like many popular films of the next 40 years, Birth took the side of the South in its depiction of the Civil War. It saw the antebellum South as a paradise of Anglo gentility, and the Reconstruction Era as the crushing of that dream. At heart a Romeo-and-Juliet story extended to gargantuan proportions, the movie focuses on two families, the Northern Stonemans and the Southern Camerons, whose eldest sons fall in love with girls from the other family. Though the Civil War places the young men on opposing sides, they retain respect for their old friends — Ben Stoneman (Henry B. Walthall) stops mid-battle to comfort a wounded Cameron — and love for their ladies.

So far, so predictable. The Birth of a Nation occupies a view of the South not far from Scarlett O’Hara’s in Gone With the Wind; and modern audiences have to wrestle with that beloved movie’s romanticizing of racism. But Griffith’s film went further, lower. Taking its cue from Dixon, whom film historian Russell Merritt aptly describes as a “professional southerner and white supremacist,” Birth revels in the coarsest racial imagery: of crude Negroes (most of them played by white actors in blackface) who act like savages both in the Reconstruction Senate, as they deprive the white gentry of their rights, and in their sexual brutality toward Southern white women.

It is romantic chivalry, Griffith insists, that led to Southerners’ retaliations against Negroes. A rapacious black man stalks a young white woman until, to protect her virginity, she leaps off a cliff to her death. To avenge such indignities and defend the honor of white womanhood, Ben Stoneman and his noble fellows give birth to the Ku Klux Klan (who in the film’s climax, gallop to the rescue to the music of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”). That racist realm, not the restored United States, is the true Nation of the film’s title: the land of lynchings, voter suppression and second-class citizenship for Southern blacks.

The seductive artistry of Griffith’s masterwork made his virulent, derisive depiction of blacks all the more toxic — one could say epidemic. This was not simply a racist film; it was one whose brilliant storytelling technique lent plausibility and poignancy to the notion of blacks as stupid, venal and brutal. Viewers could believe that what they saw was true historically and emotionally. Birth not only taught moviegoers how to react to film narrative but what to think about blacks — and, in the climactic ride of hooded horsemen to avenge their honor, what to do to them. The movie provoked protests and riots in Northern cities with large black minorities. And by stirring bitter memories in the white South, it helped revive the dormant Ku Klux Klan, which for the next few decades went on a righteous spree of killing black men.

In a 1930 conversation with actor Walter Huston (then starring in Griffith’s first talking picture, Abraham Lincoln) for the rerelease of The Birth of a Nation, the director argued that the Ku Klux Klan, riding like the cavalry to the rescue of the South from rapacious Negroes, “at that time was needed to serve the purpose.”

However myopic that sounds today, Griffith wasn’t alone in his sentiments. He had Huston read a passage by Wilson, positing that the purpose of Reconstruction was “to put the white South under the heel of the black South,” under black officeholders “who knew none of the uses of authority except its insolences…. The white men were roused by an instinct of mere self-preservation, until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South to protect the Southern country.” Bilge, all of it, and sadder still that it comes from a Southerner who was a noted historian and the head of Princeton University before becoming President. But it shows that a racist view of American history was near the norm in “civilized” society a hundred years ago, and for decades thereafter.

Yet The Birth of a Nation is nearly as antiwar as it is antiblack. The Civil War scenes, which consume only 30 minutes of the extravaganza, emphasize not the national glory but the human cost of combat. “On the battlefield,” announces one of the film’s intertitles, “War claims its bitter, useless sacrifice.” For all the spectacular panoramas of the battle footage, its explosions and ragged processions of soldiers, the most impressive and startling moments are the more intimate views of the battle’s end. “War’s peace,” reads another intertitle, and we are shown a tableau of a half-dozen dead soldiers, as if taking a restorative rest after their fatal labor. These images have the impact of defiant art: Goya’s Disasters of War or Picasso’s Guernica. Griffith may have been a racist politically, but his refusal to find uplift in the South’s war against the Union — and, implicitly, in any war at all — reveals him as a cinematic humanist.

Stung by attacks on Birth, Griffith made an even more ambitious film, Intolerance. Cutting among four stories in four periods of world history, from Babylonian times to the present, Intolerance made a plea for universal brotherhood (not specifically including Americans of color). In 1919 he directed Broken Blossoms, an early interracial love story (but involving a man who was Chinese, not black). But he never could erase the stain that Birth left on the body politic. By the time talking pictures replaced the silents in 1930, Griffith the innovator was Griffith the anachronism. As Agee wrote:

“Charlie Chaplin said, ‘The whole industry owes its existence to him.’ Yet of late years he could not find a job in the town he had invented. He clung to the shadows, a bald, eaglebeaked man, sardonic and alone. At parties, he sat drinking quietly, his sharp eyes panning the room for a glimpse of familiar faces, most of them long gone. David Wark Griffith had been The Master, and there was nobody quite like him afterwards.”

TIME movies

Can Even a Cranky Guy Fall for The Sound of Music?

The Sound Of Music
Movie Poster Image Art/Getty Images A poster for Robert Wise's 1965 drama 'The Sound of Music' starring Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer, and Eleanor Parker

On the film's 50th anniversary, a critic reflects

From the day of its world premiere 50 years ago, on Mar. 2, 1965, just about everyone knew that The Sound of Music was a great movie. Audiences flocked to it like the ecstatic faithful at a Sunday service that rewarded their devotion with its high purpose, beautiful hymns and an angelic choir. They quickly made it the most popular attraction in the first half-century of the Hollywood feature film, not eclipsed until Star Wars a dozen years later. Indeed, in terms of tickets sold in its initial theatrical run, The Sound of Music trails only Gone With the Wind (another movie about a strong woman in a prewar crisis) as the biggest hit of all time.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences loved the movie big time, festooning it with 10 nominations and five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, at the 1966 ceremony. The startling highlight of last week’s Oscar show was Lady Gaga singing four of Richard Rodgers’ and Oscar Hammerstein II’s hits from the movie. The pitch-perfect medley won Gaga a dewy hug from Julie Andrews, the film’s indelible Maria von Trapp, and a commendation from von Trapp’s 60-year-old granddaughter Elizabeth, who wrote, “Lady Gaga’s celebration at the Oscars was exquisite — her voice being perfect for the medley — and beautifully choreographed.”

The soundtrack album, with its bounty of semi-operatic ballads, spent its first four years on Billboard’s Top Album charts in the U.S. — this in the full flush of Beatlemania — and was No. 1 for 70 weeks in the U.K.

All in all, the film won near-universal acclaim from viewers, listeners and the industry.

From everyone but the movie critics, that is. Many of these sour skeptics TP’d the Rodgers-and-Hammerstein cathedral with reviews that ranged from mixed to malevolent. The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther, dean of mainstream reviewers, excoriated the movie as “cosy-cum-corny,” its adult characters as “fairly horrendous” and Andrews’ Maria as “always in peril of collapsing under [the movie’s] weight of romantic nonsense and sentiment.” In a more measured tone, the anonymous critic for TIME magazine wrote that the movie “contains too much sugar, too little spice,” adding:

Viewers who want a movie to swell around them in big warm blobs will find Sound of Music easy to take. Sterner types may resist at the outset, but are apt to loosen up after a buoyant, heels-in-the-air song or two by Julie Andrews.

(Read TIME’s full review of The Sound of Music here in the TIME archives: R-H Positive)

The definitive denunciation came from Pauline Kael, soon to be the country’s most influential film critic. In a review so venomous it reportedly got her fired from her post at McCall’s, Kael called The Sound of Music “the sugarcoated lie that people seem to want to eat” and “the single most repressive influence on artistic freedom in movies.”

That prediction turned out to be faulty, since within a few years movies had found their “artistic freedom,” awash in crimson violence (The Wild Bunch), explicit sexuality (I Am Curious) and the full four-letter lexicon (Medium Cool). The Sound of Music was not the ill wind that Kael detected but the last gasp of the studio system’s belief in G-rated operettas of inspirational uplift.

As a 1959 Broadway show, it was already an anachronism, surrounded by the brassier, more urgent West Side Story, Gypsy and Fiorello! By 1965, in the wake of the British Invasion, the Beach Boys, the Motown Sound and, the summer before, The Beatles’ hit movie A Hard Day’s Night, the project should have been a musty musical antique, like grandma’s Caruso 78s, long ago consigned to the attic.

Yet what seemed untimely turned out to be timeless. Unlike A Hard Day’s Night and the decade’s other zeitgeist movies, The Sound of Music seems hatched not from the go-go ’60s but from some primordial dream of sanctified surrogate motherhood. In its tale of a governess who is both liberal and liberating to her charges and their gruff father, it touched the hearts of those with happy family memories and of everyone else who didn’t have them but wished they did.

In Andrews, fresh from her Oscar-winning turn as a sterner nanny in Mary Poppins, the movie found the ideal vessel for Maria’s stubborn sunniness, and for her missionary zeal to save naval Captain Georg von Trapp (Christopher Plummer), the starchy Austrian widower who needs a nun-on-loan to restore his humanity.

Directed by Robert Wise and scripted by Ernest Lehman—who had previously collaborated on the movie version of West Side StoryThe Sound of Music wove its songs into political melodrama, an escapist tale about escaping the Nazis. In doing so, it joined 70 years of World War II films, from Mrs. Miniver and Casablanca to Schindler’s List and The King’s Speech, in the roll call of Best Picture Oscar winners whose (unseen) villain was Hitler.

Over the decades, through sing-along editions in theaters and a top-rated live TV production in 2013, the property has never relinquished its magic for audiences. Fifty years after its release, even a cranky-guy critic would have to give this candied confection its due: the darn thing works.

TURNING A TRUE STORY INTO A MUSICAL

In their plush melodies and plummy platitudes, many Rodgers-and-Hammerstein songs were secular hymns, which so insinuated themselves into the ear of the Eisenhower-era listener that they became the liturgical music for the American mid-century. “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Carousel was our true national anthem, with The Sound of Music’s “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” — “Follow every rainbow / ’Til you find your dream” — a close second.

Though an R&H musical might address such dark issues as marital abuse (Carousel) and racial prejudice (South Pacific), the prevailing mood was unabashedly upbeat: whistling a happy tune, raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. The melodies were so diligently soaring and the lyrics so wholesome — “a cliché coming true” — that, while you listened to them, they practically brushed your teeth and did your homework for you.

With his previous writing partner, Lorenz Hart, Rodgers had virtually established 20th-century Broadway sophistication in songs like “Manhattan,” “My Funny Valentine” and “The Lady Is a Tramp.” But whereas Hart’s lyrics, set to the modern 4/4 beat, were urban, up-to-date and skeptical, Hammerstein’s, often in waltz time, were rural, folksy and heartfelt; he was the perpetual cockeyed optimist.

“The most important ingredient of a good song is sincerity,” he wrote in a 1949 collection of his lyrics. “Mean it from the bottom of your heart, and say what is on your mind as carefully, as clearly, as beautifully as you can.” Introducing the book, Rodgers rightly said of his partner’s lyrics “that they are wonderful words, that they sing well of this country, and that they form a long and lasting part of our song heritage.” Though Hammerstein died at 65 in 1960, nine months into The Sound of Music’s Broadway run, the movie has proved how lasting that heritage would be.

He and Rodgers first teamed up when Hart sensibly decided that the farmers-vs.-cowboys Western story that would become Oklahoma! was not quite in his wheelhouse. (Hart died at 48 in 1943, the same year Oklahoma! opened.) The show was a history-making smash, with a then-record Broadway run of five years and 2,212 performances. Following up with Carousel (1945, 2 years), South Pacific (1949, four years and nine months) and The King and I (1951, three years), Rodgers and Hammerstein basically created the blockbuster musical.

Their sonorous shows lured tourists to Broadway and brought Broadway to America; the Oklahoma! road company kept going for an amazing 10½ years, until 1954, when the movie version was already in production to extend the franchise into a new medium that preserved it for generations of filmgoers and home viewers. Within a decade of Oklahoma!’s release, all six of R&H’s hit Broadway musicals (they had three flops: Allegro, Me and Juliet and Pipe Dream) were made into movies.

In 1958, Dick and Oscar were honing Flower Drum Song (which would run one year and seven months) when they were approached to write the songs for the story of the Trapp Family Singers to a book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. Starring Mary Martin, their Nellie Forbush from South Pacific, this would be the songwriters’ final collaboration and, with a three-year seven-month stint on Broadway, one of their most popular.

The only R&H show for which Hammerstein did not write the book, The Sound of Music is nonetheless suffused with the songwriters’ ethic. If not their best work (we’d choose Carousel or The King and I), it’s certainly the most Rodgers-and-Hammerstein musical — a summation of their love for plucky heroines in the wide-open spaces.

Before Oklahoma!, the Broadway musical had been an indoor sport. Hammerstein yanked it into the wide world outside. Staring out the window of his Doylestown, Pa., farmhouse, he wrote the first words of the first song in his first show with Rodgers: “There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow.” Nature ran rampant through his lyrics, from Oklahoma! to The Sound of Music, with its title tune set in the Austrian Alps: “My heart wants to sigh like a chime that flies / From the lake to the trees.”

On the stage during that song, Maria was backed by a canvas drop that could only hint at the grandeur infusing her. The first reason to make the show into a movie was that the helicoptering camera could bring the hills alive (with you-know-what). Aided by Boris Leven’s superb production design, the audience could see, not just imagine, the vistas that made Maria’s heart sing.

If Maria Rainer von Trapp had not existed, R&H might have invented her, so snugly did she fit their mold of the resilient innocent in a foreign land (South Pacific) with a brood of children to teach (The King and I). Born in 1905 and soon orphaned, the real Maria entered a convent as a postulant and was assigned to tutor the family of Captain von Trapp, a widower more than twice her age. (A naïf who was barely older than the eldest of her charges — she was 21 going on 17 — Maria must have grown up fast: a year later, she married the 47-year-old Captain.)

Shifting the chronology to 1938, when Germany annexed Austria, the show’s and the movie’s creators found in Maria a true musical heroine: music defined her soul. Its therapeutic power gives her joy and meaning; it also gives life, almost literally, to the family she joins and mends.

In the R&H version, the orphan Maria is first attracted to convent life because of the nuns’ religious chorales she hears. Then she brings singing, which to her is the highest form of bliss, to the von Trapps. One song (“Do Re Mi”) instructs the children in the seductive algebra of melody; another (“My Favorite Things”) calms their fears in a thunderstorm. Georg comes to admire Maria when he hears a song she has taught the children and, like Fred Astaire in his ’30s musicals with Ginger Rogers, falls in love with her as they dance. A singing performance by the children helps Georg activate his escape plan; and the movie ends with the family crosses the Austrian border with a heavenly choir intoning the title tune.

TURNING THE MUSICAL INTO A MOVIE

Somehow, this natural movie project took ages to come to fruition. Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, co-directors of the great movie musical Singin’ in the Rain, separately turned down the chance to direct The Sound of Music. George Roy Hill, who would later direct Andrews in Hawaii and Thoroughly Modern Millie, said no. So did Vincent J. Donehue, director of the Broadway version, and Wise, who was busy preparing his war epic The Sand Pebbles. Three-time Oscar laureate William Wyler finally agreed, and worked on the film’s preproduction, before realizing his heart wasn’t in it. When the Sand Pebbles shooting was delayed, Wise took over, backing into the job of producer-director on the most popular musical in Hollywood history.

The movie’s great good luck was the casting of Andrews. A Broadway comer at 19 with The Boy Friend and a precocious star at 21 as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, she also played and sang the title role in Cinderella, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1957 TV musical. Bizarrely, in the first decade of her stage radiance she didn’t make a movie, and lost the Eliza role to Audrey Hepburn for the film version. But she was a smash in her movie debut, Mary Poppins, winning the Best Actress Oscar; Hepburn was not even nominated. Seeing Andrews as the Disney nanny, Wyler knew he had found his Maria. And then, it is said, she initially declined the role.

On Broadway, the 45-year-old Martin had been paired with the Captain Georg of Theodore Bikel, 10 years her junior. But movies, even fanciful musicals, demand a hint of casting verisimilitude; and Andrews, 29 when she filmed The Sound of Music, was picture-perfect plausible as the girlish Maria, and possessed a vocal range far beyond Martin’s standard Broadway soprano. She and Plummer, then a mature 35, made a fetching match in the opposites-attract romance. Should anyone be reckless enough to imagine a remake, we can think of two modern movie-star equivalents: Amy Adams, whose stint in a 2012 Shakespeare in the Park staging of Into the Woods showcased her singing talent, and who could easily channel Andrews’ chipper chirpiness; and Michael Fassbender, the Irish star who is a dead ringer for the youngish Plummer.

A handsome Canadian who had won acclaim in Shakespearean roles, Plummer famously resisted the spirit of the enterprise, which he treasonously renamed “The Sound of Mucus.” He admitted that he was drunk during the filming of the climactic sequence at the music festival, and compared working with the affable Andrews to “being hit on the head with a big Valentine’s Day card, every day.”

Yet as much as Plummer may have enjoyed playing the tarantula on the movie’s rich strudel, he’s a pro who gives an admirably performance, balancing Andrews’ comic high notes in the early going with his own repressed poignancy. His Captain is a man whose soul died when his wife did, and whose warmer feelings have turned to cinders. Because she brought music to the family, he forbids it now; to him, every child’s melody has the sound of an obscene dirge for the love he lost.

In the movie’s strongest sequence, the Captain has brought the wealthy baroness (Eleanor Parker), with whom he plans a marriage of social and financial convenience, to the family home. Aghast to find his kids climbing trees in fatigues Maria has sewn out of drapes, he upbraids the girl for her impudence. She parries by saying that the children are miserable because he has withdrawn from them; and as he tells her she’s fired, the sound of “The Sound of Music” in perfect seven-part harmony reaches his ears and touches his heart.

In perhaps the speediest emotional conversion in cinema history, the Captain springs to life, like a trampled flower reblooming, to accompany his singing septet in the final phrase, “And I’ll sing once more.” He tells Maria, “You brought music back into the house” — the music that he always associated with his late wife. Cured of his grief, he must marry the new musicmaker. At the 2hr.12min. mark of this 2hr.54min. movie, Georg and Maria kiss. The nanny diary is at last a love story.

For the movie, Rodgers wrote a number that he and Hammerstein hadn’t thought of for the show: a love song for Maria and the Captain, “Something Good.” (It’s wan but welcome.) The filmmakers’ rule seems to have been that, if characters aren’t wonderful, they don’t get to sing. So both of the Baroness’s numbers with Max Detweiler (Richard Haydn), the comic relief and Trapp family impresario, were cut. Nuns sing but Nazis don’t, except in a Mel Brooks musical; they march. As the movie darkens with the German Anschluss and the Trapps’ plan to flee Austria, the pace accelerates. A brief fight, a gunshot, a quick trip across the Alps, a choral reprise of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” and the movie is over. You hardly have a chance to wipe the tears away before the houselights come up.

Today’s movies rarely provide that stirring catharsis. In an era of Marvel superheroes with personality disorders, and when the few megahit heroines are warrior princesses — Katniss of The Hunger Games — the notion of a would-be nun outwitting the Nazis with the weapon of melody is so old-fashioned it’s almost radical. Based in fact, this is the purest domestic fantasy: the story of a woman who learns to love a man by falling in love with his children and, in the process, repairs a broken family.

It’s a fairy tale told and sung at bedtime by the sweetest mother. And 50 years after its release, that fable has a nurturing impact. For millions of viewers, the thrills are alive with The Sound of Music.

 

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This essay appears, in slightly different form, in The Sound of Music: 50 Years Later, the Hills Are Still Alive, a special edition of LIFE, available on newsstands everywhere.

Read TIME’s original review of the film of The Sound of Music, here in the archives: R-H Positive

TIME movies

Review: Focus: Can Will Smith Do Cary Grant?

The star takes a welcome break from glowering sci-fi roles to play a criminally smooth operator, with creamy Margot Robbie as his partner-in-con

Musical chairs or Russian roulette? Sometimes there’s as much tense drama in the casting of a Hollywood movie as there is in the finished product. This week’s example: Focus, a caper film about a veteran con man and the young woman he takes as his accomplice. Ryan Gosling, then Brad Pitt and Ben Affleck were touted as the dapper con, while the female lead was reckoned to be played, at one time or another, by Jennifer Lawrence, Emma Stone, Kristen Stewart, Michelle Williams, Jessica Biel, Rose Byrne, Olivia Munn — basically, every working actress under 35.

Since Focus conjures up a more relaxed time in Hollywood history, when the top stars radiated their golden appeal in romantic comedies about duplicitous souls, writer-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa might have dreamed of Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, who paired in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1955 To Catch a Thief. Grant had just hit 50, and Kelly was 25, but their upmarket glamour and wiles made a perfect match for a movie about an aging cat burglar and the young American heiress who dares to play his game.

Ficarra and Requa, the authors of this script that everyone and nobody wanted to star in, finally settled on Will Smith, 46, and Margot Robbie, the 24-year-old blond Aussie who shared Leonardo DiCaprio’s bed (and a ton of cocaine) in The Wolf of Wall Street. The mix of longtime star and minx on the rise is one tasty element in the success of a movie that approaches the modest goals and effortless allure of a 60-year-old Hitchcock.

“I can convince anyone of anything,” says Smith’s Nicky Spurgeon, and the man is not boasting. The con in con man is short for confidence — what he radiates, and what he extracts from his marks before fleecing them. The blithe smile, the genial but steely authority he wears like a bespoke suit: that’s Smith since his Fresh Prince days.

What’s odd is that in most of his movies — from the time he sauntered into action stardom with Independence Day, through a decade of dystopian sci-fi roles in I, Robot, I Am Legend, Hancock and the misfortune known as After Earth — Smith has been obliged to glower, macho-man style, as if Bruce Willis hadn’t already patented the stoic scowl. Even in the Men is Black movies, the actor’s cool was deadpan; the smile had to be inferred. So Ficarra and Requa deserve some credit in letting Will be Will in the star’s first charm barrage since 2005’s Hitch.

Spurgeon (whose Urban Dictionary definition genteelly translates as “the man of all men”) runs a con outfit of 20 or so filchers who work casinos, racetracks, football games — any place where cocky rich guys can be separated from their loot. He’s on hiatus when he meets the creamy blond Jess Barrett (Robbie), who pulls a clumsy ruse that he plays along with simply from professional curiosity. Out of her league but a quick study, Jess learns to pick the pockets of smitten strangers and earns her bona fides. She’s now ready to be Nicky’s partner, and perhaps rival, in con. “Congratulations,” Nicky’s aide-de-camp Horst (Brennan Brown) tells Jess, “you’re a criminal.”

The dapper-con genre, which includes The Lady Eve and The Sting, with a brief recent revival in Now You See It, demands of its audience only a readiness to fall for the flimflam, as Nicky’s marks do. The big gamble in Focus: it’s a Will Smith movie that dares to be small. It leads its stars into swanky peril with a zillionaire gambler (B.D. Wong) and an Argentine race-car mogul (Rodrigo Santoro), in games the viewer is wise to trust no one.

Ficarra and Requa, who pulled off a more brazen act of sex and treachery in I Love You Philip Morris, here just want to have and provide a good time. Which they do. They’ll even take an R rating for the fun of some raunchy wit spouted by one of Nicky’s pals (Adrian Martinez).

And Robbie validated the filmmakers’ trust at the end of a long casting process. Suggesting a modern Grace Kelly who wears her libido on the outside, and is a bit more self-conscious in her scheming, Robbie is really closer to a high-end knockoff of the young Michelle Pfeiffer. But that’s O.K. too: it adds to the film’s playful sense that everything, including star quality, is a con.

Except for Smith, of course. He may not be the 21st-century Cary Grant — who could be? — but as a Hollywood charmer, he’s still the real deal.

TIME movies

Birdman Soared, But Selma Stole the Show at the Oscars

In an elephantine spectacle with few awards surprises, the Martin Luther King, Jr. movie provided a song and two acceptance speeches for the ages

Neil Patrick Harris looks better in tighty whities than Michael Keaton does. Lady Gaga has a secure enough soprano voice to sing four numbers from The Sound of Music, as Julie Andrews awaits offstage. One of the Birdman screenwriters has a dog named Larry, to whom he dedicated his award. If you want acceptance-speech rhetoric to soar into political eloquence, call on two of the most soulful men in music. And the institution of the Academy Awards can keep that mythical audience of “one billion viewers” tuned in, through interest or inertia, for prizes given to movies seen by perhaps only four million cinematic zealots.

In a show that clocked in at 3 hours and 40 minutes — the running time of Gone With the Wind, and about an hour longer than it took Ellar Coltrane to get through a dozen years of Boyhood — Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s inside-showbiz Birdman copped the major awards for Picture, Director and Original Screenplay, leaving its prime competitor, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, with only the sure-thing: a Supporting Actress prize for Patricia Arquette.

Your local prognosticator went six for seven in the major awards (missing out on the Birdman Screenplay win), in a year of heavy or prohibitive favorites. Julianne Moore earned Best Actress for Still Alice, J.K. Simmons won Supporting Actor for Whiplash and Eddie Redmayne took Best Actor for The Theory of Everything. That meant no Oscar for Keaton, who during the climactic onstage Best Picture revelry affected a Beetlejuice shrug and said, “Look, it’s just great to be here, who am I kiddin’?” This was in keeping with his fatalist modesty this Saturday at the Independent Spirit Awards. When Keaton was asked where he’d put his Oscar statuette, he drily replied, “Next to my Nobel.”

For the first time in a year with more than five Best Picture nominees, each of the eight finalists went home with a little or a lot of Oscar love: Birdman with a big four, including Cinematography; The Grand Budapest Hotel with four on the craft side (Costume, Makeup and Hair, Production Design and Original Score); Whiplash with a surprising three (Sound Mixing and Film Editing in addition to Simmons’ lock); and one each for American Sniper (Sound Editing), Boyhood (Supporting Actress), The Imitation Game (Adapted Screenplay), Selma (Original Song) and The Theory of Everything (Actor).

On a TV evening whose commercials — for Samsung (home movies), Cadillac (“Dare greatly” to an Edith Piaf theme), xfinity (a blind child imagines her own Wizard of Oz movie) and iPad (illustrating a Martin Scorsese speech) — often showed more heart and craft than the onstage shenanigans, the Oscars show worked best, as TIME’s James Poniewozik suggested in his review of the show, when it was the Grammys.

Highlights: Harris’s clever opening song (written by Frozen composers Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez), The Lonely Island’s droll take on The LEGO Movie’s “Everything Is Awesome,” Tim McGraw’s plangent rendition of Glen Campbell’s Alzheimer’s song “I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” Gaga’s Maria von Trappezoid and, most powerfully, a choral performance of “Glory,” from Selma, that packed more emotion that the movie it represented. A few minutes later, Common and John Legend (who won the “Glory” Oscar under their real names, Lonnie Lynn and John Stephens) truly elevated the discourse with their acceptance speeches.

Common spoke of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, where Martin Luther King Jr. assembled his nonviolent protestors against the violent Alabama police 50 years ago next week. “The spirit of this bridge connects the kid from the South side of Chicago [himself], dreaming of a better life, to those in France standing up for their freedom of expression to the people in Hong Kong protesting for democracy,” Common said. “This bridge was built on hope, welded with compassion and elevated by love for all human beings.” Legend, pointedly applying the lessons of last year’s Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave to 2015, noted that “There are more black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850. When people are marching with our song, we want to tell you that we are with you, we see you, we love you — and march on.” David Oyelowo, who played King, was in tears in the audience. Chris Pine too.

The other political messages, much commented on by bloggers, were in the service of moderate causes that only Fox News could take exception to. The Imitation Game screenwriter Graham Moore, who revealed he had attempted suicide at 16, advised insecure teens to be proud and “Stay weird.” Simmons: Call your parents, and don’t hang up till they’re done talking. Arquette plumped for equal wages for women. Redmayne: Be nice to people with ALS. Moore: Be nice to people with Alzheimer’s and ALS.

Recognizing sufferers of these diseases not only helps mend the social fabric — it wins Oscars for worthy stars. Moore became the fifth consecutive Best Actress — after Natalie Portman in Black Swan, Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady, Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook and Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine — to play a woman with Alzheimer’s or some other severe emotional disturbance. And Redmayne took the My Left Foot award for contorting himself into a genius with extraordinary physical limitations.

Yet these two winners seemed genuinely ecstatic when they won their predicted awards. Moore managed to remain poised through her giddiness, but Redmayne interrupted himself mid-speech with a whooping “Wow!” and nearly ripped off his tuxedo tie. Congratulations to both of them. Coming during the titanic maelstrom of an overlong awards show, that’s Acting.

Watch the full clip below:

Read next: Lady Gaga’s Oscar Performance: Love It or Hate It?

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TIME movies

The Indie Spirit Awards and the Oscars, or (Why Does Hollywood Hate Itself?)

87th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
Ethan Miller—WireImage A member of the crew works on the red carpet of the 87th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on Feb. 22, 2015 in Hollywood.

The Spirits go to the very indie films that Oscar is likely to award tonight. When will Hollywood return to honoring its own best product?

Oscar night: it’s finally here! Or did it happen yesterday?

The Film Independent Spirit Awards, which pay tribute to American movies with production budgets of $20 million or lower, are held in a billowing tent in Santa Monica the Saturday afternoon before the big show. This year, it was basically the Oscars a day early. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) took Best Film, Boyhood’s Richard Linklater got Best Director, Michael Keaton won Best Actor for Birdman and the three inevitables — Julianne Moore, J.K. Simmons and Patricia Arquette — earned Best Actress, Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress, respectively, for Still Alice, Boyhood and Whiplash. (My predictions for this year’s Oscar winners are here.) The Spirits also confirmed Oscar’s ignoring of the racial litmus test Selma. Nominated for five awards, the Martin Luther King Jr. bio-pic won none.

Yes, the actual Oscar for Best Actor could go to Eddie Redmayne; his The Theory of Everything was ineligible for the Spirits because it’s a Limey import. Birdman and Boyhood could swap statuettes, with Linklater winning Best Picture and Alejandro G. Iñárritu taking Best Director. (Or either film could cop both big prizes.) But — as occurred last year, when all four of the Spirit’s acting awards plus Best Picture went to the eventual Oscar winners — this was a laid-back dress rehearsal (casual dress) for tonight’s starchier, fancy-dress event. The show is shorter, the acceptance speeches less predictable. Pawel Pawlikowski, who directed the winning foreign film Ida, spoke warmly of the other finalists, then pertly added, “Thank you, my competitors, for losing this time.”

The Spirits haven’t gone Hollywood. It’s the Motion Picture Academy that’s gone indie, by virtually limiting its Best Picture nominees to art-house entries. Of the eight films nominated for the top Oscar tonight, only American Sniper cost more than $20 million to produce or earned more than $85 million at North American theaters. The rest are U.S. and British niche items — the very films the industry marginalizes the rest of the year.

And the losers? They’re the popular movies that fund the industry and often bring it distinction. To name six ambitious hits from 2014: Gone Girl, Interstellar, The LEGO Movie, Into the Woods, Noah and Unbroken. Their total haul in the Oscars’ top categories was two: nominees for Best Actress (Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl) and Best Supporting Actress (Meryl Streep in Into the Woods), and neither has an atheist’s prayer of winning.

This disconnect hasn’t always applied in the five years since the Academy, in 2009, expanded its roster of Best Picture nominees from five to as many as 10. In 2010, five of the 10 finalists (Black Swan, Inception, The King’s Speech, Toy Story 3 and True Grit) earned more than $100 million at the domestic box office — the standard threshold for a popular hit— and The Social Network wasn’t far behind at $97 million. Two years ago, six of the nine (Argo, Django Unchained, Les Misérables, Life of Pi, Lincoln and Silver Linings Playbook) reached $100 million, with Zero Dark Thirty at $96 million. Even last year, when indie films were the big winners in big categories, four of the nine Best Picture shortlisters (American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Gravity and The Wolf of Wall Street) reached nine figures at the North American box office.

Not so this year, when little is big, and less is Moore. The biggest challenge for the inevitable Best Actress winner — and for Simmons, Arquette and possibly Keaton, if he triumphs over Redmayne — will be to save their best acceptance speech for the sixth or seventh televised awards show where they’ve had to say thanks. Home viewers will shrug at awards given to movies endlessly promoted in the ramp-up hoopla but which they haven’t seen.

And the members of the Academy, most of whom work on medium- to high-budget pictures — the kind that employ artists and artisans by the hundreds — will again have voted against the macro-movies they make and for the micro-films they maybe wished they did. The inescapable takeaway from Oscar night: The industry wishes it were indie. To put it bluntly: Hollywood hates itself.

Perhaps that’s putting it too bluntly — but one thing is certain. Many of those swells in tuxedos you’ll see tonight at the Dolby Theatre in L.A.: they’d rather be in a tent in Santa Monica.

TIME movies

This Is How to Fix the Oscars

Nate D. Sanders Auctions Collection Of Academy Award Oscar Statuettes Set To Be Auctioned
Toby Canham—Getty Images BRENTWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 24: Nate Sanders displays the collection of Oscar statuettes that his auction company will sell online to the highest bidder on February 24, 2012 in Brentwood, California. (Photo by Toby Canham/Getty Images)

If we knew not just who won but also by how much, viewers would have a real, knowledgeable rooting interest in the big movie game

Oscar Night is this Sunday, and host Neil Patrick Harris can be counted on to make it fun for the swells at the Dolby Theatre and perhaps even for those 40-plus million watching at home. That will be a challenge for a show whose 24 awards mostly go to invisible craftsmen — what’s the diff between Sound Editing and Sound Mixing, and why should any TV viewer care? — and to categories, like Best Documentary Short, that simply don’t exist in the movie marketplace. If you’re an average to avid filmgoer, you probably care about Best Picture, the four actors’ awards and maybe Best Director. The rest is the presentation of gold watches to anonymous artisans.

Like Fox News commentators poking at the excesses and failures of Barack Obama, critics of the Oscar show have floated all manner of remedies. Some have proposed a separate afternoon ceremony for the technical categories and the short films, thus allowing the evening to be a showcase of star actors, possibly with longer clips from their films. That’s what the Grammy show has become: an all-star concert, with only a few of the record industry’s 100-plus awards presented on the prime-time show. Or Oscar could go the full American Idol route, with the nominated thespians in an “act-off” of big movie scenes, and the viewing audience, not the Academy’s senior citizens, choosing the winner.

A simpler remedy: nominate movies the viewers have seen and liked — the action films and fantasies that Hollywood makes better than anyone. History tells us that the Oscar ceremony has registered its biggest jumps in viewership in years when an extraordinarily popular movie was eligible in many categories. 1983: 53.2 million viewers (up by 7 million from the previous year) for E.T. 1998: 55.2 million (up by 15 million) for Titanic. 2004: 43.5 million (up by 10 million) for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. And 2010: 41.7 million (up by 5 million) for Avatar. Last year’s broadcast got 43.7 million (up 3 million from 2013) for Gravity. The blockbusters don’t have to win Best Picture — Titanic and King did, E.T., Avatar and Gravity didn’t — but they have to be in the race, as a Best Picture finalist with lots of subsidiary nominations.

The Academy recognized the power of big movies in 2009, the year after the box-office smash (and critical favorite) The Dark Knight got aced out of the final five Best Picture shortlist. The Academy’s solution: add more slots for the top award. It became known as the Christopher Nolan award. That worked splendidly for 2010, when the looming presence of Avatar, plus the duel between James Cameron and his glamorous ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow (for The Hurt Locker, the eventual winner), juiced up the competition.

This year, though, the membership reverted to its preference for indie and niche bio-pic fare. Yes, American Sniper has earned more than $300 million at the domestic box office after the nominations were announced; but it’s not considered a major player for either Best Picture or Best Actor Bradley Cooper. Of the other seven Picture nominees, only The Imitation Game has earned more than $60 million (which makes it the 44th most popular film of 2014, right behind Let’s Be Cops). The leading contenders for Best Picture, Birdman and Boyhood, have taken in little more than $60 million together. Why would 45 million people tune in to watch a runoff between two films that sold a total of about 7 million tickets? Still Alice and Whiplash, the movies predicted to win Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor for Julianne Moore and J.K. Simmons, have earned about $15 million between them.

While giving to the poor, the Academy snubbed the popular: a few technical citations for Nolan’s Interstellar, only one nomination for Gone Girl, last year’s top-grossing adult drama, and nothing for the one megahit animated feature (and critics’ darling) The LEGO Movie. It’s as if the Academy is telling the constituency of mass moviegoers: Don’t bother watching the Oscars. This one’s for us, not you.

Adding blockbusters to the nomination lists is part of the answer, but it’s not the big answer. The big answer is: make the voting public. Have a designated celebrity read out the five names in each major category in ascending order of the votes they received — the last-named being the winner.

In virtually every other competition, whether it’s the World Series or an Olympic marathon or a national election, viewers get to see how close the race was. The Super Bowl, for example: Would 114.5 million people have watched it if the Katy Perry halftime show were virtually the whole show and, at the end, Al Michaels simply announced, “The Patriots won,” instead of, “This was the closest, craziest, most thrilling fourth quarter in NFL freakin’ history!”?

Yet on Oscar night here’s what you get: five names, one winner, four losers; then it’s move on, dot, yawn. What if we learned, as the tally was shown on a big board behind the person reading out the nominations for Best Actor, what the names of the top two contenders were — and that they were just one vote apart? That actually happened in 1932, and the Oscar was given to both Fredric March and Wallace Beery. But we know that only because the Academy later changed the rule: to declare a tie, the figures had to be exactly even. We also know that, in 1969, Katharine Hepburn and Barbra Streisand got the same number of votes for Best Actress — because they both were named winners. (Over the decades there have also been ties in three “minor” categories that had far fewer voters.)

What else do we know about the Oscar tallies? Nothing. Did Greta Garbo or Cary Grant or Alfred Hitchcock, to pick three distinguished artists who never got competitive Oscars, ever come close to winning? If Eddie Redmayne takes Best Actor this year, did Michael Keaton lose by just a handful of votes, or was it a wipeout? And how close did Bradley Cooper get? Which races were runaways over Oscar’s 86 years, and which were photo finishes? Wouldn’t you like to know? Wouldn’t the show have a little more interest if you did?

Making the vote tabulation public would also invigorate the weeks before the Oscar show. So-called experts give odds on the nominees in top categories, but the knowledge that only the winner will be revealed renders that exercise useless; now it’d mean something. And all those office Oscar pools could promote, in addition to the winners, any number of beguiling side bets. Who can pick the top five in the most categories — in order? In the Best Director race, how many votes will separate Alejandro Iñárritu from Richard Linklater? What’s the over-under on Patricia Arquette?

It’d be fun to know, but we won’t. And all because the Academy members value confidentiality in the process above the public’s interest in their product. What are they hiding — state secrets? Oh, that’s right: in our society you can’t hide a lot of secrets forever. In the past half-century, through the Freedom of Information Act, concerned citizens have unearthed documents whose publication resulted in the banning of Red Dye #2, the recalling of the Ford Pinto, the revelation that Agent Orange was used on Vietnamese civilians and the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew.

We need a Freedom of Infotainment Act. The Star Chamber of the Motion Picture Academy must be compelled to open its books and make the results public. At least confirm to us that in 1993, the Supporting Actress Oscar really did go to Marisa Tomei. Show us the numbers! Let the sunshine in.

As long as the particulars of Academy voting are suppressed, we movie lovers will find Oscar night less exciting as we watch it, less likely to lodge in our collective memory. (“Hey, remember how close that Best Actor race was in 2015?”) The people who run Hollywood are supposed to be masters at creating drama, suspense, thrills — at putting on a great show. If we knew not only who the winners were but also by how much they won, the Oscar show could actually be the Super Bowl of movies.

TIME movies

Here’s Who Will Win at the Oscars

While some winners are all but decided, the biggest prize of the night is tough to call

Three of the four acting contests are sewn up, and the fourth (Best Actor) is reaching mathematical certitude. The Best Director prize looks to be won by a Mexican for the second straight year. But when the Academy Awards air on Feb. 22, on ABC with host Neil Patrick Harris, the Best Picture category will make this one of the cloudiest Oscar races in ages.

The top contenders are trickster endeavors, each filmed in 30-some days: Birdman, which pretends to be a single shot lasting nearly two hours, and Boyhood, which spans 12 years of a Texas lad’s life. Earlier awards from the most influential Hollywood guilds—Producers, Directors and Screen Actors—give Birdman the edge: no film that failed to take at least one of these awards has won Oscar’s top prize since 1996, when Braveheart defeated the guilds’ favorite Apollo 13. Then again, the British Academy (BAFTA) has picked the “correct” film for the past six years. And this time, BAFTA chose Boyhood.

Hovering above these two acclaimed movies is the (red state) elephant on the ballot: American Sniper, which has earned more at the domestic box office than the other seven Best Picture nominees combined. But it won’t win. The Academy voters typically prefer to honor a socially relevant artistic triumph (12 Years a Slave last year, The Hurt Locker five years ago) over a crowd pleaser of distinction (Gravity, Avatar).

Here, then, are my picks for which films, filmmakers and stars will carry home 8½ lb. of Motion Picture Academy love from the 87th annual awards.

TIME Music

Remembering Lesley Gore, a ’60s Queen of Teen Angst

Photo of Lesley Gore
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images Lesley Gore circa 1970.

With "It's My Party," "Judy's Turn to Cry" and the anthemic "You Don't Own Me," the nice girl from New Jersey sold songs of despair, revenge and defiance to pre-Beatles America

The nice Jewish girl matriculated directly from the Dwight School for Girls in Englewood, N.J., to Sarah Lawrence College. She never took a year off in her education because, as she sensibly noted at the time, “It would be very foolish of me to leave school to go into such an unpredictable field on a full-time basis.” Lesley Gore’s part-time field was pop singer, and in her brief but urgent prime she was the Queen of Teen Angst.

She endured heartbreak as a birthday girl betrayed by her beau in “It’s My Party,” savored revenge in the sequel “Judy’s Turn to Cry” and belted the proto-feminist anthem “You Don’t Own Me.” Those three songs, all recorded in 1963, still held an honored place in America’s pop-cultural jukebox on Monday, when her long-time partner, jewelry designer Lois Sasson, announced Gore’s death of lung cancer, at 68.

Daughter of a swimwear manufacturer, Lesley Sue Goldstein was born May 2, 1946, in Brooklyn and raised in Tenafly, N.J. Her music teacher made some demos that got to Quincy Jones, then a fledgling producer at Mercury Records. The man with the golden ear heard a soprano that could segue from adolescent to womanly in a single phrase and saw pretty, dimpled girl coiffed in the era’s mandatory bouffant helmet. Now he had to find a song that suited both her range and persona.

Walter Gold, John Gluck Jr. and Herb Weiner had written “It’s My Party” for the song publisher Aaron Schroeder (himself the composer of five No. 1 singles for Elvis Presley, including “It’s Now or Never”). The song sounded like a hit to Phil Spector, who wanted to record it with The Crystals. Schroeder didn’t tell this to Jones, who had already produced his version with Lesley. When Jones heard of Spector’s plans, he finished post-production on the song and released it March 30, 1963. Within four weeks it was No. 1 — the first pop hit in Jones’ storied, half-century-plus career.

The tale of a girl whose happiest birthday is ruined by seeing her boyfriend Johnny sneak off with the predatory Judy, who returns with his ring, “It’s My Party” is a little melodrama of public humiliation. The verse, with its ominous melodic curve, spells out the dilemma (“Nobody knows where my Johnny has gone, / And Judy left the same time”) before the chorus erupts in the tantrum repetition of a little girl’s snit (“It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to, / Cry if I want to, / Cry if I want to!”). The oddly perky musical setting lets Gore mine the character’s hurt while slyly mocking it; she is both the victim and the amused commentator.

Hits from the first decade of pop rock often summoned “answer songs.” Neil Sedaka’s “Oh! Carol” prompted “Oh Neil” by Carole King, the young singer Sedaka had written his top-10 number for. Damita Jo’s “I’ll Save the Last Dance for You” followed The Drifters’ “Save the Last Dance for Me.” These were the old songs with sex-change lyrics. Rare was the answer song with an original tune and performed by the same artist. “Judy’s Turn to Cry,” written by Beverly Ross (“Lollipop,” “Candy Man”) and Edna Lewis, gave Gore the payback part of her two-act playlet.

This time the wounded thrush sees Johnny and Judy together — “So I kissed some other guy. / Johnny comes up and he hit him, / Cause he still loves me, that’s why.” A cheating lover with anger-management issues seems a poor long-term emotional investment, but Gore sold the proposition with a voice full of teasing satisfaction. And Jones’ horn section, which had brayed in the instrumental break of “It’s My Party,” modulated with no sweat into a triumphant fanfare. “Judy” went to No. 5 on the Billboard charts.

In that fascinating few years between essential Elvis and the early fever of Beatlemania, Brill Building pop made history with young Jewish composers writing for black girl groups. The landscape also allowed a few young female singers who transmitted the hurt of love with a sonic blast (listen to the great Timi Yuro’s revenge masterpiece “What’s a Matter Baby”) or a gospel wail (the young Dionne Warwick’s cathartic “Don’t Make Me Over”). Across the pond, Dusty Springfield had broken through with the plangent “I Only Want to Be With You.” Gore wasn’t quite in their league of vocal virtuosity — she was a straight-ahead interpreter who attacked the text rather than mining the agonizing subtext — but the 17-year-old had the luck of a big ballad, a declaration of independence, in “You Don’t Own Me.”

Composers John Madora and David White, who confected uptempo hits for Danny and the Junior (“At the Hop”) and Len Barry (“1-2-3″), turned to the more mature Euro-pop for this precocious statement. If the song had any American cousins, they would be the avant-pop that Burt Bacharach and Hal David had started to produce for Warwick and other R&B artists. Again Jones produced, this time employing legendary arranger Claus Ogerman to provide the soughing strings. And Gore proved equal to the demands of greater power and grownup assertiveness. This was Lesley unleashed.

Imagine “You Don’t Own Me” not as an answer song but as a warning song: the threat of emancipation directed at the unreliable Johnny of Gore’s first two hits. She almost whispers the ghostly minor chords of the verse (“You don’t own me. / I’m not just one of your many toys”), but that’s just a massage before the chorus’s womanly karate chop: “And don’t tell me what to do / And don’t tell me what to say / And please, when I go out with you / Don’t put me on display. … I’m young and I love to be young. / I’m free and I love to be free. / To live my life the way I want / To say and do whatever I please.” We imagine that the abashed Johnny made a quick getaway, and that the singer — a woman who had discovered her roar — didn’t miss him one bit.

“You Don’t Own Me” rose in early 1964 to No. 2, just behind the Beatles’ first top-of-the-U.S.-pops “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” That ranking was prophetic: the golden age of boy bands ruled for the rest of the decade, and Gore never again made the top 10. She graced the charts with the giddy “Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows,” another Jones-Ogerman production that reached No. 13 and handed the 21-year-old Marvin Hamlisch his first hit. A second Hamlisch composition, “California Nights” with a Beach Boys flavor, went to No. 16 in 1967. And for Gore, that was it. Her life as a diva darling was over before she was 21.

She went the singer-songwriter route in albums that attracted little attention or acclaim. In 1980 she collaborated with her younger brother Michael on songs for the Fame movie, earning an Oscar nomination for “Out Here on My Own.” She appeared as a “guest star” in the musical Smokey Joe’s Cafe, an amalgam of rock standards by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller that ran for five years of Broadway. (Just a guess: she sang the sultry-brazen “I Am Woman,” which Leiber and Stoller had written for Peggy Lee.)

In her later years, Gore came out as gay, hosted the PBS series In the Life and supported many LBGT causes. The L word would have been taboo for Gore in her pop spotlight years, as it would have been for Springfield. In a way, she had already been outed in Alison Anders’ 1996 Brill Building bio-fic Grace of My Heart, which conjures up simulacra of King, her husband Gerry Goffin, Spector, Brian Wilson and a secret lesbian called Kelly Porter and played by Bridget Fonda.

Grace of My Heart went virtually unnoticed. If moviegoers thought of Gore in the ’90s it would have been for the prominent placing in the hit comedy First Wives Club of “You Don’t Own Me,” its anthem status undiminished. A new generation of kids got the Lesley lilt when “Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows” showed up in Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.

Sharing a life with Sasson for the past 33 years, Gore dwelled comfortably in her post-celebrity decades, still looking great at 68. She’ll be fondly remembered by her fans of a half-century, and those cursing YouTube for a stalwart pop singer of a vanished age. Now it’s their turn to cry.

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