I am a big fan of irony. Any time I can find true examples of it in the world, I try to celebrate it. I am not talking about the various ridiculous (and, for the record, not ironic) examples in the Alanis Morrisette song. I am talking about true irony. With that in mind, I was trying to find a movie to review that either perfectly encapsulated 2020 (likely a disaster movie or post-apocalyptic hellscape like Dr. Strangelove or 28 Days Later) OR something super ironic to “celebrate” the year that was. While thematic elements of my selection this month do not make sense in this context, its title certainly does. Let’s take a look at The Best Years of Our Lives (1946, dir. William Wyler).
The Best Years of Our Lives tells the story of three veterans of World War II returning home to a fictional midwestern town. Each man had a different life they left and a different war experience that changed him. Now we follow the three stories as they all try to adjust to a post-war life and all that entails. The men did not really know each other before the war but end up on the same flight back home which strikes up a kinship that both soothes and complicates their scenarios as life unfolds at home.
The timing was impeccable for this movie to occur. Released in 1946 when much of the world was settling into new post-war realities made it resonate with audiences across the globe. It won multiple Academy Awards including Best Picture that year, so it was critically well acclaimed, too. The most notable performance is from Harold Russell as Petty Officer 2nd Class Homer Parrish (who actually won two Oscars for his performance if you ever want to impress someone with a bit of trivia). Russell was not a professional actor but was instead chosen because he lost both his arms in the war. His story is heartbreaking to watch as Homer could assimilate back rather comfortably if not for all the people staring in horror at his prosthetic arms – including his family and girlfriend, Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell). While part of what gives this film its emotional punch is Homer’s story, the fact that Russell is not an actor is painfully obvious at different moments in the film. It is a fascinating argument for what makes a performance award-worthy: the role or the actor. In this case, I believe the role won the award. Besides those few moments of awkward line readings from Russell, this movie is solid top to bottom. Great performances from everyone in a great script that is very well directed. It is a little longer than you might like (172 minute running time), but there is more than enough going on if you get invested in the stories as I did.
Jokes about the title aside, I feel like this movie is a great one to watch for this particular moment in time. The entire world is looking forward to a time when we can return to normal (hopefully in 2021). Some people have been profoundly changed by 2020, and others were mildly inconvenienced. Some things that happen will feel normal, and other things will be forever altered. What we experience when we have this all behind us may cause some to accept it all for what it is, or it may cause some to stop and stare. Regardless of how we were impacted, we still have impact to feel and adjustments to make – in some cases we will be prepared for them and others will hit us like a ton of bricks. In that sense, watching The Best Years of Our Lives may actually be the least ironic option right now.
FUN FACT – While I would wager many people may not have heard of this movie and even fewer have actually seen it, The Best Years of Our Lives is the 87th highest grossing film in history when adjusted for inflation, coming right in between Rocky and Star Wars: Episode IX - The Rise of Skywalker.
Just Watch says that The Best Years of Our Lives is available to stream on DirecTV, Kanopy, PlutoTV, and Watch TCM. It is available for rent and purchase on several platforms.