Will ‘Belfast’ follow in Oscars footsteps of ‘How Green Was My Valley’ and be the warm hug we need

The country was in pain when the 14th annual Academy Awards took place Feb. 26, 1942 at the Biltmore Hotel. Just two months earlier, the US entered World War II after 2,403 personnel had died during the Dec. 7 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and we entered World World II. Then Hollywood lost one of its own on Jan. 16, 1942 when the beloved Carole Lombard, who was returning home from a war bonds tour, her mother and 15 soldiers, died when their plane crashed. Initially, the academy decided to cancel festivities, but quickly changed its mind. Still, the ceremony was scaled down-no formal attire no banquet but a simple dinner.

Just as today, there were 10 nominees for Best Picture: “Blossoms in the Dust,” “Citizen Kane,” “Here Comes Mr. Jordan,” “Hold Back the Dawn,” “How Green Was My Valley,” “The Little Foxes,” “The Maltese Falcon,” “One Foot in Heaven,” “Sergeant York” and “Suspicion.”

Oscar voters opted for the “warm-hug” of the bunch: John Ford’s exquisite nostalgia-tinged “How Green Was My Valley.” It was just the comforting balm the country needed. Based on the best-selling 1939 novel by Richard Llewellyn, a British novelist of Welsh ancestry. The film is seen through the eyes of narrator Huw Morgan, who reflects upon his childhood; the adorable Roddy McDowall plays the young Huw. Walter Pidgeon, Donald Crisp and Maureen O’Hara starred. “Valley” marked the beginning of O’Hara’s storied partnership with Ford.

The sentimental, beautifully acted drama, set in a Welsh coal mining town during the Victorian era, was the biggest single winner of the evening, taking home five Oscars, including Best Picture. Ford won Best Director for the third time in Oscar history (and second year in a row), Crisp claimed Supporting Actor and the cinematography and art direction were also honorerd.

Now as then our country and the world are in turmoil.  The COVID pandemic is still raging, politically the country is divided, inflation is out of control and nerves are on edge that Russia may invade the Ukraine. So, will Oscar history repeat itself on March 27?

There’s a good chance that “Belfast” may be the warm hug the country needs.

Since its premiere last year at the Telluride Film Festival last September, Kenneth Branagh’s movie memoir has been a major awards contender. This Focus Features release won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. Previous recipients of the honor that went on to win the top Oscar include 2020’s “Nomadland” and 2018’s “Green Book.”

Just as with “How Green Is My Valley,” the black-and-white “Belfast” is another remembrance of a childhood, this time nine-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill) who lives on a working-class street during time of the rising “Troubles’ in Northern Ireland between the Protestants and the Catholics in the late 1960s.

Llewellyn had initially said “How Green Was My Valley” was based on his life but it was discovered after his death in 1983 that he spent very little time in Wales. The book was actually based on interviews with Welsh coal mining families.

Not so with “Belfast.” Branagh wrote the script based on his childhood. When we first see the mischievous Buddy, he’s receiving love, affection and life lessons from his older brother, his mother and father (who works in England) and his grandparents. But his idyllic childhood is disrupted when rebellious Protestants attack the homes on his street in hopes of ousting the Catholics. And to make matters worse, his adored grandfather (Ciaran Hinds) becomes ill, and his Pa (Jamie Dornan) decides to move the family to get away from the violence that have infected the neighborhood.

Branagh, now 61, was just 29 years old when he reaped Best Director and Best Actor Oscar nomination for his acclaimed “Henry V.” He lost those races and three more since but Sir Kenneth could find himself in the winner’s circle with “Belfast.”

“Belfast” contends for two SAG Awards, including the all-important cast prize. And it has a whopping 11 Critics Choice nominations. It won both Best Picture and screenplay from the Washington D.C. Film Critics Assn and film, director, screenplay, supporting actor and performance by a youth from the Phoenix Film Critics Society.

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