Monday, March 1, 2010

My Oscar Picks, Part 2: 1945-1955

In this post I'm continuing the process I began last time of comparing my own Oscar picks from among the nominees with the real winners. As before, the opinions expressed in this post are strictly those of the author and are not intended to be taken as objective judgments.


The Winner: The Lost Weekend
My Pick: The Lost Weekend

The Winner: Billy Wilder, The Lost Weekend
My Pick: Billy Wilder, The Lost Weekend

The Winner: Ray Milland, The Lost Weekend
My Pick: Ray Milland, The Lost Weekend

The Winner: Joan Crawford, Mildred Pierce
My Pick: Joan Crawford, Mildred Pierce

The Winner: James Dunn, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
My Pick: Robert Mitchum, The Story of G.I. Joe

The Winner: Anne Revere, National Velvet
My Pick: Eve Arden, Mildred Pierce

This wasn't a particularly strong year in American movies, so the best were pretty easy to identify. Both Milland and Crawford got the roles of their careers and made the most of them. Interestingly, neither was the first choice for the role. Milland got the part after Paramount rejected Wilder's first choice, Jose Ferrer. Crawford was cast only after Bette Davis, Rosalind Russell, and Ann Sheridan turned down the part. I departed from the Academy's choices only in the supporting actor and actress categories, awards that seemed to me based on the sentimental nature of the parts. This was the only nomination Robert Mitchum ever received, for what at the time was his most noticeable part in a major picture. (In the New York Film Critics Circle awards, Mitchum was the runner-up to Milland for best actor.) As well as Eve Arden, Ann Blyth was also nominated for Mildred Pierce, and at this time it was rare for a nominee to prevail when more than one actor was nominated for the same picture. Blyth's role was showy but her acting awfully unsubtle in comparison to Arden, one of the great supporting performers. This is for me her best work, a distillation of her screen essence. Biggest omission: John Ford, best director for They Were Expendable.


The Winner: The Best Years of Our Lives
My Pick: The Best Years of Our Lives

The Winner, William Wyler, The Best Years of Our Lives
My Pick: Robert Siodmak, The Killers

The Winner: Fredric March, The Best Years of Our Lives
My Pick: James Stewart, It's a Wonderful Life

The Winner: Olivia de Havilland, To Each His Own
My Pick: Celia Johnson, Brief Encounter

The Winner: Harold Russell, The Best Years of Our Lives
My Pick: Claude Rains, Notorious

The Winner: Anne Baxter, The Razor's Edge
My Pick: Anne Baxter, The Razor's Edge

The Best Years of Our Lives was not only timely but also an excellent movie. Wyler was such an impeccable craftsman that he was incapable of making a sloppy film. But The Killers, which wasn't nominated for best picture, is not only an essential film noir but also a real director's movie, so I went with Siodmak for best director. I'm a great fan of Fredric March, but I think Dana Andrews gave the better performance in The Best Years of Our Lives, the best of his career, and he wasn't even nominated. James Stewart in Capra's It's a Wonderful Life—one of the greatest, most moving screen performances of all time. It would be impossible for me even to consider any of the other nominees for best actor. Best actress was the weakest it had been in years. The two best performances of the year—Dorothy McGuire in The Spiral Staircase (directed by Siodmak) and Ingrid Bergman in Notorious—weren't even nominated. Olivia de Havilland took best actress for her performance in the soapish To Each His Own. (That Oscar might also have been a reward for her courage in standing up to Jack L. Warner even if it meant not working for a couple of years. A second good performance playing good and evil twins in The Dark Mirror, again directed by Siodmak, probably helped too.) For the first time I went with a British actress, Celia Johnson, in Brief Encounter. Teresa Wright wasn't nominated as best supporting actress for The Best Years of Our Lives, so I stuck with Anne Baxter, the best of those who were nominated. Harold Russell's win was plainly a sentimental one, especially in view of the special award he also received from the Academy for his brave and heartfelt performance. I chose instead Claude Rains, nominated several times before but always bested by someone else. Who else could have actually made you feel sorry for such an unrepentant villain? Biggest omission: Notorious—for picture, director, actor, or actress.


The Winner: Gentleman's Agreement
My Pick: Great Expectations

The Winner: Elia Kazan, Gentleman's Agreement
My Pick: David Lean, Great Expectations

The Winner: Ronald Colman, A Double Life
My Pick: John Garfield, Body and Soul

The Winner: Loretta Young, The Farmer's Daughter
My Pick: Susan Hayward, Smash-Up

The Winner: Edmund Gwenn, Miracle on 34th Street
My Choice: Edmund Gwenn, Miracle on 34th Street

The Winner: Celeste Holm, Gentleman's Agreement
My Choice: Celeste Holm, Gentleman's Agreement

I disagreed with most of the Academy's selections this year. Gentleman's Agreement is another of those noble but dull pictures chosen to show Hollywood's endorsement of Right Thinking. Who today would seriously consider it a significant film? Great Expectations, on the other hand, is to my mind the best movie version of a Dickens novel ever, and also one of the best movies of any kind ever made. Oscar went with sentiment over merit and adhered to the Career Achievement concept with its award of the best acting prizes to Colman for his flashy performance and Young for her earnest one, two respected veterans who finally got a role that justified honoring their entire body of work. I went instead for two younger actors who both gave bold, intense, and exciting performances. I did agree, though, with the Academy's choices in the supporting categories. The supporting actor field was especially strong this year—any of the five nominated performances would have been a worthy choice—but I stuck with Edmund Gwenn's Kris Kringle. Biggest omission: Robert Mitchum, Out of the Past.


The Winner: Hamlet
My Pick: The Red Shoes

The Winner: John Huston, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
My Pick: John Huston, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

The Winner: Laurence Olivier, Hamlet
My Pick: Laurence Olivier, Hamlet

The Winner: Jane Wyman, Johnny Belinda
My Pick: Olivia de Havilland, The Snake Pit

The Winner: Walter Huston, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
My Pick: Walter Huston, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

The Winner: Claire Trevor, Key Largo
My Pick: Claire Trevor, Key Largo

For the second year in a row, I went with a British film for best picture. Michael Powell, who was never nominated for best director, is in my directors' pantheon, and The Red Shoes is my favorite of his many fine movies. (Anthony Lane recently wrote a loving review of this film in the New Yorker, well worth checking out.) This was a great year for John Huston, who directed The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, the finest American film of the year and arguably the first revisionist Western—although the location was transplanted to Mexico—in which he grafted his noir sensibility onto that most American of genres. In addition, he was responsible for my picks for the two best supporting performances of the year as well as two notable performances—Humphrey Bogart in Sierra Madre and Edward G. Robinson in Key Largo—either of which would have been worthy of a best actor nomination. I concurred with the Academy's award to Olivier for best actor for his Hamlet, but I don't see how they failed to give the best actress award to Olivia de Havilland. Jane Wyman's award would have been understandable in another year but not in this one, in which de Havilland gave the best performance of her career and one of the very best of the decade by any American actress. The reason de Havilland lost was likely that just two years earlier the Academy had given her a premature Career Achievement Oscar for To Each His Own. Oscar doesn't tend to repeat itself that soon if it can be avoided. Biggest omission: John Wayne, Red River.


The Winner: All the King's Men
My Pick: The Heiress

The Winner: Joseph L. Mankiewicz, A Letter to Three Wives
My Pick: Carol Reed, The Fallen Idol

The Winner: Broderick Crawford, All the King's Men
My Pick: Gregory Peck, Twelve O'Clock High

The Winner: Olivia de Havilland, The Heiress
My Pick: Olivia de Havilland, The Heiress

The Winner: Dean Jagger, Twelve O'Clock High
My Pick: Ralph Richardson, The Heiress

The Winner: Mercedes McCambridge, All the King's Men
My Pick: Mercedes McCambridge, All the King's Men

All the King's Men strikes me as an uneven picture that plays like a superficial condensation of the 464-page long Pulitzer Prize-winning novel it's based on, carried largely by the strength of the performances. The movie's deficiencies in both narrative and character development are all the more surprising given the screenwriting experience and proven ability of its writer-director, Robert Rossen. A much better movie about the contemporary South—Clarence Brown's Intruder in the Dust, based on the novel by William Faulkner—didn't receive a single nomination. I went instead with yet another literary adaptation directed by William Wyler. While Mankiewicz's winning picture is quite enjoyable, it has nowhere near the gravity and artistry of Carol Reed's The Fallen Idol, the reason I chose Reed for best director. Gregory Peck did what to my mind is the best work of his career in Twelve O'Clock High, and I chose his rounded and subtle performance as the best of the year by an actor. The Academy's choice, Broderick Crawford, was certainly striking as Willie Stark, but I found his performance compromised by the opacity of the character, whose transformation from idealist to corrupt demagogue (the gruff Crawford is much more convincing as the latter) is presented as a fait accompli rather than explained. De Havilland gave another brilliant performance in The Heiress, easily outacting any of the other nominees. For supporting actor, I went with Ralph Richardson as de Havilland's cold father in The Heiress. Biggest omission: James Cagney's unforgettable Cody Jarrett in White Heat.


The Winner: All About Eve
My Pick: All About Eve

The Winner: Joseph L. Mankiewicz, All About Eve
My Pick: Carol Reed, The Third Man

The Winner: Jose Ferrer, Cyrano de Bergerac
My Pick: William Holden, Sunset Blvd.

The Winner: Judy Holliday, Born Yesterday
My Pick: Bette Davis, All About Eve

The Winner: George Sanders, All About Eve
My Pick: George Sanders, All About Eve

The Winner: Josephine Hull, Harvey
My Pick: Thelma Ritter, All About Eve

Another historical year for the number of high-quality pictures released. Best picture was a close call between All About Eve and Sunset Blvd. A tie would have been justified, but I went with Eve by a nose. For best director I chose Carol Reed for The Third Man (not nominated for best picture), the movie that the British Film Institute named the best British film of the 20th century. I divided the acting awards between Eve and Sunset Blvd. Davis's incredible failure to win best actress for her Margo Channing is probably down to the fact that costar Anne Baxter was also nominated, thus splitting the vote. Draining more votes away from Davis was Gloria Swanson in her comeback performance as the demented has-been Norma Desmond. Another factor at play was that at the time nobody had won three times for best lead performance, and perhaps the Academy voters were reluctant to break that precedent for Davis, who had recently left Warner Bros. after a string of flops. As for Holden, nothing in his ten-year-long career had suggested he was capable of this level of acting, and perhaps Academy voters were simply caught off-guard. Maybe they were too mesmerized by Swanson's flamboyance in the same picture to recognize the subtlety of Holden's introspective performance. Or maybe his opportunistic Joe Gillis simply hit too close to home for comfort. In the supporting categories, I went with George Sanders as the acidulous Addison de Witt and Thelma Ritter as the wise and loyal Birdie in All About Eve. (Maybe Mankiewizc should have gotten a special award for creating the most amusing character names.) Biggest omission: Humphrey Bogart's Dixon Steele in In a Lonely Place.


The Winner: An American in Paris
My Pick: A Streetcar Named Desire

The Winner: George Stevens, A Place in the Sun
My Pick: Elia Kazan, A Streetcar Named Desire

The Winner: Humphrey Bogart, The African Queen
My Pick: Marlon Brando, A Streetcar Named Desire

The Winner: Vivien Leigh, A Streetcar Named Desire
My Pick: Vivien Leigh, A Streetcar Named Desire

The Winner: Karl Malden, A Streetcar Named Desire
My Pick: Karl Malden, A Streetcar Named Desire

The Winner: Kim Hunter, A Streetcar Named Desire
My Pick: Thelma Ritter, The Mating Season

The most astounding year for misguided awards since 1941. I can only infer that even though its preoccupation with sex had been toned down from the stage version, A Streetcar Named Desire was just too shocking and unconventional for the Academy. Instead, they went for the charming but innocuous An American in Paris (far from the best Hollywood musical) for best picture and gave a Career Achievement Award to George Stevens for his tasteful direction of A Place in the Sun. It is incomprehensible that Marlon Brando was denied an Oscar for the most innovative and influential performance by an actor of the decade. That Humphrey Bogart got a Career Achievement Oscar for his emasculated character performance in The African Queen is simply a travesty, a repudiation of the forceful screen persona he had worked so hard to establish during the previous ten years. At least the Academy realized that Vivien Leigh, playing a delusional middle-aged version of Scarlett O'Hara, was as in 1939 the only reasonable choice for best actress. For best supporting actress I chose Thelma Ritter for the second year in a row for this, her best comedy performance, over Kim Hunter, who I thought was overshadowed by her costars. Biggest omission: Robert Walker, Strangers on a Train.


The Winner: The Greatest Show on Earth
My Pick: High Noon

The Winner: John Ford, The Quiet Man
My Pick: Fred Zinneman, High Noon

The Winner: Gary Cooper, High Noon
My Pick: Gary Cooper, High Noon

The Winner: Shirley Booth, Come Back, Little Sheba
My Pick: Julie Harris, The Member of the Wedding

The Winner: Anthony Quinn, Viva Zapata!
My Pick: Jack Palance, Sudden Fear

The Winner: Gloria Grahame, The Bad and the Beautiful
My Pick: Jean Hagen, Singin' in the Rain

In this year's best picture race a bloated, lavish entertainment once again prevailed over a smaller, more intimate picture. Maybe Westerns weren't taken seriously; a Western hadn't won since Cimarron in 1931 and wouldn't again for several more decades. Or maybe the possibility that High Noon could be interpreted as a condemnation of McCarthyism (this during the height of the Cold War and the Hollywood blacklists) scared off the Academy. (I've never particularly seen the movie in this light myself, always focusing more on the universality of its depiction of collective cowardice.) High Noon's director was snubbed too, in favor of veteran John Ford for the ultimate expression of his Irish fetish in the cornball (but in its way amusing) blarney of The Quiet Man. At least Gary Cooper, perfectly cast as the laconic sheriff under pressure, was justly rewarded for his performance in High Noon. Shirley Booth took best actress for her turn as a pathetic frump in Come Back, Little Sheba, but I have to admit that this is a performance I find wearing and that after a while begins to irritate. I can understand how living with her would drive Burt Lancaster to drink! Instead I went for Julie Harris as Carson McCullers's Frankie in another Zinneman film, the underappreciated The Member of the Wedding. She's not wholly convincing as a 12-year old but might pass for a mature 14-year old. Still, it's a mighty impressive performance, a unique character played with amazing concentration and conviction. I have a weakness for psycho characters, even if the Academy doesn't, and for supporting actor went with Jack Palance's psycho in the Joan Crawford damsel-in-distress melodrama Sudden Fear. I like Gloria Grahame a lot, but apparently the Academy didn't like the bad girls she played to a tee (including the one in Sudden Fear) and rewarded her instead for this rather bland, minuscule part. For supporting actress I picked Jean Hagen's broadly comical Lina Lamont in Singin' in the Rain. Biggest omission: Singin' in the Rain for best picture.


The Winner: From Here to Eternity
My Pick: From Here to Eternity

The Winner: Fred Zinneman, From Here to Eternity
My Pick: Fred Zinneman, From Here to Eternity

The Winner: William Holden, Stalag 17
My Pick: Montgomery Clift, From Here to Eternity

The Winner: Audrey Hepburn, Roman Holiday
My Pick: Audrey Hepburn, Roman Holiday

The Winner: Frank Sinatra, From Here to Eternity
My Pick: Frank Sinatra, From Here to Eternity

The Winner: Donna Reed, From Here to Eternity
My Pick: Thelma Ritter, Pickup on South Street

The Academy made up for its mistakes of the year before by giving Oscars to Zinneman and his follow-up picture. This is a movie that still impresses me today. Its narrative strategy of relating two connected but parallel stories that barely intersect seems years ahead of its time. William Holden got his Oscar for playing a softened version of essentially the same character as in Sunset Blvd. but in a different environment and with a more acceptable outcome, thus removing any implicit criticism of the Hollywood establishment. He was probably helped by the dual nominations for best actor for From Here to Eternity. Burt Lancaster's performance in the movie seemed to attract more attention than Montgomery Clift's, but I went with Clift as the tortured Private Prewitt. Audrey Hepburn hit the big time with an irresistible performance, and there was no way anyone else was going to get the Oscar for best actress this year, a sentiment with which I completely concur. Donna Reed was impressive in the Zinneman picture, but the great Thelma Ritter, who for me can do no wrong, gave her best performance ever in a rare dramatic role in Samuel Fuller's Cold War film noir Pickup on South Street, and I went with her for best supporting actress for the third time in four years. Biggest omission: The Naked Spur—for picture, director, actor, supporting actor (Robert Ryan), or supporting actress (Janet Leigh).


The Winner: On the Waterfront
My Pick: On the Waterfront

The Winner: Elia Kazan, On the Waterfront
My Pick: Alfred Hitchcock, Rear Window

The Winner: Marlon Brando, On the Waterfront
My Pick: Marlon Brando, On the Waterfront

The Winner: Grace Kelly, The Country Girl
My Pick: Judy Garland, A Star Is Born

The Winner: Edmond O'Brien, The Barefoot Contessa
My Pick: Edmond O'Brien, The Barefoot Contessa

The Winner: Eva Marie Saint, On the Waterfront
My Pick: Eva Marie Saint, On the Waterfront

For once the Academy's concept of best largely conformed to mine. I departed from their choice in only two categories, but those departures were significant ones. Alfred Hitchcock, like Cary Grant and Greta Garbo, is one of those classic film artists whose lack of an Oscar is frequently cited as proof of the Academy's disconnect with quality and consequent irrelevance. Rear Window (not nominated for best picture) is without a doubt Hitchcock's most loved film, by cinephiles and ordinary moviegoers alike. It satisfies and entertains in an exhilarating way that no other American movie of the year does, and those qualities are clearly down to Hitchcock's expertise in the manipulation of material, actors, visual realization, and above all audience reaction to achieve precisely calculated effects. Grace Kelly, who appeared in no less than five films released this year, was a lovely and enchanting actress, especially when directed by Alfred Hitchcock. But her Oscar for her dowdy performance in The Country Girl has always mystified me. Perhaps it was a reward for deglamorizing herself and playing against type, hardly the last time this would happen. Judy Garland, on the other hand, gave a big, flavorful, and variegated performance in A Star Is Born. (She is said to have lost to Kelly by just six votes, one of the closest races in Oscar history.) Garland, who hadn't appeared on the screen in four years, was probably hurt by the feeling that she was past her prime (while Kelly's star was on the rise) and by her reputation for neurotic, unprofessional behavior. Also unhelpful was the fact that the movie was butchered after previews. The film's director, George Cukor, certainly attributed her loss to pre-release tampering with the picture by Warner Bros. and has stated that neither he nor Garland could bear to watch the release version of the movie, knowing what had been removed. Garland's brilliance shines through even in the truncated version that remained after re-editing, but it wasn't until the restored version of 1983 that the full genius of her performance (or of costar and fellow nominee James Mason's) could be appreciated. Biggest omission: James Stewart, Rear Window.


The Winner: Marty
My Pick: Marty

The Winner: Delbert Mann, Marty
My Pick: Delbert Mann, Marty

The Winner: Ernest Borgnine, Marty
My Pick: James Dean, East of Eden

The Winner: Anna Magnani, The Rose Tatoo
My Pick: Katharine Hepburn, Summertime

The Winner: Jack Lemmon, Mr. Roberts
My Pick: Jack Lemmon, Mr. Roberts

The Winner: Jo Van Fleet, East of Eden
My Pick: Betsy Blair, Marty

Many people find Marty overly sentimental, but I've liked this movie since I first saw it many years ago. I find its sentiment honest and, by Hollywood standards, pretty restrained, and for once Paddy Chayevsky's writing isn't saddled with a heavy-handed Message. If East of Eden, The Night of the Hunter, or Rebel Without a Cause had been nominated for best picture, making a choice would have been much more difficult. I was tempted to diverge from the Academy's choice of best director because Elia Kazan was nominated (Nicholas Ray, who would have been my first choice, wasn't), but in the end I didn't really see any reason to split the picture and director awards. Ernest Borgnine got a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with the lead in Marty. However, I went with James Dean. Admittedly, his equally fine performance in Rebel Without a Cause the same year influenced me in this choice. Dean was probably too young and too radical in his acting style to prevail over Borgnine, and the Academy voters might have been thinking that if he turned out not to be a flash-in-the-pan, he would have more chances to compete for the award. I like Magnani very much, but subtlety was not part of her acting style, and nowhere is this more apparent than in her English language movies. I adore Hepburn's finely calibrated acting in Summertime and for best actress went with her graceful performance instead. I didn't find Jo Van Fleet in East of Eden that impressive, most of her costars giving stronger performances—including Julie Harris and Raymond Massey, neither one nominated. For best supporting actress I preferred Betsy Blair's touching performance as the repressed, parent-dominated teacher in Marty. Perhaps all those other wins for the picture hurt her chances, and the Academy felt compelled to recognize East of Eden with some award. Biggest omission: The Night of the Hunter—best picture, director, actor, or supporting actress (Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish).

THE SUMMING UP 1934-1955

Agreed: 9
Disagreed: 13

Agreed: 11
Disagreed: 11

Agreed: 6
Disagreed: 16

Agreed: 7
Disagreed: 15

Agreed: 12
Disagreed: 8

Agreed: 11
Disagreed: 9

During these years, I disagreed with the Academy most often in the lead acting awards. The reason is likely that these are the awards most influenced by personal popularity with peers, by box office success, and by sentimental appeal. But I must say that even though the Academy didn't duplicate my pick all that often, the choices they did make were generally acceptable ones—good performances that I can live with. The majority might not have been my own preference, and it's shocking how many memorable performances weren't even nominated, but looking back over the list of winners, I can't think of any winning performances that were downright mediocre. Although I disagreed with the best picture awards less often, I would say that those were, in comparison, far more serious disagreements. The Great Ziegfeld over Dodsworth, The Life of Emile Zola over The Awful Truth, How Green Was My Valley over Citizen Kane, Gentlemen's Agreement over Great Expectations, An American in Paris over A Streetcar Named Desire, The Greatest Show on Earth over High Noon—to my mind these are all horribly misguided awards. I think that this pattern of making forgivable mistakes over the acting awards and horrendously glaring mistakes over the best picture award is one that has continued to plague the Academy even beyond the years under consideration in these last two posts, and I expect this pattern to persist for as long as the Oscars continue.


Judy said...

Very much enjoyed reading both your Oscar posts, which really show the amazing depth of your knowledge and appreciation of film. I'm delighted to see you pick John Garfield in 'Body and Soul' - and definitely agree with you that 'The Greatest Show on Earth', visually spectacular though it might be, had no business whatsoever winning best film, especially against 'High Noon'! Great stuff, RD.

Quirky Character said...

So much to comment on, agree and disagree. I need to think about it...