The Oscar Quest: Best Director – 1951

1951 is one of those years where — you can’t understand why they chose the way they did. Sure The American in Paris is an enjoyable movie, but, is it a Best Picture winner? That’s the main question we have for this year. Fortunately I don’t have to answer it now, I only have to deal with Best Director.

Best Actor 1951 was Humphrey Bogart for The African Queen. Kind of a makeup Oscar, kind of a career achievement Oscar. Also kept Brando from winning one. We’ll get to that. Best Actress was Vivien Leigh for A Streetcar Named Desire. Best Supporting Actor was Karl Malden, also for Streetcar, and Best Supporting Actress was Kim Hunter, also for Streetcar. I guess four people winning for the same film would have been a bit much. Especially when they weren’t going to award it Best Picture.


And the nominees are…

John Huston, The African Queen

Elia Kazan, A Streetcar Named Desire

Vincente Minnelli, An American in Paris

George Stevens, A Place in the Sun

William Wyler, Detective Story

Huston — John Huston. What a man. The dude was awesome. Most directors are shooting on sound stages — this motherfucker goes out to Africa on location and puts his actors in the Zambezi with crocodiles. This motherfucker holds up production on his film for two days because he went elephant hunting. This motherfucker, decides — hey, it’s Africa — and instead of making sure they had clean water to drink just packed cases of whiskey instead. That’s a man.

Seriously though, on set him and Bogart drank only whiskey because of the not-so-clean waters in Africa. And Katharine Hepburn, non-drinker that she was, tried to make a point that the water was okay, drank nothing but the African water and caught Malaria.

Anyway, The African Queen. The movie is about Bogie, an old drunkard boat captain, riding around in his boat, delivering the mail to the three white people in Africa. This includes Hepburn, the spinster — always the spinster — and her brother, a missionary. They’re trying to teach the natives — it doesn’t work. Plus the Nazis come and shoot up the place and burn it down. So, he dies and Kate gets on the boat with Bogie. And they bicker for a good, forty minutes, including her dumping all his whiskey over the side of the boat (that bitch), and such. Then they get together, eventually, and are navigating through Africa, trying not to be seen by troops. They also hatch a plan to sink a warship that’s preventing American and British troops to get past a certain area. You know how it is.

It’s a fun film, and made all the better by the fact that it’s shot on location in Africa. You practically catch malaria just by watching it. The direction looks nice too. The location shooting adds so much to the film rather than if it were shot in studio. I’m not so crazy about the direction as to automatically appoint a victory, but, it is great. I don’t know though, this feels like a tough category.

Kazan — Elia Kazan. What a master. At this point he only had a Best Director from Gentleman’s Agreement and would get another one for On the Waterfront. I’m sure if there was any doubt he was getting the second one, him not winning this one helped. I thought he did a great job directing this film. Even though it was clearly shot on a studio set, it looked like an environment unto itself. The film felt like its own little world. Few films of the era can truly pull that off.

If you don’t know — and why don’t you — the film is about an aging Southern belle who comes to stay with her sister and her brutish husband (I’m using their language, obviously). And basically she’s got some kind of past she’s trying to hide, while also staving off insanity, which she isn’t doing a very good job of. And the husband is pretty much a brute. It’s one of those carnal relationships. He works, is big and ignorant, gets drunk, hangs out with his friends, does something loud and stupid, she gets angry, he gets violent (but never toward her, at least physically, like, punching), she storms out, he comes outside and calls her back (“Hey Stella!”) and she goes back to him, and they have crazy animal sex. And it pretty much happens all over again. And now that the sister is coming to visit, she throws a monkey wrench in the equation, and the film is just them — well, existing together. I don’t want to say too much, it’s better if you just see it. It’s a great film. Probably should have won Best Picture.

As for the direction, like I said, it’s really good. Nice and dark and smoky, and creates an atmosphere that makes the film feel like its own universe. Problem is, the thing that’s keeping me from wanting to vote for Kazan here is the fact that he has one statue already and will be getting another one. I do like to spread the wealth a little bit, especially when there are worthwhile efforts that aren’t separated by much (at least in my mind) when it comes to voting for a winner. So, that makes me shy away from Kazan. Problem is, every director on this list (save Minnelli) won two Oscars in their career (though, admittedly, Huston’s second Oscar wasn’t for directing like everyone else’s, it was for writing) — which makes this an even tougher decision to make.

Minnelli — Vincente Minnelli is one of the masters of American filmmaking. Just looking at his set design and the choreography and color of his films is something amazing to behold. Now, I don’t think this is his best film by any stretch of the imagination. Just going by musicals alone, Meet Me in St. Louis and The Band Wagon are probably his two best. This is more of a — a gay old time — than anything.

The film is about an American painter — guess where — who tries to woo Leslie Caron (in her very first film. Seriously, look it up. Nothing before this film), while also being benefacted by a woman who intends to sleep with him. And it’s Gene Kelly, so he dances a lot. In fact, the great aspect of the film is that the last twenty minutes of the film feature no dialogue. There’s a 17-minute dance sequence (which may hold the record for longest in a film) with no spoken dialogue in it whatsoever. Which is kind of great.

However — the big problem with this film — and I think everyone can agree on this — it winning Best Picture is almost certainly the reason Gene Kelly’s next film, Singin’ in the Rain, was not nominated the following year. But, you know, Ivanhoe was. Just sayin’.

Now, as for the direction — it’s great. Minnelli was a master of the musical. And of the drama too. In fact, the film he released in 1952, The Bad and the Beautiful, is perhaps the greatest Hollywood film about Hollywood, and is the film that holds the record for most Oscars won without being nominated for Best Picture. That film is in black and white, just pointing out. So the man knew how to direct no matter what the material. So, the direction is great. So far, everything is good, nothing stands out as a “You have to vote for this one,” and this decision is becoming harder and harder to make.

Stevens — Just to be sure what I was going to say about this film, I’m watching it as I write this. SO my perspective on it is fresh as a daisy. I just don’t get it. I don’t get why he won. I mean, I love George Stevens, and he made some great films in his time (including Shane, The More the Merrier, Giant (which he won his other Oscar for), Swing Time, Woman of the Year, The Talk of the Town, and The Diary of Anne Frank), but I just don’t get why he won for this.

The film is about Montgomery Clift, a social climber, who, while poor, works in his rich uncle’s factory. He starts dating a fellow factory worker (Shelley Winters) and things are going well. Then he meets Elizabeth Taylor. Nuff said. She’s one of those society girls who is about town and such. And she fills his head with the “good life” and he gets caught up in it. Problem is, Shelley Winters gets pregnant with his child. So, in order to solve the problem he kills her. Well, not actually. He plans on killing her, but, he has a change of heart and turns to run away, which then causes the boat they’re in to capsize and she drowns. But, the investigation is treated as a murder, and he is arrested. Pity.

Anyway, that’s the film. I wasn’t terribly taken by it. Taylor looked incredible, as she always does, and everything else to me was whatever. The direction looks pretty normal, if not spirited. There are interesting camera placements and such, but really, nothing that jumps out at me as any better than the other nominees. Really don’t. And what’s weird is, no one ever lists this among the worst winners on all the lists. Is it because no one’s seen it? That must be it, right? This is one of those categories I wish everyone had seen all the films so they can actually decide for themselves. I want to hear opinions on ones like this. Because I feel like I’m the only one who’s like, “They did, pick the worst choice possible, didn’t they?” So, no vote. If there’s anyone I’m not voting for here, it’s Stevens. Sorry, George. But, as consolation, Giant did earn you a well-deserved Oscar.

Wyler — I can’t count the number of times William Wyler’s has come up thus far, but I don’t think I properly went over just how many great films this man has directed. So, the next paragraph is going to be nothing more than a list of films William Wyler has directed. And the ones in bold are the ones he was nominated for Oscars for.

Dodsworth, Come and Get It, Dead End, Jezebel, Wuthering Heights, The Westerner (the man directed 2/3 Walter Brennan Oscar-winning performances), The Letter, The Little Foxes, Mrs. Miniver (won), The Best Years of Our Lives (won), The Heiress, Detective Story (obviously), Roman Holiday, The Desperate Hours, Friendly Persuasion, The Big Country, Ben-Hur (won), The Children’s Hour, The Collector, How to Steal a Million, and Funny Girl.

Fucking incredible, right?

The man has three Best Director statues. Had two at this point. I think it’s safe to say that I won’t be voting for him for this film. I’ll tell you in advance, while I loved the directing job on this, it would have had to have been extraordinary to deserve a third Oscar (see: Ben-Hur, the film that won him the third Oscar. It’s like, “What can we do? We have to give it io him”). So now, the film —

The film is one that I ended up liking way more than I thought I would. I thought it would be good, but I wasn’t prepared for just how good. It a film that — actually is kind of like Do the Right Thing. Without the race baiting. It takes place entirely over the span of one day, at a police precinct. And the frame story (ha, get it?) is of this woman who is brought in for shoplifting. Simple shoplifting. And she sits in the precinct all day, and watches all the goings on. And the main story is, Kirk Douglas is one of those ace detectives, who doesn’t play by the rule book, and he’s trying to put a man away for life (he’d previously put him away before on faulty evidence). He’s convinced he butchered this woman (he’s a doctor who practices without a license out in the woods), but can’t prove it. And the man, clearly guilty, comes and taunt him, basically, because he knows something Douglas doesn’t know. And what that is, is that Douglas’s wife, had come to him for an abortion. She had gotten pregnant during a fling with another man. And that’s the storyline that runs through the film, alongside some other instances of a man being arrested who was only looking to help his fiance, and to men robbing houses, stuff like that. It’s a great film. All one location, all in the span of one day. People escape, people get caught, people go in and out — someone gets shot (naturally) — all in a day’s happening. That’s basically the film. I really liked it a lot.

As for the direction, it’s good. It’s not third Oscar good, though. Don’t get me wrong, Wyler does a great job here, and deserved the nomination. but after two Oscars, you need to really win that third one. Which, Ben-Hur. This isn’t Ben-Hur. Though it is a great, great film that I can’t recommend highly enough.

My Thoughts: To me, two of the four worth voting for had two Oscars already, I’d say this category really should have came down to either John Huston or Vincente Minnelli. Now, since Minnelli did not have an Oscar at this point, I’d normally say it should have went to him. But since Minnelli eventually won for Gigi, another musical of his that won Best Picture and wasn’t quite Best Picture material, I’m using that fact to say I’ll probably lean toward Huston. Minnelli deserved an Oscar, and if I had to choose which film to give it to him for, I’d probably say Gigi. I’m not sure why. It just feels like the right one. For a musical, anyway. Otherwise I’d have said The Bad and the Beautiful (which would have severely fucked up the race for 1952, which I’ll get to at some point. Let’s just summarize by saying The Quiet Man and High Noon were involved. Complications would have arisen. More, complications) should have gotten him an Oscar. Anyway, knowing Minnelli got one, I’d say Huston then should have gotten this one. So, that’s what I’m voting for, having the history already in my knowledge.

My Vote: Huston

Should Have Won: I don’t know. I guess anyone but Stevens would have been okay. I’d have preferred either Huston or Minnelli though. And then Kazan would have been fine, too. And then Wyler, as a fourth.

Is the result acceptable?: No. It’s not. Because there were four really great jobs here, and this one was clearly (to me, at least) the weak link of the bunch. I really do feel that either John Huston or Vincente Minnelli should have won this.

Ones I suggest you see: In order — you should see Streetcar, because it’s such a classic. I love The African Queen, but it might not be for everyone. It’ll be for a lot of people, though. Detective Story is a great, great film, and if you’re picking films from the 50s, there are much worse decisions you could make. My way of thinking is, if I’m suggesting people watch a film pre- say, 1970, or even 1960, I try to make it a good one so as not to turn them off from all of them. Some people are like, “I hate black and white films, they’re so boring,” so I try not to give them boring ones to watch, because you never know. So, this one I think won’t be so boring unless people don’t like the genre. Which I guess is cop movie. I don’t know what it is, exactly. Still, it’s a good movie. And An American in Paris. I don’t recommend it as a Best Picture winner, but I do recommend it as a film. It’s a lot of fun. And I love Leslie Caron.


5) Stevens

4) Minnelli

3) Wyler

2) Kazan

1) Huston

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