The Oscar Quest: Best Director – 1955

1955 is usually a “skip” year for most people. That is, when you’re reading through a list, looking at all the high and low points, like, “On the Waterfront, all right!”, or, “Around the World in 80 Days? Really?”, when you see 1955 and see Marty, most people, either not recognizing it or viewing it as a kind of blank, just mentally skip past it without a word. Usually they’ll be say the title, but mostly as a mental pause, as they skip ahead to the next film.

The reason for this is that Marty, while a fantastic film utterly deserving of Best Picture this year, isn’t a big film. In any other year, it probably wouldn’t come close to winning. But, it wasn’t in the strongest of categories. And since it doesn’t have too much of a lasting reputation like the films around it do, most people skip it. Which is a shame. It is a great film. Ernest Borgnine won Best Actor for it, and I’ve talked about how, while I wouldn’t have voted for him, it’s great that he won. Also this year, Anna Magnani won Best Actress for The Rose Tattoo, in what was mostly a weak year. I’m somewhat undecided on my feelings on that. Best Supporting Actor went to Jack Lemmon for Mister Roberts, and Best Supporting Actress went to Jo Van Fleet for East of Eden. See? Nothing here particularly stands out, which is why this year, understandably, yet somewhat unfairly, keeps getting skipped over and overlooked.


And the nominees were…

Elia Kazan, East of Eden

David Lean, Summertime

Joshua Logan, Picnic

Delbert Mann, Marty

John Sturges, Bad Day at Black Rock

Kazan — Elia Kazan would have won this Oscar if he didn’t have two already. That’s about as simple as it gets. The direction here is gorgeous, and far and away the best on this list. But, he had two, and he won the year before. So I get why they didn’t want to give him a third.

The film is another one of those moody James Dean films that everyone seems to love. I don’t particularly like the film past how gorgeous it looks, but it is a very good film on all accounts and most people consider it a masterpiece, so it is worth seeing.

James Dean plays a moody son of a farmer who thinks his father likes his brother more. They’ve been raised to believe their mother has died, meanwhile she’s a whore who works in a brothel a few towns over. Dean basically goes through the movie trying to earn his father’s respect. They lost money the previous year, and Dean thinks that if he plants beans, the price for them will skyrocket when war hits (this is WWI, by the way). He goes to his mother and asks for the money, which she gives him. Then Dean starts going with his brother’s girlfriend, right around the time she gets engaged to his brother. And to make matters worse, his father refuses to accept the money because he sees it as war profiteering. Then his brother tells him to stay away from his girl, so Dean takes his brother to see their mother, which shocks him into joining the army. This causes the father to have a stroke, which then leads to father and son bonding.

See what I mean? Boring melodrama shit. Elia Kazan’s direction makes this movie. And he’d be my vote if he hadn’t won twice. I do like to spread the wealth, even though I acknowledge his direction was tops here.

Lean — I don’t know what the fuck this movie was supposed to be at all. From what I saw, this was supposed to be Eat, Pray Love in the 50s. The film acts as nothing more than a travelogue of Rome.

It’s part of Kate Hepburn’s spinster period. She plays a middle-aged teacher who goes to Rome on summer vacation. She meets other Americans, befriends them, has fancy dinners with them, shit like that. She gets upset when she sees couples in love. Then she finds a man and he romances her. And then she has to leave and he runs after her — all that bullshit.

I did not like this film at all. However — David Lean made a gorgeous looking film. Watch this to see beautiful shots of Italy in 1955. Otherwise, not worth it at all. Also, because this is David Lean, and I know he was gonna win his two Oscars for Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia, he actually drops right to the bottom of my list for a vote. One, because, do you really want this on the list of shit he won for along with those two films? But even so, since my vote doesn’t matter in historical matters, Kazan’s direction was more beautiful than Lean’s was, so, no matter how you look at it, he’s not getting my vote.

Logan — Picnic is a film I had zero expectations for and was pleasantly surprised by. I mean, I didn’t love it, but I at least enjoyed myself. This is a glorious example of studio filmmaking in the 50s. It’s big and glorious and Cinemascope. And it’s clearly filmed on the studio lot, which I love seeing. They don’t even hide it. I like when they do that.

The film is about William Holden, who was a big deal in his hometown like twenty years prior. Or maybe it’s ten or five. I forget. I think he’s like 35 and is playing 25. It’s one of those. Gloriously 50s, like I said. And he comes back after drifting for a while — he was a big college football star who left to be an actor. All his small town success went to his head — and visits his old fraternity buddy, who is the son of a rich business owner. He gets a job from him and hangs around with him. The film takes place over the span of a day. Another reason I like it. Everything happens in a reasonable timeline.

There are a lot of subplots here. One is, Kim Novak, who is dating the fraternity buddy, Cliff Robertson, doesn’t love him, but is with him kind of because — well, he likes her, she thinks he’s only with her because she’s pretty, and then his father doesn’t want him to marry her because she’s “beneath” him and her mother wants her to marry him because it’ll help them socially. All of that. Like I said — gloriously 50s. And Holden goes with them all to the annual picnic — he brings Novak’s younger sister as his date, playing the “gentleman.” It’s the kind of thing where, everyone likes him because he’s so charming, so he starts buying into himself again and start telling stories about himself and everyone is taken in by them, whether they’re totally true or not. Then there’s this other subplot of Rosalind Russell as a schoolteacher who rents a room in Novak’s house, who goes to the picnic with a single man her age. And there’s a romance that blossoms between them, secretly.

And what’s great about the whole thing is, sex is clearly happening throughout this film, but, it’s all very hidden. Plus, the town is so uptight about everything the juxtaposition is funny. For instance, Novak’s younger sister wants to fuck Holden, even though he wants nothing to do with her (schoolgirl crush sort of thing), and he wants to fuck Novak, who also kind of wants to fuck him, and then Rosalind Russell and her guy (Arthur O’Connell) really want to fuck each other. It’s pretty funny. Plus there’s a bit where, Novak’s younger sister finds whiskey hidden in Arthur O’Connell’s jacket, which he brought so he and Rosalind Russell could drink and go back and drunkenly screw later on, and she ends up getting sick from it, and then the town gets all up in arms because they think it’s Holden’s whiskey, and “Oh my god, he gave alcohol to a child!” Gloriously 50s.

Then the police are after him, but, Novak is in love with him, so he sneaks around town to see her, and all the people — mostly Novak, Russell, O’Connell and her mother — help hide him in the trunk of a car so he can see her. Then they sneak him out of town, and it ends when he hops a train to another town, and he tries to convince her to come with him, but she doesn’t, and her mother tells her to go after him, which she does. It’s a very nice film. I enjoyed it a lot.

As for the direction, it’s very — lots of studio sets, big budget — I did like it. But, for a vote — I don’t know. Maybe. I’ll have to see.

Mann — Oh, Marty, Marty Marty. I love this film. This is a film tailored to someone like me. It’s a Paddy Chayefsky film. He wrote the original TV movie that it was adapted from. (He’s the dude who wrote Network, in case you can’t place the name.)

The film is about a 35 year old butcher in Brooklyn who lives with his mother, and is just about to give up on love. All the people in the neighborhood (mostly the nosy old ladies. Those bitches) as him when he’s gonna get married, as if it’s that simple, meanwhile he thinks he’s too fat, too old and too boring to meet a good woman. Ernest Borgnine is Marty, by the way. Won an Oscar for it. Is terrific in the film. And one night, he goes out dancing with his friend, played by Joe Mantell, who was nominated for Supporting Actor here, and while there, he’s enlisted as a wingman for his friend. See, his friend found a woman, but she came with a friend, and needs to pawn her off on somebody so she can go out with him, so they both plan on pawning Marty off with the girl and ending both of their problems. Thing is, though, when they meet each other, they notice that they’re exactly the same person. The girl is very shy, and also seems like an outcast of sorts who has trouble finding a man. And they start talking, and dancing, and most of the middle of the film, a good 30-40 minutes, is just them talking, dancing, and walking through the neighborhood together. It’s a brilliantly put together romance. We see them talking to one another, and it’s like, “Holy shit, these two are perfect for one another.” And we see them awkwardly romancing one another, and it’s the most poignant thing in the world. Then there’s some trouble when Marty wants her to meet his mother, and his mother, afraid Marty will abandon her, tries to drive him away from her. And the big climax of the film is Marty not calling the girl back after making a date with her, as he lost his confidence and thinks she won’t be interested in him. But eventually he tells his mother off and decides to call her back. That’s how the movie ends, with him calling her back. It’s a wonderful, wonderful film.

I seriously cannot recommend this film highly enough. I’m so glad it won Best Picture, just so more people can see it now because of it.

As for the direction though — it’s based on a teleplay, is mostly talking, and is directed by a dude who had directed nothing but TV before this. So, the film is pretty stagy, and the direction doesn’t need to be anything more than that. There was one trick I liked in the film, which is, at the dance, while they’re dancing, so as not to require extra camera sets ups and avoid shot/reverse shot, they have Borgnine and Blair (that’s Betsy Blair, she plays the girl. She was nominated for Supporting Actress instead of Actress, probably because she wasn’t as well known and they thought she’d do better in Supporting. But, even though she was lead, she totally should have won and didn’t, and that makes me upset, because she was also brilliant in this movie), dance together and spin around while standing. So the two of them pull an opposite of the Michael Bay shot, which is, they dance and rotate, and the camera stays still. It’s a brilliant way to keep the shot both static and moving at the same time, and allows you to focus entirely on the point of the scene, which is the words and the acting of these two getting to know one another. I thought that was brilliant. Aside from that, though, the direction isn’t particularly spectacular. But since this is my favorite film on the list, and because it won Best Picture, that puts it on the shortlist for a vote automatically.

Sturges — John Sturges is a wonderful director. He never quite got his due when he was working. You know a lot of his films, but this was the only Oscar he was ever nominated for. Here’s a list of the film’s he’s directed:

The Magnificent Yankee (Oscar nominee for Best Actor), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, The Old Man and the Sea (Oscar nominee for Best Actor), The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, The Hallelujah Trail, Ice Station Zebra, Joe Kidd, McQ, and The Eagle Has Landed. But Gunfight, Magnificent Seven and Great Escape alone are enough to make a resume. I’m really surprised he wasn’t recognized more.

This film is an interesting film in that, it’s a noir western. It stars Spencer Tracy, but, we’ll let that part go. I like Spencer Tracy, but, I’m still bitter about him winning those two Oscars for performances that probably shouldn’t have won (one for absolute certainty). The movie takes place in a tiny western town, and then Tracy shows up one day, a stranger with one arm, on a train that hasn’t stopped at their town in four years. He starts asking questions about a Japanese man, which makes everybody nervous. It’s clear something has happened, and they all want to keep it secret, but he keeps asking around. So he goes around, trying to find out, while the men involved try to keep it a secret. The cast is stacked. Aside from Tracy, it has Robert Ryan, Lee Marvin, Dean Jagger, Walter Brennan, Anne Francis and Ernest Borgnine. And the whole thing about the film is, they killed this Japanese man out of a hate crime, basically, even though he didn’t do anything at all. And we find out by the end that the man’s son died saving Tracy in the war, and that the men of the town, anti-Japanese, killed the man because of his nationality, not knowing anything more than the fact that he was Japanese. So Tracy finds out about it, and has all the men arrested and stuff. But the real pleasure of the film is that it’s a noir western, and that it really shines a light on the shitty things Americans did to the Japanese during the war, even though they weren’t the problem. It was just racism. It’s a really wonderful film.

The direction here is really, really good. I probably wouldn’t vote for it in a regular year, but, this isn’t a regular year. This is the type of year where, you’re grasping at straws. So, perhaps.

My Thoughts: Okay, we need to work at this one. It’s really tough. First off — Kazan and Lean — off for a vote. Kazan has two and Lean will get two for much better films than this (not to mention that he should have won twice already for films better than this. And if he didn’t win for those, he certainly shouldn’t have won for this). That leaves Logan, Mann and Sturges.

Now, while I loved Picnic, I just can’t bring myself to vote for Logan. So, he’s out. So now it comes down to Mann and Sturges. I loved Marty the best. That’s my favorite film on this list. But the direction isn’t exactly “must vote for.” It’s based on a teleplay directed by a man who had directed nothing but television before it. (Holy shit, it’s just like Tom Hooper.) He only really won because the film won Best Picture. And Sturges’s direction was good, but I didn’t love the film as much. But, I think where the tiebreaker here lies is in Sturges’s resume. He’s directed a bunch of TV before and after this (and when I say a lot of TV, I mean a fucking lot. He has like forty made for TV movies in the 70s and 80s), and really only directed like four other major pictures. All are based on plays, and they look like plays too, the way he directed them. One is a Cary Grant film, two are known because they got nominated for Supporting Actress Oscars, and the only other big one was Separate Tables, which is a great film, but, not particularly outstanding direction. So, Sturges, for me is the better vote, just so it can be a reward for a director who has made a lot of great stuff. (Dude should have been nominated for The Great Escape. Not having that movie up for Oscars really would have helped that year from being so weak.)

My Vote: Sturges

Should Have Won: No preference, really. Weak year.

Is the result acceptable?: Yeah. It’s a weak year, so you need to respect the Picture/Director combo. Sturges would have been a better choice, but, I understand it. Too bad Preminger wasn’t nominated here for The Man with the Golden Arm. I’d totally have voted for him.

Ones I suggest you see: Well, I’ve said it before, Marty is a hell of a film. Engaging, simple, no pretense, and nice and short. It’s like 95 minutes long or something. You will not regret it, I guarantee you. The characters are just so human and likable. And East of Eden is one of those seminal films, I guess. I don’t love it, even though I recognize it’s a great film. It’s just too much James Dean teenage angst for me. Plus religion. But it’s gorgeous though. I recommend it on that level. Plus it’s a classic, so I recommend it for that reason. It’s a classic, a good film, and is gorgeous. Even though I don’t love it. Bad Day at Black Rock is an interesting noir western. I do recommend it highly even though it’s kind of boring at times. The noir western combo will make any film fan moist in their pants. That alone means you should see it. And Summertime is nice and colorful. It’s like Eat, Pray, Love only less idiotic. They’re very comparable, though. I’d take this because they make Rome look beautiful, and don’t make me want to go through menopause instead of watching it. So, I recommend it instead of Julia Roberts. Otherwise, on its own, take it or leave it. Mostly leave it. And while I’m here, I enjoyed Picnic, but that’s because I love that it’s all clearly shot on a soundstage and I love how 50s studio filmmaking it is. In terms of suggesting a movie for you to watch, one that I think you’ll like the best, Marty would be that film. That’s the one I’d go with here. Marty for enjoyment, East of Eden for film education purposes, Bad Day at Black Rock for a great genre exercise (one that I don’t really remember being repeated like this since Red Rock West, which is also really great. Noir western with Nicolas Cage and Dennis Hopper. I know, I don’t know why aren’t you watching this right now either.), and Picnic is you enjoy studio filmmaking as much as I do.


5) Logan

4) Lean

3) Sturges

2) Kazan

1) Mann

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