The Oscar Quest: Best Director – 1954

Oh, I love 1954 very much. Not necessarily as a year in and of itself (though I’m sure I can produce a nice list of great films that came out this year if I went to the trouble to do so), but in terms of the Oscars. How can you not like a year that includes On the Waterfront winning Best Picture, Best Director for Elia Kazan (his second), Best Actor for Marlon Brando, and Best Supporting Actress for Eva Marie Saint. Right there, you have what amounts to a near perfect year.

Also this year, you have the added bonus of Grace Kelly vs. Judy Garland for Best Actress, with Grace winning for The Country Girl. I haven’t yet decided who I’d vote for there. But it’s such a highly contested race, I might actually have it be the last category I do (maybe…we’ll see). And Best Supporting Actor this year was Edmond O’Brien for The Barefoot Contessa, mostly as a result of a vote split between the three Waterfront nominees (much like Supporting Actor 1972). Not one bad decision in the bunch. And the one that kind of was, was totally understandable because of the situation. Plus Edmond O’Brien is awesome. Just watch this. So, 1954 is a great year all around. We should be lucky to have a year like this.


And the nominees were…

Alfred Hitchcock, Rear Window

Elia Kazan, On the Waterfront

George Seaton, The Country Girl

William A. Wellman, The High and the Mighty

Billy Wilder, Sabrina

Hitchcock — This is one of two nominees on here where you can just go, “Look at it. What more do you need?” I mean — it’s Rear Window.

You know the story, right? (If you say anything about the Shia Labeouf version, you’ll be shanked.) Jimmy Stewart, photographer, broken leg, stuck in his apartment for six weeks, watches the neighbors through binoculars, thinks he sees a man who may have killed his wife. He brings his nurse (Thelma Ritter) and girlfriend (Grace Kelly) into it as well. He starts telling them his suspicions, and they start to get curious as well. And that’s the movie, basically. There are other subplots that are actually very interesting, largely because it’s a romantic subplot and contains Hitchcock’s second favorite (or first, maybe) cinematic technique (after building suspense) — being “naughty.” This sequence is full of sexual innuendo. It’s so fucking great how they did it. Between this and To Catch a Thief, Grace Kelly was all over the sex this year.

Anyway, we all know this is an amazing film, and one of the best efforts of Hitchcock’s career. He totally deserved the Oscar here, but I don’t know if I can vote for him. I mean — it’s On the Waterfront.

Kazan — It’s On the Waterfront. That about says it all.

Brando, ex-boxer, works on the docks, helps them “get” a guy who ratted on the bosses’ shady practices, gets cozy treatment, realizes how corrupt it all is, falls in love with guy’s sister, “Coulda been a contender,” decides to rat on them because it’s the right thing to do, about Kazan’s situation with HUAC during the blacklist, classic film, one of the best ever made — you know about this. And if you don’t, you certainly don’t need me to tell you how much you need to see it.

The direction here is perfect. I can’t really compare it to Rear Window, since both are different in terms of execution, but, I just can’t not vote for this. I just can’t.

Seaton — I went into this film knowing nothing about it except that Grace Kelly won an Oscar for it, beating Judy Garland, who was, and still is, in a way, the sentimental choice for that year. Groucho Marx called it “the biggest robbery since Brinks,” which I assume was a major robbery of the time. Normally when I know this, I have a certain mindset when I start watching the film, but here, I was immediately disarmed, and that’s largely due to the way the film starts and what it’s about. Let me explain:

William Holden is a playwright. He wrote a new play and is in the middle of casting. He wants to cast a fading star, played by Bing Crosby. He used to be a big stage star, but disappeared after giving in to the drink, and Holden is thinking this could be his big comeback part. And the opening scene is the audition of Crosby. And we see them arguing about letting him have the part — the producer is adamantly against it — and eventually Crosby gets to audition. And we see him and we can clearly tell he’s nervous as fuck. We know he’s still struggling with giving into his addiction, and we see he hasn’t been on a stage in a while and is nervous about screwing up. And eventually he gets the part, because Holden largely agrees to shoulder the blame should something happen. Now, when he goes to Crosby’s apartment (because he left immediately following the audition), he meets his wife, played by Grace Kelly. She’s a plain-looking woman who looks prematurely aged. She’s cold, and she’s bitter. And because Crosby made some remarks about her, Holden sees her and looks at her as the reason Crosby is so nervous. He starts watching the way Kelly acts, and it seems as though she’s sapping Crosby’s confidence. And Holden thinks she’s going to ruin his chances to get back on the stage by running him down into the ground. He thinks she’s the reason he keeps almost relapsing. And that’s mostly the film. I’ll explain what happens next in the next two paragraphs. If you really want to enjoy the film, I suggest you stop reading. It’s a fantastic fucking movie.

Now, over the course of rehearsals, Grace Kelly shows up and is like Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca. She’s this sinister presence, who, when she’s gone, things seem to be going well, except when Crosby says things about her, and when she shows up, all the progress Crosby makes toward the role is immediately taken away. And Holden gets openly hostile toward her, because he sees her as ruining Crosby’s performance. He blames her for Crosby’s failing career, saying she’s convinced him he can’t do it. Then she tells him the real reason for Crosby’s disappearance — their 5-year old son was killed one day in an accident while with him. What we actually realize is, Crosby is actually the problem, not Kelly. He’s still an alcoholic, and a mean one at that. He is also totally dependent on his wife, so she’s taking care of him and doing basically everything for him, and that’s why she’s so aged. It’s not because she wants to present herself as a cold ice queen, it’s because she loves her husband and because he’s so demanding of her. All the stuff that happened, he blamed Kelly for, when really, it was Crosby the whole time, and he was just saying all that stuff to Holden to manipulate Holden into thinking it was her. He’d always be like the person who got hit in the face and, when you asked them about it, they’re like, “I — I fell down some stairs.” So naturally you start assuming who did it and why, and soon you create the whole narrative yourself without them having to do anything. (Note: I love this shit. I do it all the time.)

So what happens is, Holden realizes his idea that she was a suicidal drunk, taking out her own state on her husband, is actually the reverse. And he realizes the hatred he had toward her is actually a strong attraction, and, well, you know. And then the opening night happens, and Crosby is great. And he gets all the confidence back that he previously didn’t have. And because of this, Holden thinks Kelly will now be free to live him, because now he can take care of himself and stand up for himself and not just be a heavy burden on her. But instead, she sticks by him, continuing to ride it out, for his sake.

It’s a fucking great movie. I was surprise at how much I loved it. What really kept me from forming any kind of opinion on it was the opening scene, where they kept what I thought was the main attraction to the film (Kelly’s Oscar win) to the side, and introduced me to all the other great attractions of the film (Crosby’s performance — which is fucking amazing — the film itself, which is really great, and the fact that it was also nominated for Best Picture and Best Director, and Best Actor). I really fell in love with this one.

Now, the direction. Yeah — it’s pretty standard for a black and white film. Especially a prestige picture. I noticed a lot of noir lighting, which made Kelly look more sinister at times, and I thought that was a nice touch. But, on a list with On the Waterfront and Rear Window, this wouldn’t be more than third, at best, on my vote and rankings list. But that’s how things happen sometimes. And hell, with an Audrey Hepburn movie still to come, it might only get fourth. Which — actually makes this a pretty strong year. Though, for a vote it’ll probably go ahead of Wilder. But still, fine direction and a great film. Great, great film.

Wellman — Oh, man, this movie. Where to begin with this fucking thing?

I’m not particularly sure how this film managed to get so many nominations. Okay, you know the movie Peyton Place? The big, sweeping melodrama that gave way to the soap opera of the same name? If not, you’ll know about it when we get to 1957. Just think of it as essentially the forebearer of soap operas. Well, take that, mix it up in a jar with Airport, which is basically a disaster movie cum melodrama, shake it up and pour it out — you’ll get this movie.

The film is basically a disaster movie laced with melodrama. Heavy on the latter, dependent on the former. That is, a bunch of different people are on a plane. The pilots are John Wayne and Robert Stack. The plane develops engine problems midway through a flight from Hawaii to San Francisco and is in danger of going down. So, basically, the film is all of the individual stories playing out, then this disaster taking over one part of the story, then the people find out about it — you know how the plane disaster movie works. One character has marital issues, one is a drunk, one is a Nazi hiding out as a dentist — shit like that. You know how they do it. And, of course, you know if the Duke is piloting that plane, that motherfucker ain’t going down for nothing. I mean, come on. John Wayne will get shot in the back by an Injun or a “low down dirty coward,” or get sniped by a Jap sniper, but he will not let his motherfuckin’ plane, crash into the motherfuckin’ Pacific. I’m pretty sure that was the tagline to this movie.

I’m not particularly sure why this movie did so well at the Oscars. A lot of them did in this era. I guess because they’re trying to class up the genre, so when a prestige picture came out, they had to recognize it. Either way, the direction here is fine, though most of it is in the cockpit set, and then there are outside shots of the plane. It’s not like they really had some inventive directing here. But it is Wild Bill Wellman, and I support him getting nominations, so, I’m cool with this. He’s clearly my #5, but, I’m cool with this.

Wilder — Billy Wilder seriously is my hero. Just the amount of great films this man has written and/or directed. The number is astounding. This, to me, is actually one of his lesser works, though I know people who swear by this film. I like the film a lot, of course, and in his oeuvre, I consider it like, 65% of the way up the list. Like, if I were ranking from favorite and/or best film down to what I consider his weakest films, this one would be 65% of the way up the list. If there were 30 films on there, and I ranked them from one being my favorite and 30 being least favorite, this would almost certainly be between 10 and 15 for me. Understand? I don’t love it, love it, but, the man has so many wonderful films it’s almost impossible not to have it in that area.

The film is about Audrey Hepburn as a chauffeur’s daughter, who lives amongst the servants in the guest house of a very wealthy family. The family has the businessman father, and two sons, one Humphrey Bogart and one William Holden. Bogart is the less interesting one, the one who is very even keeled, who will clearly be the successor to his father’s company. He focuses himself on business and doesn’t really have time for love. Holden, on the other hand, is the playboy. He gets drunk all the time, goes out with women, shows up drunk to business meetings, shit like that. And Audrey is upset that she’s just a servant’s daughter, and one night tries to kill herself (by starting all the cars in the garage and trying to inhale the fumes). Then she decides to go away for a while, and ends up traveling to France, where she learns French culture and how to cook. And when she comes back, she’s this stylish woman, who is so cultured she makes both Bogart and Holden’s heads turn. Before this, Bogart saw her almost as a child and Holden treated her facetiously, even though she was madly in love with him. He would talk to her and humor her, but was never seriously interested in her. Now, however, the foot’s in the other shoe. And then the romance starts between the two, and she sort of romances both brothers, and you’re not sure which one she’s gonna end up with, and it’s Billy Wilder, so it’s witty and has sexual overtones, all that good stuff. It’s a really great film, just, like I said, not my favorite Billy Wilder movie. I prefer The Apartment and Stalag 17 and — I won’t get into it. The list is too long.

Wilder’s direction here is good as it always is. But, he already had an Oscar for The Lost Weekend, and, quite frankly, didn’t need this one (nor did he need the one for The Apartment, which fucked over Hitchcock six years after this, so that makes this even more okay), and with Rear Window and On the Waterfront, there’s no way he’s better than #3 on my rankings and #4 for a vote here. Which, thank god, I’d rather only have to decide between the two great films. Any more than that would be madness.

My Thoughts: Oh, this sucks. My hands are completely tied. I want to vote Hitchcock in the worst way, but — it’s On the Waterfront. I can’t not vote for it. I realize this is one of Hitchcock’s greatest efforts, but, it’s On the Waterfront. Man, this sucks. (My consolation is, Hitchcock totally should have won in 1960 for Psycho. Billy Wilder didn’t need the extra Oscar. So I’m voting for him there. What can I do?)

My Vote: Kazan

Should Have Won: Kazan, Hitchcock

Is the result acceptable?: Yes. Independently of itself it’s one of the best decisions they ever made. I mean, it’s On the Waterfront.

Ones I suggest you see: On the Waterfront is a classic. It’s a must-see. If you haven’t seen it, then you don’t really like movies. Rear Window is a classic. It’s a must-see. If you haven’t seen it, then you don’t like movies and are just an idiot for passing up such a great film. Sabrina is a great film. Audrey Hepburn should be enough, but throw in Billy Wilder, Humphrey Bogart and William Holden, and for any fan of cinema that amounts to a must-see film. For most people, you’re getting one of the best romance films ever made. But it’s Audrey Hepburn, so you knew that already. The Country Girl is a great film, with top notch performances by William Holden, Grace Kelly, and especially Bing Crosby. It’s a tremendous fucking movie that I cannot recommend highly enough. Seriously, it’s really great. And The High and the Mighty, I recommend if you’re a fan of those big melodrama disaster movies, like Airport and shit. It’s really over the top, and you get The Duke in it too. It’s one of those fun films to just sit and watch when you’re vegging out on the couch for the weekend.


5) Wellman

4) Seaton

3) Wilder

2) Hitchcock

1) Kazan

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