The Oscar Quest: Best Director – 1949

1949. Good year, but not a great one. I like it, but don’t love it. All the King’s Men. A good film, but not really a great one. In another year, it probably wouldn’t win Best Picture. But this isn’t another year. Broderick Crawford wins Best Actor for the film, which I think is a great decision (as I’ve talked about here), and Mercedes McCambridge wins Best Supporting Actress for it as well. She was really the only choice. After that, Best Actress was Olivia de Havilland for The Heiress, which, even though it was her second one, was richly deserved. She was by far the best in the category. And Best Supporting Actor was Dean Jagger for Twelve O’Clock High, a decision I haven’t fully formulated an opinion on yet.

That’s it, really. Good decisions, but nothing outstanding. This category, however — introduces a real catch-22 in the history of the Best Director category. I’ll tell you what it is right now. Joseph L. Mankiewicz wins this. I don’t think he should have. I didn’t think his effort was that great. However, he also wins Best Director the year after this, for All About Eve. Which, is a good effort. Problem is, that year, he beat two films generally considered to be two of the the best directorial efforts of all time, Billy Wilder for Sunset Bouelvard and Carol Reed for The Third Man. And therein lies the catch-22. If Mankiewicz doesn’t win here, he definitely wins there, where he really shouldn’t have won. But he wins here, and he shouldn’t have. So what do you do? He should probably have a statue, but, I can’t (or won’t) vote for him in either of these years. So what do you do? See what I mean? How do you win? (You don’t. And that, ladies and gentleman, is the Academy Awards.)


And the nominees were…

Joseph L. Mankiewicz, A Letter to Three Wives

Carol Reed, The Fallen Idol

Robert Rossen, All the King’s Men

William A. Wellman, Battleground

William Wyler, The Heiress

Mankiewicz — A Letter to Three Wives is — kind of — a women’s film. It’s definitely a melodrama, but I think it’s trying to be a film about the lives of women of the era. You know, a film that purports to be realistic and yet, it’s the furthest thing from it?

It’s about three women. They get a letter from a fourth woman (who is never seen in the film), telling them that one of their husbands has run away with her. And the rest of the film is a bunch of flashbacks, in which each of the women think about all the reasons why their husband might be the one who left. You know the structure. They get the letter, talk amongst themselves, then the camera closes in on one of them, who has the inner monologue of, “I wonder if it is Frank. He wouldn’t run away, would he? But then, he was behaving quite strangely at the party we had last week…” and we dissolve to the flashback. And then when it’s over, we return to the present, and then move on to the next woman. That’s how it is. You see it a lot in television shows. After all the cartoons I’ve seen as a child, I’ve seen this structure so many times.

One of the women is Jeanne Crain, who was nominated for Best Actress this year for Pinky. She’s a woman who is uncomfortable in the whole social scene that her husband thrusts her into. She’s more a simple farm girl. Another is Ann Sothern, who is married to Kirk Douglas. She writes radio stories, and Douglas is a teacher. He’s insecure about the fact that his wife makes more money than he does. And the third wife is Linda Darnell, Chihuahua herself (that’s My Darling Clementine, for those who don’t know what I’m talking about). She’s a girl who grew up poor and got married to a rich man, kind of against his wishes. He’s older than she is, and they’re not really a loving couple, but have a pretty stable marriage. And at the end of the film, after the flashbacks, all the women come home one at a time, and we find out which one of the husbands left. First, Ann Sothern comes home and finds Kirk Douglas there (she believed he was having an affair, because the woman who ran away with the husband was trying to get him, and gave him a record he listened to a lot), and they make up and she says she’ll be a better wife to him.

See where this is going? The scare makes them realize what they have. Then they go to dinner, and we find out the husband who isn’t there was the farm girl’s husband. She thinks he ran away, and, seeing Darnell and her husband arguing, she has an argument with him, before admitting her husband ran away. But then he comes back and says he was the one who ran away. A nice little bait and switch, since society boy was the obvious choice. He says he changed his mind and came back. So now farm girl goes home, happy that her husband hasn’t run away, and then the older dude tells Darnell that he did run away, so now she can divorce him and take all his money. But, she realizes how much he loves her, and they make up. Meanwhile, the entire film is narrated by the woman who ran away with the husband (which, for trivia purposes, is Celeste Holm’s voice).

It’s a pretty good film. I did enjoy it immensely. But I really don’t understand why Mankiewicz won Best Director. I assume it’s because of how he handled the flashback structure. I really don’t know. He’d clearly be my fifth choice here. He wouldn’t be close to a vote, and I’ve said that already, so I won’t try to explain it any further than — here are the other four nominees. You’ll see why he didn’t deserve to win.

Reed — Carol Reed. This man directed on of, what I feel, is one of the top ten movies ever made. It’s in my personal top five favorite films of all time. That’s The Third Man. He was nominated three times for Best Director, winning the third time, for admittedly his most Academy-friendly film, Oliver!, which also won Best Picture and also has the distinction of him winning Best Director over Stanley Kubrick for 2001: A Spacey Odyssey. Considering his Third Man effort was beaten by All About Eve, I think all can be considered relatively even. I said relatively. I still think Joseph Mankiewicz shouldn’t have won.

Anyway, The Fallen Idol s a great film. It’s about a young boy who idolizes his butler, Baines. You see, his father is dead (I believe), and his mother is often out of town. He idolizes his butler, and hates his butler’s wife. Because the butler is cool, and lets him slide, and his wife is strict and makes up for all the slack the butler lets him get away with. And the film is shown from the point of view of the child, which is wonderful, because you really get a sense of what’s going on from both sides. And Baines tells the kid all these stories, like, how he went to Africa and shot a man in self-defense, stories he figures are just a good time (he’s never been out of the country), but the boy believes them. He believes them so much he remembers details Baines himself has forgotten about.

And one day, the boy’s mother goes away, and the boy wants to play with Baines. He acts out a bit, and Baine’s wife sends him to his room. He’s upset. He wants to play with Baines. He sees Baines leave the house and follows him. Baines goes to a cafe, where he meets a woman. The boy shows up, and Baines introduces her as his niece. The thing is, though, from our perspective, the way they’re acting, we know they’re lovers, and that Baines really wants to leave his wife for her (having seen the way his wife is, we understand), but cannot, for various reasons. And the kid doesn’t understand this. He believes what Baines says. And he goes back, and even though Baines tells him not to tell his wife, the kid can’t help it, he’s a kid. He lets slip, and the wife finds out about Baines and the woman. And she concocts a scheme, whereby she pretends to go away for a day, and Baines brings the woman into the house. And the wife shows up at night, having told the kid (telling him to keep a secret. So now the kid is “holding” two secrets. One that Baines was with the woman and one that the wife knows about it. And the wife shows up, there’s a huge fight, and the wife ends up dying.

Now, this is all accidental. You see, earlier in the film, the boy was shown playing by a window, because it allowed him to see across the way into a bedroom. And it was a window that swung inward, and could pick a person up off the ground. Here’s a picture of the window”

See what I’m talking about? And what happens is, the wife goes over to see what Baines and the woman are doing, and slips and falls down the stairs and breaks her neck. And the boy, who was watching from afar, only sees the wife fall, and sees Baines, having struggled with her just before, and seeing him on the stairs just after, thinks Baines killed her.

So now the police come. And the rest of the film is a series of lies and truths and people trying to do what they think is best. For instance, the boy was doing all he could to protect Baines, because he believed him to be guilty, but him trying to protect Baines did Baines more harm than good. They made him appear guilty, because the kid was telling the police about the time Baines shot a man in self-defense and all that. And then Baines was lying to protect his lover, and she’s trying to get the boy to tell the truth, because she knows if the boy keeps lying, he’ll get Baines in prison. And then when the boy starts telling the truth, it’s because he believes Baines is guilty, so says Baines is guilty, and things just get worse and worse and worse — until finally it all comes to a head. I won’t spoil what happens, because the film’s great (and only 95 minutes). Do yourself a favor and watch it. It’s brilliantly plotted.

Carol Reed shoots the hell out of the film. It’s crisp. It really is. The black and white pops off the screen. I’d love to vote for him here. I just might, too. We’ll see how it goes.

Rossen — All the King’s Men, as I’ve said, is a great movie, but not really one I’d consider (outside of the fact that it won, of course) a Best Picture winner.

It’s about Willie Stark — loosely based on Huey Long — a southern man who becomes governor of the state. It begins with him, standing on the street corner, trying to get elected to a small office. Like, town council or something like that. And people love his speeches, but all he’s doing is standing on the corner. He can’t compete with the people that spend lots of money on their campaigns. On top of that, he’s not educated. So he teaches himself law and starts championing the people, rather than the powerful. It gains him noteriety, but on a small scale. Eventually, he wins one seat, and hires campaign people and stuff, and his innocence starts to wear away, and he starts to become jus as corrupt as those he was arguing against at the beginning of the film. As he gets more powerful, the more corrupt he gets. And by the midway point of the film, he’s elected governor, and is the most powerful man in the state. And then we see the decline. He starts resorting to crooked deals and shady practices. And eventually things start falling apart once his son gets in a car accident with a woman, which kills her and paralyzes him. Then everything starts crumbling, and it all leads to the end, where he’s shot on the steps of city hall.

It’s a really great film. Rossen’s direction is good. Not quite good enough to vote for, based solely on effort. But, in a year like this, it is a consideration for a vote, and I’ll explain why when I get to the bottom. This, actually, should have won, in a certain situation. But we’ll get to that in a second.

Wellman — Wild Bill! I love William Wellman. He felt like a more Hollywood Sam Fuller. This is a dude that directed Wings, the first Best Picture winner (or rather, Most Outstanding Production winner). He had a long career, directing a lot of movies. Other films he directed, just to get them out there, are: A Star is Born, Beau Geste, Roxie Hart, The Ox-Bow Incident (how he didn’t get nominated for Best Director there — I don’t know), The Story of G.I. Joe, and The High and the Mighty. He was nominated for Best Director three times, for Star is Born, High and the Mighty and here, and he actually won an Oscar for writing A Star is Born (or co-writing, but still, considering how many times that movie has been remade, a good choice). He’s a really great director, who never fully got recognized in his day.

Battleground — if you’ve seen Band of Brothers, this is episode 6. Bastogne. It’s about “those battered bastards of Bastogne,” and all the soldiers who were stuck in the forest for the winter, unable to get supplies, surrounded on all sides by German soldiers, and managed to survive and even drive the Germans back by the end of it (that’s episode 7 — the Spiers episode).

That is pretty much the entire film. The men are stuck in the forest, snowed in, the planes can’t see where they are so they can’t drop supplies, and they have to wait it out. By the end, they have almost no ammunition left whatsoever. It’s a tremendous film.

The reason this film is so good is because it feels different from most films. We’re literally sitting there with the men as they’re stuck in the snow. And it feels like it’s on a completely different wavelength than most Hollywood pictures. And I really dug that about it. Wellman really did a great job directing this, and, personally, considering the year, I’m probably gonna vote for him. This is a great film, and is all about the direction. So, I think I’m gonna vote Wellman. He’s as good a choice as any here, isn’t he?

Wyler — And, William Wyler. For the record, I might love this film best of all the films in this category. But, knowing Wyler had one already and would get another, I’m not voting for him. But there was a time where I was gonna vote for him. I feel that should be noted.

The Heiress is a film that features a tour-de-force performance by Olivia de Havilland. So much so that, even though she won Best Actress three years before this for To Each His Own, she was so good in this film that there was no one else you could possibly vote for.

She plays a plain woman, who’s very shy. She lives with her father — Ralph Richardson (who was also Baines in The Fallen Idol. Remember that. It’ll come in handy when we get to Best Supporting Actor for this year) — who is very open in the fact that he’s disappointed in her. She meets Montgomery Clift, and he’s very interested in her, and she falls very much in love, very fast. And Richardson, he believes there’s no way anyone could possibly be in love with his daughter. He thinks Clift is after her inheritance. So he tells Olivia he’ll disown her if she marries him. She decides to go with him anyway. Problem is — when she’s planning on running away with him — he never shows up. She’s fucking heartbroken.

Then, she finds out her father is dying. He dies and she now has everything. A couple of years later, Clift comes back and is now really interested marrying her. Now, it’s certainly for the inheritance. He makes excuses as to why he didn’t come back, and to the film’s credit, you’re never entirely certain whether or not he’s sincere either time. More so the first time. And after he seemingly proves himself sincere, she changes her attitude, and tells him to come back later that night with a carriage, and they’ll go away together. He comes back later that night, and she sits downstairs, listening to him banging on the door, with no intention to answer. It’s fucking great.

This film is incredible. I’m not kidding when I say this is a tour de force performance. The entire film is structured around two trips up the stairs. The first time, Olivia has just had her heartbroken, and the second time, she’s sealed her fate. She abandons Clift, leaving him banging on the door, and she walks up the stairs with the iciest expression on her face. It’s great.

Wyler does a great job directing the film, but, as I said, he won already (for The Best Years of Our Lives), and the next time he’d win would be for Ben-Hur. Him winning for this would be a bit weak (especially considering he wouldn’t win for Roman Holiday four years after this, and for the many other nominations he got). So, no vote. Great effort though. Personal favorite film on this list.

My Thoughts: Okay, I need to narrow this one down from 5-1. That’s the only way to reason through this. They’re all good efforts, but none really stands out as the one to vote for.

First off the list is Mankiewicz. Seriously. I can’t see how they picked him of everyone off this list to win. Okay, maybe he’s fourth for a vote for me, since William Wyler had one already, and I know he’s gonna give at least two more efforts worth a vote (he’d win again for Ben-Hur, and this, is no Ben-Hur). Still Wyler and Mankiewica, off. Right off the bat.

Then we have Carol Reed. He directed a great film in The Fallen Idol. Problem is, I know he’s going to direct The Third Man the year after this. And if I’m voting Carol Reed for anything, it’s The Third Man. That’s seriously one of the top five best directed films of all time. It’s in my top five favorite films of all time. It’s the most gorgeously shot film I’ve ever seen. He really should have won for that. Plus, he did eventually win for Oliver!, so, I don’t feel bad not voting for him here. And yet — though — he did do a good enough job to be considered for a vote. And him winning here would lessen the sting of losing the next year. So he is still kind of in there. Fuck this is hard. But — no, I’m not gonna vote for him. I know he’d get an Oscar (and am voting for him next year). He was good, but, I can see not voting for him more than I can see voting for him.

Which leaves us with two — William Wellman and Robert Rossen. Now, I feel Wellman provided the best directorial effort, and is a filmmaker who earned a Best Director statue. He’s one of those gritty filmmakers, the type that toiled away, producing film after film, year after year, and never really got much credit for his work. He’s a workhorse. Plus, I feel like this film was the best directed film on this list. So I think he should have won, and he’s who I’m voting for.

However, I will say — Robert Rossen, would have also been an acceptable result. The reason being — the Picture/Director link-up. When a person wins Best Director for having directed the film that won Best Picture, it’s at least a little bit acceptable. You can understand it. Even if you think it was a bad decision, it’s not an out-of-left-field bad decision, like Mankiewicz was here. So, instead of Mankiewicz, Rossen was an okay choice. Personally, I’m going with Wellman.

My Vote: Wellman

Should Have Won: Wellman, Rossen

Is the result acceptable?: No. The only way I’d consider it acceptable is if they used it as reason to not give Mankiewicz the award the following year for All About Eve. Between Sunset Boulevard and The Third Man (two of the greatest directorial efforts of all time), Mankiewicz really shouldn’t have won Best Director. I wouldn’t mind the Best Picture win for Eve so much if they went another way with Best Director. But they didn’t. So they only real way I find this okay is if Mankiewicz doesn’t win in 1950, which, isn’t the case, so both are wrong and are bad decisions. It’s the case of, a bad decision being lessened by not making another bad one, but then they made the other bad one, so this one almost seems worse. Wyler didn’t need it (between his three wins, two of which he had already), and Reed would get it (albeit for a lesser film. But still, he got it), so really, I don’t see why Robert Rossen or William Wellman didn’t win here. Moreso Rossen. I mean, I liked Wellman’s effort better and think he deserved to win based on effort alone, but, Rossen won Best Picture with his film. I don’t see how they don’t give him Best Director as well. This whole business just seems strange. So, no, this is unacceptable no matter how you look at it.

Ones I suggest you see: The Heiress is a fantastic film, featuring a tour de force performance by Olivia de Havilland. Seriously. I was shocked at how much and how quickly I fell in love with this film. Olivia is so good she makes this film go from standard melodrama to riveting character study. It’s really great. Highly, highly recommended. Also, All the King’s Men is a great film and a Best Picture winner. I say you should watch this version and not the Sean Penn version (despite how good that film looks on the surface due to its cast. Trust me, go for this one). It’s a great film, and Broderick Crawford has the role of a lifetime here. Very good film about the rise and fall of a politician. Incredibly well done and also highly, highly recommended.

Battleground is a great film, and, even if you don’t necessarily like war films, I think you should see this one. The reason is — if you’ve seen Band of Brothers — and if you’re reading this blog, I think there’s a good chance you might have — you’ll probably say that, of all the ten episodes there, the best episodes of the series were the two they spend at Bastogne. Of course, the first episode was really great, and the one where Spiers runs back and forth between the lines is great, but, Bastogne is the heart of the series and are really the best two episodes. This film, is basically those two episodes. It’s about “the battered bastards of Bastogne.” It even has the great scene where the Germans try to get them to surrender, and they respond, “Nuts!” It’s a really great film. It’s a war film that doesn’t really feel like a war film. It’s very low key, and that’s what makes it great. Very, very highly recommended. Even if you don’t necessarily like war films. It’s really great.

And The Fallen Idol — wow, what a film. So fucking engrossing, especially for someone like me, who loves when films are shown from the point of view of a child. It’s a really great film, and pretty short too, so even if you don’t love it, you only spent 90 minutes watching it. It’s really fucking good. I think most people who see it will like it. Carol Reed shot the shit out of it. Highly recommended. And A Letter to Three Wives — yeah, it’s good. Melodrama. Worth a watch. But not essential. It’s pretty good though. Features a young Kirk Douglas. And has very entertaining parts, despite also having some unbearably cliche parts. But, on the whole, a good film and worth a look if you’re into that sort of thing.


5) Mankiewicz

4) Rossen

3) Reed

2) Wyler

1) Wellman

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