The Oscar Quest: Best Director – 1956

I love 1956. The year, not the Oscar year. The Oscar year is pretty forgettable. Mostly because the Best Picture choice is kind of throwaway. Around the World in 80 Days is not a bad film by any means — it’s big, expansive, lot of cameos, lots of fun, escapist entertainment — but it’s not a very good Best Picture choice. It is in scope, but not in quality.

Best Actor this year was Yul Brynner for The King and I, and I always maintain the decision was a bad choice because Brynner is essentially a supporting role (for the most part) in the film. But, he’s Yul Brynner, so I don’t really have a problem with it. But, I still would have gone another way in that one. Then Best Actress was Ingrid Bergman for Anastasia, a decision (as I said here) I consider one of the worst decisions of all time in the Best Actress category. All of the other choices were better in that category (especially Carroll Baker in Baby Doll). Then Best Supporting Actor was Anthony Quinn for Lust for Life, a decision I don’t like, but am okay with, because Anthony Quinn is awesome. Then Best Supporting Actress was Dorothy Malone for Written on the Wind (talked about here), which is the one decision for this year, aside from this category, that I like.

So, with only 2 out of 6 good decisions (2 more are acceptable, though both are pretty weak), and a really weak Best Picture choice, 1956 is kind of a “bleh” year for me. I like this category though. So I got that going for me. Which is nice.


And the nominees were…

Michael Anderson, Around the World in 80 Days

Walter Lang, The King and I

George Stevens, Giant

King Vidor, War and Peace

William Wyler, Friendly Persuasion

Anderson — Around the World in 80 Days is what what I like to call (as of just this very second) as super-sized movie. Everything about it is just, bigger. It’s long as hell. Not much actually happens. But god damn it if it isn’t fucking huge. It takes place on continents, it has cameos but just about any famous person to ever be in a movie. It’s also escapist entertainment. Which is why it was a poor coice for Best Picture. It makes sense that it won (sort of), but the fact that it’s so light makes it seem (compared to what it beat) like a weak choice.

The film is, as I’m sure you know, about a rich British dude betting his parlor friends that he can travel around the entire globe within 80 days. And that’s what he does. He takes his Asian-ish man-servant and travels around the world with him. They take a hot air balloon, a train — all sorts of modes of transportation. And they meet lots of people, Shirley MacLaine plays a princess, and it’s big and expansive and there are lots of exotic things.

As for the direction, it’s good, and it would probably have won most years. The problem this year is — there are two really exceptional efforts up against it. And while this is a big, expansive film, it feels — standard. It doesn’t feel very special. If you watch this up against Giant and War and Peace, you’re gonna 9 times out of 10, I think, go with Giant, because it just feels like the best directorial effort. I’m sure people could put it into words, but I’m not here to go all film student on this. If I wanted to do that, this blog would have been a lot different from its point of origin. But what I’m saying is, this film feels pretty standard compared to Giant, which is why it didn’t win this category. And why I’m not voting for it.

Lang — The King and I, well, it’s a big musical. The sets are huge, and it just looks expensive. Which is great. It doesn’t hurt the picture at all. But it’s certainly not winning this category, because, literally, most of this film is: giant set, camera off to the back, roll camera, follow the performers as they dance. It feels very flat (despite the size of the sets), and stagy. It’s not something I can vote for as Best Director.

Oh, also, you know the story, right? King of Siam hires a British tutor for his kids. She comes, teaches them, sings with him, both are really stubborn, develop respect for one another — you should know the story.

Anyway, the effort here is not worth a vote. At all. Good film, though.

Stevens — Giant, to me, is a perfect film. Because, going into it, all I knew about it was, it was a three and a half-hour (3 hrs 20 min, to be exact) epic about oil. So I’m thinking, “Oh no,” like it’s gonna be boring. Then, I’m watching — twenty minutes, I’m engaged. Forty minutes, still engaged. And the further I got into it, the more invested in the story I was. Plus, the film just looks gorgeous. This is a really special film.

It starts with Rock Hudson, son of a big ranching empire, going to buy a stud horse. And he meets Elizabeth Taylor, daughter of the family that owns the horse, and the two of them get married. And the first hour or so of the film is him meeting her, taking her back to his ranch, and her getting acclimated to it. She gets there, and she’s not used to country life, so they treat her the way you treat a child, like, “Oh, look at her, she ain’t used to being out here in the sun all day.” And then she toughens up, starts getting up early, doing some hard work, that sort of thing. And then there’s James Dean. He’s a ranch hand that’s jealous of Hudson. He has a thing for Liz (who wouldn’t?), and basically does all he can to spite him. And when Hudson’s sister dies, she gives Dean a plot of land on the estate, which he refuses to give up. And eventually he strikes oil on it, and gets rich.

Then the film then becomes about oil for the middle portion. And Hudson starts drilling for oil, and then a rivalry of sorts begins that lasts over several years. And then the film deals with Hudson’s family. His kids grow up (they’re played by Carroll Baker and Dennis Hopper), and there’s a whole thing about Hudson and Liz having a fight and almost getting divorced, and then they reconcile. But the last third of the film is the most interesting. It shifts to being about racism. Hopper marries a Spanish woman, and a lot of what happens deals with Hudson not being happy with it at first, but then embracing it, and everyone else being racist toward her and them, culminating with a big incident in a diner where Hudson has a fight with the chef, and gets his ass kicked.

The reason I find this film so fascinating is because it’s not about one thing. It changes. It grows. And that makes it feel real. And what you’d think would be the major climax of the film happens two thirds of the way through, and the film keeps going. And then, at the end, Hudson loses. I love that. I mean, he wins everywhere else, but he loses the fight. And I think that’s just fascinating.

Anyway, the film is really great and it’s a masterpiece of cinema. As for the direction — it’s beautiful. The shots here are just so gorgeous, they could literally be put into films today and no one would be able to tell the difference. There’s a gorgeous shot as Liz is riding away on a horse, and the camera just pans across the porch of the house as she rides across the plain, and you can see the clouds moving overhead — it’s just beautiful.

Here’s how good the direction of this film is — I think George Stevens winning Best Director in 1951 is one of the worst decisions of all time in the category, and I’m still giving this category to him, hands down. It’s that good. Just watching the film, you see it. You just know, this should win.

Vidor — Apologies to King Vidor. Dude never got Academy recognition, and he had a great career. And he probably would have won here if George Stevens didn’t do such a great job with Giant. At least, one can hope he would have won in that scenario.

War and Peace, as you know, is based on the famous book. It’s very long, and is about a bunch of Russian war stuff. I honestly don’t remember exactly what happened in this film. And that’s funny, because I watched it like a month ago. It’s just, 208 minutes (just as long as Giant), and there’s a lot of — romance, war, Napoleon, dancing, Audrey Hepburn and Miguel Ferrer, Henry Fonda — I’m sure it’s just like the book. You don’t need a plot summary here. Just know that it’s War and Peace.

The direction of this film is what I’m here to talk about. Remember how I said that The King and I looked like a classic Hollywood film? Staginess and all? Well, this is just like that, only classier. And more colorful. The film does look gorgeous. And it manages to look slightly more like a film than The King and I does. Here, you feel more like you’re in a world and not watching people on a set. So, because of that, and because it’s clearly a better directorial effort when you watch it, this becomes my second choice in the category. The fact that King Vidor never won an Oscar only cements that fact. It’s a pretty good film, too. I normally hate classical literary adaptations. But I liked this one a lot. I stuck through it and was interested for almost all of it. Which says a lot. Normally I’d tune out. But I was with this one. It usually takes an exceptionally good film to do that.

Wyler — Friendly Persuasion is actually a very fascinating film. I’m not sure why, because it’s about Quakers. Which, are basically the Amish. With stronger emphasis on the pacifism. And it’s just about a family. And the whole thing is just interesting. We see them as they go through life. 3/4 of this film is just interesting and engaging, and you’re with it all the way. Then they bring in the guns and there’s shooting and stuff and it kind of falls apart for me. But the rest of the film is actually really interesting.

As for the effort — I’ll sum it up like this — William Wyler won this award three times. For Mrs. Miniver, The Best Years of Our Lives, and, after this, Ben-Hur. Do you really think I’m gonna vote for him for this film (especially when he didn’t win for stuff like Roman Holiday and The Heiress)? Come on, now. He’s clearly a #5 here.

My Thoughts: George Stevens is the only one to vote for, even though he won in 1951 for a film I don’t think he should have won for. Giant is such a gorgeous film and so beautifully shot that I think it deserves this Oscar over everything else. There are shots in this film that would look just as beautiful today, if you put them in a film. Seriously, no one would know the difference. That’s how good some of these shots are. So, I vote for Stevens. I’d also say that King Vidor is a second choice here, just because he had such a strong body of work and never won one of these (though he probably would have if they created the Oscars a year or two earlier than they did). But I think they went the right way here.

My Vote: Stevens

Should Have Won: Stevens

Is the result acceptable?: Oh hell yeah. Have you seen Giant?

Ones I suggest you see: Giant is a film you should probably see. It’s so amazing. I was enthralled for the entire film, which is almost 3 and a half hours. There’s something so captivating about it, and it’s so beautiful to watch, and the performances are all fantastic. This film comes highly, highly recommended. It’s also a film that you probably should see if you’re really serious about loving film. I love it, so I’m gonna say it’s essential.

The King and I is a very famous story, and if you’re gonna see one version of it, watch this one. Anna and the King of Siam with Rex Harrison is pretty great, but this version is light and colorful and has music in it, so I guess go with this one. It’s awesome.

Around the World in 80 Days is just a fun film to watch. If you’re well-versed in classic Hollywood, you’re gonna love this one. The cameos are just incredible. They could never pull something like this off again. Never. But the film is pretty great. It’s really, really long, but fun. Watch this on a Saturday afternoon when you’ve got nothing to do. You’ll enjoy it. It’s just so — big.

War and Peace is a great film, but, also really long (two films on this list are over 200 minutes, three are over 160 minutes and all are over 135 minutes). I don’t know how similar it is to the novel, but it’s colorful, and has Henry Fonda and Audrey Hepburn in it. I hate classical literary adaptations and I really liked this film. So I recommend it for anyone that’s interested in it. Apparently the be-all, end-all version of this is the Russian version from 1965 that’s over 6 1/2 hours long, but if you want a more palatable version, go Hollywood. Go with this one. It’s a good film.

Friendly Persuasion, while the weakest film on this list, is actually a pretty good film. It’s very engaging, in a Sundowners kind of way. You just get put into this particular life — in this case, Quakers — and you just follow this family. And it’s just a very fascinating film. Always engaging, enjoyable, and worth watching. It’s a good film. So, if you want to check it out, I recommend it highly. It’s a really good film.


5) Wyler

4) Lang

3) Anderson

2) Vidor

1) Stevens

One response

  1. Pingback: Film Review: “Giant” (1956) | ZJ Sans: The Official Site of Zachary Sanfilippo

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