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The Oscar Quest: Best Director – 1957

1957 is one of those great years for the Academy. A great film wins Best Picture and is so unquestionably obvious a choice that no one can really speak ill of it (even though another nominated film, in this case, 12 Angry Men, is just as good and is also a classic). The Bridge on the River Kwai wins Best Picture, along with this category and Best Actor for Alec Guinness. Great decisions, the lot.

Best Actress this year was Joanne Woodward for The Three Faces of Eve (talked about here), which is a fantastic decision that I not only love, but see as one people can’t disagree with, given the category. I love that. There’s nothing more annoying than a great decision that people don’t like because of whatever stupid reason they have. Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress this year were Red Buttons and Miyoshi Umeki for Sayonara, which I count as two of the worst decisions of all time in their respective categories (Best Supporting Actor because of the competition (and weakness of the performance), Best Supporting Actress because of the weakness of the performance).

So that’s 1957. Love the year outside of the Supporting categories. Which basically means I love the year. Because who gives a shit about the Supporting categories? Am I right? Right? High five!

(Awkward pause as we realize there is no joke going into the break…)

BEST DIRECTOR – 1957

And the nominees are…

David Lean, Bridge on the River Kwai

Joshua Logan, Sayonara

Sidney Lumet, 12 Angry Men

Mark Robson, Peyton Place

Billy Wilder, Witness for the Prosecution

Lean — The Bridge on the River Kwai is a film everyone reading this blog probably should have seen. I’m not saying it’s on the level of something like The Godfather, where it’s something you should have seen as part of the human experience. But, if you’re into movies, and into movies past, “I just like watching stuff,” and you’re looking for some classics or what have you — the level past, “Oh, I saw Pulp Fiction, now I want to see other essential films” — this is in that first tier of films. So I’m assuming, if you like movies, you either know you need to see this, or have seen it.

That said — isn’t this awesome? I love this movie.

The film is about British soldiers in a Japanese POW camp. And the soldiers are led by Alec Guinness, and the camp is run by Sessue Hayakawa (for those of you who may only know Hayakawa from his role in this film, and who are also film students, you may (if you went to Wesleyan like I did, you definitely) have seen him in another film and may not even know it. If you’ve ever seen Cecil B. DeMille’s The Cheat, you’ve seen Sessue Hayakawa. He plays the Japanese businessman who brands the dude’s wife. Remember? The creepy looking dude? That’s him! (That’s fucked up, right? If you didn’t know that, I bet your mind has just been blown.)

So they get into the camp, and Hayakawa is like, “You men are building a bridge.” And Guinness is like, “Fuck you. As prisoners of war, we have rights. And we do not have to do any form of labor.” And Hayakawa throws him in the box. For a really long time. And when he comes out, he’s changed his mind. He sees that Hayakawa will have to commit seppuku if he can’t build the bridge as he was ordered to, and agrees to do it. He decides he’s going to build a bridge. And he has his men help build a bridge. And he gets obsessed by it.

Meanwhile, William Holden is one of the men at the camp. And he escapes. And after he recovers, he’s sent on a mission back there, to blow up the bridge. And both of these things eventually come together in a, shall we say, explosive finale.

It’s a great film. And, just watching it, you can see that Lean deserved this award. It’s really obvious. He directed the hell out of this film. Plus it won Best Picture, so the link up works in its favor. You could make the case that 12 Angry Men should have won Best Picture and Best Director, and you’d have a good case, since Lumet never won, and Lean would win for Lawrence of Arabia. But otherwise, Lean is the choice. And I say that knowing Sidney Lumet should have won an Oscar.

Logan — Sayonara is a film that’s just baffling to me. Not the film itself — how it got nominated (and won) so many Oscars.

The film is about airmen stationed in Japan. Brando is a southern boy (with one of the most ridiculous accents I’ve ever heard. But, after a while, it gets soothing. But still, it’s hilarious to hear Brando talking like that. And the film is mostly about how the army doesn’t want its men marrying Japanese women. It’s a racism thing. They just want them doing the Madame Butterfly thing — fuck ’em and leave ’em. And the two major storylines of the film are — first, Red Buttons plays an airman who falls in love with a Japanese woman. And, against regulations, marries her. And, while marrying her is not illegal, it is frowned upon and is as close to illegal as you can get. He pretty much gives up all rights as an American citizen by doing this, and his wife doesn’t get any benefits as a white woman would. So he does this, agreeing to face the prejudices of society because he’s in love. And the other storyline is, Brando is marrying a general’s daughter (or some higher up), but, upon seeing Buttons and his Japanese wife, begins to rethink things. He soon starts falling in love with a Japanese actress. And by the end of the film, all the men with Japanese wives are transferred back to America, and their wives aren’t allowed to come. So, Buttons and his wife commit suicide by poisoning themselves. Then Brando, seeing this, abruptly tells the army to go fuck themselves and says, “Sayonara,” and goes off with his Japanese fiancée.

The film itself isn’t terrible, but — it’s just baffling to me. I’d rate it a solid three stars on Netflix. It is very colorful and not too boring. At least as compared to some other films on this Quest. Though, I will always have a bias against this film because it won both Supporting Oscars, and, it really shouldn’t have. Especially for Umeki. She doesn’t speak a word of English (basically), and just sits there not understanding what’s being said half the time or simply speaking her native language. What kind of performance is that? At least Buttons did some stuff and you can maybe sort of make a case for voting for him (even though there were two clear better performances than his in the category), but, because they won, I will always have a bias against the film.

As for the direction — like I said — it’s colorful. I like that. But, against Lean and Lumet — Logan doesn’t stand a chance. That’s just how it is. No chance at all.

Robson — Peyton Place is a film that I must have come across at just the right time, because — I love it. I thought it was fantastic. I know it’s a melodrama, and I’m not usually one for melodrama, but — maybe it’s the small town thing, following a group of characters, but, I really loved this film.

It’s about a small New England town called — guess what? (P.S. It was also the basis for the soap opera of the same name.) And we meet a bunch of the residents and get to know their lives. The main two focal points are two girls. First, is our narrator, played by Diane Varsi. She’s a girl who wants nothing more than to get away from her town and become a writer. And she writes all these stories, which are pretty much exposes on all the crazy, suburban shit that goes on behind closed doors. And there’s another guy in town — the “loaner” of sorts — who reads her stuff and encourages her. And she’s also courted by a local boy, played by Russ Tamblyn, who is at first shy, but then he grows more confident. Her mother is played by Lana Turner, who, shall we say, has a past. She’s done some shit, and got pregnant, and settled down in the town, and has been telling everyone her husband was a soldier killed in the war. And she’s developed this cold demeanor as a reaction to her youth, and we see as a teacher (or is it the principal?) at her daughter’s school tries to crack the icy veneer and endear himself to her, but that only causes her to deal with her past.

And there are other subplots, like the “bad girl” who is dating the rich guy in town — you know, melodrama stuff. But, the most important — at least for me, and also the plot — story has to do with the main girl’s best friend. She’s played by Hope Lange. She’s a girl whose major flaw is that she grew up on the wrong side of the tracks. She lives out in the woods just outside of town, very poor, that sort of thing. And most people won’t talk to her because of that. And her mother has died, and her father is an alcoholic. He has now taken to abusing her and beating her, and also raping her from time to time. And it’s fucking brutal. For a 1957 film, this is a really brutal depiction of rape. You really feel for this girl really early on. And she ends up getting pregnant by her father, which causes her to be completely shunned by the town because they think she’s a whore. And she has to get an abortion by the town doctor, who the whole time is her closest ally, because he knows the truth. And what happens is, after he performs the abortion, he goes and runs the father out of town, making him write a confession on a piece of paper and signing it, and saying that if he ever comes back to bother his daughter, he’ll show it to the authorities.

So the father (wonderfully played by Arthur Kennedy) leaves town. And then he comes back a few years later, at Christmas. And he comes in, and his daughter won’t let him in. And he attacks her and she accidentally kills him in self defense. So she buries him in the woods and doesn’t tell anyone about it. But then, a few weeks later, some soldiers come. They tell her he was in the army and was on leave for two weeks and never showed up again. And eventually she confesses to the murder, and, like all films of this sort, is put on trial. And she’s on trial, and refuses to testify and cooperate because she doesn’t want the town knowing about the abortion and all that. Because, naturally, the whole town is at the trial. This is the biggest thing that could happen in a place like this. And throughout the whole thing, they paint her as this evil girl, and everyone is against her — until finally the doctor shows up with the confession and tells what really happened and why she did it, and while he’s at it, he makes a big speech, telling the town how terrible they all are. It’s a great moment (and, for some reason, Lloyd Nolan, who played the doctor, wasn’t nominated for an Oscar!).

So that’s the film. I really loved it. I thought it was terrific. It was the perfect example of 50s studio filmmaking. (I know I say that about Picnic, but I don’t like that film as much as I like this one.) It’s terrific. However — it’s up against The Bridge on the River Kwai and 12 Angry Men. the direction is nothing more than adequate for a nomination. It is decidedly not strong enough to beat those two. None of these other nominees are.

Lumet — 12 Angry Men is a film about jury duty. 12 jurors, each known by only their number, debating a murder trial. And the entire film takes place (for the most part) in the jury room as these men deliberate. And it’s fucking perfect. I refuse to give you more of a synopsis than that, because you really should have seen it by now.

The film is amazing (obviously, why else would a film this old maintain top ten status on the horrendously bogus IMDB 250?), and is really well-directed, too. The thing is, though, even though Lumet gets about as much suspense as someone other than Alfred Hitchcock could have out of a single space — this is a film that will never win against something like The Bridge on the River Kwai, just because it’s more stagy than cinematic. Sure, it’s very cinematic, but the epic is always gonna beat films like this. Always. You can prefer this film to that one, especially since Lumet never won an Oscar, but it’s pretty clear that David Lean is the vote. And I’m the biggest proponent of the Sidney Lumet Oscar. I just can’t do it here.

Wilder — Witness for the Prosecution is another great film from this year. It’s a terrific Billy Wilder film, which probably goes without saying. Almost all of his films are great films (the rest are merely good or not bad, with maybe one or two real misfires in there).

This film is about Charles Laughton as an aging lawyer, or, barrister — it’s England — who has lots of ailments. He’s slowly dying and not really doing anything to change that, either. He smokes and drinks against doctor’s orders, much to the chagrin of his nurse (his real life “wife,” Elsa Lanchester. The word wife is in quotes because he was very gay. They were married, but separated very early on), who wants him to slow down and take a vacation (it’s one of those things where, he always seems to be prevented from taking a break). And he takes on the case of Tyrone Power, who is accused of murdering a rich old woman. He would go over her house and was friends with her, and they think he was after all her money. And there’s a lot of evidence that points to him having done it. But he maintains that he hasn’t.

And what happens is, Laughton meets Power’s wife — Marelene Dietrich — who is very cold and distant. It seems to back up Power’s story as to why he was always hanging out with this old lady. And Dietrich provides an alibi, but then, during the trial, comes out and says that her husband did do it. And when Laughton says a wife can’t testify against her husband, they find out Dietrich was legally married to someone else when she married Power. So it’s admissible. However, Laughton is contacted by an anonymous source who gives him letters that suggest the wife had reason to lie to the court, which makes Dietrich’s testimony useless and ends up getting Power off as not guilty. However — after the trial, we find out that he was guilty. He and Dietrich had planned it all along. She was the woman who gave him the letters and she went and ruined her own testimony in order to help her husband. She made it seem like she was having an affair with this other man, when she wasn’t. The guy never existed.

However — there’s always another however — despite Power being protected by double jeopardy — we find out that it’s actually him who is having the affair. And when he says he’s gonna run away with this other woman (after his wife went through all of that to help him), she stabs and kills him. Which, is a natural reaction. And Laughton and Lanchester have this great ending moment where — he told her after this case he’d stop and take a vacation to get his health back in order, and now that Dietrich has killed Power, Lanchester is like, “I’ll cancel the vacation,” because she knows Laughton can’t resist helping defend Dietrich.

It’s a great movie. It’s a trial film. Those are always interesting. Always. And this being a Billy Wilder film, that makes it a cut above most. And this is a fascinating film. It’s really, really well-done. However — Billy Wilder already had a Best Director Oscar, already did not win for better directorial efforts than this (Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17), and would win three years after this for The Apartment. So there’s really no reason to vote for him. And he never had a chance to win either. So it all works out. I’m not tempted to vote for him.

My Thoughts: There’s really nothing else you can do here. It’s David Lean all the way. Apologies to Sidney Lumet, but, David Lean can’t lose here. This and Lawrence of Arabia are his two epic masterpieces. It was impossible for him to lose for them. (I do understand if one prefers Lumet, though.)

My Vote: Lean

Should Have Won: Lean (I’ll say Lumet too, because he never won, but really, it’s Lean.)

Is the result acceptable?: 12 Angry Men aside, just watching the film — you can see that it obviously is.

Ones I suggest you see: The Bridge on the River Kwai is a must-see film. As is 12 Angry Men. If you’re even remotely interested in movies and haven’t seen them, I question your sincerity in just how much you actually do like movies. If you’re 17 and just starting to get into the next batch of films past the ones that get you into becoming a film person (your Tarantinos, your Coens, your Coppolas, your Scorseses, etc.), these will be in the immediate first batch of things you need to see. These are the most basic of the essential films. Seriously — get on these.

Witness for the Prosecution is a Billy Wilder film, and as such, makes it a really great film. Wilder is one of those filmmakers where you know, if he made it, it’s of a certain quality. Sure, some of his films are not very good, but most of them — easy 4 stars. And this is one of his better ones. It’s really, really great. Engaging on every level — and it’s a courtroom film, and those are always interesting. Highly, highly recommended.

Peyton Place is a film I love a lot. Some people might not like it because it is a melodrama, but for some reason, this film really resonated strongly with me and I was engaged with it all the way. So, melodrama or not, I’m always going to recommend this film very highly. I think it’s a fantastic film, and I think people should check it out, because it’s really great.

Sayonara — what can you even say about it? It’s watchable, but — between Brando’s horrendous southern accent and the story itself — I’m not really a fan. But it’s colorful, and you can sit through it if you want to. So it might be worthwhile. But, I’m not the biggest fan of this past how great the Technicolor looks.

Rankings:

5) Logan

4) Robson

3) Wilder

2) Lumet

1) Lean

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