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The Oscar Quest: Best Director – 1961

I love 1961. Mostly due to the strength of the year. I also love the Best Picture decision, but, I have a sentimental favorite that didn’t win, and I’m not really sure which I’d vote for, so in a way, it’s tough to think about, because I don’t know what to do, but in another way, I know the decision stands on its own as a strong one, so it’s nice.

West Side Story wins Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor for George Chakiris (talked about here) and Best Supporting Actress for Rita Moreno (talked about here). I love all of the decisions, even though I might not necessarily have voted for all of them. Best Actor was Maximilian Schell for Judgment at Nuremberg, which I hate, hate, hate as a decision (gee, you think he hates it?). Paul Newman really should have won for The Hustler here, and even the Academy knew it, because when they finally gave him his Oscar in 1986, they gave it to him for the sequel to The Hustler. And Best Actress was Sophia Loren for Two Women (talked about here), which I’m very open about hating as a decision.

So that leaves only this category, which is pretty cut and dry and makes perfect sense.

BEST DIRECTOR – 1961

And the nominees were…

Federico Fellini, La Dolce Vita

Stanley Kramer, Judgment at Nuremberg

Robert Rossen, The Hustler

J. Lee Thompson, The Guns of Navarone

Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins, West Side Story

Fellini — La Dolce Vita is probably one of the top ten foreign films that Americans need to see. Well, American film fans, that is. It’s a very major film in the canon.

The film is about a week in the life of a journalist. Or rather, a paparazzi. And the film is broken down into seven segments, basically, detailing what happens to him during each day. He meets a rich heiress and sleeps with her in the bathroom of a club. He goes home and finds out his fiancée has OD’d. He goes on an assignment to photograph and actress, and he meets with her and goes out dancing with her and they spend the night together (out, not, fucking). Things like that. He goes to parties, deals with relationship troubles, goes out with his father — lots of stuff. It’s not really worth summarizing because – the film isn’t about the plot. You just need to see it. It’s a gorgeously shot film, and a classic of cinema.

Fellini’s direction is fantastic. If I weren’t so convinced he had no shot to win, I’d consider voting for him. Plus, I voted for him in ’63 for 8 1/2, and that’s the award he should have won. Though I totally get if other people would vote for him here. I’m — I ‘m just biased toward Americans most of the time, and, I have a certain logic in order that prevents me from voting for him. I’ll explain at the bottom.

Kramer — Judgment at Nuremberg is a film about the Nuremberg trials. Plain and simple. It’s a trial film, which makes it automatically interesting. Plus it’s about one of the most fascinating aspects of World War II (one that even someone like me, who does not like World War II films, is intrigued by), which is — the complicity in the German citizens to what was happening to Jews. And there are a lot of pieces to the puzzle, like Burt Lancaster as a German doctor who ordered terrible things to happen, Montgomery Clift as a victim of all this, Maximilian Schell as the defense attorney, who, despite his personal feelings, defends Lancaster with everything he’s got, because that’s what he deserves under the law, and Spencer Tracy, as the American presiding judge in the case, who must weigh the law, mercy and patriotism in deciding his verdict. It’s a very fascinating, very layered film, and one that, in any other year (well, most other years. The immediate few surrounding this one are pretty tough) would be a shoo-in for Best Picture. It’s that good. Spellbinding, even at three hours. Trust me, you will be captivated by this film.

As for the directorial effort, it’s okay. Very stagy, as trial films tend to be. It’s solid, but, against all these other nominees, this is the weakest effort. It won’t be the last for a vote, just because it’s Stanley Kramer, and this man really probably deserved an Oscar at some point over his career, but for me, Fellini, Rossen and Robbins & Wise gave much better and more vote-worthy efforts here, so, as much as I love him, I can’t vote for Kramer.

Rossen — The Hustler is such a perfect film. It’s just so brilliantly structured. Not a wasted second in the film.

It begins with “Fast” Eddie Felson (Paul Newman), a pool hustler, trying to take on Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason), the local king of the pool hall. Eddie faces Fats with all the money he has in the world, but his inexperience and cockiness get the better of him and he loses. Without any money, he goes around hustling again, but walks into the wrong pool hall and gets his thumbs broken. While they’re broken, he meets Sarah, a former alcoholic who is trying to go straight and go back to school. They find solace in one another, and start a tender relationship. But then, along comes Bert Gordon (George C. Scott), who saw Eddie lose to Fats, making Eddie an offer to help him get back on his feet. He’ll stake him for a percentage of his winnings. So they go around, getting games, meanwhile, Bert sees that Laurie is a hinderance to Eddie (she tells him to leave with her, and forget about it, because she loves her, and Bert only wants to make money from the game), so he brings her back to her hotel room and — basically — sodomizes her. And she, having personal demons of her own, kills herself in the bathroom. And when Newman sees this, he’s devastated. He’d finally made a connection to someone. So now, with his winnings, he goes back to face Fats, this time with such an all-out attitude that you just know this man can’t lose. And he just destroys Fats. But Bert, also there, tells Eddie never to show up in a big-time pool hall again, and Eddie leaves.

It’s a fucking perfect film. Seriously. I know you all should have seen it, but I just love going over the synopsis.

As for the direction — it’s really great. It’s a gorgeously shot film. To be, this is right up there with La Dolce Vita and West Side Story for a vote. I really, really love this movie.

Thompson — The Guns of Navarone is basically one of those Dirty Dozen type movies, where a group of guys is assembled to go on a mission. In this case, the mission is to take out these big guns that are resting on a hillside, and are just destroying all the ships that come past. And the group go behind enemy lines, on a mission to destroy the guns. You don’t need to know more than this, just know that the film is awesome, and it has Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn and David Niven in it. And guns. Big guns. The Guns of Navarone, in fact.

The direction is actually really good. I was leery at first of whether or not this belonged on the list, but, it totally does. It’s a really solid effort. Thing is, though, look what it’s up against. I just can’t vote for it even if I wanted to (which I don’t). It’s just outclassed in every way by all of the other nominees. So it’s just a #5 here. Which sucks, but — at least we have the movie. That’s a good thing.

Wise & Robbins — It’s West Side Story. ‘Nuff said. If you haven’t seen it, that’s your own damn fault.

The direction is fine. It’s a bit stagy, but I like that aspect of it. The whole thing just feels real. Not like, real real, but, you know what I mean. It feels fitting for the film. Obviously this is a finalist for a vote.

My Thoughts: Here’s how I mediate this category (which is fucking awesomely stacked): first, Thompson is off. Has to be. So is Kramer. Too stagy to win Best Director. No, La Dolce Vita, obviously one of the great works of cinema for all time. But for me, I vote Fellini for 8 1/2, where the category was a lot easier and a lot more organized for him to win. So, for me, it’s between Wise & Robbins and Rossen. The big issue is that these are the same two films I’m torn between for Best Picture. I don’t know which to vote for. Every day I flip flop from one to the other.

So — what I’m gonna do to decide this one, is — Robert Wise would win Best Director four years after this for The Sound of Music. And Robert Rossen really got screwed back in 1949 by not winning for All the King’s Men. I mean, he wouldn’t have been my vote there, but Joseph Mankiewicz really should have won, and Rossen directed the Best Picture winner. That’s fucked up, to pass him over like that. So I side with Rossen here, for that reason. (Sorry Jerome Robbins.)

My Vote: Rossen

Should Have Won: Wise & Robbins, Rossen, Fellini

Is the result acceptable?: Yup. It won Best Picture, and it’s West Side Story, that alone makes it acceptable. Personally, I thought Rossen and Fellini did better jobs, but, the decision itself is acceptable.

Ones I suggest you see: West Side Story, The Hustler, Judgment at Nuremberg and La Dolce Vita — all of them. If you are a film fan, you need to see these, otherwise you don’t love movies. They are all essential. If you haven’t seen these, you’re just playing with yourself.

And, The Guns of Navarone is a pretty awesome movie that you should totally check out. Not essential, but awesome.

Rankings:

5) Thompson

4) Fellini

3) Kramer

2) Wise & Robbins

1) Rossen

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