The Oscar Quest: Best Director – 1958
1958 is a troublesome year for me. I feel like all the Best Picture nominees are strong number twos with no real #1 to vote for. I mean, there is, but nothing here really feels like an adequate Best Picture winner. Gigi won Best Picture, but that feels a bit like a cop out. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, albeit very theatrical, was a better choice. And so was The Defiant Ones, which probably would have been the best choice for the year. (Auntie Mame and Separate Tables were way too theatrical to vote for.)
Best Actor was David Niven for Separate Tables, which, was one of those in-house decisions. He was a very respected actor and probably would have won one of these someday anyway. Though he was very much a supporting character in his film (15 minutes of screen time), and the performance wasn’t really that great. So I think someone else (namely Paul Newman, Tony Curtis or Sidney Poitier) should have won. Wendy Hiller also won Best Supporting Actress for the film, which is a good decision, since she was a veteran and deserved an Oscar (and the category sucked). Best Actress was Susan Hayward for I Want to Live! (talked about here). I understand this decision, because Hayward was gonna win an Oscar eventually, but I don’t like it. Hayward should have won in 1958 and someone more deserving should have won here, like Deborah Kerr or Elizabeth Taylor. Best Supporting Actor was Burl Ives for The Big Country, which is a great decision, since he was also in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and would have won for that performance too.
Which brings us to this category. As much as I don’t like Gigi as a Best Picture winner, I love this decision. Since Vincente Minnelli is one of the great directors of all time. He’d earned this three times over by this point.
BEST DIRECTOR – 1958
An the nominees were…
Richard Brooks, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Stanley Kramer, The Defiant Ones
Vincente Minnelli, Gigi
Mark Robson, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness
Robert Wise, I Want to Live!
Brooks — Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a classic of stage and screen. One of the few plays that were adapted almost literally to screen (kind of like Streetcar) that I really like as a film. It’s so stagy it’s ridiculous, and yet, it totally works.
Paul Newman is a former football star who now drinks and avoids his wife. The film begins with him breaking his leg, trying to relive his glory days. And the film is about him and his wife (Liz Taylor) going to visit her father (Burl Ives) for his birthday. And a lot of the drama plays out during that. Ives is terminally ill, Newman is upset because Taylor led Newman’s best friend to kill himself because she was upset that he spent more time with him than she did. Lots of stuff. It’s a really great film. The performances are A+ all around.
The direction, however, is vey stagy. And I would not vote for it at all in this category. Because it’s literally a play on screen. I cannot, in good conscience, vote for that in the Best Director category.
Kramer — The Defiant Ones is such a brilliant film. And such a brilliant concept, considering the era it was made in.
Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier — a white man and a black man — who hate each other, are prisoners chained together. They don’t like it. Curtis is pretty racist. (He’s a good old southern boy.) As they’re being transferred, the bus tips over and they escape. And the film is the two of them trying to avoid capture while authorities track them down. It’s brilliant. Think of the message being conveyed by this — a white man and a black man, chained together, having to work together in order to survive.
This film rightfully won Best Original Screenplay this year (and perhaps should have won Best Picture as well).
The direction is really strong here. But, it’s the kind of thing where, even though I’d probably vote for this film for Best Picture, I wouldn’t vote for it here. Because Vincente Minnelli was long overdue by this point. He directed the Best Picture winner in 1951 and got shafted. And he definitely deserved an Oscar. So, to me, him winning Best Director here (regardless of what won Best Picture) makes the most sense. So as much as I’d like to vote for Kramer, I can’t.
Minnelli — Gigi is a strange little movie. Most people might not think about it, or remember it. You tend to forget specifics and just remember all the colors and all the songs. But when you watch the film, man, it’s weird.
The film begins with Maurice Chevalier (of course it does) singing a song called “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” as he watches very young girls play in the park. I shit you not. Then, he starts narrating our story (which he’s also in. But, if you know Maurice Chevalier from his Lubitsch days, this is totally normal). The film is about Gaston, a wealthy man, who is bored with the wealthy life. He’s expected to marry, but hates all the civilized partying and upper class bullshit. The only thing he likes doing is hanging out with Madame Alvarez and her granddaughter Gigi (Leslie Caron). Gigi is being groomed to become a courtesan. You heard that correctly. (Though I’m assuming here it means more, ‘woman in the court of the king’ than ‘whore.’ But still, you have to wonder…)
Gigi likes hanging out with Gaston. She’s pretty carefree and precocious. And Gaston loves how much of a breath of fresh air she is. And over the course of the film, obviously he falls in love with her and all that. You know how it works. It’s a pretty great film.
What makes this film work as well as it does is the direction of Vincente Minnelli. The art direction on Minnelli’s musicals is second to none. They’re seriously the most gorgeous films ever made. The man knew how to make a musical right. The thing is, though, this is one of his weaker ones. Meet Me in St. Louis and The Band Wagon were much stronger (though he wasn’t nominated for them). And even An American in Paris is more well-known. Still, it won Best Picture, and he should have won a statue, so I feel that makes him the default winner here.
Robson — The Inn of the Sixth Happiness is a film that I thought I was gonna hate. I thought I would be bored out of my mind during it. It’s about Ingrid Bergman (who was never my favorite of actresses) going to China to become a Christian missionary. I think, if you’ve read my blog up to this point, you see how that might not a film I’d be very interested in.
So that’s the film. Bergman gets to China to be a missionary. And slowly she wins over a village and becomes very respected. And war breaks out, and she falls in love with a dude — you know how these films work.
It’s actually pretty good. I was really engaged by it. So much so, that I actually think Robson is a third choice for me here. Above Richard Brooks. Even though I love Cat on a Hot Tin Roof much, much more than this film. But Robson’s effort is really strong, and I think it’s a strong third choice here. But, I’d totally take Minnelli and Kramer over him every day of the week, plus Funday.
Wise — I Want to Live! is a really strong film, anchored by a great performance by Susan Hayward.
Hayward plays a brassy, loose woman who sleeps around and hangs out in the wrong circles. And she gets involved with a robbery, and ends up getting arrested and put on death row (her boyfriend killed a cop, and they pinned it on her). And the film is about her dealing with being on death row, trying to appeal, and trying to fight for custody of her child (or, at least, to see the child). It’s pretty strong. It veers heavily into melodrama at points, but the way it’s shot, it’s really dark and gritty and has that prison feel to it that makes it feel like more than just a melodrama.
Wise really directs the hell out of this film. I like that he was nominated. The only thing is — he won twice after this, for West Side Story and The Sound of Music. So, I’m not voting for him here. There are better options.
My Thoughts: I say it’s Minnelli all the way. The other choice was Richard Brooks, but, if they’re gonna give Gigi Best Picture, might as well give Minnelli the statue he should have won in 1951 (and compounded with efforts like The Band Wagon, Meet Me in St. Louis and The Bad and the Beautiful). Not to mention the fact that he also directed Some Came Running this year. So given that I’d probably have given him these even if The Defiant Ones won Best Picture, he’s my vote.
My Vote: Minnelli
Should Have Won: Minnelli
Is the result acceptable?: Oh yeah. Minnelli had definitely earned one of those by this point and didn’t have one. Plus it was the Best Picture winner. So he definitely was the best, and only (really) decision here. His direction is amazing.
Ones I suggest you see: The Defiant Ones is a perfect film. Engaging on every level, and a social critique as well. This film has it all. You must see this one. It will make you a better person. And you’ll enjoy it.
Gigi is a thoroughly delightful film. Not my favorite, but it’s wonderful to watch. The art direction (and just plain direction) on this film is incredible. Just watch it for the colors. And Leslie Caron. Sigh. I love her.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is an American classic. Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor and Burl Ives are at their absolute best here. Really. This film is amazing. Highly, highly recommended. Also, if you want to see Elizabeth Taylor at her absolute most drop dead gorgeous — this is it. Holy shit, she is breathtaking.
I Want to Live! is a really great film. Very gritty. I really like how they handled this one. Prison films are very engaging (see: Shawshank). This is no different. Plus Hayward gives a strong performance, and Wise’s direction tones down the more melodramatic aspects of the story. I recommend you check this one out. It’s really well done.
The Inn of the Sixth Happiness is a film that I ended up liking a lot more than I expected. After all, it’s about a woman going to China to be a missionary. Two things I don’t like in my films — China and religion. But, it was actually pretty engaging. Not amazing, but really good. So I’ll recommend it based on that. It exceeded my expectations.