I love 1961. It’s so top-heavy. Look at your three major contenders for Best Picture: West Side Story, Judgment at Nuremberg, and The Hustler. I always say a year’s strength begins at Best Picture, and right there, this establishes this year as a strong one.
As for the rest of the decisions — Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins win Best Director for West Side Story (talked about here), and George Chakiris and Rita Moreno win Best Supporting Actor (talked about here) and Best Supporting Actress (talked about here), respectively, for the film as well. These decisions all make sense and are good (even though I probably wouldn’t have voted for any of them). When you remember the film, these all seem like good choices, but when you look at the categories, I feel as though there were better choices historically (since in Supporting Actor, you had both Jackie Gleason and George C. Scott, who were great in The Hustler and Montgomery Clift in Judgment at Nuremberg. And then in Supporting Actress, you have Judy Garland, who most people feel was horribly snubbed for Best Actress in 1954. So why wouldn’t you give it to her?). Then Best Actor was Maximilian Schell for Judgment at Nuremberg (talked about here), which I think is one of the worst decisions of all time in the category, since Schell wasn’t really a lead in the film, and because Paul Newman was so good in The Hustler (so good, in fact, that the Academy tried to remedy this snub 25 years later when he reprised the same role). And Best Actress was Sophia Loren in Two Women (talked about here). I don’t like this decision at all, but it’s tough. I love Sophia Loren, and I like that she has an Oscar, but I feel, based solely on the category, that Natalie Wood deserved it, giving a great performance in West Side Story and a great performance in Splendor in the Grass. How do you not award a year like that?
So, 1961 is a year with good decisions, though ones that — I don’t know — maybe could have or should have gone another way. But it all comes back to it being a strong year, where you can quibble about one or the other even though the actual decisions were strong. This year is a luxury year. We should be lucky to have one of these.
And the nominees were…
Fanny (Warner Bros.)
The Guns of Navarone (Columbia)
The Hustler (20th Century Fox)
Judgment at Nuremberg (United Artists)
West Side Story (United Artists) (more…)