The Oscar Quest: Best Picture – 1958

1958 is a strong year that is also a weak year. It’s strong in that — the nominees are very strong, on the whole. The films are all very good. However, there’s no real winner in the pack. There’s no real absolute #1, the way there is in most years. Which puts everything about even and then when something does win, it coming out looking weak. Kind of like 1968.

Gigi seems to have won based purely on being fun and big budget. Though the positive side effect of it was that Vincente Minnelli finally won a long-overdue Best Director (talked about here). (In that way, this feels kind of like 2006, where Scorsese was overdue and his film came along to win Best Picture as well.) Then Best Actor was David Niven for Separate Tables (talked about here), which was okay, but not great. He’s a great actor, and having an Oscar is a good thing, though he’s barely in the film (it’s essentially a supporting role), and Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis all gave more vote-worthy performances than he did. So, it’s not great, but it’s kind of okay. Wendy Hiller also won Best Supporting Actress for the film (talked about here), which was a good decision. Best Actress was Susan Hayward for I Want to Live! (talked about here), which was a good decision, and an overdue won. My only grip about it is that she should have won three years earlier (which might have led to Liz Taylor, Rosalind Russell or Deborah Kerr winning, none of whom had Oscars at this point and two of whom never won one). And Best Supporting Actor was Burl Ives for The Big Country (talked about here). This was a terrific decision, because not only is Burl Ives awesome, but he was also great in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof this year as well.

So, 1958 is a strong year in terms of decisions. But the Best Picture decision is kind of “meh.” Which is fitting for the year. Since pretty much any film that would have won (though maybe not The Defiant Ones) really wouldn’t have held up that well as a Best Picture winner.

BEST PICTURE – 1958

And the nominees were…

Auntie Mame (Warner Bros.)

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

The Defiant Ones (Kramer, United Artists)

Gigi (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

Separate Tables (United Artists)

Auntie Mame — This film is about a boy, whose father kills himself after losing everything in the stock market during the crash, who goes to live with his eccentric aunt. Rosalind Russell plays the aunt. And we follow the boy as he grows up with this woman, over a number of years. She goes through several husbands, all these adventures — it’s a very entertaining movie. Lot of fun. Rosalind Russell is everything you’d expect this character to be. She’s great. And the film is great. But it shouldn’t have won. It’s not good enough to have won.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof — What a classic this is. This one holds up. I didn’t think it would, but it does.

The film begins with Paul Newman, drunk, trying to relive his days as a star athlete (high school) by running hurdles. He falls and breaks his leg. The next day, he and his wife, Elizabeth Taylor, go and visit her father, Burl Ives, for his birthday. And the entire film pretty much takes place at his house over the course of this day. And we start to see the dynamics of all their relationships. Newman and Taylor have a pretty volatile relationship, and a big deal is made over the fact that she hasn’t had any children yet. And we find out that Ives is dying of cancer, though he doesn’t know so, since they’ve held back telling him so he’ll have a happy birthday. And then Ives gets in the middle of the fights that Newman and Taylor are having, trying to find out what the issue is between them. And we find out that Newman’s friend committed suicide, and he seemingly blames Taylor for his death, since she was jealous of how much they’d hang out, though he reveals that he’s actually ashamed that he never went to help his friend when he called him right before he died. And then Ives finds out he really does have cancer, and the whole house descends into a series of arguments and fights. Then Taylor tells Ives that she’s pregnant. Newman and Ives know it’s not true, but they go along with it anyway, and that’s the straw that leads to everyone reconciling.

It’s a really strong film. These types of films don’t sound like much when you write them out, but when you’re watch them, they’re really captivating. Liz Taylor is at her most beautiful here. She’s just stunning. And all the performances are really great as well. The film might be too stagy to be considered a Best Picture winner, but given that just about every film on this list has its drawbacks to being declared a winner, this has about as much a shot as anything else.

The Defiant Ones — I don’t know if people today will quite be able to realize just how landmark this film was in 1958.

The film is about Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier, a white man and a black man, prisoners, chained together. And as they’re being transported on a prison bus, the bus crashes and everyone escapes. And while most of the prisoners are rounded up quickly, Curtis and Poitier manage to evade capture. So the rest of the film is about the two of them (who can’t stand one another. Curtis seems to be a bit of a racist, and Poitier can’t stand Curtis) having to work together to evade capture. And it’s great. This film does seem to have it all. It’s entertaining, it’s well-made, well-acted — it has everything you’d want in a Best Picture winner plus a social message. So I can’t see why they wouldn’t vote for this. It’s so good.

Gigi — Nothing against this film, but I don’t know if this should have won. When you look at Vincente Minnelli’s musicals, this is probably the least interesting of the bunch. And it’s a bit creepy to boot.

The film is about Gigi, a young Parisian girl who is being groomed as a courtesan. And we follow her, as well as Gaston, a young member of high society, who is bored with it. So he hangs out with Gigi and her grandmother instead. Gigi is fun and carefree, and Gaston is like an older brother to her. And then Gaston falls in love with Gigi and — well, it’s pretty standard. It’s a fun musical, very colorful and well directed. And it also has Maurice Chevalier in it, which is essential for a musical set in Paris. Though there are some questionable moments, like Maurice Chevalier singing the song, “Thank Heaven for Little Girls.” Uhh…yeah, Maurice.

The film is very good, but, alongside other Minnelli musicals (Meet Me in St. Louis, The Band Wagon, even An American in Paris), it’s not that memorable. The story isn’t that memorable. And I don’t think this held up at all as a winner, even though it actually swept this year. So I guess the Academy wants what it wants. It is a good film, but, a Best Picture sweep? I don’t know about that.

Separate Tables — This film is basically a play on screen. But it’s a really good play, so that’s nice.

The film is about a group of characters staying at a seaside inn. And we follow all their individual stories as they intersect and converge with those of the other guests. There’s Burt Lancaster who is having an affair with Wendy Hiller, the proprietress of the inn, when his ex-wife (Rita Hayworth) comes back and tempts him to go back with her. Then there’s Deborah Kerr, a spinster who lives with her domineering mother, and doesn’t have the self-confidence to go and live her own life. And then there’s David Niven, a disgraced army man who hides the fact that he was disgraced and continues to tell these long and boring war stories. But then everyone finds out about him and it becomes a big bit of gossip. There are a bunch of stories.

It’s a very good film, and the performance are all terrific. It’s definitely a film that should be on this list, though it’s not a film that should have won. This and Auntie Mame are the two that really shouldn’t have won. It’s the kind of thing where — a Best Picture needs to be both a really good film and one that will stand up over time. It needs to have that extra something. And this one just doesn’t have that extra something. It wouldn’t have held up over time.

My Thoughts: Tough category. Not a real definitive winner here. Gonna have to narrow it down.

I have to take off Auntie Mame first. It’s the film that just wouldn’t have held up amongst the other nominees. Separate Tables is like that too. So that comes off next. Then — Gigi — I like it, but I just don’t see a need to vote for it at all. It’s enjoyable, but I just don’t like it as much as I like the remaining two. Which puts me at either The Defiant Ones or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. They’re both great and they’re both classic. And clearly there, the choice is already made. Because when you factor in the cultural importance of The Defiant Ones, and the message behind it, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof being stagy and based on stage material — I have to go with The Defiant Ones. I would have anyway, but, it just feels like the right film for this year. I doubt whatever won here would have mattered so much, since it’s not like another year where something relatively weak wins and beats something better (like 1952). Here, nobody really cares about it. So I say take the film that holds up the best. And to me, The Defiant Ones is that film.

My Vote: The Defiant Ones

Should Have Won: I don’t know. I guess The Defiant Ones. I don’t know if I have a preference there. Probably that, though.

Is the result acceptable?: I guess? I’m pretty indifferent toward this year since it didn’t have a real “definitive” winner. So, indifferent, leaning toward no, but not because of the choice. Because of the category.

Ones I suggest you watch: It’s weird. All of these are strong recommends, but none of them are absolutely essential films.

I guess The Defiant Ones is the closest to objectively essential. It’s a strong film, message-wise, execution-wise, and even just in terms of watching it. It’s so good. So I’m deeming it essential. If you love movies, you’ll love this one. See it.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is amazing. Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor, Burl Ives — what reason could you possibly have not to see it? It’s a classic.

Gigi is a really fun film. Not the best of Minnelli’s musicals, narratively. (In fact, it’s kind of creepy, with that “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” song and I’m pretty sure Gigi is supposed to be like, 16.) But it is a lot of fun, you get Leslie Caron and Maurice Chevalier, and the color design and art direction are just astounding. It’s a great film to watch for that. Watch what Minnelli accomplishes here with color. It’s incredible. Plus it’s a Best Picture winner, so you should see it.

Separate Tables — I like a lot. It’s basically a play on film, but it’s an ensemble, and you have a lot of famous people in it — David Niven, Wendy Hiller, Deborah Kerr, Burt Lancaster, Rita Hayworth, Gladys Cooper, Rod Taylor — and it’s a strong film to boot. It’s really well-done. I like the limited location, and us floating back and forth between the stories. Highly recommended.

Auntie Mame is a great film. It’s really a showcase for Rosalind Russell. It’s also basically a play, though it’s very lavishly done. Big sets, colorful — it feels like 50s Hollywood filmmaking. Plus it’s just a lot of fun. It’s long, but it’s a lot of fun on the whole. Definitely worth watching. I do recommend this strongly. It’s also a bit of a classic, in that most people know this because of her famous line, about life being a banquet and “most poor suckers are starving to death.” (Note: The original line was “sons-of-bitches.” No joke.)

Rankings:

5) Auntie Mame

4) Separate Tables

3) Gigi

2) Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

1) The Defiant Ones

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2 responses

  1. Michael

    Good job on this year. I totally agree that it wasn’t really a weak year in that none of the films were actually not that good, but that it wasn’t that strong either just because none of the nominees would have been particularly good winners. Out of the nominees, The Defiant Ones would be my winner, but Vertigo pulls out and wins by a mile if it were nominated.

    June 3, 2012 at 2:47 pm

    • Gonna be perfectly honest — I don’t think Vertigo’s all that great. This is relative, of course, since on its own, it’s amazing. But the way people talk about it — I don’t see it. (And only part of that has to do with my dislike of the people who put it on that pedestal. The “academics” and such.) I think Psycho, Rear Window and North by Northwest are all superior films. I don’t see what makes Vertigo so amazing. I think it’s long, and drags, and I wouldn’t even think to nominate here. I just don’t see it. Again though, it’s relative. I’d definitely put it (and have) in my Top Ten favorites for 1958. But to call it an automatic winner — I disagree completely. At best I’d say nominate him for Best Director. Definitely no Best Picture nomination. I don’t buy it.

      June 3, 2012 at 3:11 pm

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