The Oscar Quest: Best Picture – 1957
This year, more so than 1959, is a year that’s a checkpoint year (one where you look at what won and go, “Oh, that makes sense,” and move on without much thought), but is also questionable. Even when there’s a definitive winner, you could almost always make a case for another film (L.A. Confidential over Titanic, To Kill a Mockingbird over Lawrence of Arabia, Anatomy of a Murder over Ben-Hur). And some years it’s warranted, and some years you’re stretching. This year, you can make a legitimate case.
Bridge on the River Kwai is a pretty definitive winner, winning Best Picture, Best Director for David Lean (talked about here) and Best Actor for Alex Guinness (talked about here). All terrific decisions. Best Actress was Joanne Woodward for The Three Faces of Eve (talked about here), which was a perfect decision. She was incredible there. And Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress were Red Buttons (talked about here) and Miyoshi Umeki (talked about here) for Sayonara, the former I don’t like at all (Arthur Kennedy and Sessue Hayakawa were much better) and the latter I consider the single worst Best Supporting Actress-winning performance of all time. She doesn’t do much at all, and I’m certain they were voting for the role and not the performance.
Overall, though, 1957 is really strong. I don’t agree with the Supporting categories, but the rest of the decisions are really strong. Though, back to my original point — you can make a case here for another film winning — 12 Angry Men. I love years like this, though the pitfall with it is that people get so tied up in favor of one film that they completely discount the other. But outside of that, it’s nice to see a definite winner and a choice that’s just as strong. Rarely are we awarded such a luxury of a win-win situation.
BEST PICTURE – 1957
And the nominees were…
Bridge on the River Kwai (Columbia)
Peyton Place (20th Century Fox)
Sayonara (Warner Bros.)
12 Angry Men (United Artists)
Witness for Prosecution (United Artists)
The Bridge on the River Kwai — The film is actually a very simple one. A British regiment is captured and placed in a Japanese POW camp in Singapore. And while there, they are ordered by the Japanese commander of the camp (Sessue Hayakawa) to help build a bridge that will help carry troops and supplies to help invade Burma. And Alec Guinness, the British commander, refuses. So Hayakawa starts punishing the men, making them stand outside all day in the hot sun, until they acquiesce. And then he throws Guinness “in the box” for a while to try to get him to change his mind. Basically, the deal is — Hayakawa was ordered by his superiors to build this bridge, and if he can’t get it done, he’ll have to commit suppuku. And Guinness eventually comes around, and devotes all his efforts into building the bridge. Then, some of the men in the camp, led by William Holden, escape. And Holden gets back to American lines and is then sent back on a mission to destroy the bridge. Which leads to, shall we say, and explosive climax.
It’s a great film. It’s amazing. It’s nearly perfect.
Peyton Place — This film is an unabashed melodrama and I love that about it.
The film is an exposé about a small town. It actually gave birth to the soap opera of the same name. That should tell you what it’s about. And we follow a bunch of people in this town and their stories. Like, Lana Turner is the single mother who is frigid due to a wild past and her completely shutting down that side of herself in order to provide respectability for her daughter. And then there’s the daughter falling in love with a young boy and teen romance, as well as her dealing with her mother trying to keep her from growing up, essentially, overreacting to all her natural teenage behavior. (The daughter is also the girl who narrates the whole thing. She wants to be a writer and get out of the town, and these are her recollections of the place.) Then there’s the daughter’s friend, who is really the heart and soul of the film. The friend lives on the wrong side of the tracks. Her father is an alcoholic and her mother killed herself. And the father has been raping her since she was young. She even gets pregnant one of these times and the town doctor has to perform an abortion. And the doctor makes the father sign a confession and tells him to leave town and never come back or else he’ll tell the police what he’s done. And then later on in the film, the father returns, and in self-defense the girl kills him. And then there’s a whole big trial (since there’s always a trial in these films), and that’s the climax of the film. The whole town is there. And there’s this great moment at the trial where the doctor calls everyone in the town out for being assholes. It’s amazing.
This is a terrific film. I normally don’t do melodramas, but I loved this one. I guess it was because of the small town and all the stories, and just the fact that it wasn’t the Bette Davis type of melodrama. The sacrificial woman. This is more like — “Look at how fucked up this town is.” And I love that. Like Kings Row. I liked that one too (until they screwed up the second half, anyway). So, I really loved this film. Not everyone probably will, but I did. I think this should definitely be here. But again — 12 Angry Men and The Bridge on the River Kwai. This film had absolutely no shot here whatsoever.
Sayonara — Sayonara is a film that I didn’t like at first. At all. It probably had to do with me not liking that Red Buttons and Miyoshi Umeki won the Supporting Oscars this year for performances I didn’t feel were worthy at all. Then the second time I watched it, I started to respect it as a film. The art direction and cinematography are quite good. Then the third time (since I do try to give all films a fair shake), I did start to like it in a weird way. Now I’m in a place of liking the film, though I still hold my opinion on the supporting performances.
The film is about Air Force airmen in Japan. Brando is a good southern boy who is dating the general’s daughter. And Red Buttons is married to a Japanese woman. And the film is mostly about the army frowning upon Americans marrying Japanese women. They’d much prefer them knocking them up and sleeping with them and then returning home to America to marry an American girl. So the army starts to discourage the practice and puts up all these roadblocks. And Brando, who at first was trying to talk Buttons out of doing it, starts spending time with him and his wife, and realizes that they’re very much in love. And then Brando starts falling in love with a Japanese girl himself. And the film climaxes with the army, fed up with all the men marrying Japanese women, calling only those men back stateside. And since they had to sign a paper saying the wives wouldn’t get American citizenship in order to be married, the women can’t come with them. So Buttons and his wife kill themselves in order to stay together.
It’s a good film. It really is. It’s really well-made and is a film that should be here. It has its faults — like Brando’s southern accent, which is bordering on humorous at times — but overall, it’s a solid film and has a lot of Korean War parallels in it. Though, in this category — it had no shot. No shot at all. It’s a #5.
12 Angry Men — It’s 12 Angry Men. How do you not know what it’s about?
Okay, very quickly: A jury is placed in the jury room to deliberate a murder case. That’s it. That’s the film.
It’s one of the greatest American films ever made. It’s perfect.
Witness for the Prosecution — I love how Billy Wilder would switch back and forth between comedy and drama. Look at the films he made in the 50s. First, Sunset Boulevard. Quintessential noir. Then, Ace in the Hole. Another drama. Then, Stalag 17. A bit of both. Then, Sabrina. Romance. Then, The Seven-Year Itch. Comedy. Then, The Spirit of St. Louis. Biopic. Then, Love in the Afternoon. Comedy. Then, this. Then, Some Like It Hot. Then, The Apartment in 1960. I don’t know if any filmmaker has ever had as good a decade as Billy Wilder did from 1950-1960. And he made it look so easy, too.
This film is about Charles Laughton, an aging barrister, who keeps ignoring his health to take on more cases. And just as he’s about to finally take a break at the insistance of his nurse (played by his real life wife — though really she was a beard. He was quite openly gay — Elsa Lanchester), he comes to take the case of Tyrone Power (in his final film role), a man accused of murdering a wealthy old woman for her money. And Laughton takes the case, and the film is about him trying to prove Power innocent. And Laughton meet’s Power’s wife (Marlene Dietrich), who is very cold but does provide an alibi. But then, at the trial, she suddenly appears as a witness for the — well, you know the title. Though then Laughton gets wind of some letters that were written, which end up poking holes in Dietrich’s testimony and eventually get Power acquitted. And we find out that Dietrich doesn’t actually dislike her husband, despite the implication by her testimony, but actually loves him very much, and deliberately perjured herself in order to get him acquitted. And the great twist at the end (after that one) is that, once he’s acquitted, he reveals that he has a lover and is going to leave Dietrich. And she stabs and kills him right in the courtroom. And Laughton, who had agreed to take a vacation right after that case, turns around to start preparing to defend Dietrich. It’s a great film. Billy Wilder was a master.
The film is quite good, but it shouldn’t have won. Not against Bridge on the River Kwai and 12 Angry Men. The year is too strong for it. But it’s definitely a third choice here.
My Thoughts: It’s between The Bridge on the River Kwai and 12 Angry Men. And, honestly, I don’t feel like 12 Angry Men needs it as much. Both films held up well, and Bridge on the River Kwai just feels like more of an Oscar-winner. Either one is a good choice, but I’m taking Bridge on the River Kwai. Maybe it’s because it won, but it just feels like the choice for me.
My Vote: The Bridge on the River Kwai
Should Have Won: The Bridge on the River Kwai, 12 Angry Men
Is the result acceptable?: Oh hell yes. As long as it was one of those two. Both would have held up as a top twenty decision of all time.
Ones I suggest you watch: You need to see The Bridge on the River Kwai and 12 Angry Men, otherwise you don’t love movies, and you’re dead to me.
You also really need to see Witness for the Prosecution. It’s Billy Wilder, it’s a great movie — I say it’s essential. If you really love movies, and you want me to respect you, you need to see this one.
I also highly recommend Peyton Place. I immediately get leery when I hear the word melodrama — my mind goes to those Bette Davis movies and such. But here — I really, really liked this movie. Maybe it’s because it’s an ensemble about a small town, and that’s what made me gravitate toward it (since I love Our Town, and I really liked Kings Row, until it took that turn midway through). But I think it’s really strong and definitely worth checking out. You might not think you’d like it, but I feel like you’d be surprised.
Sayonara is a film that I initially didn’t like. But I warmed up to it. And now I think it’s actually a really solid film. It’s very colorful, and a very good example of 50s filmmaking. I do recommend this one. It’s good.
4) Peyton Place
3) Witness for the Prosecution
2) 12 Angry Men
1) The Bridge on the River Kwai