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The Oscar Quest: Best Picture – 1955

1955 is one of the weakest single years in Academy history. And, like I always say, a year begins with Best Picture. And this year’s Best Picture field might be the single weakest in history (it probably is, actually). There’s nothing here that should win in a regular year. Which pretty much leaves this as a forgotten year in Academy history, just because nothing particularly memorable came from it.

Marty wins Best Picture, Best Director for Delbert Mann (talked about here) and Best Actor for Ernest Borgnine (talked about here). The first two I understand and the third — while I think Frank Sinatra gave the better performance in The Man with the Golden Arm, he had an Oscar from 1953 and Borgnine was just as good, so, it’s fine. Best Actress was Anna Magnani for The Rose Tattoo (talked about here), which is utterly forgettable, and, in my opinion, a poor decision. (I think Susan Hayward should have won for I’ll Cry Tomorrow, which would have allowed either Deborah Kerr or Rosalind Russell to win their overdue Oscars in 1958, or let Liz Taylor win, which would have allowed Shirley MacLaine win in 1960, which would have affected 1983… the consequences are far-reaching.) Then Jack Lemmon wins Best Supporting Actor for Mister Roberts (talked about here), which is fine. The category was horrendously weak, though, and Lemmon won Best Actor later on, so most people forget about this. And Jo Van Fleet won Best Supporting Actress for East of Eden (talked about here), which — fine. She was in a bunch of stuff — I don’t have a problem with it (even though I’d have given it to Betsy Blair. Just because I love Marty).

So, really, not one memorable decision this year, despite Marty being a terrific film. But really, when you get down to bare essentials — the Best Picture category — this year is really one of the most forgettable years in Academy history.

BEST PICTURE – 1955

And the nominees were…

Love is a Many-Splendored Thing (20thCentury Fox) 

Marty (United Artists)

Mister Roberts (Warner Bros.)

Picnic (Columbia)

The Rose Tattoo (Paramount)

Love is a Many-Splendored Thing — Gonna go out on a limb and say this might be one of the weakest Best Picture nominees of all time.

William Holden is an American correspondent in China. He meets Jennifer Jones (playing a Chinese doctor. She’s white, in case you weren’t sure) and falls in love with her. This is during the Communist Revolution. The Chinese don’t like that she’s dating a white man. They ostracize her. They decide they love each other anyway. He dies while covering the war. But she gets letters from him that show up after he died. That’s the film.

The story is not bad, and I’m guessing the two reasons I really don’t like this film (other than the fact that it felt incredibly flat and lifeless) is that it takes place in China, and I’m just not interested in anything to do with China unless it’s an ancient dynasty, and the fact that, again, you have a white person playing Asian. What’s with that? So, I don’t like this film at all, and I feel it’s one of the weakest nominees of all time.

Not voting for it, in case you were wondering.

Marty — This is a perfect film. It’s so simple and unassuming. I almost wish it didn’t win just so there wasn’t any kind of reason for people to say negative things about this film. (Though, honestly, with the category the way it is, there was really no other choice, so it doesn’t matter if it won.)

The film is about Marty Piletti, a 34-year old butcher who is unmarried. And he comes from an Italian neighborhood, so all the old ladies who come in for meat are always like, “Marty, when are you gonna get married? Why don’t you find a nice girl and settle down?” And he laughs it off, but secretly he’s really lonely, and really does want to find a girl. But he thinks women aren’t interested in him. And one night, he goes to a dance with his friend Angie (Joe Mantell). And they get there, and pretty quickly Angie has found a girl and is going to leave Marty behind. So Marty goes up to the roof, where he finds Clara (Betsy Blair), crying. Turns out, just like him, she was abandoned by the person she came with. And they start talking, and eventually they make a connection, and then they spend the whole night together, walking around and talking. And it’s so beautiful. They just talk. That’s it. And he sends her home and tells her he’s gonna call her the next day. But the next day, Marty’s mother (who is worried that if Marty gets married, he’ll abandon her), starts saying negative things about Clara, and, along with all the crap he catches from the same people who were asking him when he was gonna get married, he doesn’t call her. But then, that night, he realizes he might be giving up on his one chance at love, so he basically says to hell with it.

And the film ends with him going into a phone booth to call her after giving this great speech to his friend Angie:

“You don’t like her. My mother don’t like her. She’s a dog and I’m a fat, ugly man. Well, all I know is I had a good time last night. I’m gonna have a good time tonight. If we have enough good times together, I’m gonna get down on my knees and I’m gonna beg that girl to marry me. If we make a party on New Year’s, I got a date for that party. You don’t like her? That’s too bad! Hey Ang, when are you going to get married? You’re 33 years old, and all your kid brothers and sisters are married. You oughta be ashamed of yourself.”

This film is perfect. It’s so wonderful. I will stand by this film as a great Best Picture choice. I don’t care that it’s based on a teleplay. I don’t care that it’s stagy as hell. This film transcends everything. (Plus, look at the category. That helps as well.) I will stand by this film against just about anything.

Mister Roberts — This film is amazing. I knew nothing about this film when I watched it, and yet, it has so many pieces that appeal to me that I’m surprised I didn’t know about it sooner. The cast includes Henry Fonda, James Cagney, William Powell and Jack Lemmon, and was directed by John Ford and Mervyn LeRoy. (Ford started the film and dropped out midway through and LeRoy took over. Both are credited.) Take off any three of those names and I’d still say, “Why haven’t I seen this yet?” The fact that it’s incredible only increases that.

The film is about a particularly unimportant cargo ship during World War II. The war is about to end, and the attitude of the men is pretty lax. But the ship’s captain (James Cagney), is proud of having a perfect record, so his attitude is strictly about maintaining perfection, and he doesn’t care at all what he puts the men through. And the men all hate him. They think of Mister Roberts (Henry Fonda) as their actual captain. They go to him with all their problems, and he relays them to the captain. Most people know that the reason the ship operates as well as it does is because of Fonda and not Cagney. And Fonda doesn’t like it anymore and wants to transfer out. But Cagney won’t let him (because he knows how valuable Fonda is. He is deliberately keeping Fonda because he knows he is responsible, and is perfectly willing to ride Fonda’s hard work to a promotion for himself).

And the film is basically a series of little episodes here and there, mostly involving the hijinks of the crew, specifically of Ensign Pulver (Jack Lemmon), who is in charge of laundry, yet hasn’t done a day of laundry in his life (he keeps stores of liquor in the washing machines). Lemmon is the guy who does all these minor illegal things. And he’s so good at avoiding the captain that Cagney doesn’t even know who he is. He knows of Pulver, but he doesn’t know what Pulver looks like. So Lemmon continues to do all these illegal things. It’s hilarious.

And what happens is, Cagney tells Fonda that he’ll go easier on the crew if Fonda gets more strict with the crew and stops asking for a transfer. So Fonda, thinking for the crew, agrees. Only his new attitude makes the crew hate him. And Roberts gets depressed, because he wants to experience actual combat and also is doing this for the crew, so now he’s not getting to be in combat and the crew hates him. But eventually he snaps and throws Cagney’s prized palm tree overboard. And Cagney figures he’d be the only one with the balls to do it, so he starts accusing him. Though the loudspeaker is left on and the crew hears the exchange, and realizes why Fonda was acting the way he was acting.

And then Fonda eventually does get a transfer, because the crew submitted a forged transfer request for him. So he goes, and weeks later, the crew get a letter from him, saying he’s been sent to the front lines and is really happy, and says how he misses everyone and all that. It’s a really touching letter. Then they get another one saying Fonda was killed in combat. And Lemmon, upset, goes and throws Cagney’s palm tree overboard and then goes right into his office and demands to know why Cagney cancelled the showing of a film later that night (a running gag throughout the film). And Cagney rolls his eyes, because that’s exactly what Fonda used to do.

It’s an amazing movie. It’s seriously one of the best from this Quest. If it weren’t for Marty, this is your winner (in this category). It’s so good. I don’t see how anyone doesn’t vote for either this or Marty in this category. They’re so far and away the two best films.

Picnic — For some reason, to me, this film feels like a perfect example of what the 50s were. I don’t know why. It just does.

The film takes place over the span of a day. William Holden gets of a train in his old hometown, which he left shortly after college to make something of himself in Hollywood. Now he’s back, not having gotten anywhere. He goes and meets his old roommate, who is the son of the richest man in town. And he basically goes and asks the guy for a job, but doesn’t want to sound like he’s mooching, so he asks for a low-paying, entry-level job. And then he ends up meeting and falling for his friend’s girlfriend (Kim Novak). And the whole thing revolves around the town picnic, which is this big annual festival they have. So they set up all these relationships, and then they go to the picnic, and stuff plays out. And at the picnic, Rosalind Russell, a spinster teacher who is looking for a man, goes with meek store owner Arthur O’Connell. And they sneak in some booze and get drunk. Only, Kim Novak’s younger sister, who has a crush on William Holden, finds it and gets drunk off of it, in an effort to feel older. And everyone blames Holden for it, and Russell doesn’t say anything, not wanting to take blame for having the alcohol. So now Holden is wanted by the town police, and all the people he was with (who know he didn’t do it), work to sneak him out of the town. And then after he goes, Kim Novak realizes she loves him and goes off after him.

It’s a nice film. It really is. It’s well-shot, very evocative of the 50s, and an entertaining film. It’s just way too on-the-nose to be considered for a win. Way too on-the-nose. This would have been one of the worst winners of all time, had it won.

The Rose Tattoo — There’s something about Tennessee Williams plays. They either really hit with me (Streetcar, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), or they really miss (pretty much everything else). (Though there are a few in between, which are either sort of interesting as plays (to me), like “The Glass Menagerie,” or sort of interesting as films, like Suddenly Last Summer and Sweet Bird of Youth. And I guess Night of the Iguana.) I just do not get this movie at all.

The film is about Anna Magnani, whose husband (whom she loves) she finds is cheating on her and then dies shortly after. Then she becomes a recluse, staying in her house and making dresses for people (she’s a dressmaker). So she stays inside for three years and completely lets herself go. And one day, Burt Lancaster, a truck driver, shows up and asks to stay the night. He stays, and he and Magnani get drunk and flirt. And she mentions her husband as having this rose tattoo on his chest, so Lancaster goes out and gets the exact same one. And the film is basically her thinking her husband was this saint, meanwhile he’s had affairs with many other women. And she ends up with Lancaster and allows her daughter to be married (which she’d been refusing to do all film). It’s — I don’t know. There’s not really a story here, but, the performances are good. I just don’t get the point of it.

The film is fine and all, but, again, I don’t see what the point of the story is. And even so, I don’t think the film is good enough to be nominated here, despite the weak year. Is this really better than East of Eden?

My Thoughts: This is one of the few years I actually want to look up alternative possibilities to the nominees. And looking it up — yeah, not that many other possibilities. Rebel Without a Cause and The Man with the Golden Arm are the two that spring to mind. One wasn’t going to happen, the other likely was too polarizing. Dean, the method acting, the generational gap — I don’t think that would have gotten on. The result is a really weak Best Picture category. (Oh, and East of Eden too. That’s the other one. That should just be on this list, no qualifications.)

In terms of voting — Love is a Many-Splendored Thing is a joke. The Rose Tattoo shouldn’t be here. It’s a #5 most years. Picnic is way too on-the-nose, despite being a good film. So that leaves, without even thinking about it — Mister Roberts and Marty. And honestly, Marty has more emotion to it. Mister Roberts, despite being a great film and a funny film, is kind of flat overall. Marty at least makes you feel something. Which is why it won. So I support Marty. I vote for it. But only in this category. I might vote for it in other years, but this is the only year in which it actually should have won. Which says a lot about this year.

My Vote: Marty

Should have won: Of the choices… Marty. Yeah, why not? It was a weak year.

Is the result acceptable?: For this year and this field, yes. Possibly even in other years. But, for this one specifically, yes. Absolutely.

Ones I suggest you see: You need to see Marty or else we’re not friends.

You should see Mister Roberts. Henry Fonda, Jack Lemmon, William Powell’s final screen performance, James Cagney, Ward Bond — directed by Mervyn LeRoy (and also John Ford, though he left midway through). It’s a great film. You should see this because of all the people involved. It’s amazing. So I’m calling it essential for the true film fan.

Picnic — very good film, very representative of 50s filmmaking. I always call this film the epitome (maybe not the epitome, but it definitely fits the mold) of what films were like in the 50s. It’s also a good film. So I recommend it.

The Rose Tattoo — yeah, it’s okay. Worth a watch.

Love is a Many-Splendored Thing — I didn’t like. But it was a decent film, so I’ll mention it. Very romantic and over-the-top, though. Not really my thing. But it was decent, I guess.

Rankings:

5) Love is a Many-Splendored Thing

4) The Rose Tattoo

3) Picnic

2) Mister Roberts

1) Marty

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3 responses

  1. BlueFox94

    I wish “THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER” wasn’t so butchered by critics this year. It was one of my favorites of ’55.

    June 6, 2012 at 4:30 pm

  2. Michael

    I couldn’t agree more. Marty totally deserved to win based on the field. You mentioned East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and The Man with the Golden Arm, but I would throw in The Night of the Hunter and Bad Day at Black Rock as equally deserving films. For me, my five nominees would probably be Marty, East of Eden, The Night of the Hunter, either Mister Roberts or Picnic, and either Rebel Without a Cause or Bad Day at Black Rock.

    June 6, 2012 at 7:40 pm

    • That’s the problem, though, with what we want. Every time people talk about the Oscars, it’s always in terms of what they would have wanted to see happen. Night of the Hunter was never going to be nominated for Best Picture. Ever. The Academy would never vote for something like that. And no matter how much I love that movie, I can’t possibly ever take it seriously as a nominee. Because it’s just not something that would ever get on. (Granted, if I had a ballot that year, I might put it on. But that’s the equivalent of having voted for Deathly Hallows this past year. It feels like a wasted vote, since it would never happen.) And I just can’t bring myself to talk in hypotheticals without looking at what the Academy would actually have happen. If I were casting a ballot, I’d rather vote for something with the possibility of getting on. And there’s no way either Rebel Without a Cause or Night of the Hunter would ever get on. Bad Day at Black Rock makes sense, having gotten the Director nomination, and I actually think that was a better choice than The Rose Tattoo. And East of Eden over Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing is just a given in terms of what should have been changed. I think that’s the perfect five picture field taking into account both sides of the equation — personal choice AND Academy tastes. Because, to me, voting for Night of the Hunter here (just like voting for Vertigo in ’58) is a waste of a vote. It’s all personal and not logistically feasible.

      June 6, 2012 at 7:48 pm

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