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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Director, 1945-1946)

The Oscar Quest began in May of 2010. I finished about fifteen months later, and wrote it up for this site. That was essentially the first thing I did on here. Five years have passed since then. I’ve grown as a person. My tastes have changed, matured (or gotten more immature, in some cases). So it feels fitting, on the five year anniversary of the site and of the Oscar Quest, to revisit it.

I want to see just how my opinions about things have changed over the past five years. I didn’t do any particular work or catch-up for this. I didn’t go back and watch all the movies again. Some I went back to see naturally, others I haven’t watched in five years. I really just want to go back and rewrite the whole thing as a more mature person, less concerned with making points about certain categories and films than with just analyzing the whole thing as objectively as I can to give people who are interested as much information as possible.

This is the more mature version of the Oscar Quest. Updated, more in-depth, as objective as possible, less hostile. You can still read the old articles, but know that those are of a certain time, and these represent the present.

1945

Clarence Brown, National Velvet

Alfred Hitchcock, Spellbound

Jean Renoir, The Southerner

Leo McCarey, The Bells of St. Mary’s

Billy Wilder, The Lost Weekend

Analysis:

National Velvet is, I think, my favorite film in this category. And it’s my favorite effort. I’m not sure it shouldn’t have won, but it had to be said. I really loved how they shot the climactic race. It’s really well-shot. The rest of the film isn’t particularly outstanding, but it’s solid, and like I said, it’s my favorite in the category, so there’s that too.

It’s about Elizabeth Taylor as a young girl who loves a local horse that’s kept in the stables in town. One day, there’s a raffle to win the horse. And she manages to win. And then she decides she wants to enter the horse in the Grand National. And the rest of the film becomes about her following her dream and doing this. It’s a really incredible movie. Very uplifting, a great message for young girls, and a really well-made and thrilling film. The race at the end is very well shot, and that’s why it’s on here.

I’m not sure it wins, but it’s definitely my favorite effort.

Spellbound is one of those Hitchcock movies that I don’t particularly love. Mostly because it’s very psychoanalytical, and it feels like there’s a good thirty-plus minutes in the film that’s spent just explaining entry level psychology. I really don’t need to be taking a class on psychology when watching a movie. I guess in 1945, they did, and that’s why this was thought of as so good.

Mostly it’s a thriller. Ingrid Bergman is a doctor at a mental hospital. Gregory Peck is the new doctor. They soon discover he’s got a bunch of weird habits and phobias. One day he reveals to Bergman that he’s not who he says he is, and killed the actual doctor and took his place. He doesn’t even know what his real name is. Bergman is convinced he’s innocent and sets out to help him remember and discover the truth.

The highlight of the film is a dream sequence with a lot of trippy stuff in it. Almost like the sequence in Cat People. It’s actually a good film. I just don’t like it as much as his other films because of all the psychoanalysis in it. Though I’m a bit surprised this got Picture and Director nominations and some of his other films didn’t.

The effort is solid, probably third or fourth in the category. Maybe some people would put it second. Not sure if anyone actually votes for it.

The Southerner is a Renoir film. It’s about a guy who decides to start his own farm, and we watch as they do it from scratch. No money, little bit of seeds, and they get some land that’s pretty run down. And they work work work to get it going… only for there to be a flood, forcing them to have to start over.

It’s a solid film. Not very well remembered. Renoir does a good job with it. Maybe at best it’s a third choice, but I don’t think many people would put this particularly high on effort alone. Feels very middle of the pack.

The Bells of St. Mary’s is the sequel to Going My Way. It’s similar in tone, but the narrative is much more straightforward. Bing Crosby is sent to another parish, and this time they have to save it from the greedy millionaire who wants to knock it down and turn it into a parking lot for a shopping mall. But of course the entertainment comes from Bing singing and all the fun scenes, like Ingrid Bergman teaching one of the students how to box to defend himself. Stuff like that.

It’s not as good as Going My Way, and even that film, I think most people would say didn’t really need to win Best Director. I’m almost certain nobody would vote for this in the category.

The Lost Weekend is a powerhouse of a film. It’s about an alcoholic. Ray Milland is a drunk who agrees to stay sober while his girlfriend and brother go out of town. And as soon as they leave, he goes off on a bender. It’s truly incredible.

As much as I love National Velvet, this movie wins the category hands down. Just watch all five. This is clearly your winner. Most people wouldn’t argue it.

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The Reconsideration: It’s a very easy category. Wilder wins this with The Lost Weekend hands down. I still love National Velvet more, but even I’m not arguing that Wilder wins this. Hitchcock or Renoir is your third choice. I say Hitchcock. But you can go either way. And McCarey is a clear fifth choice. Not a whole lot to think about here.

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Rankings (category):

  1. Billy Wilder, The Lost Weekend
  2. Clarence Brown, National Velvet
  3. Alfred Hitchcock, Spellbound
  4. Jean Renoir, The Southerner
  5. Leo McCarey, The Bells of St. Mary’s

Rankings (films):

  1. National Velvet
  2. The Lost Weekend
  3. The Bells of St. Mary’s
  4. Spellbound
  5. The Southerner

My Vote: Billy Wilder, The Lost Weekend

Recommendations: The Lost Weekend is a must-see movie. Incredible all around. A real classic. Film fans need to check this out.

Spellbound is Hitchcock, and you should see Hitchcock.

The Bells of St. Mary’s — if you saw Going My Way why wouldn’t you see this?

National Velvet is such an incredible film. I think everyone ought to see it. Young Elizabeth Taylor, Mickey Rooney. It’s a family film that also functions as a great film for everyone. The race sequence is really terrific.

The Southerner is solid, but you don’t need to see it. Most people don’t even know what it is.

The Last Word: It’s Wilder. I put Brown as 2, but he could be as low as 4 for some people. I have a hard time thinking anyone’s gonna vote anyone other than Wilder here.

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1946

Clarence Brown, The Yearling

Frank Capra, It’s a Wonderful Life

David Lean, Brief Encounter

Robert Siodmak,The Killers

William Wyler, The Best Years of Our Lives

This one is rough.

I like The Yearling a lot. It’s about a boy and his parents living on a farm in the south. The boy is the only child (the rest died), and his father (Gregory Peck) is very loving, and his mother (Jane Wyman) is very cold, mostly out of fear that he will die like the rest of the children did. One day, Peck is bitten by a snake and they kill a deer to use its innards to draw out the poison (because that works). And the boy, having no friends, adopts the deer’s fawn. And he and the deer become inseparable. You can guess where it goes. But aside from that, it’s also a nice movie about a family. Really gorgeous Technicolor. Great film all around.

Direction-wise, I think we can all agree that it’s no better than fourth here. It’s good, it looks good, but the category is too strong. But it’s a really solid entry.

It’s a Wonderful Life is a film that you should know about. So I won’t explain it.

This would (and probably should) be a lot of people’s choice in the category, which I completely understand. Capra did win three times, but I’m not gonna let that (nor should you) factor into the decision. I really like the direction of this film, and I think it’s probably his best overall effort. (It’s between this, It Happened One Night and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Those, to me, are the ones where he really did a beautiful job.) The category is rough, though, so we’ll see how it shakes out.

Brief Encounter is a masterpiece. Celia Johnson plays a housewife who, by chance, on one of her excursions shopping and going to the cinema, runs into a doctor. They have a nice conversation, and agree to meet again. And they quickly start seeing each other often, and realize things are starting to become something more than friendship. Which is a problem, because they’re both married with kids. It’s a beautiful and heartbreaking film. One of the greatest romances ever put to screen.

I love this film. And I love the direction. Lean directed the hell out of it. I might prefer it to the other choices. It’s a really strong category and is really tough to gauge. But this holds its own against all the others and can be an easy choice here.

The Killers is a really great film. A noir. I love that noirs got on the Best Director category a lot in the 40s. Based on a Hemingway novel. A couple of hitmen show up at a gas station and murder Burt Lancaster (this was his first film). We then flash back to how we got there. Lancaster was a former boxer whose career got cut short. He gets involved with a gangster, and there’s a robbery, and the gangster’s girl — it’s great stuff. Classic noir.

The problem here is that the category is too good. The direction is really solid, though you can’t really get it any higher than fourth in the category. This has almost next to no shot when you look at the category as a whole. Which is a shame.

The Best Years of Our Lives is a huge film for film history and for 1946. It’s a film about the return home from war. It’s beautiful. We follow three men — Fredric March, Dana Andrews and Harold Russell as they return to civilian life. March comes back to a loving wife and kids and his old job. But he’s haunted, and starts drinking too much. Andrews used to be a soda jerk and now wants to move forward in the world but the job market prevents him from doing so, which proves disastrous for his marriage. And Russell comes back without any hands, and everyone has trouble accepting him with this new disability. It’s an incredible film.

The direction isn’t overly showy, but it’s solid. William Wyler had a knack for adroitly putting big, classy films together. This isn’t the kind of movie that’s loaded with iconic images, but it’s the kind of movie that’s the total package, and a lot of that is owed to Wyler’s skillful direction. This must be considered for the win among the other two main contenders.

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The Reconsideration: It’s a hell of a category. They’re all very solid efforts. Brown and Siodmak come off the top pretty easily. The Yearling and The Killers are great films, but the other three are really iconic. It’s a toss up as to which of the two is better. I stick with Brown over Siodmak, but maybe that’s me being a sucker for Technicolor or me just liking that film a little more. Either way, neither one has much of a chance here.

The choice is between Lean, Wyler and Capra. And it’s a really difficult one.

You have three completely different entries. Wyler’s is all about skill and subtly putting a difficult film together. He’s got three storylines, and he has a film that could veer into melodrama if he’s not careful. And he handles it well. It’s the solid, classy choice in the category. Lean’s is all about emotion. He take a simple story and builds it into this tragic romance, making you feel everything the characters are unable to say and do. And Capra has the time factor working for him. Meaning that he crafted a movie that’s an all-time classic that everyone knows in some form, even if they haven’t seen it. The images and moments in this film are iconic and people remember them. That counts for a lot.

It could honestly be any one of the three. They’re all very deserving. Wyler makes the most sense for the Academy. The film represents the state of the nation, it’s the big “Oscar” film and probably should have won both. Lean is the kind of choice that would look okay, given the quality of the film, but is definitely more of an outsider choice. And Capra is the populist choice.

I think I have Wyler third based on pure effort. At least, in terms of “eye test.” I don’t want to judge based purely on that, but that movie is more about the acting and the story than the visuals. Brief Encounter is also about acting and story, but the way Lean shoots it does a lot to enhance the drama and elicit audience reaction. So I’m more inclined to vote for him over Wyler based on that.

And Capra — to me he makes the most sense. The film is beautiful, the film has images that stand the test of time that audiences can remember when isolated from the rest of the picture. It’s one of the all-time classics. And it’s probably my favorite film in the category. To me, he seems like the choice.

In terms of pure category, I think my vote is Capra. Taking into account past history (since, if we’re voting in 1946, we’re aware that he already has three of these), I’d maybe hesitate a bit and lean more toward Lean or Wyler (though Wyler also had one by this point). But if we’re basing this solely on the category and what I’d vote for, I’d take Capra. How can you argue with It’s a Wonderful Life?

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Rankings (category and films):

  1. Frank Capra, It’s a Wonderful Life
  2. David Lean, Brief Encounter
  3. William Wyler, The Best Years of Our Lives
  4. Clarence Brown, The Yearling
  5. Robert Siodmak, The Killers

My Vote: Frank Capra, It’s a Wonderful Life

Recommendations:

It’s a Wonderful Life is a must-see film for humans. It’s one of those where if you hear someone hasn’t seen it, you wonder how that could possibly have happened.

Brief Encounter and The Best Years of Our Lives are absolute essentials for film fans. If you even remotely like movies, you need to see these.

The Yearling is a beautiful film that will appeal to most people. It’s like Bambi, or National Velvet, or even Old Yeller. It’s one of those films that beautifully evokes childhood that works for both children and adults. If you’re the kind of person who loves Disney movies, you’ll love this movie.

The Killers is a great noir and is definitely worth seeing. It’s the first screen performance of Burt Lancaster and is a great representation of the noir genre. I’d recommend this version over the ’64 version. Though, I remember when I was getting into movies, Criterion had the double edition with both versions in it. So a lot of people probably end up seeing both, which I recommend. (You find pretty early that Criterion knows what they’re doing when putting stuff out.)

The Last Word: The category is loaded, and there are three legitimate choices here. Brown and Siodmak are kind of weak, purely owing to how classic the other three films are in relation to those two. Wyler makes sense as both a winner and a choice, and holds up as both. Lean is a very solid choice, and I couldn’t fault anyone for choosing him over the other two. And Capra — most people would go Capra here. How could you blame that? You can really go any way you want. My guess is most people would go Capra, a nice handful would take Lean on that “hipster” track (not even in the negative sense. In the “this is the non-mainstream underground choice” sense where you’re deliberately going against the grain), and there’s a solid section who would take Wyler owing to the Picture/Director link up. My response is — you’re not wrong. They’re all worthy. History has shown that all three films and efforts are great choices. You can’t go wrong here.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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