The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Director, 1951-1952)
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.
John Huston, The African Queen
Elia Kazan, A Streetcar Named Desire
Vincente Minnelli, An American in Paris
George Stevens, A Place in the Sun
William Wyler, Detective Story
The African Queen is such an amazing film. John Huston directing Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. How could that not appeal to you?
Katharine Hepburn is a spinster living in Africa with her brother, a missionary, trying to convert the natives to catholicism during World War I. Hint: it’s not going well. And then ze Germans show up and murder the village. And the brother dies of a fever. So now she’s on her own. Only enter Bogart, the drunkard who delivers the mail on his broken down old boat, (insert title here). They set off up river, and there’s a nice series of scenes where they bicker and don’t like each other, because she’s prudish and proper, and doesn’t like his gin. But after a while they become friends, and then they end up deciding to take on the Germans themselves. It’s great. It’s really great.
The direction is great, and it’s a legitimate vote in this category. It’s tough, because there are a lot of different styles here, and they’re all legitimate. This is the only film shot on location. Which helps it to stand out from the others. Huston’s films often do stand out for that very reason.
A Streetcar Named Desire — you may have heard of it. Brando, Vivien Leigh, Kim Hunter, Karl Malden. Blanche DuBois arrives at her sister’s house to stay with her and her husband in New Orleans. I can’t really explain it past there except to say, it’s one of the most iconic and well-acted films of all time.
Kazan directs the shit out of this film. It’s very theatrical, because it takes place almost entirely inside an apartment. That will keep some people from voting for it, and I understand that. But it’s really well shot and the spacial limitations don’t hinder the drama one bit, which is a credit to Kazan. I’m still debating which way I want to go here. It might be him.
An American in Paris is a classic Technicolor musical. Gene Kelly is (insert title here), a struggling artist. He meets a woman who seemingly wants to support his art, but also may have designs on him. And then he meets Leslie Caron, who his friend also falls for. You know, musical, romance, color, good shit.
As a Best Picture winner, you could question the validity. As a Best Director nominee, you can’t argue it. Minnelli always directs the hell out of his musicals. The choreography and color design are all top notch. The film ends with a 16 minute musical number. He’s definitely worth a vote. It comes down to where your preference lies. I’m still not sure.
A Place in the Sun is a film that I didn’t love so much the first time I saw it. But upon further viewing over the past five years, I understand why it won this category.
Montgomery Clift is a poor factory worker. He’s the nephew of the factory’s owner, and is really ambitious. He starts dating Shelley Winters, another factory worker. He eventually works his way up the ranks, which catches the eye of Elizabeth Taylor, a socialite. Pretty soon he is smitten with her and wants to be with her, only just at that moment he finds out that Shelley Winters is pregnant. And… well, I’ll put it this way. The name of the play this is based on is called An American Tragedy.
The movie is great, and Stevens really directs the hell out of it. It may actually be the strongest effort in the category. The film itself may seem a bit dated now as compared to 1951, but it’s really well-made and a classic of cinema. It might actually become my vote in the end.
Detective Story is the forgotten entry in the category. No one remembers this movie today. Which, against the other four, I kind of understand. But it’s a real hidden gem, because its structure is so different from the norm.
The entire film takes place over the course of one day at a police precinct. It’s framed around the arrest of Lee Grant, who is a housewife caught shoplifting and is sitting there all day, watching the goings on of the precinct. And we watch as different people go in and out, different stories weave in and out. Some major, some minor. The main story revolves around Kirk Douglas investigating a doctor wanted on murder charges, and is so intent on getting him that it starts to consume him. I won’t ruin all the little reveals and twists and turns, but it’s a great film.
This is one of those nominations where — Wyler’s a great director, and he made an ensemble film that takes place over the course of a single day, and they’re appreciating his ability to keep all of these stories going and keep things interesting throughout. Plus, rather than going full melodrama with it, they actually stuck to a relative verité style. It’s pretty laid back, which I really appreciated. Still, I think he has to be considered the fifth nominee in the category. Maybe you can make a case for him fourth, but he’s not going much higher than that. Which is funny, because it’s William Wyler. But this is a category where he just can’t make any headway.
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The Reconsideration: This category is great because of all the different styles at work. A color musical, an on-location adventure film, a theatrical drama centered around performance that mostly takes place in a single location, a verité ensemble movie a la Grand Hotel but in a police station and a social drama that draws the audience into the tragedy. They’re all so different, it’s gonna come down to personal preference.
Wyler’s number five for me. After that, it gets tricky. For me… I love Vincente Minnelli, but I don’t think I put him higher than fourth in the category. And Huston, I love him too, but against the other two, I ultimately wouldn’t vote for him, so he’s going third.
For me, it comes down to Kazan vs. Stevens. Kazan’s film is my favorite, but I actually think Stevens had the best effort in the category. Watching the camera movement and framing of his film, I think he’s the choice. Though honestly, the vote could be anywhere from Stevens to Kazan to Huston or Minnelli. It probably comes down to which day you catch me. Today, I still feel like I might want Kazan, but Stevens is the choice.
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- George Stevens, A Place in the Sun
- Elia Kazan, A Streetcar Named Desire
- John Huston, The African Queen
- Vincente Minnelli, An American in Paris
- William Wyler, Detective Story
- A Streetcar Named Desire
- The African Queen
- A Place in the Sun
- An American in Paris
- Detective Story
My Vote: George Stevens, A Place in the Sun
All of them.
If you like film A Streetcar Named Desire is something you need to get to really early on. It’s essential.
The African Queen is just a perfect movie. Bogart, Hepburn, Huston — if you start watching movies, you start to watch the same handful early on. We all develop similar likes. Look at the IMDB top list. The majority of people like certain movies. And if you like those movies, and have not seen this, trust me, you will like this. It’s wonderful, and is pretty much an essential movie.
A Place in the Sun is an American classic. It won Best Director, and is regarded as an all-time great film. It should be seen. At the moment, being perfectly honest, it’s not #1, top tier essential, but it is essential. You don’t need to rush into it, but if you like movies, you should get to it fairly early on.
An American in Paris won Best Picture, and is a Vincente Minnelli Technicolor musical, starring Gene Kelly. There are a lot of reasons to see this, and it’s definitely worthwhile, even if you don’t love musicals. Just the color design alone is worth it. Gorgeous film, and that ending musical number is truly impressive.
Detective Story is worth it because it feels so unlike something Hollywood made in this era. It’s a noir but has a verité feel to it. Definitely one of those films you can go into without any expectations and come out really enjoying. One of the best hidden gems of the Oscars. Highly recommended.
The Last Word: Today, my vote is Stevens. I couldn’t argue if you wanted to vote for him, or Kazan, or Huston, or Minnelli. They’re all worthy choices. As long as you can justify it in an acceptable way, I can accept almost any choice in the category, and I think you could make a case for just about anyone in this category. But, having seen them all again since doing this quest, Stevens is the vote for me.
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Cecil B. DeMille, The Greatest Show on Earth
John Ford, The Quiet Man
John Huston, Moulin Rouge
Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 5 Fingers
Fred Zinnemann, High Noon
The Greatest Show on Earth is a better film than you think. It’s not a great winner, but it’s a good film. That said, we’re here to judge the direction, not the film.
It’s about a circus. About a traveling circus. Basically Ringling Brothers. Charlton Heston runs the thing, and it’s about him trying to keep everything moving along smoothly. He’s sleeping with the head acrobat, but then she starts flirting with the new male acrobat they’ve hired. And then there’s Jimmy Stewart, playing a clown named Buttons, who is never seen out of his makeup, who may or may not be a doctor who murdered his wife. So half the film is shots of the circus, and the other half is Heston dealing with all the day-to-day problems of running the circus, along with some melodramatic moments. It’s kind of the circus drama version of Hail, Caesar. I like it as a film. If it didn’t win, no one would have such disdain for it.
The effort is fine. DeMille is a professional, but this isn’t something you vote for. It’s solid, but not outstanding. Especially in a category with not one but two outstanding entries in it. Maybe it’s third at best. But honestly you could make the case that this is fifth. It’s grand, and there are nice shots of the circus, but is there anything here that screams vote against the other four entries in the category?
The Quiet Man is classic John Ford. One of the single most gorgeous films ever put to screen. Also a film that’s impossible to explain to people because the plot both makes no sense and feels utterly inconsequential to the experience of the film itself.
John Wayne arrives in the town of his birth. Small town in Ireland. He’s a boxer who is here to get away from his past (he killed a guy in the ring). He gets initiated to the local customs and meets Maureen O’Hara, with whom he falls in love. Only her brother, Victor McLaglen, the town hard ass, isn’t married, so she’s not allowed to be married until he is. Which seems like it’ll never happen. So their romance blooms and the town conspires to get them to be married. The finale of the movie is a fistfight between the two guys over her dowry. Not making that up. Pretty spectacular, you just have to trust me if you haven’t seen it.
This is one of the most beautiful movies ever shot, and I cannot even fathom this having lost. I mean, sure, High Noon is also great and that also would have been a worthy winner. But there’s no sane person who watched all the films in this category and does not rank this as 1 or 2. Take who you want for the win, but, having matured on this category, this is clearly my vote.
Moulin Rouge is a completely forgotten film, especially now that the Baz Luhrmann film came out. This isn’t that. This is actually a biopic of Toulouse-Lautrec, the guy who painted the famous painting (the short guy John Leguizamo played in the other one).
It’s not a comedy. It’s not a musical. It’s a drama. The man was a chronic alcoholic and disabled and really had a rough go of it. He painted to pay for his booze and his rent. It’s actually kind of depressing. Film’s gorgeous, though. Incredibly well-acted and well directed. Would make a great double feature with the Luhrmann version.
John Huston always directs a great film, and may be closer to a vote in a different year. But he’s up against two all-time films. And he’s just not gonna get past #3 for me. Which is a shame, since it’s a really solid job by him.
5 Fingers is a strong, underrated film. Joseph Mankiewicz, fresh off back-to-back wins a few years earlier.
James Mason is the valet to an ambassador who is also secretly selling secrets to the Germans. He’s romancing a poor countess, and he starts selling secrets in order to help her out. So it turns into a great little spy thriller that’s clearly setting up for tragedy in the end. (James Mason movies often end in tragedy.)
It’s a really good movie. Hardly remembered, but very watchable. Direction-wise, it’s solid. But it’s not vote-worthy. Fourth at best. Him and DeMille are the bottom two in the category. Though this is one of two black and white entries on the list, which makes it stand out. We’re entering an era where color is the norm.
High Noon. Come on. You know this movie. Sheriff about to get married and give up the job when he finds out a man he put away is now out and is coming back into town to kill him. The townspeople tell him to go and enjoy being married and that they’ll handle it (plus his wife is a quaker and hates violence), but “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.” So he goes back to town and discovers that no one wants to help him. They’re perfectly okay with giving up law and order and having the bad guy take over again. And the whole thing builds (in near real time) until the big showdown at (insert title here).
It is a GREAT movie. I cannot argue with anyone who wants to vote for this. Hell, I voted for this last time and still kinda want to. If it’s not John Ford, Zinnemann is the choice. There’s no denying it.
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The Reconsideration: It’s either Ford or Zinnemann. Decide however you will, as long as that decision doesn’t involve how many Oscars Ford won before this or how many Zinnemann won after this. I could go back and forth all day. But having had five years to think this over and rewatch the two films several times each — for me, it’s Ford. The Quiet Man is too gorgeous and too perfect a movie to not vote for, no matter how much I love High Noon. That’s how I feel. The others aren’t even in the conversation for a vote, so I won’t mention them. It’s one or the other, and I could accept either as the vote. But for me, now, it’s Ford. Not even a moment’s hesitation.
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Rankings (category and films):
- John Ford, The Quiet Man
- Fred Zinnemann, High Noon
- John Huston, Moulin Rouge
- Cecil B. DeMille, The Greatest Show on Earth
- Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 5 Fingers
My Vote: John Ford, The Quiet Man
The Quiet Man and High Noon are essential films. Full stop. One you know is essential, and the other is essential, whether you understand it or not. (You’ll probably have a better shot at understanding it after college. Because I didn’t fully appreciate it until after college.)
The Greatest Show on Earth is a film you need to see if you want any right to complain about either of the two films above not winning Best Picture. So that practically makes it essential. Plus, Best Picture winner. You should see those as a self-respecting film buff.
Moulin Rouge is one of the most underrated great films of the era, and deserves to be seen properly. It’s John Huston. Does he ever lead you astray? (Not like, morally. I mean, in terms of film quality.) See it. The acting is great, the film is great, and don’t be the film buff who doesn’t know this exists and only knows the Baz Luhrmann movie. That’s amateur status.
5 Fingers is a great thriller. Spy thrillers are always worthwhile, and this is a solid one. Hidden gem for sure. Definitely recommended highly.
The Last Word: It’s Ford for me. Ford or Zinnemann are the only two you could vote for. I’m okay with either. But for me, it’s Ford by a green, Irish mile.
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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)