The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Director, 1953-1954)
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.
George Stevens, Shane
Charles Walters, Lili
Billy Wilder, Stalag 17
William Wyler, Roman Holiday
Fred Zinnemann, From Here to Eternity
Shane is a classic western. It doesn’t hold up as much nowadays because it espouses more traditional values, and today we think that shit is stupid and are jaded as anything. So despite me saying the movie is great, most people are going to not like it because it’s very 50s. Still, when you think westerns, Shane is one of those top ones for all-time, even though it’s very much a product of its era.
Van Heflin and Jean Arthur (who came out of retirement for the role and then went back into it) are homesteaders, who’ve moved onto some land with their son (Brandon de Wilde), along with a bunch of other people. Except there’s a cattle baron who wants the land, so he hires Jack Palance to pressure all the homesteaders off the land. And into town rides weary gunfighter Shane. He originally stays with Heflin and Arthur and offers to work for them in exchange for food and lodging, and because of his affection for them (and maybe an attraction to Arthur), he helps the homesteaders out. And of course everyone knows the final scene of the movie, “Come back, Shane!”
It’s a classic western. The direction is solid. It’s George Stevens, you know it’s solid. But this category is too strong, and he easily falls to the back of the pack. At best he becomes fourth. The thing about westerns is, it’s easy to make them look great, with shots of landscapes, but for me, this almost looks like a throwback to the 40s. The Yearling. It feels like you’re on soundstages for a lot of the film. That’s what’s keeping me from wanting to vote for this. Or at least put this up with the other iconic films in the category.
Lili is my absolute favorite film that I discovered from watching all these Oscar movies. It’s beautiful. That said, it’s not a film that everyone’s gonna love and is fairly limited in its appeal. Which I understand. Still, loved it.
It’s about a naive French girl who arrives in a seaside town after the death of her father to get a job with a friend of his (whom he told her to seek out once he died), only to find out the friend had died as well. She ends up with a traveling circus and they feel bad for her and get her a job as a waitress. Only she’s not great and gets fired on her first night. Despondent, and having nowhere to go, she thinks about killing herself. Only she is saved by the voice of some puppets from the puppetry stand across the way. She begins to talk to the puppets as if they are real. And the promoters realize it’s endearing and that they can make a lot of money off of that, so they hire her to talk to the puppets. And the rest of the film is her joining the circus, making friends and sort of falling for the magician (even though he’s not interested in her), and having a contentious relationship with the “angry man” who always seems to be in a bad mood (not realizing he’s the one controlling the puppets and is also in love with her).
I think we can all agree that this is more than likely the fifth choice in the category. It’s maybe fourth, which I considered making it for a while. There are really nice fantasy dance sequences in this, but ultimately, it’s just a really adorable story and is well-directed, but the nomination is the reward. A lot of people wouldn’t even vote for this to be nominated now. Most people would see this category and wonder what the hell this is doing here. I am this film’s biggest supporter, and even I wouldn’t vote for Walters in this category. The effort is great, but he’s overshadowed by everyone else.
Stalag 17 is such an amazing film. Billy Wilder is my absolute hero.
This film is about a group of Americans in a German POW camp in World War II. They’re constantly trying to escape, and we see them both planning and executing these escape attempts. Though for some reason, they always seem to fail, and the men start to realize there might be a spy in their midst. Paranoia soon starts to take over their barracks, and the men all start to suspect one particular man, William Holden, who is not particularly liked by any of them.
It is a GREAT movie. An all-time classic, and up there with Billy Wilder’s absolute best. The direction is fantastic, and you could definitely make a case for voting for him. I almost want to as well. Definitely top three in the category, maybe even top two.
Roman Holiday is a perfect film.
Audrey Hepburn is a bored princess on a diplomatic trip through Europe. In Rome, she decides she’d rather go out and see the city rather than stay cooped up taking visitors. So she sneaks out one night to do this, and ends up on a whirlwind adventure. She meets up with Gregory Peck, a newsman, who realizes who she is and decides to keep it a secret because it’s the scoop of the century. So he becomes her guide for the “holiday,” and they go about, having fun and falling in love.
This movie is perfect and is one of my all-time favorite films. This might be one of those situations where the best option is the one you like best. Because to me, there are three slam dunk choices in this category. So whichever one you can make the most passionate case for might be the best. And this is the one I can make the most passionate case for, even though I understand and can completely accept it not having won.
From Here to Eternity is a total package film for the Oscars. Classy, a classic, a wartime romance picture that has everything they wanted out of a movie. You look at it and say, “Of course this won.”
It’s about American soldiers stationed in Hawaii shortly before Pearl Harbor. So we watch their dramas play out over the course of the film. Montgomery Clift is a poor soldier who happens to be a good boxer. But he stopped fighting when he accidentally killed another soldier and now refuses to fight and wants the least amount of responsibility. Though the officers want him to fight so put him through hell for not fighting. Then there’s Frank Sinatra, the playboy of the unit, who lives for weekend leave so he can go out and have a good time. He ends up getting into a feud with Ernest Borgnine, the cruel stockade officer. Then there’s Burt Lancaster, who is the aide of the C.O., who has a thing for the C.O.s neglected wife, Deborah Kerr. And all of this plays out until the unfortunate ending occurs. It’s almost Titanic, but with World War II. You know the boat’s going down, so they draw you into the story and characters until that happens.
Between this and High Noon the year before this, I completely understand Zinnemann having won here. The film was an obvious choice for a sweep. He can easily be made the choice here. You can do almost no wrong in this category.
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The Reconsideration: All apologies to Walters and Stevens, but they can’t compete with the other three. Stevens’ film is as memorable as the other three, but the effort doesn’t hold up as well as the other three. It’s between Wilder, Wyler and Zinnemann. And between Stalag 17, Roman Holiday and From Here to Eternity, you can’t really screw it up. They’re all great choices.
They’re all relatively small dramas. Even From Here to Eternity doesn’t have a whole lot of action. They all have iconic images and scenes.
If I’m thinking purely objectively — Stalag 17 takes place mostly in a barracks or inside a POW camp. It’s great, but I feel like I’d want to vote for the other two over it. And, honestly, all things being equal, I’d still take Wyler. I understand Zinnemann having won, and he’s probably the choice in the end, but I have to take Wyler. I love the film too much and I think the effort is tops in the category.
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- William Wyler, Roman Holiday
- Fred Zinnemann, From Here to Eternity
- Billy Wilder, Stalag 17
- George Stevens, Shane
- Charles Walters, Lili
- Roman Holiday
- Stalag 17
- From Here to Eternity
My Vote: William Wyler, Roman Holiday
Roman Holiday, Stalag 17, From Here to Eternity and Shane are essential films. Roman Holiday and From Here to Eternity are the two most essential. If you’re into movies, you need to see them. Stalag 17 is essential even though it may not strike you as essential as the others. But it is, and I guarantee that almost everyone who sees it will love it. And Shane is a classic and iconic western that you should see because of its stature within film history. I won’t guarantee you’ll like it as much as one would think, but it deserves to be seen.
And Lili — I love that movie so dearly. I highly recommend it, though I understand not everyone will love it and that it has a very limited appeal overall, especially if people don’t like musicals (not that it’s really a musical) or whimsical-type films. I think it’s wonderful, and I highly recommend it.
The Last Word: I don’t think you could go wrong with either Wilder, Wyler or Zinnemann here. Zinnemann is probably the choice, but I think people should vote for whatever they’re most passionate about. For me, that film is Roman Holiday, so that’s what I’m taking. But it’s almost impossible to screw this category up because it’s so strong.
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Alfred Hitchcock, Rear Window
Elia Kazan, On the Waterfront
George Seaton, The Country Girl
William A. Wellman, The High and the Mighty
Billy Wilder, Sabrina
Rear Window is a movie that you should know. It’s one of the all-time great thrillers. It’s a perfect movie.
Jimmy Stewart is a photographer who has broken his leg and is confined to his apartment. And he’s losing his mind, not being able to do anything. And he makes his girlfriend, Grace Kelly, and nurse of sorts, Thelma Ritter, crazy. Most of the first act is a lot of fun. He’s sitting there, looking out his window into the courtyard of his building into the other tenants, watching their lives. And each one has things going on that we see from his window looking through theirs. Only one guy across the street may have just murdered his wife. So the rest of the movie becomes about investigating that. And it is GREAT.
End of story. This movie is perfect. Honestly this is probably the best effort in the category and is the one most people would probably vote for. However, it’s not a slam dunk choice because…
On the Waterfront is the best film in the category. Kazan feels like a deserving winner, but he may have not had the best overall effort in the category. It’s a really tough choice between him and Hitchcock. And I feel bad throwing out the rest of the category two films in, but when you see these two, it’s kinda hard not to.
On the Waterfront is — a lot of things. Barebones, without getting into the other meanings behind it all (HUAC, Communism, etc), it’s about a former boxer who now works on the docks, showing up every day, hoping to get picked by the boss of the docks and his men. This is before unions when the whole thing was corrupt. Any time people try to unionize, the guys throw the people off the roof. Brando is seen helping one of these moments happen at the beginning of the film. So he’s working, in tight with the boss, but then he starts falling for the guy who got thrown off the roof’s sister, and listening to Karl Malden, the local priest, who is advocating for the men to speak up and not take shit from the boss. so we see Brando go from wanting to keep his mouth shut and keep getting work to radicalized and “naming names.” Of course everyone knows the famous cab scene, “I coulda been a contender.”
This movie is one of the best films ever made, and no one can or should (or probably even would) argue that it deserved Best Picture. This category is made tougher because of Hitchcock also being here. It’s a very tough choice between the two. Even if you’re going purely on “best effort” it’s still really close.
The Country Girl is a great film. A really great film with amazing performances. People either overlook this or shit on it because Grace Kelly won Best Actress over Judy Garland. It’s one of the most contentious Best Actress decisions of all time. But we’re not discussing that category now, so we don’t need to get into it.
The Country Girl is about William Holden, a broadway director putting on a new play. He wants to cast Bing Crosby, an alcoholic actor who is completely washed up. His son died in a car crash and he just became drunk and suicidal. Holden thinks he is perfect for the part and wants him to play it, but only if he can prove that he’s clean and can stay clean. He promises he can do it, so they give him a shot. And then along comes his wife, played by Grace Kelly. She acts almost like a dark, ominous cloud, hovering over him. He starts to flourish, but then she shows up and it’s like he shrinks away. And Holden starts to despise her, because he thinks she’s the reason he’s having all his problems. And she starts making all these demands and everything. It seems like she’s this horrible person. And of course Holden manages to fall in love with her anyway. And then we find out that it’s not her, it’s him. Crosby. He’s the one making all the demands, and he’s also completely dependent on his wife. She’s not sucking the life out of him, he’s sucking the life out of her. And she puts up with it because she loves him.
It’s a great film, and all the performances are fantastic. But the direction — not a chance. Probably fifth in the category. Maybe you can make a case for fourth. But I think it’s fifth. No reason to vote for him. Not against those first two.
The High and the Mighty is an ensemble melodrama. Ever see Airport? This is like that. (Or even Airplane! That’s the same general plot as this.)
John Wayne is the pilot of a plane, and while they’re up in the air, we follow his story, as well as those of some of the passengers. And then the plane develops some problems over the pacific and is in danger of going down. And Wayne has to land the plane and make sure nobody dies.
It’s a solid film. Mostly a melodrama, not an action movie. But definitely a forbearer of Airport (which coincidentally was directed by George Seaton). Direction — fourth. Maybe third, if you want to put him ahead of Wilder. Nowhere near the first two. So it’s ultimately irrelevant where you’re gonna rank him.
Sabrina is a great film. Another Billy Wilder classic. This is one you get into pretty early on when you get into movies because it has Bogart and Hepburn. (And William Holden.)
Audrey Hepburn is Sabrina, a chauffeur’s daughter for a rich family. Holden and Bogart are the brothers of the family. Holden is the playboy, Bogart is the sensible workaholic one. She’s always been in love with Holden, but he’s never noticed her. She then tries to kill herself, but fails. She then goes off to culinary school in Paris and completely reinvents herself. Instead of the plain girl she was she’s now sophisticated Audrey Hepburn. And all of a sudden both brothers start to fall for her.
The movie is fantastic, as are most of Wilder’s movies. He does a great job directing, but with the two big efforts in the category, this really doesn’t float much higher than #3. It definitely doesn’t rank up there with Wilder’s top efforts, and even so, in this category alone, it doesn’t come anywhere near Hitchcock and Kazan. So maybe third, maybe fourth, whatever you’re thinking.
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The Reconsideration: Kazan won, and he deserved it, but Rear Window is fucking incredible, and the direction is so good that you almost have to vote for it. But I’m incredibly happy that he won that I think I just need to vote for Kazan. I’m aware that I think Hitchcock is the best overall effort and will rank him as such, but I think Waterfront is such an important film (and even seemed that way at the time) that I have to vote for it. (Kinda like Gentleman’s Agreement, albeit with much less competition.) Either is a good choice, but I feel like I have to take Kazan. The other three can be ranked however you want. They’re all fine, but no one would ever not vote for the top two.
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- Alfred Hitchcock, Rear Window
- Elia Kazan, On the Waterfront
- Billy Wilder, Sabrina
- William Wellman, The High and the Mighty
- George Seaton, The Country Girl
- On the Waterfront
- Rear Window
- The Country Girl
- The High and the Mighty
My Vote: Elia Kazan, On the Waterfront
On the Waterfront and Rear Window are two movies whose titles tell you how essential they are and how you probably should see them before trying to talk about movies.
Sabrina — Billy Wilder, Audrey Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, William Holden. Do I need to say more? You need to see it. If you don’t automatically see why, consider if you really love movies.
The Country Girl is terrific, and Grace Kelly won Best Actress for it. Plus, Bing Crosby and William Holden. Great stuff, great acting, should be seen, and if you want to complain that she shouldn’t have won the Oscar (which is fair), you need to have seen it. So there are a lot of reasons to watch this movie.
The High and the Mighty is a precursor to Airport and those kinds of movies, and is definitely worth seeing 1) if you like those kinds of movies 2) if you like Old Hollywood ensemble dramas (great cast on this one) 3) love John Wayne movies. Ensemble films are usually engaging at the very least, and this one has a story you’ve seen, so you know you can get through it and enjoy it. Definitely worth a watch. Very solid.
The Last Word: It’s Kazan or Hitchcock. Hitchcock, I feel, does give the best overall effort, but I keep feeling like I like Waterfront more and that Kazan’s effort is the more important one all around. So my heart keeps telling me I want to vote for him. You can do whatever you feel, but I think we can all agree that those two are tops and both would have been worthy winners. DO NOT vote for Hitchcock simply because “he never won.” Make an argument that rationalizes it as a choice within the category, and then I can accept it. Otherwise, they’re both worthy.
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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)