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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Director, 1955-1956)

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.

1955

Elia Kazan, East of Eden

David Lean, Summertime

Joshua Logan, Picnic

Delbert Mann, Marty

John Sturges, Bad Day at Black Rock

Analysis:

East of Eden is an American classic. You just hear the title and you conjure up images of it. That’s actually what prevented me from seeing it for so long. You think it’s gonna be the type of movie that’s classy and classic but really boring and not that good. But trust me, most movies are beloved for a reason.

East of Eden is ultimately a father/son story. Raymond Massey has two sons, one of whom is James Dean. But he prefers the other son, and Dean tries desperately to win his approval. He’s told his sons that their mother is dead, though Dean finds out that his mother is alive, running a brothel in a nearby town. And the film is about him dealing with his father’s constant rejection of him, trying so hard to be the favored son, only to be upstaged by his brother at every turn and continually denied of his father’s affection.

It’s a wonderful film. Really wonderful. Looks gorgeous. The acting is strong, the direction is strong — American classic. All around. Hard not to think that Kazan had the best effort and is the choice in the category. I couldn’t argue with anyone who wanted to vote for him, and he’s probably my choice as well. It’s not the strongest of categories, and there’s probably only one other choice I’d think to vote for.

Summertime is a Technicolor romance shot entirely on location in Italy. Directed by David Lean.

Katharine Hepburn is a spinster schoolteacher (this being fully part of her “spinster” period after The African Queen. She had the ingenue period, the screwball period, the independent woman period, the spinster period, the domineering woman period, the matriarch period, and then the “old Katharine Hepburn” period, where she’s basically playing herself in her old age, as most actors do) who is on vacation in Venice. She meets an Italian man and begins a romance with him. That’s basically the movie. Very simple story.

The beauty of the film is how it’s shot. This is one of the first of the period (it’s more British than American. American films wouldn’t really start doing this kind of thing until the early 60s) where the film was shot entirely in another country, rather than on local soundstages, and I imagine a lot of that is why the film ended up here. Plus, David Lean is an all-time director. Most of the story is about making you fall in love with the city, and the romance is also a pleasant thing to see as well. And Lean directs the hell out of it and I totally understand the nomination. I also don’t want to let the pretty pictures blind me from the fact that I really wouldn’t want to vote for this. I understand if you do, since there’s nothing in this category that necessarily screams vote, and you could make a case for this. But to me, maybe it’s a third choice. It’s solid, but not worth the vote.

Picnic is, in my mind, the epitome of the 50s. At least, the 50s A picture. The big studio drama. Shot in widescreen, based on a Pulitzer Prize winning play. Still shot on soundstages, even though the push toward outdoors and realism is happening.

William Holden is a man returning to his town after years away. He was a football star who joined the army and then tried to be an actor and failed. So now he rides back into town on Labor Day as the town is about to have their annual picnic. So he arrives back in town, and we meet our cast of characters, and we follow them throughout the day. There are comedic moments, dramatic moments, shit goes down, you know the drill. Small town drama bubbling to the surface due to the arrival of an independent variable.

Really solid movie. I liked it quite a bit. Some people might find it boring, but I enjoy it because it’s the epitome of Hollywood filmmaking. Kind of like Peyton Place, which I also loved, and we’ll get to tomorrow. I love that stuff. Ensemble films that just reek of classical Hollywood filmmaking. The stuff that you know was the apple of the studio’s eye that year.

As for the direction — meh. It’s fine. Looks good. Otherwise, wouldn’t vote for it. I imagine most people would have it fifth or fourth. Maybe if you really appreciate the handling of storylines, you might make a case for third. But I think we can all agree this wouldn’t be the vote.

Marty is the most simple, beautiful romantic comedy I’ve seen.

Ernest Borgnine is a butcher in his 30s. He’s single, and is very aware of that fact. He lives with his mother, and she and all the old ladies of the neighborhood (it’s Italians in Brooklyn in the 50s. They all know each other) keep asking him why he hasn’t met a good girl and settled down. He’s incredibly lonely, and actually pretty awkward, socially. One night, he goes to a dance with his friend, and it’s clear the friend’s got a girl and is gonna leave him. But what ends up happening is, he connects with Betsy Blair, a schoolteacher whose friends have left her as well, and they share a beautiful conversation on the rooftop and walking through the streets. Most of the middle of the movie is these two people connecting. Now, however, all that chatter about settling down is a distant memory, and his mother now fears he’s gonna abandon her, and belittles him, as does everyone else. All his friends convince him not to bother, even though this might be his one shot at happiness. It’s — a perfect movie.

I can’t even begin to express how much I love this movie. As for the effort — it’s fine. I don’t think I’d vote for it, but I do respect it enough to say it thoroughly belongs here. I still, though, don’t think I could make a case for this being higher than fourth overall. It’s good, but not worth a vote.

Bad Day at Black Rock is a GREAT, great movie. I have no other way to describe it except great. I love a western, and I love a noir. And this is both.

Spencer Tracy is a one-armed man who gets off a train in Black Rock, the first time the train has stopped there in four years. He’s looking for a man, and the town is really hostile toward him even asking. And we watch as he goes around, looking for this man, slowly figuring out who he is, what he’s doing there, and where the man he’s looking for is.

I love this movie so much. The direction is great. The film looks gorgeous, and it does a great job of maintaining tension and giving you these gorgeous shots to look at. Maybe it’s not the best pure effort. That’s probably Kazan’s. But I think he’s a pretty close second, and based on style points and pure love for the film, he may even be my vote.

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The Reconsideration: This one is tough for me. Because my instincts are such that I see the efforts and go, “Kazan was the best.” And then I immediately go, “But I just voted for him last year, over Hitchcock.” But that doesn’t matter. That was last year, this is this year. You wouldn’t know this was coming at the time. We take what’s in front of us.

So, analyzing this category — I love Marty, but I honestly can’t vote for it. I can be okay that it won. But it’s not the best effort in the category. Each time I watch it the more I see the reason I love the direction is because I’m enamored so much with the film. The effort is solid, but it’s not something you have to vote for.

Picnic is a solid movie that I like, but it feels too much like “old” Hollywood. There are some movies during the 50s that start to feel a bit “stale.” I think it’s because everything went widescreen, and some of the films were still being shot on sets and soundstages. And sometimes it gave this almost lifeless feel. More so in the 60s. Watch some of those 3 hour, overburdened musicals made in the late 60s. You’ll see what I mean. This movie isn’t entirely that. James Wong Howe shot a lot of beautiful landscapes outside here, and portions of this film take place outside. But overall, the film doesn’t feel as dynamic as the other efforts. I can’t rank it higher than fourth. Maybe someone can make a case for third, but I doubt anyone would put it higher than that. Solid, but not worth a vote.

Summertime looks gorgeous. A lot of how great it looks is owed to the fact that it was shot entirely on location. David Lean is a master director and will always make a well-directed, engaging film. I’m not sure if I’d want to vote for this one, though. He feels like one of those efforts that’s middle of the pack. Maybe someone will put it second. I probably have it third. Doesn’t feel like it’s the vote.

Bad Day at Black Rock is a beautifully directed movie. A noir western in color. Widescreen landscapes. Stunning. I actually kinda want to vote for it. It’s between Sturges and Kazan. I imagine most people would vote for Kazan. I can’t argue against that. But I feel like I want to vote for Sturges. Kind of the way where you acknowledge, “Sure, it might not be #1, but I really love it.”

So I’m gonna take Sturges. I somewhat understand the Mann win in context. He and Logan were the only two with Best Picture nominations, Kazan had just won… I get it. But that’s now what we’re doing here. Here… it’s either Kazan or Sturges, and without even taking into consideration that Kazan has two and won the year before this (because it doesn’t matter to me), I really love Bad Day at Black Rock and want to vote for Sturges. So that’s what I’m gonna do.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. John Sturges, Bad Day at Black Rock
  2. Elia Kazan, East of Eden
  3. David Lean, Summertime
  4. Delbert Mann, Marty
  5. Joshua Logan, Picnic

Rankings (films):

  1. Marty
  2. Bad Day at Black Rock
  3. East of Eden
  4. Picnic
  5. Summertime

My Vote: John Sturges, Bad Day at Black Rock

Recommendations:

East of Eden is a film classic and I think on title alone people recognize it as being essential. Plus, James Dean. Only made three movies, all classics. You pretty much need to see them all. Kazan, Dean, the cinematography — all around essential.

Marty is a wonderful film. So simple, yet so perfect. It’s hard not to fall in love with it. Plus, Best Picture winner. Can’t recommend this highly enough, and in my mind, if it’s not essential, it’s on my list of films you should see.

Bad Day at Black Rock is WONDERFUL. If you love noirs, see it. If you love westerns, see it. If you love Spencer Tracy, see it. It’s also only 80 minutes long. You have no reason not to see it. It’s one of the great

The Last Word: Rough category. Logan just doesn’t feel like a winner, and I doubt 98% of people wouldn’t consider him as such. Lean gives a good effort, and I guess you could make a case for it, but how many people would? Mann’s film is my favorite, but the effort is either the weakest or second weakest, no matter how you slice it. I’d love to vote for him on love of film alone, but I don’t think even I could. Kazan knocks it out of the park again, and is likely the choice, and I suspect the majority of people, when given the choice, would pick him. But I’m gonna stick with Sturges, who I imagine would be most people’s second choice in the category, if conditions are ideal (they’ve seen all five, and are picking solely on effort and not on any other outside factors). I get that it’s probably Kazan, but I’ll take Sturges.

– – – – – – – – – –

– – – – – – – – – –

1956

Michael Anderson, Around the World in 80 Days

Walter Lang, The King and I

George Stevens, Giant

King Vidor, War and Peace

William Wyler, Friendly Persuasion

Analysis:

Around the World in 80 Days is self-explanatory. Three of the films in this category are understood on title alone.

Phileas Fogg is an English gentleman who agrees to a bet with other men that he can go (insert title here). So he sets out to do so with his valet, Passepartout, and the rest of the film is a giant adventure where he travels by air, sea and land to win the bet.

The film has loads of cameos, loads of exotic locations, and just about everything you’d want in it. It’s bit, it’s epic, and it’s one of those films that’s just an experience. You go to the movies and you’re swept away. This is what they say the movies are about. What cinema can do.

The direction is solid, and honestly in most years would actually win. But this is one of those movies where it’s more about the size and the scope than about the direction. So it’s not an automatic winner. And if there’s another choice in the category (which there is), it’ll be interesting to see how people go on the vote. I’ve already decided on this category, and my vote will always be the same. But this is, objectively, one of the top two choices.

The King and I is a classic musical. You might not remember most of the songs, which is fine, but you remember the story and the characters. This was originally a drama in 1946, Anna and the King of Siam. Which is a solid movie. This is the bells and whistles version of that. Kinda like the My Fair Lady to Pygmalion.

Deborah Kerr is an American schoolteacher who shows up in Bangkok to be a tutor to the King of Siam’s children. And he’s this domineering alpha male (Yul Brynner is awesome, as always), but she refuses to be intimidated by him. And that’s the film. Them coming to terms with their mutual respect for one another. And it’s awesome. It’s a lot of fun, it looks great, the sets, costumes and color design are terrific. There’s also a great (though I’m not sure why it’s there, for any other reason than to look good) performance put on that lasts about fifteen minutes in the latter half of the film that’s just wonderful to look at. That said — third, maybe you can argue for second, in the category. Solid, but not worth the vote. It’s hard for me to vote for the big, 50s, set-based musical. It’s too theatrical for me, and not cinematic. And in a category like this, it’s not gonna rise higher than third for me.

Giant is one of the underrated masterpieces of cinema history. This is just as big and epic as Gone With the Wind, and yet it doesn’t hold its place among that film and the others like it (Lawrence of Arabia, etc). It does if you go deep enough into the film community, but it isn’t as synonymous with the genre as those others. Which is a shame.

It’s an epic about oil. And cattle. Rock Hudson is a Texas cattle man, rich as can be. He comes out to buy some horses from a family and falls in love with their oldest daughter, Elizabeth Taylor. They marry and he takes her back to his ranch. And the first section of the film is her getting used to farm life. And the film then takes so many different turns as we watch them throughout their lives. They have kids, they have fights, they get used to the changing times. James Dean plays a ranch hand that hates Hudson and ends up striking oil on the property. So there’s a feud that goes on, with Hudson representing the old way, cattle, and Dean representing the new way, oil. And then there’s this radical shift toward the end, as Hudson, Taylor and Dean are all older and their kids are old enough to be married, and the film becomes about racism. It’s actually really wonderful. I couldn’t do it justice trying to describe it.

It is an American epic with great performances that are all fantastic. The direction is gorgeous, and the film is one of my absolute favorites. I love it to death.

Stevens is my vote in the category and I consider it one of the best choices they ever made in the category. It’s just a perfect movie. Maybe someone would want to vote otherwise, but I think this holds up as the clear choice in the category.

War and Peace is based on the Tolstoy novel. I don’t even know where to begin on the plot of it. It’s a really long book and a three-and-a-half hour movie. Look it up if you want specifics.

Just know — lot of Russian aristocrat stuff, romance, war, that sort of thing. If you were into Doctor Zhivago, you’ll probably be okay with this. Similar subject matter.

Audrey Hepburn, Henry Fonda and Mel Ferrer star. It’s a big, classy kind of movie. Not beloved by any stretch, I found out. I thought I’d be bored stiff and actually enjoyed it. Though it is really long. It’s something that I’m okay with in the category, but wouldn’t vote for. It feels like one of those efforts that makes sense as a nominee, but one no one loves enough to actually vote for. Maybe third, but for me, fourth or fifth. The classic “clear nominee, but wouldn’t vote for it.”

Friendly Persuasion isI one of those movies that feels almost like a John Ford film. Because the first half of the movie is just community. We see these quakers existing and are firmly planted within their existence for a long time. And only after that happens do we get a sense of the plot, which is the coming of a war and the family’s oldest son being tested in his faith and its aversion to violence.

That’s basically the film. There’s fun stuff, like Gary Cooper being the patriarch, who despite his faith likes to bet on horses and listen to pop music. Dorothy McGuire is the matriarch who is very religious and hates violence. There’s the oldest son, Anthony Perkins, who hates violence but also feels like he needs to protect his family. Then there’s the daughter who fall in love with a solider. You know all this stuff. This is classical Hollywood stuff.

The direction is solid. It’s William Wyler. Clearly not anywhere near the top. I don’t think anyone would actually vote for him. But the surprise here is how good the actual film is. I didn’t expect it to be as entertaining as it is. Still, as for the effort, it’s fifth, maybe fourth.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: I’m finally at the point where I understand this year. But I don’t need to get into that now, because I do feel like they went the right way with this category. Friendly Persuasion isn’t the choice, and I think we all know that. War and Peace looks nice, but it’s no David Lean film. You know what I mean? The King and I looks gorgeous and is well-directed. But no. Around the World in 80 Days is well made, but it doesn’t feel like it’s about the effort. It’s about the experience. Giant is the film that really is held together well and is brilliantly told by Stevens. He manages to put everything together. Epic storytelling, intimate drama, beautiful vistas (and not even in widescreen!) and puts it all together. This is a hell of a film, and Stevens really deserved this. I don’t think you can argue against him winning. You might make a case for someone else (who, though? Anderson?), but to me, it’s Stevens by a mile, and no one else is even remotely in the conversation.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. George Stevens, Giant
  2. Michael Anderson, Around the World in 80 Days
  3. Walter Lang, The King and I
  4. King Vidor, War and Peace
  5. William Wyler, Friendly Persuasion

Rankings (films):

  1. Giant
  2. Around the World in 80 Days
  3. The King and I
  4. Friendly Persuasion
  5. War and Peace

My Vote: George Stevens, Giant

Recommendations:

Giant is an essential movie. You need to see it if you love films. You may not understand why, but it is. Plus, Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean. Dean really only starred in three movies, and all of them are essential, and great. You need to see them all. This is the best of the three. I know people might say otherwise, but it is.

Around the World in 80 Days is essential because it won Best Picture, and if you want to complain about it, you need to have seen it. It’s actually a lot of fun and a very worthy film. As a winner, I understand it, but I don’t love it. It’s a very big film for this year and this time in film history, and is worth seeing because it’s a fun, epic adventure film with cameos galore. Between this and How the West Was Won, just about every famous person you’ve seen in old Hollywood movies is in them. It’s great for that alone.

The King and I is a classic musical. There’s no way you get to college age without at least having heard of it. This is the classic version of that story. Gorgeously shot, lavish costumes and sets, colors all over the place. Wonderful film. Highly recommended. And it won Best Actor. And if you want to complain about that result, you need to have seen it.

Friendly Persuasion is surprisingly really good. Most people haven’t heard of this nowadays or would bristle at the logline, but it’s actually really engaging and draws you into a subject you wouldn’t think would be very interesting. It’s William Wyler, which should be clue number one that it’s a worthwhile film, but actually it’s really solid and worth seeing. I do recommend it.

War and Peace is lavish. Costumes, stars — Audrey Hepburn and Henry Fonda. A little overdone, it’s three and a half hours. But I enjoyed it. Definitely not a film everyone’s gonna rush to put on. But most people, when they get into movies, fall in love with Audrey Hepburn and want to see everything she’s ever done. Which includes this. I generally find myself either pleasantly surprised or bored by these literary adaptations of classic novels. I was very pleasantly surprised by this one.

The Last Word: To me, it’s Stevens by a mile. Anderson is really the only other choice, when you see the films. Kinda surprised Cecil B. DeMille was left off this list, to be perfectly honest, but that’s neither here nor there. It’s not Wyler, it’s not Vidor, and Lang really shouldn’t rise past #2 on most peoples’ lists. It’s one or the other, and to me, it’s not even a question that it’s Stevens all the way. Much more so than Best Picture, this is Giant’s category.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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One response

  1. Giant is a masterpiece of cinema. =D

    It’s kind of sad that, out of its 10 Oscar nominations, Best Director for George Stevens was Giant’s only win (kind of like The Graduate a decade later). All the other voters were too distracted by Around The World In 80 Days and The King & I to vote for Giant in other categories. Thank goodness Giant didn’t go empty-handed in the end.

    March 21, 2016 at 4:10 pm

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