The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Director, 1957-1958)

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.

1957

David Lean, The Bridge on the River Kwai

Joshua Logan, Sayonara

Sidney Lumet, 12 Angry Men

Mark Robson, Peyton Place

Billy Wilder, Witness for the Prosecution

Analysis:

The Bridge on the River Kwai is a real epic film. It’s wonderful. Not quite Lawrence of Arabia, but almost.

A bunch of British POWs show up at a Japanese prison camp and are told they’re going to work on (insert title here). Alec Guinness is the senior officer, who tells the Japanese commander, Sessue Hayakawa, that the officers will not work. And thus begins a standoff between the two, with Hayakawa punishing them and throwing Guinness in a metal box in the sun for days on end. While this is happening, some of the prisoners try to escape. William Holden actually does. So we have dueling storylines, where Holden is getting back to his side and they’re planning to take down the camp (and the bridge), and Guinness, who decides to have the men work on the bridge simply to help morale. Leading to an explosive finale.

It’s a great, great movie. An all-time war picture. A pretty clear-cut winner in the category. I think we can all understand that. You might want to go with Lumet, which is fair, but I think we can all agree this is deserving of a vote.

Sayonara is a film that I didn’t think a whole lot of originally. I’m not sure why. I guess in my younger days I latched onto certain films or choices as being good or bad and focused opinions around that. I really didn’t like this film very much and thought the supporting performances that won were a joke. Five years later, this is one of those films that I’ve completely reversed course on. I still don’t know if I love the supporting parts, but we’re not up to those yet.

The film is centered around Marlon Brando, an Air Force major, who shows up at a base in Japan. He meets Red Buttons, who has married a Japanese woman, which is not sanctioned by the military, who are actively dissuading the men from actually marrying the women. (Sleeping with them, getting them pregnant and then leaving is cool. Just no marriage.) Meanwhile Brando starts falling in love with a Japanese woman. And the film is about these men and the prejudice they face.

Like I said, I originally didn’t care about the film, but having seen it again pretty recently, I appreciate it much more. It looks gorgeous. The cinematography is stunning. I don’t know if I love the direction that much, but I definitely appreciate this movie a lot more than I did. So really my opinion on the film has changed, but for the direction, not really. It’s just good. Not higher than fourth, maybe third for me.

12 Angry Men is an all-time classic. You must have heard of it. A bunch of men are on jury duty for the murder case of a teenage boy who is alleged to have killed his father. And they have to deliberate. And we watch them in the jury room for two hours as they deliberate. And it’s stunning. It’s a perfect movie.

This and Bridge on the River Kwai are two movies that are so opposite to one another it’s almost unfair to have to compare them in the same category. This movie is cinematic, but also theatrical. It’s performance-based. It’s an ensemble movie based on human drama rather than the larger than life cinema that Bridge on the River Kwai is.

I don’t even know how to compare the direction between the two. They’re both great. This movie takes a small space and is shot entirely inside of it. And it’s all about how you shoot the actors and how you tell the story in order to enhance the drama. I understand anyone who would vote for it. I honestly still don’t know which way I want to go with this. It seems to be one or the other.

Peyton Place is a melodrama that spawned a soap opera. I went in with low expectations and came out loving it. Because ultimately it’s one of those ensemble movies about a bunch of different stories and you realize that it’s just one of those movies that feels like Hollywood drama. And I love that.

It’s about a small town and all the crazy shit that goes on in it. It’s presented as an exposé written by one of the characters who wants to be a writer. There’s the drunk who abuses his daughter, there’s the housewife who is frigid and lies to her daughter about what happened to her father, there’s teen romance. We follow the town doctor, the school principal, the town lawyer, all these people as the drama plays out and stories intersect. I love a movie like this.

The direction is fine, and most of it has to do with the classiness of the film and the weaving together of all the stories. This is one of those Best Director nominations that feels like it’s part and parcel with the film getting all the important Oscar nominations. I think we can all agree that it’s probably a fourth choice at best in this category, if not fifth overall.

Witness for the Prosecution is a really great film. Not one of Billy Wilder’s best, but that’s like saying Munich isn’t Spielberg’s best. It’s relative.

Charles Laughton is an aging barrister who is in poor health. His nurse, Elsa Lanchester (Laughton’s actual wife and beard) tries to get him to work less and eat better and take his medicine, but he just refuses to listen to her. He takes the case of Tyrone Power, who is accused of murdering an older widow whom he had gotten into good graces with. All the evidence points to him having done it, but Laughton thinks he might actually be innocent. And we watch as he studies the case and prepares and executes his defense. It’s great. It’s a trial movie, and there is not a trial movie that’s not at the very least somewhat interesting.

The direction is solid, and I love Wilder, but I don’t think I’d put him any higher than third here. How could you, with Bridge on the River Kwai and 12 Angry Men in the same category? The direction is really solid, but he doesn’t rise above third best for me.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: I’ve grown to respect Logan’s direction a lot more, and I think I may even rank that over Wilder. Wilder is solid, but not worth the vote. And Robson’s effort is fine, but easily falls to fifth for me.

The vote is between Lean or Lumet, and I can see going either way with this. But for me, and maybe this shows a bias — as much as I love 12 Angry Men and think Sidney Lumet is one of the great all-time directors, this film feels a bit too theatrical for me. And I know those biases are gonna come back to bite me in the ass the minute I vote for something theatrical over the next decade. But between the two, I just like the scope and the scale of Bridge on the River Kwai and feel like I want to vote for that one. Now, if I went back and actually watched these two movies back to back and studied the direction on its own, maybe I’d change my mind. But until then, I feel like the answer for me is Lean.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. David Lean, The Bridge on the River Kwai
  2. Sidney Lumet, 12 Angry Men
  3. Joshua Logan, Sayonara
  4. Billy Wilder, Witness for the Prosecution
  5. Mark Robson, Peyton Place

Rankings (films):

  1. The Bridge on the River Kwai
  2. 12 Angry Men
  3. Witness for the Prosecution
  4. Sayonara
  5. Peyton Place

My Vote: David Lean, The Bridge on the River Kwai

Recommendations:

The Bridge on the River Kwai and 12 Angry Men are all-time classics and full stop essential films.

Witness for the Prosecution is great Billy Wilder and that makes it essential for anyone who loves movies.

Sayonara is one of the most gorgeous-looking films of the 60s and has Marlon Brando in it. Plus it won two Oscars for acting, giving you many reasons to see it. Plus I do recommend it pretty highly just on the experience. It’s hard not to love a 50s Cinemascope color film, no matter what it’s about.

Peyton Place is an ensemble melodrama that’s just entertaining. It’s almost campy, like melodrama tends to be from these eras. But if you like ensemble movies following the drama of a small town, this is definitely worthwhile. It was the second highest grossing movie of the year. I definitely recommend it.

The Last Word: It’s either Lean or Lumet. I couldn’t fault you for going with either one. I don’t think anyone would go elsewhere with it, and honestly the bottom three you can rank however you want. I think it becomes about which effort you could argue most passionately about more than anything. But for the vote, I think it’s just those two, and they’re both worthy winners. And I again will caution — if you’re gonna vote for one over the other, make sure you do it correctly and not for logistical reasons.

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– – – – – – – – – –

1958

Richard Brooks, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Stanley Kramer, The Defiant Ones

Vincente Minnelli, Gigi

Mark Robson, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness

Robert Wise, I Want to Live!

Analysis:

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is, to me, one of the epitomes of classical Hollywood. Just – Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor, nice Technicolor (or is it Eastman Color by this point), drama, passions, and just a great movie. It feels like Hollywood in the 50s to me.

Paul Newman is a former high school athlete who is out drunk one night and breaks his leg. The next day, he and his wife, Elizabeth Taylor, go to visit her parents, Burl Ives and Judith Anderson, for his birthday. And what plays out is a day of family drama. Newman drinks to avoid his wife, she’s feisty and berates him about them not yet having children. Then there’s Ives, who is dying of cancer but keeping it a secret. And the whole thing plays out. Tennessee Williams style.

The performances are great and the film is great. Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor alone make it a worthy film. It’s really terrific. But in terms of direction, definitely not something to vote for. The film is still basically a play, and it doesn’t, to me, have that intimate feel like Streetcar does. So that makes me not lean toward voting for it, even in a category like this without a slam dunk winner. Probably a third choice at best, even though the direction is solid.

The Defiant Ones is my favorite film on this list. I just like how gritty the whole feels. It feels down and dirty, which Hollywood didn’t feel at all during this time. Especially at the Oscars.

The plot is really simple. Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier are two prisoners who are chained together and hate one another. They escape after a prison bus crash, and are wandering around the swamp, trying not to get caught. And the film is about the black man and the white man forced to work together and also developing a bit of a friendship. It is great. Absolutely great. It may seem a bit heavy handed now, metaphorically, but the film is just wonderful.

The direction is really terrific, and in a category like this, is definitely vote-worthy. I don’t see why it wouldn’t be. In terms of pure energy, this one certainly has the most of any of the others.

Gigi is a really great-looking film. No idea what the plot of it is. A rich playboy hates how the rich people in Paris do things and instead would rather hang out with a 15 year old he ends up getting together with in the end. That’s pretty much what this is. But, you know, it’s a musical. And it looks great. And it has songs like “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” sung by a 70-year-old Maurice Chevalier, who made a living on singing suggestive tunes that were really about sex.

I don’t rank the film above a lot of other Minnelli movies, and it still seems strange to me that this was such a far and away Best Picture winner (9 wins out of 9 nominations). But the direction is admittedly strong. Though it feels like something I’d want to vote for purely because he hadn’t won one of these by this point and had earned a win twice over. (Plus he didn’t win for An American in Paris, which won Best Picture.)

I’m sure all that built up to him winning (though this is me looking back at it and trying to rationalize it. I’m sure it’s much more than that). And also, since I don’t like to vote for people based on anything other the effort in the category, I’m sure I’ll have him top two in the end, but this just doesn’t feel as exciting to me as The Defiant Ones does. He’s a worthy choice, I’m just not sure I want to vote for him.

The Inn of the Sixth Happiness is a film that’s basically forgotten. I sometimes forget it was even nominated here.

Ingrid Bergman is a missionary who shows up in China at an inn for travelers. We see her go from not knowing what she’s doing to taking over the inn. And of course it culminates with her and her doing her best to prevent orphans from dying and all that. It’s one of those movies that’s a big film for her and showcases her in a role designed to seem like a big Oscar winner.

The film is just okay. I like it well enough. I’m kind of surprised to see Robson get nominated. Though it does fit with my Oscar theory of the “three year rule.” Which is — when someone finally breaks through that barrier and hits that stride where they’re being recognized by the Academy, that have that three year window where they are looked at closely for other nominations. (You see it all over the place. The big one was Johnny Depp, who was not the Academy’s kind of actor for the longest time. And then he broke through and got nominated for Pirates. Then… Finding Neverland, Sweeney Todd. He had that window where they looked at him closely and wanted to nominate him for other things. And then the window ended and they realized he wasn’t that type of actor and he’s never been nominated again.) Just a theory, but that’s what this feels like to me.

The direction is solid enough, but it still surprises me a little. I actually decided (which I haven’t done until this point and never thought to do before now) to go back and look to see if the DGA nominated him. Which they didn’t. But they did nominate Hitchcock for Vertigo. (Though to be fair, they did have ten nominees at this point in time.) My point is, the effort is fine, but I wouldn’t put him any higher than fifth.

I Want to Live! Is a strong film, and I like that Wise got on here.

It’s a noir about Barbara Graham, who was a prostitute who was constantly on the wrong side of the law, marries the wrong man, and ends up in a situation where she’s around when a murder is committed. And even though she didn’t commit the murder, she is arrested and accused of the murder by everyone else and sentenced to the gas chamber. And the film is about her trying to proclaim innocence despite her character, which is admittedly not the best.

It’s a really strong film, and Hayward is great in it. Wise does a solid job directing it. Would I vote for it? Never. But I like that it’s here. It’s a solid film. Wise might end up third overall for me, but I still wouldn’t vote for him.

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: This is a rough category. I never know who to vote for here.

For me, there are ultimately two choices. Robson is a no, Brooks is too theatrical for me, and Wise is just solid but not something I’d go for. It’s either Minnelli or Kramer. And while I love Vincente Minnelli, I don’t love this film as much as I love other films of his, and I just don’t feel the passion for it that makes me want to vote for it. The direction is solid, but it doesn’t make me excited. The Defiant Ones makes me excited. It feels fresh, and vibrant. Gigi feels like a dying breed of a movie, while The Defiant Ones is echoing a new type of film that we’ll see a lot in a decade. Minnelli holds up fine as a winner, but for me, I gotta take Kramer.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Stanley Kramer, The Defiant Ones
  2. Vincente Minnelli, Gigi
  3. Robert Wise, I Want to Live!
  4. Richard Brooks, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
  5. Mark Robson, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness

Rankings (films):

  1. The Defiant Ones
  2. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
  3. Gigi
  4. I Want to Live!
  5. The Inn of the Sixth Happiness

My Vote: Stanley Kramer, The Defiant Ones

Recommendations:

The Defiant Ones is a GREAT movie. Tony Curtis, Sidney Poitier. Black man, white man, chained together. In an era where segregation still existed. Not a perfect movie, but a wonderful movie. And it is essential. This is a very important movie, historically.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a Hollywood classic. Based on a very famous Tennessee Williams play, Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor. Why would you not see it? You don’t need me to tell you to see it.

Gigi is a Best Picture winner and is a Vincente Minnelli musical. The man’s use of color and production design is second to none. It’s definitely worth seeing. I can’t claim it’s essential, but you should see it because most people should see the Best Picture winners. It’s a fun movie, and definitely worth seeing. Plus, it’s just so fucking creepy. She’s supposed to be like 15 in the movie.

I Want to Live! is a great noir with a great central performance. And I think a lot of people are gonna like it if they see it. She also won Best Actress for it, which makes it worth seeing for that alone. If you like noirs and like movies with strong central female performances, do not miss this one.

The Inn of the Sixth Happiness is a pretty good film. The big classic Hollywood film. Missionary, feisty woman, independent, neutral to the war but trying to save people. That kind of big story that would have gotten way more nominations had it come out ten years before this. I can’t say I love it, but it’s solid. And Ingrid Bergman. It’s pretty good.

The Last Word: Kind of a weak category. There’s no real #1 here. They’re all #2s or #3s. The two efforts that seem to rise to the top are Minnelli and Kramer. I guess you could make a case for almost any of them if you wanted to, but those two seem like the tops to me. I am okay with either. But I’ve seen Minnelli do better. Not that it matters, since here, this effort, which would be a #3 or #4 in another year, is a #1 or #2. I just — I see more energy in The Defiant Ones, and that makes me want to take Kramer. So that’s where my head is at, even though I can see either being the choice.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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