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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Director, 1959-1960)

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.

1959

Jack Clayton, Room at the Top

George Stevens, The Diary of Anne Frank

Billy Wilder, Some Like It Hot

William Wyler, Ben-Hur

Fred Zinnemann, The Nun’s Story

Analysis:

Room at the Top is a film that I didn’t much like when I first saw it. That is to say, I thought it was pretty good, but I hated that Simone Signoret won for it, because I didn’t much get the performance. But I did watch it again recently and have completely reversed course of my opinion on this movie.

Laurence Harvey is a really ambitious guy who has just gotten a low level position in his company. He’s a social climber, though, determined to become someone at any cost. He meets the daughter of a local rich guy and woos her, even though he doesn’t care for her at all. Meanwhile, he meets Simone Signoret, a middle-aged divorcee, and actually starts to fall in love with her. So pretty soon, his desire to succeed is at odds with real and true love, and he has to decide which one he wants.

It’s actually a really powerful movie. and it’s really well-directed. Jack Clayton did a hell of a job with this. This was his first movie. It’s also one of the first movies in the UK to openly talk about sex and and be frank about what’s actually happening in the narrative rather than try to couch it the way Hollywood would have in the 40s.

Five years ago, I’m sure I had this at #5. Now… maybe as high as number two. I doubt he’ll get that high, given the other films in the category. But this is a really solid entry, and I appreciate it much more now that my tastes have matured.

 

The Diary of Anne Frank is a self-explanatory film. It’s hard to grow up and not have heard of the diary itself. This is the movie version of that. And you may say, “How the hell can you turn that into a movie?” Trust me. They can.

This movie is great. You follow the family as they move into the upstairs attic of the shop, and you just live with them up there. It’s very much of its time, but even so, it’s absolutely riveting. This is a movie you show to kids in middle school. Like Mockingbird. Like Inherit the Wind. Like all those other movies that vaguely have to do with social issues or history. It’s absolutely wonderful.

The direction is really good. He shoots the whole thing mostly inside in one or two rooms and manages to get a lot of it. This is a pretty classic movie, and it’s definitely in my top three for direction in this category.

Some Like It Hot. Classic. Amazing film. You know what it is just by the title.

Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis are two musicians who one day, stumble upon the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in a parking garage. Now the mobsters are looking for them. So, in order to hide, and earn a living, they dress up like women and join a bus of traveling female musicians to Miami. It’s hilarious. It’s an all-time comedy and a great movie.

However — just because the film is an all-time comedy does not mean I would vote for it here or think the direction is incredible. I actually think it’s barely a third choice in the category, and maybe even lower. I think Wilder is one of the greatest screenwriters in history and a great director to boot. That doesn’t mean I will always vote for him. I really would vote for at least two other choices before him in this category.

Ben-Hur is an all-time classic. One of those larger than life films that’s undeniable in a category like this. I won’t even sugarcoat it. The chariot scene alone is worth a win.

The film is about Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince who is betrayed, sold into slavery, and then manages to rise his way back from freedom and come back for revenge. It’s almost Gladiator, mixed with the Jesus element. Half the film is the story of Jesus. And after the Ben-Hur storyline is done, we move over to the crucifixion for like thirty minutes. So it’s the Godfather II of biblical Roman epics.

Honestly, this wins, every time. This is one of those things you just have to accept and move on. I like all the other entries. Still can’t vote for any of them. This is too big to ignore.

The Nun’s Story is an Audrey Hepburn vehicle. It’s perhaps her greatest dramatic performance. She’s a woman who becomes a nun who ends up in the Congo helping sick patients. And she also has a forbidden (non-sexual) love affair with a doctor, and there’s a whole thing about how disobedient she is, all that stuff that makes this a star vehicle. This is like The Song of Bernadette back in the 40s. Same kind of deal. And we follow her all the way through World War II.

It’s a good movie. I like anything with her in it, and the direction is fine. Though I’d say it’s the most straightforward of the bunch and easily drops to #5. (It’s still no match for Ben-Hur. Come on.)

– – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: It’s Wyler. I don’t think anyone can argue with this. Nothing more needs to be said, except – I do like Clayton’s film more now. The size and the scale of this picture just can’t be beat. You might want to go with the more artful choices, and I understand that. But here, I honestly don’t see any of them even really coming close. It’s not like your second choice here is 12 Angry Men. They’re not that close to this that you could vote for them for any other reason than “epic film fatigue.” The choice is Wyler.

I will also say — yes, I’m putting Billy Wilder fourth. It’s a bit of a logjam in the middle, and I think what Stevens accomplishes with delicate material in tight quarters is more timeless, and the way Clayton shoots Room at the Top really gets the most out of the drama and performances in a way I couldn’t fully appreciate the first time I saw it. Wilder just makes a great comedy. He deserves to be on this list, but I still wouldn’t put him higher than third in this category.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. William Wyler, Ben-Hur
  2. George Stevens, The Diary of Anne Frank
  3. Jack Clayton, Room at the Top
  4. Billy Wilder, Some Like It Hot
  5. Fred Zinnemann, The Nun’s Story

Rankings (films):

  1. The Diary of Anne Frank
  2. Some Like It Hot
  3. Ben-Hur
  4. Room at the Top
  5. The Nun’s Story

My Vote: William Wyler, Ben-Hur

Recommendations:

Ben-Hur, The Diary of Anne Frank and Some Like It Hot are all-time classics and essential films. Full stop.

The Nun’s Story is Audrey Hepburn, and on her alone, is kind of essential. Unless you’re one of the crazy people who somehow doesn’t like her, in which case, feel free to skip it. You’ve seen this kind of film before. It’s not anything particularly new.

Room at the Top is a wonderful movie. It’s the romantic version of A Place in the Sun. Meaning, there’s no murder or anything like that. It’s purely about the romantic choice between the two women and the two lives — poor but happy, or rich and miserable. It’s really well directed and I do recommend it very highly. Plus it won Best Actress, and if you want to talk Oscars, it should be seen for that.

The Last Word: It’s Wyler, and it’s not even close. Solid efforts out of Stevens and Clayton, and Wilder did direct one of the all-time comedies that still holds up to this day, but no one’s beating Wyler here.

– – – – – – – – – –

– – – – – – – – – –

1960

Jack Cardiff, Sons and Lovers

Jules Dassin, Never on Sunday

Alfred Hitchcock, Psycho

Billy Wilder, The Apartment

Fred Zinnemann, The Sundowners

Analysis:

Sons and Lovers is a really solid film, but one I think might be a bit overrated by the Academy as it was in 1960. I have no issues with it as a film, but I think it’s one of those deals where – source material, respected cinematographer, actors – it’s a baity choice. This one definitely does not hold up as well as maybe it looked like it might have fifty years ago.

The film is like How Green Was My Valley meets Oedipus. A coal-mining town. Young man. Domineering mother, drunk father who likes to drink away his wages. The mother tries to manipulate the son into preventing him from leaving and having relationships with women. That sort of thing. And he eventually leaves and meets a woman and all that, but of course mother comes back to threaten to take over his life again. It’s psychology meets melodrama.

The film is fine. The performances are good. But honestly — doesn’t hold up as well as the others. It’s either the fourth or fifth choice here for me.

Never on Sunday is a foreign language nominee. They had a nice handful of these in the 60s. I don’t fully always understand them. This one — I like the movie, but I’m not sure why they rushed to nominate it.

It’s about Melina Mercouri, a free-spirited Greek prostitute (Zorba the Freak?) who meets an American tourist. He’s scholarly, and ties to teach her how to be more pure. And of course she teaches him how to loosen up.

It’s Pygmalion, plus “hooker with a heart of gold.” It throws you into Greek culture and is a very lively and fun movie.

No issue with it being here, though I will admit to being confused, mostly to, “Why this over anything else?” Either way, it’s fifth choice for me. Looks nice, but still wouldn’t vote for it over the others. Maybe you can make a case over Sons and Lovers, but the cinematography work there puts that over the top for me.

Psycho. What needs to be said? We all know of it. You immediately hear the score and think of the shower scene. It’s one of those movies where, if you don’t know anything about it, please, just put it on and watch it.

It’s undeniably the best effort in the category. Or second choice, for other reasons. Mostly personal. Like I’m about to get to. But, I’m not even gonna get into what it’s about, because — either you know, and you don’t need to be told, or you don’t, and you’re one of the lucky ones. Because you’re in for a treat.

The Apartment is one of my five favorite films of all time. So forgive me for saying that I’m gonna vote for this regardless.

The film is about Jack Lemmon, an insurance agent working a nondescript job in a nondescript building, amidst a sea of people with similar jobs. His one way of being noticed by the higher-ups in his building is that occasionally, he lets them all use his apartment when they want to take their girlfriends somewhere so their wives don’t find out. Meanwhile, he’s a lonely single guy who eats TV dinners. He’s also got a crush on Shirley MacLaine, the elevator operator in the building. He tries to start a relationship with her, not knowing that she’s actually the mistress of the top boss in the company, Fred MacMurray, who has just taken notice of him and would like to promote him, presuming he will let him use his apartment for his own liaisons.

I won’t get into where this movie goes, but I will say that I believe this to be one of the most perfect scripts ever written. I love this movie completely, and I am going to vote for it every time in this category because of that. Hitchcock probably deserved to win, but honestly – sometimes a favorite has to be voted for. So I’m voting for Wilder.

The Sundowners. I love this movie. One of my favorite films I discovered from this Quest.

Very simple story. Robert Mitchum is a sheep drover. He travels all along the country (Australia), getting work where he can find it. He, his wife (Deborah Kerr) and son live wherever they are when the sun goes down. He loves this life. His wife wants a home and a place to settle down. She tries to get him to stay in one place and manipulates things so they have reasons to stay, but he keeps finding ways to take them elsewhere. Her goal is to get him to have enough money to buy a farm they can stay on.

It sounds slight, but when you watch the film, it’s great. It’s like The Quiet Man. It’s not so much about the story as much as it is the atmosphere and sense of community the film creates. The film literally takes a ten to fifteen minute detour to have a sheep-shearing contest, which is one of the greatest scenes I’ve ever seen. It’s so great. And then in the end, there’s a horse race — the movie has it all. It’s perfect.

Even though I love this movie, it’s probably a third choice for me. Between Hitchcock and Wilder, what can I do? Zinnemann just got squeezed out by two all-time classics. Sometimes shit happens. But I still love this movie.

 – – – – – – – – – –

The Reconsideration: Hitchcock is the best effort, but I’m voting for Wilder. It’s a top five for me. I have to stand by my favorites. Objectively, it’s Hitchcock. Subjectively, I’m voting for Wilder. They’re pretty much the only two you can vote for here.

– – – – – – – – – –

Rankings (category):

  1. Alfred Hitchcock, Psycho
  2. Billy Wilder, The Apartment
  3. Fred Zinnemann, The Sundowners
  4. Jack Cardiff, Sons and Lovers
  5. Jules Dassin, Never on Sunday

Rankings (films):

  1. The Apartment
  2. Psycho
  3. The Sundowners
  4. Sons and Lovers
  5. Never on Sunday

My Vote: Billy Wilder, The Apartment

Recommendations:

The Apartment is an essential movie. You have to see it if you love movies.

Psycho is a movie you should see simply by being alive. How could you not? It’s life essential.

The Sundowners is an INCREDIBLE movie, and you just need to trust me on that. It’s hard not to be entertained by it, even if it doesn’t seem like that kind of movie. I don’t steer people wrong often. This is a movie you should see.

Sons and Lovers looks great, and is a solid film, but you don’t need to see it. It’s good, and Jack Cardiff is one of the great all-time DPs. But not essential. I recommend it, if it sounds like you’ll enjoy it, but you don’t need to rush out and see this.

Never on Sunday is good. Enjoyable. Mostly about Greek culture. Light-hearted rom com. Zorba the Greek but with a hooker with a heart of gold instead of Anthony Quinn. It’s fine. You can see it if you want. I wouldn’t say it’s essential by any means.

The Last Word: Hitchcock is probably the vote, but The Apartment is so good I have to take Wilder. There comes a point where you have to draw a line and take what you love. And The Apartment is one of my five favorite movies of all time. So, the choice is one of those two. I don’t think you could go wrong with either. (But DO NOT take Hitchcock just because he hadn’t won. Take him because of the effort. Make a case for it that’s not logistics. Please.)

– – – – – – – – – –

(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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2 responses

  1. Voting for Billy Wilder and The Apartment? I’m surprised. Literally one section earlier, you wrote this:

    “However — just because the film is an all-time comedy does not mean I would vote for it here or think the direction is incredible…I think Wilder is one of the greatest screenwriters in history and a great director to boot. That doesn’t mean I will always vote for him.”

    And in your original Best Director 1960 article, you said:

    “Alfred Hitchcock is the only person who really deserved the title of Best Director for 1960. The end.”

    You love The Apartment that much, don’t you?

    Whatever, just remind me to send you a fruit cake this Christmas.

    March 23, 2016 at 2:22 pm

  2. Srinivas

    I am glad about the change of heart for Room at the Top. Jack Clayton is a great director for sure – this and The Innocents are enough to prove that. Harvey and Signoret are likewise phenomenal. Harvey is a close second for me (no one’s beating Stewart of course) and has never been better. And Signoret, I think she deserved every bit of the Oscar, one of the best wins ever although I do like the Hepburns’ performances too.

    March 24, 2016 at 12:34 am

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