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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Director, 1963-1964)

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.

1963

Federico Fellini,

Elia Kazan, America, America

Otto Preminger, The Cardinal

Martin Ritt, Hud

Tony Richardson, Tom Jones

Analysis:

is one of the greatest directorial efforts of all time. It’s synonymous with great direction. It’s generally considered the greatest Italian film ever made. It’s Fellini’s masterpiece. If you saw the movie Nine, it’s a musical version of this film.

Marcello Mastroianni plays a famous film director (Fellini, essentially), who is trying to make his new movie (his eighth and a half film, which is exactly what this movie was to Fellini), but is completely blocked creatively. So we watch him struggle to make the film and struggle with all the women in his life. The film has a bunch of flashbacks and fantasy sequences, and it’s just gorgeous. Some people might prefer La Dolce Vita, which I understand, but however you want to list them, they’re 1 and 1a.

In a category like this, it dwarfs the other nominees something awful. It’s by far the greatest achievement and almost has to be the vote.

America, America is a great film that’s been sadly forgotten over time. I’m sure most people, unless they really follow the Oscars, probably haven’t even heard of this movie. I didn’t until I started this Quest. It might be Kazan’s best film. It’s certainly his most personal film. Not necessarily his most entertaining, but maybe his best.

It’s a film that was inspired by his uncle’s emigration from Greece into the U.S. That’s it. A poor boy with a dream to come to America works his way to achieve that goal. It’s really good.

This is a movie that probably would have gotten my vote if not for Fellini. The tiebreaker for me — that’s not true. The effort is the reason for the vote. But the thing that makes me not think twice about it is — which of the two films is more remembered? This film is great, but it’s no 8½.

The Cardinal is another forgotten film that was really radical at the time and also is a really good film.

It’s about the life of a priest. We follow him just after his ordainment over the next thirty years of his life. It deals with a lot of major issues. Interfaith marriage, racism, abortion, and the rise of fascism.

I was blown away by this film when I saw it. Mostly because to me, this is one of the most frank and open films about certain issues that I’ve seen from this era. It’s very dated now. I’m sure a lot of people will see this nowadays and think it’s long and boring. I understand that. It was definitely a more important film for 1963 than it is now. Still, I appreciate it.

I like that Preminger was nominated, but I could take it or leave it. I probably would put him fifth in the category. I could make a case over all four of the others over him. But I get the nomination, given what this film probably was for its year.

Hud is a really great film. This is one of those quintessential Paul Newman performances. Where he’s really playing a not nice guy but because we love Paul Newman, we both understand him and kind of want to root for him, despite the fact that he’s treating everyone around him like shit.

It’s about a father and a son. Melvyn Douglas runs a cattle ranch. He’s deeply religious and likes to put his faith in things working out. Paul Newman is his son. He likes to sleep with married women and go out drinking. He doesn’t give a shit about the farm, though he does put in the work from time to time. Meanwhile, there’s Newman’s younger brother (played by Brandon de Wilde, the kid from Shane all growed up), who idolizes Newman, but comes to realize how much of an asshole he is. And then there’s Patricia Neal, the family’s housekeeper, a divorcee who is constantly hit on by Newman. We follow the family during an outbreak of a potential disease that will require all the cattle to be killed and put a big dent in the already tenuous finances of the family. But mostly it’s about the relationship between these four characters.

The performances in this film are top notch, and the film is gorgeously shot. James Wong Howe sets up some beautiful images with the western landscape. And Martin Ritt does a good job of setting up the stage for all of this to play out. I like that he was nominated, though in my mind, I’m more likely to reward the actors and the cinematography than I am the overall direction. Though he definitely does belong on this list. I probably have him third or fourth, depending on how I feel about the next nominee. He doesn’t hold up against the top choices.

Tom Jones. A poor Best Picture choice in perpetuity, but a fun film.

It’s based on Henry Fielding’s picaresque novel The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling. (FYI, picaresque refers to the episodic adventures of a roguish protagonist. Barry Lyndon is similar. Even a Captain Jack Sparrow story could be described as such. Though a real picaresque is more about the episodes than an actual plot.)

The movie begins with a pretty great silent film sequence where a squire returns home to find a baby in his bed and thinks the servants were fucking. So he banishes the servants and raises the baby as his own. And that baby becomes Albert Finney (Tom Jones). He becomes a bit of a rake, sleeping with a bunch of different women in only the way a nobleman of this era could. He ends up out in the world to seek his fortune, and a true title, since he’s thought of as a bastard, and isn’t truly accepted into high society. So the rest of the film is him going on his way, getting into all sorts of crazy situations, leading to the moment where he’s just about to be hanged, but then a revelation happens at the last second and then everything works out just fine for all parties involved. The most famous scene is him and a woman having the most sexual dinner you’ve ever seen. (And then he sleeps with her, later finding out she may be his mother. So there’s also that.)

The movie is a lot of fun, and it’s a solid directorial effort, all things considered. I can’t consider it vote-worthy, and I’m still pretty surprised this ended up winning Best Picture this year. But I guess this is how certain other choices in recent years might look way out in the future. They like what they like. For me, maybe I can put it third. Maybe it’s fourth. It’s one or the other. I definitely respect this a lot more than I did last time, which is a big improvement. But I still can’t vote for it.

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The Reconsideration: It’s Fellini all the way. Kazan is probably my second choice, with Richardson and Ritt battling it out for third place. Either way, I don’t see how anyone goes against Fellini here. 8½ is an all-time film and directorial effort. The fact that they nominated it and didn’t vote for it is mystifying to me to this day. Mostly because…

You know how I keep saying “I’m confused why these foreign films are nominated”? This is exactly the reason for that. There’s a foreign nominee for almost twenty years straight in this time period, but when you look — none of them won. It’s almost like they had the token foreign nominee to show diversity or to show that they appreciate what foreign cinema is doing to counteract the dying, boring classical Hollywood formula, but no one actually took them seriously enough for a vote. In my mind, either really nominate them, or don’t bother. Because seeing that this movie didn’t win Best Director makes the entire thing almost look like a joke. If these films aren’t here, then you go, “Maybe that should have been nominated, but they skew domestic, and I can understand that.” This, I don’t understand.

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Rankings (category and films):

  1. Federico Fellini, 
  2. Elia Kazan, America, America
  3. Martin Ritt, Hud
  4. Tony Richardson, Tom Jones
  5. Otto Preminger, The Cardinal

My Vote: Federico Fellini, 

Recommendations:

8½ is one of the all-time films of world cinema. When you look at the list of “greatest films of all time” this film is always on there. If you’re a film buff, this is essential. Full stop. If you haven’t seen it, you’re aware that you haven’t and that it’s a knock against your film buff status that needs to be remedied.

Tom Jones is a Best Picture winner. And those should be seen. Though it’s definitely one of the least essential winners of all. Still, if you want to complain that it won, you need to have seen it. It’s also a lot of fun. It’s an enjoyable movie. I do recommend it as a comedy and for one of the most famous scenes in movie history.

America America is one of Elia Kazan’s best films, and may actually be his best. Just looking at the other films he made, you really should see this one on principle. But actually, this is one of his five best films. And he made some great ones. You really should see this because it’s one of the best films you haven’t heard of from this entire Oscar Quest. This is a masterpiece that really hasn’t gotten its due over the past fifty years and really ought to. Highly, highly recommended.

The Cardinal is a film that hasn’t aged particularly well, but it is important in an era where film was breaking away from the old ways and all the censorship and dealing with complex real-world issues. And for a film like this to do that, it was important at the time. It might not resonate or hold up as well today, but this is an important film historically, and I think it’s definitely worth a watch. I enjoyed it way more than I thought I was going to. You can’t really go wrong with Preminger.

Hud is a quintessential Paul Newman film. It looks gorgeous, and it has some of the best performances put to the screen. Actors will often point to this as having some of the best acting they’ve seen and as a major influence. It’s also really good. Highly recommended. Not essential, but second tier “you should probably see.”

The Last Word: I think that rant up there about covers everything I needed to say. I mean — how can you not vote for Fellini here? His effort is generally considered one of the ten or twenty greatest of all time. Probably should be the vote here (even though Kazan and Ritt did great jobs themselves).

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1964

Michael Cacoyannis, Zorba the Greek

George Cukor, My Fair Lady

Peter Glenville, Becket

Stanley Kubrick, Dr. Srangelove

Robert Stevenson, Mary Poppins

Analysis:

Zorba the Greek is a wonderful film. The final scene is one of the most famous in all of cinema. So I feel like people have heard of this. Or are at least generally aware of it. If not, then you’re missing out. Because this movie is so much fun and has the most life of anything you’ll see at the Oscars.

An uptight British man with Greek heritage comes to Greece to inherit some land his father owned, intending to open a mine. He meets Zorba, a peasant, who says he is a miner and can work it for him. And thus starts our adventure, with the free-spirited Zorba breathing life into the other guy. It’s just a great movie. The plot doesn’t matter, it’s about the characters. And the final scene is incredibly famous, the two of them dancing on the beach.

It’s incredibly well-directed. Possibly even worth a vote. It has enough personality to definitely be a worthy vote. Am I voting for it? Probably not. But it’s definitely a top three choice, possibly even second on personality. Very underrated film.

My Fair Lady. Classic film, great film. We all know the story of Pygmalion. This is the bells and whistles musical version of that. Long, bloated, stuffed with great sets and costumes. Not noticeably better, but a different experience.

Henry Higgins, Eliza Doolittle, the rain in Spain falls mainly in the plain — you know what you’re getting. It’s one of the great Hollywood musicals.

Here’s the thing with this having won — Cukor is an all-timer who never got his just recognition before this film. And this film is exactly the kind of movie the Academy loves. Right at a time when they’re holding onto these values for dear life.

This movie — it’s a great movie. The direction is… it reminds me of an old director. Like a recent Clint Eastwood movie. The camera just sits there. He lets the scenes play out. It’s basically a theater piece, almost. Sure, the movie is great and he deserved to be nominated. But in terms of pure effort, at best I can say this is a third choice. There’s no real energy to it. He got nominated because of the size of the film. And I understand that, but I can’t vote for this. I might even have this fourth.

Becket. The 60s are all about this type of costume drama. For some reason it only happened from 1964 to 1973. Only during these years. They’re all these fictionalized versions of kings and queens and all this political intrigue in the 16th and 17th centuries.

The great thing about this movie is that it is a direct ancestor to The Lion in Winter. The character Peter O’Toole plays here is the same character he plays in that film. Which is pretty great.

The film is about King Henry II and Thomas Becket. They were drinking buddies back in the day and now Henry wants to make Becket Lord Chancellor so he can have a close friend nearby for council. Only he doesn’t realize how seriously Becket is going to take the position, and eventually Becket becomes a huge problem for him.

Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton are both terrific here, as is John Gielgud, who plays the conniving King of France.

If you’ve seen any of these types of movies — Lion in Winter, Anne of the Thousand Days, A Man for All Seasons — they’re all about the performance and not about the direction. The direction is all fine, but it’s mostly about the acting, because we’re basically watching plays. They’re all set in actual castles and mostly we’re watching a filmed version of a play, with some cinematic stylings, but mostly it’s people giving performances and the whole thing is very stagy. To me, it’s easily the fifth in the category. I wouldn’t even consider putting anything else below it. Way too theatrical compared to all the other nominees.

Dr. Strangelove is one of the greatest comedies ever made, one of the greatest films ever made. It’s so wonderful.

You have to have heard of it. Insane general triggers a doomsday scenario by giving all the American bombers the code to drop nuclear warheads on the Soviet Union, and the government has to figure out how to recall them before the world ends. Peter Sellers plays three parts, and it’s full of memorable moments and wonderful performances.

To me, there’s nothing else I can vote for here. Maybe you take Cacoyannis, and maybe you even want to take Stevenson. And I guess you could even make a case for Cukor. But for me, it doesn’t get much better than this. Just think about all the perfect moments and memorable images from this movie. It’s not even a choice for me.

Mary Poppins. It’s Mary Poppins. You’ve heard of it. If you don’t know this story, I can’t help you.

This film is actually way better directed than I used to give it credit for. It’s quite wonderful. Would I vote for it? No. But it is really well done, and I might even have it third in this category, and you probably could make a case for it being second or even being vote-worthy. It’s not for me to vote for, but I would understand if someone wanted to make that argument.

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The Reconsideration: For me, it’s Kubrick, and then everyone else. When I think of the films on this list with the most memorable images, it’s Strangelove and then Mary Poppins. But I think Cacoyannis did such a great job, I’d actually put him second over Stevenson, with Cukor taking a solid fourth (he’d probably end up second in other years). Still, it’s always Kubrick for me. The man knew how to make a lasting film.

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Rankings (category):

  1. Stanley Kubrick, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
  2. Michael Cacoyannis, Zorba the Greek
  3. Robert Stevenson, Mary Poppins
  4. George Cukor, My Fair Lady
  5. Peter Glenville, Becket

Rankings (films):

  1. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
  2. My Fair Lady
  3. Mary Poppins
  4. Zorba the Greek
  5. Becket

My Vote: Stanley Kubrick, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Recommendations:

Dr. Strangelove is an essential movie for film buffs. You must see it.

Mary Poppins is life essential. How did you get this far without seeing it, if you haven’t?

My Fair Lady is also essential. You should see (and probably have, just by being alive) some version of this story. Pygmalion is just the story, and this is the big musical version with Audrey Hepburn. So most people would want this version, and I can’t blame you. It’s awesome.

Zorba the Greek is a great movie. You should see it. It’ll make you feel happy. Zorba is one of the great characters in cinema history. I’d say most people who see this are going to be enchanted by it. It’s that type of movie. Forget the big fat Greek wedding. This is the one you should see.

Becket is a great movie. If you like any of those shows — The Tudors, or The Borgias, things like that. Wolf Hall, I think is the new one. If you like that sort of stuff, this is the exact type of movie for you. Plus, Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton. Great actors, great performances, and I think most people would like this type of movie. I recommend it very highly.

The Last Word: You could make a case for at least three, if not four, of these contenders. Cukor seems the most lifeless of the nominees. Stevenson has a lot of cool camera tricks and fun moments in his film to justify a vote. Cacoyannis feels way more energetic than most of these nominees, and could definitely be the vote. But for me, and I imagine most people, it’s Kubrick. How can you argue with all the iconic images and moments that come out of that movie? That seems to be the clear choice. But if you want to make a case for somebody else, you could. Though I’m pretty sure for most people Kubrick is the choice.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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