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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Picture, 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

Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing

Marty

Mister Roberts

Picnic

The Rose Tattoo

Analysis:

Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing. I’ll take your word for it. Personally I’d say it’s maybe two splendors, three tops.

The best thing about this movie is — you know it by name, because it’s one of the most known titles in history, but few people can actually tell you what it’s really about.

Quick, can you? No cheating. Maybe you have a few elements, but that’s about it.

Jennifer Jones is a Eurasian doctor and William Holden is an American journalist in Hong Kong. They fall in love. He’s still married, though he’s separated from his wife. They face hardships, racism or otherwise.

It’s a good film. A nice romance. Not great, considering the white woman playing Asian thing, but outside of that, it’s a pretty good romance. Not sure I’d nominate it, but here it is. It was tied for the most nominations this year, so clearly they liked it. I can’t argue with their liking it. But I can say it seems like a fifth choice on quality and probably a fourth choice overall. Just because, class factor and everything — it probably would have held up better over at least one of the other choices, even though it wouldn’t have been that great a winner. I’d certainly never take it here.

Marty is one of the most unlikely Best Picture winners of all time. And perhaps that’s what makes it such a great winner. I don’t know. We can discuss that later.

Ernest Borgnine is a 34 year old, unmarried butcher in Brooklyn. All the nice old ladies in the shop ask him when he’s gonna find a girl and settle down. It’s not like he’s trying, and he hates that he can’t find a woman. He’s a lonely man who wants so desperately to find someone. And we watch as he attends a dance with his friend, meets a girl, and they have a nice time together. It’s such a simple film, and yet, it’s wonderful.

I love this movie so much. It’s so amazing. So simple, yet so beautiful. This would always be a sentimental choice for me and I’d want to take it no matter the year. Fortunately, this year happens to be uncharacteristically weak for the Oscars, and there really aren’t that many alternatives here. It allows a film like this to actually be considered a legitimate vote and a pretty decent winner at that. Which is great. I don’t even need a reason to take it.

Mister Roberts is such an awesome movie, and one of the weirder Best Picture nominees of all time. It only got three overall nominations. One for Supporting Actor, one for Sound and this. I’m not opposed to it, but it’s still kind of weird. Especially when you realize the film that wasn’t nominated this year (which we don’t need to get into).

The movie’s about a not particularly important ship during World War II and all the hijinks that go on during it. A lot of the film is comedy. Henry Fonda plays the sort of second in command on the ship. James Cagney is the captain who is very stern and has rules. The men generally hate him. Fonda is the guy they go to. He is the mediator between the two sides, able to handle everything and keep the peace. The men love him. He wants so desperately to get out of there and go see some real combat. But mostly it’s about the men and their hijinks.

It’s an awesome movie. I love it. Best Picture winner? Not really. I mean, I almost can vote for it and legitimize voting for it, but that’s only because this is one of the weakest categories of all time. But hey, it is what it is. You take the category you have. And in this category, this is legitimately a second choice for me.

Picnic is the big, classy film of 1955. Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing is the other, but this is the one based on the Pulitzer Prize winner.

The film takes place over the course of a single day. William Holden rolls back into town after some years away, and he reenters everyone’s lives on the day of the annual Labor Day picnic. Lots of different storylines and subplots ensue.

It’s a good film. Very stagey. Looks like it was shot on a soundstage. It’s engaging and well made. Can’t say it’s particularly outstanding or a classic. Had it won it would have looked like a capable winner but not the film that anyone had any real emotional attachment to. Which is why it’s probably best that it didn’t win. This would be, at best, a fourth choice for me a lot of the time, and I’d have it personally as a fifth choice in most years. This year being so weak — it’s a third choice for me. Which says more about how few choices I have than anything else. I’d never take this.

The Rose Tattoo is based on Tennessee Williams, and, along with Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing and Marty, was the most nominated film this year. Interesting to know, looking back on it.

Anna Magnani is a woman who finds out her husband cheated on her. She throws him out of the house. Later that night, he’s killed in a car crash. She goes into hiding, refusing to leave her house. Cut to three years later. Her daughter is graduating high school and she needs to attend. Thus begins a whole long thing where Burt Lancaster shows up and falls for her, her daughter starts to pull away from her — it’s a whole thing. Very Tennessee Williams.

Good performances, but basically a play on screen. And trust me, this is no Streetcar. Fifth choice in the category and the film that’s held up the least in the past 60 years. At least the other questionable films are in color. No way this is the choice for almost anyone.

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The Reconsideration: In one of the weakest categories of all time, Marty remains the best film. Put it almost any other year in the 50s and it’s a nice second choice at best that you love but couldn’t take over other choices. But here — what else do you have? You can’t seriously take The Rose Tattoo. Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing would have been a horrible winner and I don’t even think people love that movie enough to seriously take it. Picnic is so boring that I would be really curious to see what else the people who’d vote for it would also vote for in other years. And Mister Roberts, while I love it — it’s nice, but I wouldn’t want to take it unless I had to. Marty makes the most sense all around. Plus, it’s great. Pretty easy choice for me and not something I need to overthink because the category is what it is.

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Rankings (category and films):

  1. Marty
  2. Mister Roberts
  3. Picnic
  4. Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing
  5. The Rose Tattoo

My Vote: Marty

Recommendations:

Marty is a great, great film. One of those films that just about everyone loves. And it’s a Best Picture winner. So there’s no reason not to consider it essential all around. A true classic.

Mister Roberts is a fantastic comedy. Mervyn LeRoy/John Ford, Jack Lemmon, James Cagney, Henry Fonda, William Powell. If you’re 95% of all film buffs, that makes it essential. For the other 5% — this movie is amazing. And Jack Lemmon won an Oscar for it, so there’s that.

Picnic is a sort of classic. Not overly remembered, but it’s got a nice stature to it. An all-star cast, based on a Pulitzer Prize winner, great cinematography by the great James Wong Howe. I would consider it… maybe not essential, but a strong recommend. It’s worth seeing for a lot of reasons. It’s very good. TCM plays it a bunch, so you should be able to see it pretty easily.

Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing is a solid romance. Not overly amazing, but fine. Moderate to solid recommend. It’s pretty good.

The Rose Tattoo is fine. Essential for Oscar buffs because of the Magnani win. Otherwise a decent film. Moderate recommend. You do also have Burt Lancaster here. And we love him.

The Last Word: All-time we can say what we want. It’s not a particularly sexy winner, even though I do think it being a nice underdog winner fits with the story and what it’s going for. I think that part is quite wonderful and quite uplifting. This and Rocky are the two “underdog” Best Picture winners, I feel. The ones that almost shouldn’t have gotten there but did. So that part I think is great. Compared to some of the other winners, sure — it’s no Lawrence of Arabia. But also, it’s a really great movie and a really touching movie. It’s not gonna rank particularly well when you use the criteria one normally uses for “Best Picture” films. But it is a great enough movie to actually hold up pretty well on any Oscar list. So by that, and by the fact that the category is awful, this is a great choice all around.

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1956

Around the World in 80 Days

Friendly Persuasion

Giant

The King and I

The Ten Commandments

Analysis:

Around the World in 80 Days is a famous novel and a famous story. And this is a very big movie for the 50s.

The premise I think we all know — Phileas Fogg bets his friends he can go (insert title here). He leaves with his manservant Passepartout, embarking in a hot air balloon, and begins his journey. And the film is him going through all these exotic locations, meeting all these people. It’s loaded with celebrity cameos. Absolutely loaded. And it’s a fun adventure movie designed to take you “around the globe.” Good stuff.

I can’t say this holds up as well as it may have looked in 1956, but there’s no denying this is a fantastic movie. It’s a joy to watch. The only downside to it is that I’m not sure this is a great Best Picture winner. It’s a perfectly fine Best Picture winner, but I feel like there’s at least one better choice in the category, and that’s always biased me against this one. It’ll probably be my second choice when all is said and done.

Friendly Persuasion is somehow one of the most forgotten Best Picture nominees of the 50s. And when you hear what it’s about, you think, “What? That can’t be good.” And yet… it is. Very good.

The film is about a family of Quakers. Gary Cooper is the father. Dorothy McGuire is the mother. Anthony Perkins is the oldest son. The first half is a lot of John Ford-esque vignettes of the family to build the characters and the community. The second half is the Civil War breaking out and the family’s non-violent ethos being tested, specifically Perkins’.

It’s really good. William Wyler didn’t make bad movies. It’s very engaging, a lot of fun and well worth seeing. It’s actually a fine Best Picture nominee. Though I can’t say it’s not fifth choice in the category. I like it, but I wouldn’t take it over anything else (even if I maybe could make it a fourth choice in terms of preference), and it would have been the worst winner of the bunch had it won. Fifth choice, and the real story here is how good this is despite no one knowing anything about it nowadays.

Giant is one of the all-time epics. Somehow this hasn’t gotten the praise it deserves over the years. This, to me, is up there with films like Gone With the Wind and Lawrence of Arabia (if not necessarily on that specific tier). It’s amazing. And yet — I think it’s just seen as very good.

It’s an epic about oil. Rock Hudson is a cattle rancher, and we follow him as he gets married to Elizabeth Taylor and raises his family. We mostly follow the family over about forty years, and the story traces Hudson’s steadfastness in sticking with cattle ranching and not getting into oil production like many of those around him, specifically James Dean, a ranch hand on his land who despises Hudson and ends up striking oil on the land and becoming a very rich oil magnate because of it.

It’s a near perfect film. I love it so much, and I can’t believe this didn’t win Best Picture this year. (I mean, I understand it, but still… I watch this movie and go, “How didn’t this win?”) This would be my choice every time in this category, and while I can understand the eventual result, I would take this over everything else, no question.

The King and I is one of the great film musicals. A masterwork of production design, costume design and studio film musical done in CinemaScope.

Deborah Kerr is a tutor assigned to teach the King of Siam’s many children. She and the king clash much, him being much more of a traditionalist, and her not being one. But there’s a respect and admiration that develops between the two of them.

It’s a wonderful film. It looks gorgeous, it’s very fun, and it’s a classic. I don’t think the film is perfect — there’s a 20 minute performance the characters watch right before the end of the movie that’s nothing more than a visual feast and not a whole lot else. But I do think it’s very good. It might be a third choice here or a fourth. I like it a lot and I think it could have made an okay winner, though I think it’s better served as just a nominee.

The Ten Commandments is Cecil B. DeMille’s biggest epic.

You know the drill. Moses. Pharaoh. Let my people go. Where’s your messiah now? They covered this on Rugrats.

It’s an awesome movie. This, though, falls right in line with those costume epics of the 50s. I just don’t think they should win Best Picture. As great as this movie is and as much as I like it… I just don’t think they make good winners. This would have been a pretty boring winner, had it won. I’d have been more okay with this than with most (The Robe, Quo Vadis), but I still don’t think this would have been a great winner. Maybe it ends up my third choice, but more likely it’s probably fourth.

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The Reconsideration: It’s Giant for me, and there’s nothing to reconsider there. The real reconsideration for me is coming to understand why Around the World in 80 Days isn’t such a terrible winner as it may seem today. Sure, it looks slight, but I get why it won when it did. But that’s for later. For now, this is me picking my choice. And my choice is Giant. Around the World in 80 Days is, admittedly, a second choice, even though I do like The Ten Commandments a lot and The King and I a lot. But The King and I didn’t need to win, as I don’t view it as a musical that’s good enough or that I like enough to have held up as a winner. And The Ten Commandments fits into that costume epic mold that I just don’t feel makes a good winner. It’s Giant all the way for me. It’s not even close.

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Rankings (category and films):

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

My Vote: Giant

Recommendations:

Giant is an all-time essential. Must see for everyone. It’s not quite Lawrence of Arabia level, but it’s still something every film buff needs to see. Every angle on this makes it essential. The Oscar win, the fact that it’s a classic and one of the great epics of all time. James Dean. It cross lists on so many different lists that everyone will and should see this at some point.

Around the World in 80 Days is a Best Picture winner and a classic. And it’s a really fun film. Best Picture winners are all essential, for the most part, and this is no different. Plus, to talk about it having won, you need to have seen it. It’s also worth seeing because you hear how bad it was as a choice and then you see it and it’s really good. Consider this essential viewing.

The Ten Commandments is a film that we all see at some point, right? It’s always on TV around Easter, and it’s just one of those movies they put on in schools. It’s a classic all around. It’s totally essential, but I feel like most of us get it out of the way without even trying. If not, get it out of the way willingly, because it’s awesome.

The King and I is a classic musical and a gorgeous film. It’s essential. If you boil the musical genre down to the essentials, this one would be on it. Plus, Yul Brynner won for it, so there’s that. No reason not to see this. If only just to see what the film looks like. Because my god, is this one of the most beautifully designed films they made.

Friendly Persuasion is an awesome movie. High recommend. Not essential, but very much worth seeing. You don’t think it’ll be great because it’s about Quakers, but trust me. William Wyler didn’t make bad movies. This movie is so good. Definitely see this. It’s fantastic.

The Last Word: Hard to argue with this one. This is one of those movies that is everything they want in a winner. It had it all. The only thing that looks bad is that it hasn’t held up against the other Best Picture winners of its caliber. To call this one of the worst Best Picture winners of all time (which I may have done, in my younger days, I honestly don’t even remember) is to look past what is clearly the case. At the time, this was a great winner and major, major success. This wasn’t thought of badly at the time. It hasn’t held up well, and sure, it’s a lesser winner historically because the film is pretty dated and doesn’t hold up that well, but honestly, I can’t say it’s that bad a choice when you look at the category. I think Giant is incredible and should have won, but who’s to say that film would have been that much better a choice? The King and I is nice, but that would have been an easily-dismissed winner. The Ten Commandments shouldn’t have won because none of those costume epics should have won. And Friendly Persuasion would have been a bad choice. They actually made a good choice. The problem is that good choice hasn’t held up. It happens, but that’s the reality.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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