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The Oscar Quest: Reconsidered (Best Picture, 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

The Bridge on the River Kwai

Peyton Place

Sayonara

12 Angry Men

Witness for the Prosecution

Analysis:

The Bridge on the River Kwai is David Lean’s first touch at greatness in the epic genre. After this, he’d pretty much make only epics from here on out, and really only the first three come close. I always say — this one is almost perfect, the next one is perfect, and the third one is just a bit past perfect and a bit overdone.

This movie is about a bunch of American and British POWs in Japan during World War II. The Japanese commander has been tasked with building a strategic bridge that will help transport a bunch of troops across a river. He tells the POWs they’re going to help build this bridge. It’s amazing. This movie is so good. Down to the final scene.

This is a movie nobody would argue against having won. The only real question is if you vote for it, since there’s another near perfect film in this category that’s just as good and just as worth taking. It’s typically a 50/50 choice, so we’ll see which way I go in the end.

Peyton Place is the film that spawned a soap opera. So that should give you a hint of what it’s like.

It’s told as a memoir about a small town in New England, as written by one of the characters, who wants to be a writer. We follow a bunch of different storylines — the mother who is overprotective of her daughter because of an illicit, undisclosed past. The father who abuses his daughter and is eventually driven out of town after he impregnates her. The town doctor who knows all the dirty little secrets of the town.

It’s actually a really good movie. I didn’t think much of it, but came out really impressed by it. It’s not a movie I’d vote for at all, but it’s actually a pretty solid nominee. It’s probably a fifth choice, because something like this shouldn’t win Best Picture in a decade like this, but it’s definitely a worthy nominee in what’s a quietly strong category.

Sayonara is a very 50s movie. A film about racism shot in glorious CinemaScope.

Marlon Brando is an Air Force pilot stationed in Japan. A lot of the men, including a friend of his, have married Japanese women. This is frowned upon by the military. They’d much prefer them to love ’em and leave ’em. Pinkerton style. But Brando’s friend refuses to do this, and is met with heavy resistance by the higher ups, who do everything they can to prevent him and his wife from returning to the U.S. Brando at first tries to implore his friend to see reason, but once he sees how much the pair are in love, he starts to see things from their perspective. Plus, he himself starts to fall for a Japanese woman…

It’s a really good film. I didn’t like it the first time I saw it, but that was for dumb reasons. Each successive time I’ve seen it over the past five years (which has to be about four or five times), I’ve liked it more and more. It’s really solid. Not something that should have won, especially with the two leaders in the category, but it’s a solid enough nominee that fits its year.

12 Angry Men is just a masterpiece. And it’s Sidney Lumet’s FIRST MOVIE!

A boy is on trial for murdering his father. The jury is sent to deliberate. We watch as these (insert title here) deliberate. That’s it, that’s the film. It’s absolutely incredible.

This is one of the greatest films ever made, and really the only question is whether you take this or you take Bridge on the River Kwai. There’s no wrong answer, but you do need an answer.

Witness for the Prosecution is another great Billy Wilder movie. One of the dozen or so he made. Most people don’t get more than three great movies. Wilder has a dozen.

Charles Laughton is an aging barrister who keeps taking cases against the wishes of his doctor. Just as he’s about to take a break and get healthy, a murder case falls in his lap that he just can’t pass up. Tyrone Power is accused of befriending an old woman to get in the will and then murdering her to claim it. And the rest of the film is Laughton researching and trying the case. And it’s great. I won’t spoil anything that happens, but it’s great.

Almost any other year this would be top two and in serious consideration for a vote, but here I can’t make an argument for it higher than third. If I really loved the movie then I could maybe argue for it second choice on that, but honestly the other two are so good and so iconic this can’t ever be higher than third for me. Which mostly tells you how strong the other two films are.

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The Reconsideration: It’s 12 Angry Men and it’s Bridge on the River Kwai. Everything else is filler. It’s one or the other, and you can’t go wrong with either.

My preference has always been for Bridge on the River Kwai, even though every time I watch 12 Angry Men, I want to take it. But my heart is always with Bridge on the River Kwai, so I’m gonna take that. It’s just so good.

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Rankings (category and films):

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

My Vote: The Bridge on the River Kwai

Recommendations:

The Bridge on the River Kwai is an all-time classic and a Best Picture winner. You know how essential this is based on its name alone.

12 Angry Men is also a film that you know is beyond must-see on its name alone.

Witness for the Prosecution is essential. Billy Wilder’s greatness is almost unparalleled. If you love movies, you must see this.

Sayonara is essential for Oscar buffs, and essential for the 50s, but overall, it’s just a high recommend. Very good film that looks great and has Marlon Brando in it. It’s definitely worth seeing. Not for everyone, but should be seen by all film buffs.

Peyton Place is fantastic. Not essential, but very important for the 50s, and a really good movie at that. The idea of a melodrama that spawned a soap opera might not automatically appeal to most. Trust me, I’m one of those people. But this really is a great movie. Take my word for it. You’ll enjoy it. It’s well done. High recommend.

The Last Word: They had two great choices here, and they made one of them. Can’t argue with that. Both would have been a stronger winner, historically. So either way they went, it’s a great choice. Bridge on the River Kwai is a good winner.

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1958

Auntie Mame

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

The Defiant Ones

Gigi

Separate Tables

Analysis:

Auntie Mame is a stage play done on screen. The whole movie is theatrical, and somehow that actually helps it work as well as it does.

Rosalind Russell is a boisterous woman, full of life, who inherits her orphaned nephew. She decides to show him how to live. And that involves a whole bunch of hijinks and various vignettes. It’s a fun movie.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is one of the great American plays, by Tennessee Williams. And it’s a classic film.

Paul Newman is a former star athlete married to Elizabeth Taylor. They go to her father’s house for his birthday. Over the course of the day, a lot of emotional shit and family drama goes down. That’s basically all you need. It’s great. Great performances all around.

It’s a classic film. It’s not quite at the level of Streetcar, but it’s solid enough to be worthy of a nomination and even worthy of a vote in this particular category. I wouldn’t normally look to this as a choice, but this seems like it’ll end up top two in this category by sheer virtue of not having a whole lot else to vote for.

The Defiant Ones is such a great movie. It takes Civil Rights and hits you over the head with it, metaphor-wise, and then turns itself into a really compelling movie even after that.

A prison truck crashes and two of the prisoners escape. One is Tony Curtis and the other is Sidney Poitier. A white and and a black man. They are literally chained together, and have to work together in order to survive. Get it? Yeah, you get it. It’s great. It’s really great.

I love this movie a lot. Other years, this wouldn’t factor into the vote, even though I’d want to give it some consideration. This year, it’s easily top two for me. It’s a classic. The other films are nice, but there are only two real “classics” here. This will definitely be one of the major contenders for me.

Gigi is a Vincente Minnelli musical. And a fucking weird one at that. The fact that this won Best Picture still surprises me. This is one of those movies — even when you explain the plot now, it seems insane.

Louis Jourdan is bored with Paris life and doesn’t like seeing people. People want him to marry, but instead he goes around, having one night stands and taking mistresses, none of whom he has any particular affinity for. He prefers to hang out with an old woman and her granddaughter, who is about to be trained to be a courtesan. What’s a courtesan, in case you didn’t know? A prostitute. A high class prostitute. The girl is like 13. The film is about him and the granddaughter falling in love. That is the plot of this movie. It also features a song, sung by Maurice Chevalier (70 at the time) called “Thank Heaven for Little Girls.” Normally I’d link to it, but I feel like it’s better if you just experience it organically. It’s… something.

I like this movie. It looks gorgeous and it’s fun. But it swept the Oscars this year, and I don’t quite get it. It would be a third choice at best for me. Maybe I could make a case for it as second choice, but — I don’t see it. Maybe in five years.

Separate Tables is an ensemble drama based on a play. Very theatrical, but its great actors giving good performances.

A bunch of people staying/living at a seaside inn deal with their own personal dramas and a drama that involves the hotel, as David Niven, a retired soldier with a penchant for going on and on about his war stories, is discovered to be a disgraced former soldier who was kicked out of the army for having sex with an underage girl. Then there’s Burt Lancaster, sleeping with the proprietor of the hotel, whose ex-wife shows up again, and Deborah Kerr, the spinster whose life is dominated by her overbearing mother, the newlyweds with only one thing on their minds, etc.

It’s a very good film. Wouldn’t have made a good winner, but it’s really well done. If this were made in the early 30s, it would have been a decent winner. Here, it’s just a solid nominee that hasn’t particularly held up over time. A fifth choice all around. If you’re gonna go with a theatrical nominee based on a play this year, why not make it Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which at least is a well-known classic? The fact that movie is there pretty much eliminates this one automatically.

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The Reconsideration: A category of #2s and no 1. We had one of these nine years earlier.

They’re all good films bordering on great and some do touch the tip of greatness. But none of them is a surefire “must vote for” film. So here, you can pretty much take anything. The secondary question is, what, if anything, can hold up as a winner.

For me, I need to take what I like enough to vote for. And to start, that’s not Auntie Mame and that’s not Separate Tables. I like them both, but I wouldn’t take them. Gigi I like a lot, but also wouldn’t vote for it unless the category were way weaker than it is. So that leaves Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Defiant Ones. I could be okay taking either one, and when you get down to it, I like The Defiant Ones better, so I’m gonna take that. You have to take what the category gives you, and this category gave me The Defiant Ones. And I’m perfectly happy with that.

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Rankings:

  1. The Defiant Ones
  2. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
  3. Gigi
  4. Separate Tables
  5. Auntie Mame

My Vote: The Defiant Ones

Recommendations:

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a classic. Essential for film buffs. Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor, Tennessee Williams. Completely essential all around.

The Defiant Ones is 100% essential for all film buffs. A classic and one of the most important films of the 50s. You can’t talk about film history without mentioning this film.

Gigi is a Best Picture winner, making it essential. Plus it’s an awesome Vincente Minnelli musical, which also gives you good reason to check it out. I’d consider it essential for the win, and purely on a film level, give it a solid to high recommend. It’s fun. Not the most amazing movie you’ve ever seen, but it looks great and there are enough oddities to it (“Thank Heaven for Little Girls”) that it’ll entertain you and make it worth your while to have seen it.

Auntie Mame is a pretty great comedy. Iconic. Mame is one of the great characters in cinema. The “life’s a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death” is one of the classic lines in cinema. Not necessarily essential, but it should be seen. It’s a high recommend. It’s a fantastic film.

Separate Tables is a great ensemble drama. Very well made, and most people who see it will like it. It won two acting Oscars, so Oscar buffs and most film buffs should consider it essential. Otherwise it’s still a very high recommend. David Niven, Deborah Kerr, Burt Lancaster, Wendy Hiller, Rita Hayworth, Gladys Cooper. Great cast all around, most people should want to see this.

The Last Word: To finish what I was saying up there, the question here is, what, if anything, can hold up as a winner. Auntie Mame would not have held up. Separate Tables would have been a weak and forgotten winner. Gigi hasn’t particularly held up well. But it’s held up about as well as any Best Picture winner, I guess. It won every Oscar it was nominated for, so on that level, it looks okay. But historically, do people really go back and think this film is incredible? It’s good, but is it really that good? I don’t know. It’s probably an average winner. And since Cat on a Hot Tin Roof didn’t particularly need to win Best Picture and The Defiant Ones wouldn’t have held up markedly better (I think it would have been better, but not much more so, enough to say how bad a winner Gigi is), I guess I can be okay with it having won.

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(Read more Oscar Quest articles.)

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