Fixing Oscar For One Film: Part Three 1950-1957
We all have that one movie we really wish had taken home the Best Picture Oscar that one time – even if we say we don’t care about the Oscars at all. At least most of us do if we’re reading an article on the subject on a pop culture blog on the internet. Well, LeBlog is teaming up with its readers to select one Best Picture loser from the previous eighty-nine years of the awards as our favorite also-ran. This is the picture we will be affording a unique honor here with the title of “Best-Loved Loser.” Come help us weed out the good from the great as we consider five more movies that came up just short on movies’ biggest night.
Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Less than a decade after the striking and cynical crime noir of Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity made him a force in Hollywood, the brilliant writer-director turned his sights on tinsel town itself and its cannibalizing obsessions with youth, beauty, an the new. For a modern audience it’s both progressive and a little old-fashioned at the same time. The popular focus of Sunset Boulevard is on the self-loathing character of Norma Desmond, the aging superstar of the bygone silent film era and Gloria Swanson’s deliciously iconic over the top performance. What might be interesting on a repeat viewing is that while the film presents her in both an unflattering and sympathetic light, her thematic foil is the pretty, young, and idealistic writer played by Nancy Olson, who we are clearly meant to believe is the more ideal match for William Holden’s Joe. Deep into the film Joe exclaims to Norma “There’s nothing tragic about being fifty—not unless you try to be twenty-five” and it’s a perfectly accurate statement that is one thesis for the film. I just wish we weren’t being given a younger, prettier option for Joe to choose if he’d let himself off the hook as a kept man a little more wisely.
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Cinematography, Film Editing
Oscar Wins: Best Story and Screenplay, Music Score, Art Direction
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
Another year and another movie about a woman going crazy in part because she can’t deal with her own aging and the sense that she is trapped by, or in, her past. This time it’s not tied to fame and it’s based on a stage play that predates the film by a few years. Marlon Brando had become a sensation in the male lead of Stanley Kowalski on Broadway and repeated the trick on screen, kicking off a remarkable string of success in the 1950s when he was both one of the chief male sex symbols of the era and perhaps the most respected and most exciting young actors at the very same time. Imagine if Phillip Seymour Hoffman had looked like Brad Pitt and you might get just a fraction of the impact Brando had at the time. Along with Kim Hunter and Karl Malden, Brando brought his performance from the American stage to the screen, while Vivien Leigh who had played Blanche in London was chosen over Jessica Tandy due to her greater fame (after all, she had been the quintessential southern belle in Gone With The Wind, hadn’t she?) As is the case for some of Williams’ plays adapted for the screen, some of the seedier elements are softened or only hinted at here, so viewers not familiar with the original might be little confused by why the characters are reacting as they are to certain revelations.
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Director, Actor, Screenplay, Music Score, Sound Recording, Cinematography, Costume Design
Oscar Wins: Best Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Art Direction
High Noon (1952)
This is one of those movies that does a great job of showing off how effective a simple story can be with the right execution. Fancy high concepts aren’t always necessary to engage the human mind, especially when there are basic and easily relatable situations at hand. Spot-on casting sure can help, too. Although this is by far and away the iconic role of Gary Cooper’s long film career, he was not the first choice for the part when casting began…or the second…or the third…or, well you get the idea. His good friend John Wayne was first offered the role, but turned it down because he believed that its status as an allegory for the cowardice in cold war blacklisting, a practice Wayne personally supported, made it an inappropriate project for him. Other big name actors such as Marlon Brando and Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston and Montgomery Clift were also offered the part but declined, finally leaving the role to veteran actor Cooper. Imagine each of those men in the part and consider how much more effective Cooper was than any of them could have been with his vulnerable stoicism. When he won the Oscar for his performance he was unable to attend the ceremony and had Wayne accept for him. Wayne then wondered aloud why he hadn’t been offered the part.
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Director, Story and Screenplay
Oscar Wins: Best Actor, Dramatic or Comedy Score, Original Song, Film Editing
Mister Roberts (1955)
Did anybody else grow up with Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart as their models of masculinity? Just me? Fonda sure fills out the role of the noble, smart, but well-liked mid-century American man to a “T” in the big screen adaptation of the book and stage play Mister Roberts. Studio heads initially didn’t want him for the role, though, because it had been so long since his last real big screen appearance (1948’s Fort Apache) that they thought he wouldn’t draw audiences to the movie theater anymore. The fact that he was already forty-nine years old when shooting began might have been reason for pause too, as that would make him almost ancient by the standards of his character’s rank at the time. But director John Ford insisted on casting Fonda and the studio relented – then Ford proceeded to antagonize both Fonda and James Cagney, who called Ford a “mean old man” in later interviews. There was one on-set dust up in which Cagney indicated he was prepared for fisticuffs with the director and reports that Ford punched Fonda in the jaw during an argument. He was replaced amidst some health concerns and both Melvyn LeRoy and Joshua Logan pitched in to finish making the picture, leading to wide speculation over which shots were overseen by the legendary director and which were gotten under the eyes of his replacements.
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Sound Recording
Oscar Wins: Best Supporting Actor
12 Angry Men (1957)
Longtime LeBlog readers are probably already aware that Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men is one of my very favorite films of all time. The project had its origin as a teleplay by Reginald Rose that was shown as a part of the CBS program Studio One in 1954, and when Henry Fonda was looking around for stories for his new production company to put to film it was suggested to him by a friend. With Lumet as a first-time feature film director and Boris Kaufman taking the lead on cinematography, the entire film was shot after a short rehearsal period in just three weeks on a small budget. Lumet and Kaufman took advantage of the story being bound to a single location for most of its run time by gradually emphasizing the claustrophobia the characters are feeling and emphasizing both the heat and the changing hours with lighting to brilliantly visually accentuate the drama of what could have easily been a project lacking much in the way of visual dynamics. Although the movie was a box office disappointment at the time of its release, it was generally well-received by critics and has since found a devoted fanbase with repeated airings on a variety of television stations. 12 Angry Men has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, was listed among critic Roger Eberts “Great Movies” and appears on the American Film Institutes 100 years, 100 movies list. If you haven’t seen it…fix that.
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay
Oscar Wins: None
Every entry here seems to get just a little harder to make a decision on so far doesn’t it? Choose the movie you think is most deserving of being called an Oscar winner here and tell us why in the comments section!