Friday, August 15, 2014

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Director 1961

The Contenders:
Federico Fellini: La Dolce Vita
J. Lee Thompson: The Guns of Navarone
Robert Rossen: The Hustler
Stanley Kramer: Judgment at Nuremberg
Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins: West Side Story (winners)

What’s Missing

It’s a good set of films this time and a nice selection of directors. There are plenty of films that might make my list for 1961, but in terms of people left off the director list, I’m not sure I have a lot to add. My first instinct is to bring up Elia Kazan for Splendor in the Grass, which is a nicely directed movie that goes to some surprisingly dark places. I’d also put in a nod for Ingmar Bergman and Through a Glass Darkly. Some might suggest Blake Edwards for Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but I think that film and Edwards’s direction on it are a bit overrated. How about Akira Kurosawa for Yojimbo or William Wyler for The Children’s Hour?

Weeding through the Nominees

5: I enjoyed The Guns of Navarone, but I’m not sure I enjoyed it as much as I thought I was going to. This is a solid film with solid direction, but “solid” isn’t what gives a director a shiny gold statue. J. Lee Thompson’s work here is good, and he keeps the story moving at a brisk pace. There is some great camera work, too, and the whole thing is nicely put together. But honestly, I’d rather see Bergman, Kurosawa, or Kazan nominated for their films.

4: I may well catch flak from Fellini lovers putting him fourth. In truth, I’m not a huge Fellini fan, although La Dolce Vita is one of my favorites of his, or at least a film of his that I like. More than that, this is a historically important film, one that added to and changed cinematic language in a real way. But even with that, there’s a part of me that has a hard time liking Fellini. And for all of that, I think the more daring and important things here come from the screenplay, not specifically the direction. Chalk this up to personal prejudice. Sorry.

My Choices

3: I don’t typically like to have more than two choices for a given award and year, but with these three, I can’t really not. The toughest decision I had was deciding second and third place. Ultimately, third place goes to Robert Rossen’s work on The Hustler. This is a strangely dark film and one that could have easily gotten away from Rossen. It’s not a complicated story, but it’s one that needs to be told carefully, and Rossen tells it just about perfectly. Perhaps the only reason I’m putting it third is because the screenplay takes more chances with it than Rossen did.

2: Judgment at Nuremberg and the work of Stanley Kramer was my original third place, but after further review, I moved him into second, and that’s by the slimmest of margins. This is a hell of a good film. More than that, it’s long and never dull for a second, which is an achievement when it comes to a lengthy courtroom drama. It’s tightly focused and beautifully paced, and had it won, I’d be pretty satisfied with that result.

1: But, in the final analysis, Oscar got this one right by giving the statue(s) to Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins. West Side Story is far from my favorite film of 1961, but there is no questioning the incredible direction on this film. The real reason I would vote this way despite not loving the film and disliking its ultimate source material is simple: if you didn’t know this started as a Broadway musical, you wouldn’t be able to tell by watching the film. It looks written for the screen, and all of that comes from the work behind the camera and the staging. My heart may well belong to other 1961 movies, but I can’t find a fault in what Wise and Robbins did.

Final Analysis

15 comments:

  1. Wow, you saying Oscar got it right with one of the most musical-y of all musicals is saying a lot. Though I can't really say anything about this list, as WSS is the only one I've actually seen of the 5.

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    1. I have to hand it to them. It's mildly painful to me, but their work really is top notch.

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  2. I forget, are you one of those allergic to musicals? And did I detect a note of sustain for Bill's most beloved tragedy? You raise more questions than answers but Wise and Robbins were the correct choice. There are some fantastic lighting decisions and the omnipotent camera from above in so many scenes but especially the opening and the finale is an excellent way of making the events feel more universal.

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    1. I'm less likely to enjoy a musical than many other genres of film, although there are a ton of musicals I love. Five years ago, I would have called myself a musicals hater. These days, that's not an accurate assessment, but there are a number of classic musicals (The Sound of Music, Guys and Dolls, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Gigi...) that I really dislike a lot.

      And yes, I'm not a huge fan of Romeo and Juliet. If we're going to go Billy the Shake, I prefer the histories, particularly the six Henry plays, and the non-romantic tragedies like Hamlet and MacBeth. R&J leaves me cold. I don't have a great deal of empathy for a couple of witless teens.

      The best I can go with West Side Story is my same impression of the most recent incarnation of Les Miserables--it's an excellent adaptation and innovative version of a story I don't particularly enjoy.

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    2. Gigi is the only one I'd agree with you on, how can you dislike Seven Brides and Guys and Dolls? Different strokes I suppose.

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    3. I'll give you the barn raising scene in Seven Brides, but otherwise, it's Stockholm Syndrome: The Musical. Seriously, the brothers take their cue from a story called the rape of the Sabine women. This is wholesome? As for Guys and Dolls, well, I think it's really misogynist. Even the name betrays it.

      Gigi, though...I hate that movie.

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    4. I'm with Steve on Guys & Dolls. I love musicals, but I freaking loathed Guys & Dolls. So much. (Though there were about 2-3 songs I liked, but that's it.)

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  3. I like West Side Story and love the music. But I've always thought the film version somewhat schizophrenic. Some scenes were filmed on New York streets, while others were clearly filmed on a darkened soundstage. The shift from realism to almost surrealism throws me off.

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    1. I watch a lot of older films, so making that mental shift doesn't bother me at all.

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  4. I also have severe problems with (many) musicals, but even if I haven't seen Judgment at Nuremberg I still got to say that you – and consequently the Oscar jury – might well be correct this time!

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    1. You should see Judgment at Nuremberg. If, like me, you're not a believer in Montgomery Clift, it'll make you one.

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  5. I cannot make West Side Story the winner of this category. There are to my mind too many bad direction choices here for it to win anything. The realism collapse is complete and that does not deserve an award. They could (and probably did) get it for coreography and color photography, but those are different aspects.
    My clear winner for best direction would be Rossen for The Hustler. From a direction point of view this is knife sharp and balanced and Kurosawa and Bergman would be my runner ups. But then again I did not watch the N├╝rnberg trial...

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    1. You should really watch Judgment at Nuremberg. It's long but it's the sort of movie that lingers with you for a long time after you've seen it.

      For what it is and when it was made, I don't know that West Side Story could have been directed any better.

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