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)
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
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.
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.