Friday, May 27, 2016

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Director 1957

The Contenders:

Sidney Lumet: 12 Angry Men
David Lean: The Bridge on the River Kwai (winner)
Mark Robson: Peyton Place
Joshua Logan: Sayonara
Billy Wilder: Witness for the Prosecution

What’s Missing

Interestingly, 1957 is a year in which our Best Picture nominees are identical to our Best Director nominees. If you’re under the impression that this might be a repeat of my looking at the Best Picture side of this, you might be right. However, there are a few movies I think are worth mentioning. Given the chance to name the five nominees myself, two or three might stay the same, but there’s a lot of room for improvement here. Director performances that legitimately could have been nominated and deserved consideration include Alexander Mackendrick’s work on Sweet Smell of Success, Delmer Daves and 3:10 to Yuma, and especially Elia Kazan’s work on A Face in the Crowd. More than any of those, though, Stanley Kubrick deserved a nomination for Paths of Glory. On the foreign front, two of the greatest directors in history each created great films. Akira Kurosawa made Throne of Blood and Ingmar Bergman made Wild Strawberries and the now-iconic The Seventh Seal. Just for fun, I’ll toss in Jack Arnold’s The Incredible Shrinking Man because it’s a far better film than its goofy premise.

Weeding through the Nominees

5: I like Sayonara the least of these five movies, but that’s not the only reason I’m putting it in fifth place. The main reason is that I have no idea what Joshua Logan specifically brought to the table here. Sure, there are some good performances (the film won for both of the supporting categories, after all), but this seems like a case of the director getting out of the way of the story and letting the story happen. That’s impressive when it’s done because it takes a steady hand to avoid meddling, but it’s not worthy of an award, and in my opinion it’s not worthy of a nomination.

4. Mark Robson’s nomination for Peyton Place feels like the Academy trying to be daring by putting such a controversial film up for major awards. I don’t dislike the film, but the truth is that it hasn’t aged very well in a lot of respects. While this was certainly right on the bleeding edge in terms of mainstream cinema in 1957, it doesn’t hold up over time, and that’s a problem. With this older awards in particular, longevity is critically important. I’d have liked this nomination more in 1957 than I do know.

3. I’ve long been a Billy Wilder apologist and there’s a lot I like about Witness for the Prosecution, bit Wilder’s direction comes pretty far down the list. This is a film that works almost entirely because of the cast and the performances, not from anything Wilder specifically did from the director’s chair. While I’m generally happy to see Wilder getting a nomination, this is a case where I don’t think he really deserved one. Bergman, Kurosawa, Kubrick, or Kazan should have been here instead.

2. The fact that Sidney Lumet never won a competitive Oscar is sad, because he certainly deserved one, and on a lot of days I could be convinced that 12 Angry Men is the one, especially with how tense it is and how gripping it remains despite taking place in a single location. The problem is that I think there’s a better film in almost every respect from the same year, and I also realize that I’m in the minority on that opinion. If only Lumet had made this in 1956 or 1958! I’d hand him Best Picture and Best Director without question in either one of those two years. As it happens, it’s a hell of a movie, but not the one I hand the award to. I expect, incidentally, that any disagreement I get here will be an argument for moving this to the top position.

My Choice

1: It’s all about David Lean and The Bridge on the River Kwai for me. This shouldn’t be a surprise when you consider that I place this in my top-5 list of Best Picture winners in history. I think this is a masterful film, complete, coherent, and telling a grand story without losing the audience for a moment. In truth, with a different set of nominations, I’d have a much harder time here—Kubrick, Kurosawa, and Bergman being placed as nominees would make this a more difficult decision. However, given that if there’s a worthy picture or performance nominated I try to go with one of the nominees, Lean wins in a walk.

Final Analysis


  1. As I am only half way through 57 it is a bit premature to comment on on you ranking, but most of the nominees are off list anyway and The Bridge on the River Kwai is one of those movies I have seen many times over the years. Given that this can only be a question between Bridge on Kwai and 12 Angry Men I have to, grudgingly, agree with you. As Best Picture Lean is the clear winner, but as best director it is a much closer race. 12 Angry Men is all about directing actors and one of the best examples of that.

    1. I don't completely disagree. I can't honestly say that Lumet didn't deserve Best Director for this year. I can only say that I think Lean deserved it more.

  2. With you all the way. Amazing that in such a great year for cinema Sayonara and Peyton Place are among the nominees!

    1. That was exactly my thinking. This could have been a much better race.

  3. Of these five Witness for the Prosecution is the one I enjoy the most but I'd choose Lumet as the winner. He takes something that would seem to invite dullness and makes it so involving. I'm not terribly fond of River Kwai though it is a fine film which Lean does a great job directing it's just not a picture that appeals to me very much. I'd move it to the third placement but otherwise mine would be a similar line-up to yours.

    Now if I could replace and choose out of those nominees it would go like this:

    Ingmar Bergman-Wild Strawberries-Winner
    Sidney Lumet-12 Angry Men
    Elia Kazan-A Face in the Crowd
    Stanley Kubrick-Paths of Glory
    Billy Wilder-Witness for the Prosecution

    I haven't seen Throne of Blood, I know it's a major blind spot. While I thought The Seventh Seal was fascinating Wild Strawberries is my favorite of all the Bergman films I've seen and has a lyrical grace that I didn't see in Seal.

    1. I don't take issue with Lumet as a winner. It really is a masterful piece of storytelling since it stays so compelling and shouldn't specifically be that interesting.

      I get the Wild Strawberries love, but for me, The Seventh Seal is miraculous because it is so accessible and it really shouldn't be based on the subject matter and the ideas. It's another instance of wonderful storytelling in that it makes some truly huge human questions simple and engaging.

      Throne of Blood probably isn't Kurosawa's greatest film, but with the exception of an extended scene of characters riding horses through a forest, there's not a frame of it out of place or that I would change.

      My five nominations would probably be Lean, Lumet, Kubrick, Kurosawa, and Bergman, although if you twist my arm, I might swap Kurosawa and Kazan and go with almost the same five as you (although I'd include Bergman for a different film).

    2. The great thing about that particular group is that outside of my preferred winner I'd have trouble choosing someone for second place. There are so many great elements in all the films I could make a case for any of them, though I think I lean a little more towards A Face in the Crowd. Like Ace in the Hole it has proven sadly prescient.

  4. Lean-Bridge over the River Kwai, Kurosawa-Throne of Blood, Lumet-12 Angry Men, Kazan-A Face in the Crowd, Kubrick-Paths of Glory, Bergman-the Seventh Seal and others you've mentioned, I haven't seen Fellini's Nights of Cabiria yet. Hard to imagine a better list from one year.

    1. It really could've been a race for the ages instead of the two-horse show we actually got.

  5. I've seen Kwai (on film AND in person) and 12 Angry Men (numerous times). 12 Angry Men is one of my favorite movies, so I'm more partial to it and would probably have to give it to that one over Kwai. But Kwai is pretty dang good.

    1. Yeah, I don't take issue with that at all. Had 12 Angry Men won this, I'm not sure I'd take it away from Lumet. It's a hell of a film, and one of the best of its decade.