Friday, January 13, 2017

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Director 1953

The Contenders:

Fred Zinnemann: From Here to Eternity (winner)
Charles Walters: Lili
William Wyler: Roman Holiday
George Stevens: Shane
Billy Wilder: Stalag 17

What’s Missing

I think I picked this award and this year today because it’s a tough one. I genuinely like four of these movies and like the directorial performance of all four of those. Putting in my own additions to a very strong list isn’t that easy. I don’t adore The Band Wagon, but I think a case could be made for Vincente Minelli here. My love of Samuel Fuller is probably what is making me suggest Pickup on South Street. The same could be said of Jacques Tati and M. Hulot’s Holiday. Others worth bringing up include Max Ophuls and The Earrings of Madame de… and the Japanese duo of Yasujiro Ozu and Tokyo Story and Kenji Mizoguchi for Ugetsu. The two biggest misses in my opinion were misses for a reason. Henri-Georges Clouzot’s work in The Wages of Fear was in French, which pretty much left it out of contention in 1953. The Bigamist was directed by Ida Lupino, and the Academy probably wasn’t ready for a woman director in 1953. Others worth thinking about are Fritz Lang for The Big Heat, Federico Fellini for I Vitelloni (which would have the same issues as The Wages of Fear) and potentially Howard Hawks for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. I’m dumping Lili and Charles Walters right off the bat. I hate Lili about as much as I hate Gigi, and I hate that one a hell of a lot. More to the point, aside from the weird and rather creepy dance number that happens at the end, I don’t get a good sense of why this would be nominated for Best Director. I admit that I might be allowing my own biases to get in the way here, but when I dislike a movie as much as I dislike this one, it’s probably going to end up on the bottom of the stack no matter what.

4. And here’s where it starts to get tough. I think from this point on, I’ll get a lot of disagreement with where I put things, and I don’t know that I can say that anyone else would be wrong with a different order. As sad as it makes me to put Billy Wilder fourth, and as much as I like Stalag 17, it’s the film I’m putting here. I love the movie and the story, but there are some moments in the film that seem off in terms of tone. That does fall on Wilder, and for that reason, I’m sticking him at the bottom of the nominated films I think could actually win.

3. I like Roman Holiday a lot, and I like how much of it seems to be a love letter to Rome itself. It’s a beautiful film to watch as well as a very sweet and entertaining story. So why is it third? No significant reason except that I think the other two nominees have a better case to make for being in first. This is a lovely film, one that everyone should see at some point, and while I appreciate the nomination for William Wyler, he’s not who I would put on the stand with the statue regardless of how pretty the film is.

My Choices

2. What I like about From Here to Eternity more than anything is just how ballsy it is. This is a film that goes directly after military culture less than a decade after the end of World War II. In a sense, it’s almost a shock that the film got made in that environment. It also contains one of the most iconic scenes of its decade, with Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in the surf. There’s a lot to recommend this and to recommend Fred Zinnemann, and I won’t say that the Academy picked poorly. They just didn’t pick my choice.

1. I’d go with Shane, and I’d go with it for a single reason: the closing moment. Since Shane was released, people have argued back and forth about whether or not Shane is alive or dead when he rides off into the sunset at the end. This is the kind of ambiguity I can get behind, and it’s perfectly done. My guess is that this won’t be a popular pick from me, and there were a lot of ways I could see this going. In fact, I’d even be okay with a number of choices from my first paragraph here.

Final Analysis


  1. I haven't seen Lili, but that picture you put in the post is rather unsettling.

    What a great year 1953 was! I agree with your placings, though if you had swapped them around ie. put Roman Holiday or Stalag 17 higher, I would still have agreed.

    1. Yeah, it was hard. Hell of a good year for movies, though. Really, aside from Lili, it's hard to go wrong with a lot of 1953's output.

  2. Well I'm indifferent to Lili, I don't hate it as you do but I didn't like it enough to feel passionately about it either way. Can't believe it was nominated for anything really.

    To the other four, I'm very fond of both Roman Holiday and Shane. They're wonderful pictures and to a lesser degree I like Stalag 17 but I'd dump them all in favor of other films from this year that missed the line-up though if I had to retain any it would be Shane.

    From this lot my choice would be Zinnemann's work on From Here to Eternity. He blends all its story elements seamlessly and keep what could have been an unwieldy mess of confusion tight and involving. matter how fine these films are my lineup would be almost completely different:

    Henri-Georges Clouzet-Wages of Fear
    Sam Fuller-Pick-up on South Street
    Ida Lupino-The Hitch-Hiker
    George Sidney-Kiss Me, Kate
    Fred Zinneman-From Here to Eternity

    With Clouzet being the winner, though Eternity would be my picture winner because of keeping those multiple stories melding so well.

    1. I can't say I'd be terribly upset if Clouzet had won this. It's a very strong director year, and one that could have easily handled double the nominations without too many undeserved people on the podium.

      Glad to see I'm not the only Sam Fuller fan.

    2. I am a big fan of Fuller but particularly with Pickup he had some of his strongest collaborators. This is probably Jean Peters best performance in her short career but the two who really turn the trick are Richard Widmark and Thelma Ritter. Both were uniformly excellent throughout their careers but they're exceptional in this.

    3. I can't honestly disagree with anything you've just said. I'm a big fan of Widmark and Ritter in particular.

  3. Can't quarrel with your list though I'd probably rank From Here to Eternity over Shane. My own top five for the year were:

    Tokyo Story
    The Earrings of Madame de ...
    Wages of Fear
    From Here to Eternity
    Pickup on South Street

    1. I love how much Samuel Fuller appreciation there is for this post. Perhaps I should have been more forceful with that suggestion in my opening paragraph.

      I'm genuinely surprised at just how good this year was for movies and directors. Who knew 1953 was this strong?

  4. And then there's "The Robe"!

    OK, no, I'm not really suggesting it for Oscar consideration. (Even though it was nominated for Best Picture and in four other categories, of which it won two.) I love it despite itself. I really love these goofy bible epics (well, there's a couple I find irredeemable) and "The Robe" is one of my favorites.

    Richard Burton, Jean Simmons and especially Victor Mature are very entertaining. And Dr. Shrinker is Caligula! And Dr. Pretorius is Tiberius!

    And also Leon Askin and Harry Shearer!

    I just had to give a shoutout to director Henry Koster for getting hold of this syrupy mass and making such a fun and entertaining film out of it. (It does lag a bit in the second hour, if I remember correctly.)

    I'm rather inclined to give this award to "Stalag 17," but I'm another one who thinks this is quite an amazing year and I can't fault anybody who picks a different film out of this embarrassment of riches.

    1. I didn't even consider The Robe seriously. I found it bloated and glurgey, and interesting only because it contains the clearest example of Richard Burton being at least half ham.

      But yeah, hell of a year.

  5. I think From Here to Eternity deserves its win here for daring to go new ways and to keep check on storylines that could easily pin out of control and fizzle. I love Roman Holiday, but is it really a great directorial effort? "Shane" does not click with me as much as it does for you. For me it is a fairly ordinary western. Instead I would throw som love at The Big Heat. There are things here that are pretty shocking for 53. Tokyo Story is also a directors movie and deserve som love for that.

    1. It really is a great year. Aside from the inexplicable nomination for Lili, I think just about anything nominated or listed in my first paragraph above could be argued for. Hard to make a wrong choice with this collection, honestly.

  6. I haven't yet seen Lili or Stalag 17, but from the other three, I'd move Wyler ahead of Zinnemann. I think it's just a matter of the passing years, but for me FHTE hasn't aged well at all, while Roman Holiday remains a classic, poignant romance. Can't argue with placing Stevens in first place, Shane is beautifully constructed and holds enormous power.

    From the selections in your opening paragraph I would argue more strongly for Fritz Lang's achievement in The Big Heat, a film was way ahead of its time.

    I'm surprised no one mentioned Julius Caesar. I'm not a Shakespeare adaptation fan, but the 1953 version directed by Mankiewicz is usually considered one of the best, with a Brando in full flight.

    Finally, a shout out to László Benedek's work on The Wild One (with Brando again). Often overlooked despite preceding Rebel Without A Cause by 2 years, The Wild One still carries menace.

    Mildred: Hey, Johnny, what are you rebelling against?
    Johnny (Brando): What've you got?

    1. Stalag 17 is worth your time, if for no other reason than to see William Holden as an almost perfect anti-hero. It's a great story and I love the movie. It just doesn't do a lot for me in terms of direction.

      Julius Caesar is all about Brando for me. The Wild One is sadly on my unseen list. It's one I should really catch up with one of these days.