Monday, February 11, 2019

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Picture 1953

The Contenders:

From Here to Eternity (winner)
Julius Caesar
The Robe
Roman Holiday

What’s Missing

The nominations for 1953’s Best Picture race are strange in many ways. I like four of these movies, two of them a great deal, and yet I still can’t help but think there’s a lot to be improved upon. This is a great year for foreign films, starting with Summer with Monika and continuing through such classics as M. Hulot’s Holiday, Ugetsu, The Wages of Fear, and Tokyo Story. It was also a damn good year for military films. In addition to From Here to Eternity, which won, we had both The Cruel Sea and Stalag 17. While House of Wax really didn’t stand a chance of a nomination, The Big Heat might have, as might have Pickup on South Street. These days, we’d be talking about The Bigamist, but a woman director in 1953? Never happen.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. Of these five movies, The Robe is the one I genuinely don’t like at all. While there are some fun performances in it, it is dominated by the obscene scenery chewing of Richard Burton and a plot that is long on Biblical bullshit and short on plausibility. Seeing Burton have some sort of conniption when he touches the robe of Christ sounds like a great time, but the reality is a great deal less. As Biblical epics go, this one leaves a great deal to be desired in almost every category. I imagine it was nominated more for its theme than any real quality it exhibits.

4. I liked Julius Caesar a lot more than I thought I would, enough that I’m a little guilty placing it in fourth. It’s a very good version of one of Shakespeare’s better plays, and that Marlon Brando could pull off the Mark Antony role is genuinely surprising. The problem here is that there’s really nothing more here than just the play. There’s not a great deal done to make this more than just a filmed version of the stage production. That’s fine, but it’s not really enough for something that wants to be Best Picture.

3. Winner From Here to Eternity is a movie that has surprising guts for 1953. Less than a decade after the end of World War II, this is a movie that goes directly after military culture in a big way. I respect the hell out of that. In fact, in a lot of other years, this would be a clear choice for me for the win, and I fully understand the win it got. It’s not my choice for a variety of reasons, though. Still, it has a great reputation for a reason, and it’s one of my favorite Deborah Kerr performances. If it’s your choice, I get it; it’s just not my choice.

2. I think there are a lot of westerns that are better movies than Shane, but there are no westerns that are more Western than Shane. Every single possible trope of the genre is here and is here bigger than life. Because of this, because it is so central to its genre, I think it’s an easy film to overlook in terms of just how good and effective it is. If you’re going to talk about the genre, this has to be in the conversation for all the right reasons. It’s a classic, and I’m not going to apologize for putting it this high.

1. There is almost nothing to dislike about Roman Holiday, though. This is a movie that is sweet and lovely. It has an entertaining premise, gives us a glorious ride, and ends not as we think we want it to nor as we fully expect a Hollywood movie to, but as it should. It absolutely perfectly and beautifully sticks the landing. That it also gives us a near-perfect pairing of Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck is just a bonus. Given an open field, I’m going elsewhere, but with the five I’ve got, this is my winner.

My Choices

I do have an open field, though, and my choices for 1953 are both foreign language movies. Of all the movies I have rated for 1953, only Tokyo Story and The Wages of Fear have five stars from me, and I’d stand by either of those as being movies that it would be virtually impossible to improve upon. Either one would take the win for me.

Final Analysis


  1. It's so exciting when you do a category where I've seen all the movies, especially when I remember them all as well as I do!

    I checked my IMDB "Favorite Movies, Year by Year" list, and the winner for 1953 is Stalag 17. I don't see any reason to change that, though the competition between Stalag 17, Wages of Fear, Tokyo Story and cult classic Beat the Devil is fierce!

    As to the nominees: 1) I like Roman Holiday but I've always found it a bit over-rated.

    2) From Here to Eternity is one that I liked quite a bit, and I understand its popularity, but it's not really my kind of movie in a lot of ways. Also, I read the MAD version over and over again for close to 20 years before I saw the movie, so I've always had trouble taking it entirely seriously.

    3) Shane is great! And you're right, it's pretty Western-y! I like it a lot better than The Searchers any day!

    4) Julius Caesar is another one I like a lot! It's amazing to see Marlon Brando in anything in his early career (I saw The Men and Viva Zapata! within the last few months) because, well, it's almost like he didn't have an apprenticeship. He just walked in and started dominating the hell out of everything. (Later on … well, I saw Last Tango in Paris recently and it struck me how great it would be if it was an MST3K movie. Minus the butter scene, that's a bit much.)

    5) I love The Robe! Oh, I can't argue with any of your criticisms. I just love bible movies, and The Robe is about as bible-y as it gets. It's also HILARIOUS! Not just Burton, but also Victor Mature! And you stare at Jean Simmons for while. And then Leon Askin shows up! Harry Shearer is in it! He's just a kid! And Richard Boone as Pontius Pilate, Ernest Theisiger as Tiberius and Dr. Shrinker as Caligula! The Robe cracks me up! But it has no business being nominated for Best Picture.

    I would probably pick Shane out of these nominations.

    1. I wouldn't entirely disagree with Shane as a pick. My top three are all pretty close. Stalag 17 would almost certainly make my list of five--it's one of my favorite Billy Wilder films.

      As for Brando, I really liked The Men. Viva Zapata! is fine, but it's Anthony Quinn who makes that one work for me. I hated Last Tango with a real passion.

      As for Shane compared with The Searchers...I'm of the opinion that The Searchers is the greatest western in history, so we'll disagree on that.

  2. As Biblical epics go I’m not terribly fond of The Robe either, though I’m always happy to watch Jean Simmons (who was to be the original choice for Roman Holiday until Howard Hughes won’t loan her out), and where you have it is where it belongs among the nominees.

    I agree as well about Julius Caesar being very much a filmed play, a very well-acted one but not really very cinematic.

    I think Roman Holiday is an absolute charmer with perfect performances by its three main players and it’s the first of these nominations I think are earned but the other two rank higher for me.

    Shane is just so wonderfully what it sets out to be, a pure distillation of the Western ethos. I could see it winning for me in another year.

    But From Here to Eternity is in my top three favorites of Best Picture winners, sometimes it’s number one though both All About Eve and The Best Years of Our Lives duke it out for that place as well. It’s just so well directed and tells its story so succinctly without a single weak performance from its cast. I’m with you on this being one of Deborah Kerr’s best pieces of work. This is one of the times I think the Academy got it right.

    I haven’t seen Tokyo Story yet but I agree Wages of Fear is a brilliant film and had it been eligible I might be swayed away from Eternity but it didn’t make it to the States until 1955, for that matter Tokyo Story wasn’t released in America until 1972!! I wasn’t a big fan of Stalag 17 but I wouldn’t have objected to The Big Heat making the grade though it would never be my winner. Now if we were talking Gloria Grahame in the film that would be another matter! Pick-Up on South Street even more than Big Heat would make my list, perhaps it was just a bit too seamy for the Academy.

    I’m delighted to see the indirect mention of Ida Lupino via The Bigamist and that’s a very good film but I’d go with her The Hitch-Hiker instead. A terrifically tense and economical drama. What an undervalued talent that woman was! Never a single nomination in either directing (which as you said was unthinkable then) nor in acting where she could have and should have been multiple times.

    As to what else could have made the list my top choice would be Kiss Me Kate which embraces its necessary theatricality while still be very cinematic. Perhaps it suffered from the same curse as Singin’ in the Rain the year before where musicals never rate the same respect as straight drama or even comedy, except for An American in Paris which mystifies me-it’s one of the few musicals I can’t abide. There are a few others which I adore-Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Niagara, Titanic and The Naked Spur that are wonderful films but I’m not sure rate a nomination, though if we’re using The Robe as a yardstick well…

    1. With a year that had as many good movies as this one, I try to limit myself not just to movies I liked but movies I liked a great deal. So, while I did enjoy Titanic, for instance, it feels like a lower-tier movie to me (despite Barbara Stanwyck's presence). I wasn't a huge fan of The Naked Spur.

      Hitch-Hiker is one I need to catch up with. Ida Lupino is one of those people who you can't believe never got a nomination, much like Joseph Cotten or Myrna Loy...or Alan Rickman or Donald Sutherland. How the hell does that happen?

      Tokyo Story is goddam transcendant. Ozu was a master.

      I agree with you on Pickup on South Street. Such an efficient little film that takes no bullshit but delivers a hell of a lot in its short running time.

      In truth, I don't really object that hard to From Here to Eternity winning this, and I wouldn't have complained hard had Shane won. It's a damn good year, which makes the presence of The Robe absolutely mystifying.

  3. 1953 was a damn good year! I love Wages of Fear, Tokyo Story and Roman Holiday (I got to see it on the big screen last year. Joy!). And Stalag 17 is really good, as is M Hulot's Holiday, and The Cruel Sea, and Shane; and pretty much all the others you mentioned. An embarrassment of riches!

    Gun to head, Tokyo Story, but only just!

    1. Right. I'd go with that or Wages of Fear, but I honestly can't take issue with anyone picking something different. So many good films from this year!

  4. We are spoiled for choices here.
    I think I would go for Roman Holiday even in an open field. Oscar need some sweetness and this is tempered just right and, yes, the ending makes exactly right. I was in Rome in December and I can still feel the magic of this movie.
    Tokyo Story would be a second for me and them probably the Bigamist. That movie has more qualities than simply being directed by a woman. That this should even be an issue is a disgrace, its qualities as a movie is what makes it a contender.
    I am not as infatuated by Shane as you are. To me it is merely okay. For a quintessential western I would go with High Noon or The Stagecoach.

    1. I think both High Noon and Stagecoach are probably better films than Shane, but Shane is almost ridiculously pure in its devotion to the genre.

  5. Great analysis. It'd be a toss-up for Eternity and Shane for me, but Roman Holiday is indeed a great film. Also agree about Tokyo Story and The Wages of Fear. And, in a perfect world, I'd probably throw Summer with Monika in the mix as well.

    1. It's such a good year! How the hell did The Robe get nominated in such a good year?