Friday, March 28, 2014

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Picture 1951

The Contenders:
An American in Paris (winner)
Decision Before Dawn
A Place in the Sun
Quo Vadis
A Streetcar Named Desire

What’s Missing

I at least like more than half of the nominees for this year, but that doesn’t mean that the list couldn’t do with a little trimming and replacing. For me, the lack of nominations for Ace in the Hole is a damn shame. The Lavender Hill Mob would be a long shot, but certainly not the strangest film to garner a nomination. I’m a bit surprised that The African Queen wasn’t nominated, although it would rank below most of the actual nominees on my list. The same is true for Pandora and the Flying Dutchman. Strangers on a Train very well may have been worthy of a nomination. Science fiction never gets the respect it deserves, but this was a good year for it, with the releases of The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Thing from Another World, The Man in the White Suit and When Worlds Collide. I’m certain there are some greats I haven’t seen or have forgotten.

Weeding through the Nominees

5: I’m dropping Decision Before Dawn immediately. I get that this was still just a few years after World War II and many people probably were interested in stories about the war. But why this one? It feels so bland in so many ways. And it also feels very much like propaganda designed specifically to boost the American opinion of the Germans by creating a single character who perhaps wasn’t a Nazi and so became willing to spy against his homeland for us. I’m hard pressed to call it a bad film, but I’m not at all shy in suggesting it wasn’t a very interesting one.

4: I’m also pitching Quo Vadis right off the top, and it scrambled into fourth place only slightly ahead of Decision Before Dawn. This one is all about the production budget and a pretty fun performance from Peter Ustinov. Beyond that, it’s a preachy religious epic that bluntly gets a great deal of things completely wrong, not that many viewers from its core audience would realize it. What should be a passionate romance between our principals is actually tepid and uninspired, which really drags down the film. Sure, it’s an impressive and massive production and it was the year’s highest-grossing film. So what?

3: I’m conflicted on An American in Paris. I like the film pretty well, but it’s so insubstantial. It follows so close to the Hollywood romance formula that I find it frustrating, but at the same time, it has some of the best dance routines from the 1950s. You can argue, and I generally will, that the ending ballet goes on too long. It’s great, but it’s just too long. The big injustice here is not that this won, but that Singin’ in the Rain wasn’t nominated the following year. I can’t hate An American in Paris; I can’t even dislike it. But I can say with all honesty that it didn’t deserve to win.

My Choices

2: The more I think about A Place in the Sun, the more I like it. This is even with my being completely ambivalent to the particular charms of Montgomery Clift. This is a dark film, and one that is difficult to recommend despite its genuine greatness. It leaves an oily feeling after watching, but that’s completely by design. I love that it doesn’t feel like a film noir even though it really is one, albeit one with a fancy pedigree. I love how daring it is, discussing pregnancy out of wedlock. It’s a hell of a film, and one that more people should know. I’d have been fine with this winning.

1: But my vote goes to A Streetcar Named Desire, and most of that comes because of the performance of Marlon Brando. This is the film to watch to see Brando at his absolute best, both at the height of his acting prowess and the height of his raw sexuality. This is also an ugly story by design, but it’s one of the great dramas of American theater, and I can’t really think of a way that this version could be improved upon. The performances are stellar across the board, it looks great, and it’s still incredibly moving and painful to watch. Films don’t get much better than this, and in 1951, they didn’t. It should have won.

Final Analysis


  1. Hey, Stella! Hey, Stellaaa!

    Brilliant movie, terrific dialogue and performances, and yes, Brando at his brutal peak. I fully agree that A Streetcar Names Desire has withstood the test of time much better than An American In Paris.

    1. This one really wasn't that hard. I had the order where I wanted it in less than a minute.

  2. I agree with pretty much everything you wrote. Ace in the Hole deserved a nomination. I might have a different order of the bottom three, but I don't think any of them were worthy of even being nominated, let alone winning. The subject matter probably doomed A Place in the Sun. And I'm frankly surprised that A Streetcar Named Desire didn't win in the first place.

  3. I couldn't agree more even though I haven't seen Quo Vadis or Decision Before Dawn yet. (Quo Vadis is one of those movies that I know is not for me before I even see it.) I'm also shocked about the omission of African Queen which seems to have Oscar written all over it - not that I think it should have won. And Strangers on a Train is one of at least 10 movies on my top 5 Hitchcock list.

    Of 1951 films you didn't mention, I like Ozu's Late Summer, Renoir's The River and The Browning Version directed by Anthony Asquith.

  4. @Chip--This is another one where the real winner seems so obvious. Streetcar is still monumental.

    @Marie--I get what you mean about Hitchcock movies. I'm a bit shocked at no nomination for The African Queen, too, even though it wouldn't get above fourth with the actual nominees for me. Decision Before Dawn isn't bad--I just didn't see the point. Quo Vadis is great for Peter Ustinov and otherwise pretty much a waste of time.

  5. I agree, films don't get much better than Streetcar, especially in 1951. Definitely my pick for winner as well.

  6. Wow, Oscar seems to have gotten it wrong this time. Ace in the Hole is such a stunning film, though I think it's too cynical to get picked at this point. I agree that Brando is great in Streetcar, but I'm not a big fan. Vivian Leigh is so over the top and pretty painful in it. Still, I think you probably made the right top pick from the limited options.

    1. I agree that Leigh is over the top, but in her defense, the part is pretty over the top. As for the film itself, if everyone agreed on everything, we'd all be out of a hobby.

  7. On the basis of the five eligible movies I agree with you completely. However when you include mentions that did not recieve a nomination I find at least three movies that if nominated would have been my pick simply because I liked them better, my personal criteria for a Best Picture winner (Ace in the Hole, Strangers on a Train and The Day the Earth Stood Still).

    1. Of those three, Ace in the Hole is the one I'd most likely add to the mix. I seem to like Strangers on a Train a little less than everyone else, although I do like it. I think it bogs down in a few spots. I also love The Day the Earth Stood Still, but I'm aware of its problems and love it despite them.

  8. I'd rip that Oscar right out of An American in Paris's hands. I'm a musical lover but that particular film's charms have always eluded me. It's competently done and of course the dancing is exemplary but it's story is so ordinary and rather ridiculous, even by musical standards. And yes that last ballet is seemingly endless.

    I really enjoyed Quo Vadis? but agree it's strongest suit is the pageantry. I found it very entertaining but hardly the best picture of the year.

    I always forget Decision Before Dawn was an Oscar nominee but that's because I always forget Decision Before Dawn.

    Between the remaining two Streetcar is an acting powerhouse but the framework is rickety, that it stays firmly on track is due to Kazan's strong hand more then the material. I'd pick A Place in the Sun as the winner in all its black heartedness.

    However if I had my druthers none of the five would get the prize. I'd drop American in Paris, Decision and Quo Vadis? and replace them with Strangers on a Train, top flight was Robert Walker not granted a posthumous nomination (and win) in best supporting actor?, the brilliant William Wellman western Westward the Women and the film that should have won, Ace in the Hole-perhaps even more relevant today than it was then.

    1. I don't have an issue with flipping my two top picks. This wasn't an easy choice.

      Ace in the Hole would be a hell of a good choice. I'm completely behind that getting a nomination, and I could probably be persuaded to give it the statue. I agree that it's more relevant now than when it was made. Network is exactly the same in that respect.