Friday, October 17, 2014

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Director 1952

The Contenders:
Joseph L. Mankiewicz: 5 Fingers
Cecil B. DeMille: The Greatest Show on Earth
Fred Zinnemann: High Noon
John Huston: Moulin Rouge
John Ford: The Quiet Man (winner)

What’s Missing

One of the great tragedies of the Oscars is that An American in Paris won Best Picture in 1951, which pretty much prevented Singin’ in the Rain from garnering nominations. Okay, I don’t have any proof that that’s true, but it is true that Singin’ in the Rain was only nominated for music and a deserving Jean Hagen in a supporting role, but I think I can make a case for many more nominations, including one for director Stanley Donen. I might also suggest that Vincente Minnelli deserved one for The Bad and the Beautiful. On the foreign front, Akira Kurosawa is never a bad choice, and in 1952, his film was Ikiru, which is truly great. Other names of note are Rene Clement for Forbidden Games and Vittorio De Sica for Umberto D., but I think Kurosawa deserved the nomination more.

Weeding through the Nominees

5: I’d normally feel guilty putting Cecil B. DeMille on the bottom of any list, but in this case, it’s deserved. There’s a popular hypothesis that plenty of folks in the Academy thought that DeMille’s career needed to be rewarded in some way. But The Greatest Show on Earth didn’t deserve any of the accolades it received. This is a big, ponderous film that has some great production numbers and a great train crash toward the end. But it’s also bloated and has a number of pointless subplots that don’t go much of anywhere and don’t really matter. Kudos to DeMille for getting it made and keeping in coherent, but he didn’t manage to make in interesting, which counts against him..

4: So if there’s guilt putting DeMille last, is there some for putting John Huston fourth? Of course there is, but this is another case where I’m not sure exactly what the director did to deserve the nomination other than just be John Huston. I had a lot of problems with Moulin Rouge, even though there are parts of the story that worked. Too much simply doesn’t work well, and we can blame the screenplay for that, but it’s the director who tells the story. So again, here’s a film that probably shouldn’t have been nominated for this award. Donen, Kurosawa, and Minnelli at the very least deserved it more.

3: Of the five nominated films, 5 Fingers is probably the one that is the most unknown and sadly forgotten. This is a film that has some issues with a very slow start, but it concludes beautifully and has one of my favorite third acts of its decade. Joseph L. Mankiewicz deserves a lot of the credit for making this film work as well as it does. It’s a complicated plot and Mankiewicz keeps the whole thing in check and makes it all work. I like this nomination a lot, but Mankiewicz didn’t win by rights.

My Choices

2: John Ford won this Oscar for The Quiet Man, and I’d be hard-pressed to suggest he didn’t deserve it. At first blush, this looks like a case similar to John Huston and Moulin Rouge. What exactly did Ford do here that deserved even a nomination? For one thing, he dragged one of the truly great John Wayne performances out of an actor who struggled his whole career with the knock that he couldn’t do more than play himself. The Quiet Man isn’t my favorite John Wayne performance, but it demonstrates that he could play someone who wasn’t riding a horse or carrying a machine gun. And that comes from Ford.

1: But I would give the nod to Fred Zinnemann for High Noon. This is a rare movie that is as good now as on the day it was first released. I love the real time aspect of it and how the whole story hangs together and works so well without really moving outside of that small window of time. Brilliant use of camera and fantastic performances serve to make the story better than it was on the page. A great director can make a good story great, and Zinnemann made a great story legendary.

Final Analysis


  1. Sorry, the only film I've seen that you mentioned here is Singin' in the Rain.

    1. My guess is that of the five nominees, you'd like 5 Fingers the best. You might like The Quiet Man, but I'm unsure enough that I'd be hesitant to recommend it.

      I love High Noon, but I know you're not a fan of the Western.

  2. Ah, this is a year I will soon get to and at least two very interesting films I see.

    1. In terms of the 1001 Movies list, the two best are the ones you get to see. My guess is you'll appreciate them both.

    2. Having only seen the top two nominees I really cannot say if the other three deserved their spot, but you mention four titles that could make a nomination in any year. As much as I like High Noon I think the best direction should go to Kurosawa for Ikiru.

    3. I think Kurosawa would be a close second for me for this year. I really like what's done in High Noon.

  3. I've only seen three of the nominees - High Noon, The Greatest Show on Earth, and The Quiet Man. Of those I'd pick High Noon as the best because if you think about it it's an extremely simple story yet the movie itself is very engaging.

    And I agree Kurosawa and Donen deserved nominations for their films.

    1. You might like 5 Fingers. It's slow to start, but the third act is really good. If you don't mind a slow burn for an hour or so, it's a very different take on espionage films.