Friday, September 2, 2016

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Director 1959

The Contenders:

William Wyler: Ben-Hur (winner)
George Stevens: The Diary of Anne Frank
Fred Zinnemann: The Nun’s Story
Jack Clayton: Room at the Top
Billy Wilder: Some Like it Hot

What’s Missing

It wouldn’t be me if I didn’t put North by Northwest at the top of what is missing here. I think I could argue for Hitchcock being included, and my heart is going to say that this should have been nominated for just about everything and won everything. I’m also in a position where I can’t really look at this movie objectively, so I’m trying to keep that in check. On the foreign front, there are a few worth looking at—Robert Bresson for Pickpocket, Marcel Camus for Black Orpheus (at least for the pageantry), Jean Luc Godard for Breathless and especially Ingmar Bergman for Wild Strawberries jump to mind. Two others that I think could have been legitimately nominated are Otto Preminger for his work on Anatomy of a Murder and Joseph L. Mankiewicz for the surprising Suddenly, Last Summer.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. Of the movies that were nominated for this award for this year, The Nun’s Story is not my least favorite. It is the one that I question the most for Best Director, though. I’m not entirely sure what Fred Zennemann did here. The film is too long, but it does avoid being terribly preachy, which I respect. Truthfully, though, the main reason to watch The Nun’s Story is for the radiant Audrey Hepburn and not for anything Zinnemann did behind the camera. Of all of these, this is the nomination I would most quickly and most happily remove. It deserved some nominations, just not this one.

4. I liked The Diary of Anne Frank more than I thought I would, and truthfully, the main reason for that isn’t the acting or the story, but the solid and intelligent direction from George Stevens. The problem that the movie has going in is that virtually everyone who sees it knows exactly how it is going to end and it takes us a good three hours to get us to the ending we know we’re getting. Stevens manages to inject some moments of real tension despite this, and it’s not easy to do. Unfortunately, it’s just not enough. It’s good work, but I don’t think it’s worthy of a nomination.

3. I was suitably impressed with A Room at the Top, but again, this is a case where the performances and the story that we’re given are far more interesting than the telling of that story. This is a case where the screenplay is the real stand out, and the screenplay is demonstrated as being so good because of Simone Signoret and Laurence Harvey. Sure, Jack Clayton gets some of the credit for being able to get those performances from his cast. But he also got out of the way of the story more than he told it. It was the right choice, but I’m not sure he belongs on this list.

2. I like Billy Wilder and I’m predisposed to think well of his direction in general. However, with Some Like it Hot, the things that really come to mind for me are (again) the screenplay and the performances. The difference here in contrast with A Room at the Top is that I can see more of Wilder here than I can of Clayton in the other film. There are moments here that I think scream that this is Wilder behind the camera. Of all of the nominations, this is the first one I think I’d keep if I were creating my own list of five.

My Choices

1. I said at the top that my heart is always going to vote for North by Northwest and Alfred Hitchcock for this award. This is Hitchcock at or near the top of his craft and is yet another case where he was snubbed for a film where he clearly should have been nominated. But even saying that, I have to hand it to William Wyler and Ben-Hur. North by Northwest is going to remain my favorite movie of 1959, but I can’t deny that Ben-Hur is clearly the biggest and grandest and that it takes the most chances. Wyler’s work is impeccable. The man gave us the chariot race scene, and that is enough to hand him the Oscar.

Final Analysis


  1. This is such a good year for films! I feel the way about Some Like It Hot that you do about North By Northwest, but can't quibble with your choices. Though I was rather underwhelmed by parts of Ben-Hur, Wyler's ability to handle a story that could have become unwieldly does deserve to be awarded (though my heart does say Wilder!).

    1. That's really how I look at it. I don't actually love Ben-Hur, but I can't say it's not an impressive accomplishment.

  2. I'm in agreement with you all the way up to number #2. This year would pretty much be a sweep for Some Like It Hot if I had my way in everything but Supporting Actress but since neither Marilyn nor Joe E. Brown were nominated that never would have happened. Wilder strikes the perfect pitch to sustain the manic energy of his film which considering the troubled production and the at the time risque material is quite a feat.

    Outside of the chariot sequence, which is truly awesome and Stephen Boyd I found Ben-Hur a real trial to wade through so I can't agree with Wyler getting it, and Heston as Best Actor!?! Cripes!

    Hitchcock absolutely should have been here as well as Preminger. Other than those you mentioned I'd add François Truffaut for the 400 Blows, Howard Hawks for Rio Bravo and perhaps Douglas Sirk for Imitation of Life.

    1. I don't actually have a huge problem with Heston in this, and I appreciate that he does hold the film together. Heston is an overactor in the Richard Burton style, but sometimes it works for me, and it does here.

      But yes, Hitchcock should be on this list, and so should Preminger. I think I like Suddenly, Last Summer more than most people, and I might put that in as well, if only because it manages to work despite the bizarre premise.

  3. Ben-Hur is one of those classics that feels so grand and so epic and yet...when you watch it through eyes untainted by it's status it feels less so. The last act is a bit of a mess, chariot race aside, and the acting outside of Boyd is hit or miss, with the whole film being anchored by one of the worst leading man performances to ever win an Oscar. Heston is a BORE, which hurts the movie a lot.

    I find it funny you say he's an over-actor because...he's so stiff I can't say that he over does anything...he just stands there like a plank and bores away at the soul of every film he's in.

    That being said, we're talking about directing efforts and not the film/acting, so I'd rank him #2...right behind Wilder, who captured such a jovial and excited tone that anchored his 'much better' film very well.

    1. When I think of Heston, I admittedly think of movies like Soylent Green and Planet of the Apes where he chews a lot of scenery. It's sort of where I put him.

      Like I said above, I actually like him in Ben-Hur, so I think this will come down to taste. Then again, these always do.

    2. When I was a kid, I thought Heston was one of the GREATEST ACTORS EVER because of the films you mention and also The Omega Man.

      I got The Omega Man from Netflix a few years ago and, though I still like it on a certain level, it's uh not quite the movie I remember as a kid.

    3. Be that as it may, I think it's still the best of the three versions of the original story.

  4. One other director from 1959 should be considered for timeless acclaim: this was the year of Plan 9 From Outer Space, and for the immense enjoyment he provided, we need to all salute the achievements of Edward D. Wood.

    1. In a perfect world, I agree. But that would also mean that in that perfect world we'd have to consider Tommy Wiseau in the appropriate year.

  5. I think it is fair enough to recognize Hitchcock's directorial effort on North by Northwest. It is Hitchcock who makes this such a great movie and this is the award I would give it.
    Some Like It Hot has such impressive staying power and I have to grant that to Wilder and that is why he would be my second.
    When it comes to special directorial efforts I think Floating Weeds deserves a nod. This is 100% Ozu's movie.

    1. Ozu is a miss on my part at the top. The chariot race, though, is the single-best argument for letterboxing films that exists, and that deserves some credit.