Friday, October 14, 2016

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Picture 1963

The Contenders:

America, America
How the West Was Won
Lilies of the Field
Tom Jones (winner)

What’s Missing

There are years like 1963 where it looks like the Academy spent a couple of hours sniffing glue before announcing the nominees. This is not a case of a couple of snubs, but one were I think I would keep a single nominee of the five I have for Best Picture because I think that I can only make a strong case for one of them. And it’s not a particularly weak year. Movies from 1963 include the highly-acclaimed 8 ½, The Leopard and Hud, for instance, all ignored for this award. The Servant is dark and weird, but well-acted enough that I think I’d want it here. I love Shock Corridor as well, even if it’s probably too lurid to be in contention. But Winter Light should probably be here. I’d want The Haunting in consideration as well. But the big miss in my opinion, the one that is an embarrassment for the Academy for skipping is The Great Escape.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. Winner Tom Jones is the film I have the hardest time making a case for. This isn’t a terrible film by any stretch. It’s certainly well-made and beautifully filmed. But it’s so lightweight and silly that I have trouble taking it seriously as a contender, let alone a winner. There are a lot of fourth wall breaks and sped-up film used for comic effect, and while it works, it somehow feels like something that I don’t really want to watch again. This feels like all frosting, no cake, and for something to be even nominated for Best Picture, I feel as if there should be at least a little cake there.

4. Cleopatra was apparently originally conceived as two films. It certainly feels like two films, and I don’t mean that simply because the damn thing runs four hours. No, this legitimately feels identical to two different films with the same basic cast more or less glued together through the magic of a short intermission and some still photography. It feels like a film that was nominated on reputation—all of the money and the sets and all of Elizabeth Taylor’s wardrobe changes. How could they not be nominated for something? Sure, it’s epic and all of that, but the fact that it’s an epic and cohesive doesn’t mean that it’s worth four hours out of your life. It might be, but it’s not something that belongs on this list.

3. America, America is another epic in a year filled with them, this time about Elia Kazan’s ancestors coming from Greece to the United States. As such, it’s one of those stories that seems to be uniquely American, much like The Emigrants or Avalon. The problem I have is that the motivation of the main character isn’t really explained. We know that he wants to come to America, but we don’t really know why this becomes such an obsession for him, particularly when he has a good, comfortable life in Greece already planned out. You’d think that a good three hours of screen time would give us ample opportunity to discover this, but alas, we never do. That’s a problem.

2. With Lilies of the Field, we’re starting to get into the territory where I think we can justify the nomination. This isn’t a film that I feel the need to see again any time soon, but it’s one that ticks off a lot of “Oscar likes this” boxes in addition to being well acted and smartly conceived. This is all about the clash of characters with a backdrop that turns out to be pretty fun and (dare I say it?) whimsical. I liked this movie pretty well, so Lilies of the Field makes it to second place of the nominated films because this is literally the first time for this award I can say I actually liked the movie instead of saying that it was well-made or good. .

1. Of the nominated films, I’m giving this to How the West Was Won, and for the life of me, I can’t figure out why. I probably like this a little less than I like Lilies of the Field, but this film has a hell of a lot more ambition and a lot more at stake, and I appreciate that. It’s a grander film and probably objectively better, even if I think Lilies of the Field is the one I’d probably rewatch. How the West Was Won has some problems in terms of its episodic nature, though. Based on the films I have to work with, it’s my pick. But based on all of the films of the year, Iitmight barely make it into the nominees.

My Choice

I could make a case for a lot of the films I have listed in the first paragraph above. Anyone who needs the winner to be a true epic could to worse than The Leopard, although I wouldn’t go there. No, to me the only film that is even within the ballpark of winning this is The Great Escape, which is where I would have gone with a write-in ballot. Oh, you don’t get to do that anymore? I’d have still done it, because this was a much better year than the weird list given above. How it avoided a nomination, I’ll never know.

Final Analysis


  1. It is a weird year in that weird way you mentioned. All the nominated pictures are good films, except maybe Cleopatra which has its pluses which you pointed out but far more minuses at least for me, but the best films of the year were shut out.

    However out of the competing films my choice would be yours. I LOVE How the West Was Won, especially now that through digital wizardry the distracting lines that were part of the print for so long are gone and the visual splendor of the film has been restored. I've watched it more times than I can count and am always entertained by both the storytelling and that unbeatable cast is at times lumbering and disjointed. Still of those five its the best "picture".

    I'd add Contempt, This Sporting Life and The Birds to the list that you mentioned of non nominees the last of which would be my winner. Great Escape would be my runner-up. I was delighted to see the mention of The Servant-an excellent, if twisted, film with amazing performances which would make my list as well along with The Haunting.

    1. For your additions, Contempt isn't one I loved, This Sporting Life is one still in my future, and I have The Birds down as a 1962 film, which explains why I didn't include it. I don't know why that is other than a typo on my part.

      I think I'd still go with The Great Escape, but The Birds would almost certainly be one of my five nominees.

  2. The only film from the ones nominated that I have ever seen is How the West Was Won. It is certainly one of my favorite Westerns and has one of the best classic Hollywood casts ever. The Great Escape may be my favorite action movie of all-time and should absolutely should be at the top of the list here. But my favorite movie of the year is probably...It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. I admit to a bit of sentiment here. I was always told this is the first film I ever saw. And the cast in this even tops How the West Was Won in my opinion. It was an annual ritual to Mad, Mad World on television growing up, much like The Wizard of there you have it. Have you ever looked at Danny Peary's Alternate Oscars book? His choice for Best Picture of 1963 was "None of the Above."

    1. I haven't seen Peary's book, but this is definitely a strange year. I like The Great Escape quite a bit--it's a movie that fits in my life much like It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World seems to for you. But for as much as I may love it and as often as I have seen it, it's not a movie I would pick for Best Picture in a lot of years. 1963 feels oddly muted in that respect. There are some fine movies, but few real stand-outs.

  3. I have no problem with just picking The Birds.

    1. Yeah--blame the typo on my end that puts it as a 1962 film. I'd still go with The Great Escape, but The Birds would definitely be in my five.

    2. I like The Great Escape just fine, loved it when I was a kid and I've seen it a few times since then. But The Birds is my favorite Hitchcock and one of my favorite movies ever.

      And I love 8 1/2 too, but I've only seen it once.

    3. I'd put The Birds in my top five Hitchcock films, but it probably wouldn't make my top three Hitchcocks. Rear Window, Vertigo, and especially North by Northwest all outrank it.

  4. I couldn't agree with you more! The Great Escape has everything and it might be the one I would rewatch first, despite my fond memories of Lilies of the Field.

    8 1/2 is high on my non-existent Top 100 Films of All Time list. I loved This Sporting Life but it was mostly for Richard Harris's awesome performance.

    1. This Sporting Life is one I really need to get to. I kind of liked 8 1/2, but I like Fellini a lot less than just about everyone else likes him.

  5. There are some terrific 1963 films, and yes, the Academy appears to have totally missed the boat. Let's disagree about How The West Was Won, which I think is hideous, bloated, disjointed and a sorry excuse for an all-star reunion -- particularly given where Leone was about to take the genre.

    I haven't yet seen the other nominees and I'm also looking forward to some of the well-regarded should-be nominees you mentioned in the opening paragraph. But some of my favourites so far from 1963 are:

    The Birds (5 stars, likely my film of the year)
    Hud (5 stars, a terrific slow-burning drama)
    The Great Escape (5 stars, we'll agree on that one!)
    55 Days At Peking (5 stars, an excellent and sweaty old fashioned epic)
    Charade (5 stars, one of the best clever romantic thrillers)
    From Russia With Love (5 stars, perhaps the grittiest and best early Bond?)
    Love With The Proper Stranger (4 stars, overlooked groundbreaking social drama)
    Irma La Douce (4 stars, bloated but fun and funny).

    1. I agree that How the West Was Won is incredibly disjointed. That's my main beef against the movie, but I think it's good for what it is. Of the other nominees, Lilies of the Field is at least well acted and the story is interesting. It's also one of the few nominations that isn't like 3 hours long. Tom Jones is a must only if you need to see everything that actually won.

      If I were to create my own list of nominations, it would probably be:
      The Great Escape (obviously my winner)
      The Haunting
      The Birds
      The Servant

      Love with the Proper Stranger is still on the way for me. I didn't love Irma la Douce and I think Charade is better on paper than on screen.

      I just watched The L-Shaped Room, and while I think it's pretty good, it wouldn't break into the top five for me.