Friday, June 9, 2017

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Director 1945

The Contenders:

Leo McCarey: The Bells of St. Mary’s
Billy Wilder: The Lost Weekend (winner)
Clarence Brown: National Velvet
Jean Renoir: The Southerner
Alfred Hitchcock: Spellbound

What’s Missing

The world was weary in 1945, I think, and that’s reflected in the movies. As with the Best Picture award, I don’t know that all of the nominees deserve to be here, but I also can’t think of a lot that I’d want to add. The biggest miss that jumps out at my for the director’s chair in 1945 is David Lean and Brief Encounter; however, Lean was nominated the next year, so I can’t really call this a snub. Children of Paradise got its nominations the following year as well, which makes it technically eligible here, but not really a snub. There are two who I think I can make stick, though. The first is Michael Curtiz and Mildred Pierce, still one of the greatest mid-1940s movies ever. The second is Roberto Rossellini and Rome, Open City. However, in keeping with the theme, Rome, Open City got its nominations not the following year, but the year after that. 1945 continues to disappoint me in real ways.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. In a relentless race to the bottom with this category, I’m dropping The Bells of St. Mary’s at the start. The reason for this is simple: the entire point of the movie was to build on the success and good feelings of Going My Way and it fails completely. For a wonder, I really liked Going My Way a lot, and to have that knocked apart by a film that wants desperately to recapture that almost impossibly laid back and easy magic is sad. This may or may not be the fault of Leo McCarey. However, since he got the credit for building that warmth and good feeling the year before, he gets the blame for ruining it here.

4. My putting Clarence Brown and National Velvet fourth is no real knock on the film or really a knock on Brown. It’s not a bad film; it’s one that I found pleasant enough while watching it. However, it’s not a film that stood out to me as being particularly noteworthy when it comes to the direction. What it comes down to is that when I look at it, I don’t really know what Clarence Brown did to earn the nomination for Best Director. Oh, the cinematography is good and the film certainly works, but beyond that, I wonder what he did that was so much better than what Michael Curtiz did in Mildred Pierce.

3. I didn’t like The Southerner. Of the five nominated movies, it’s my least favorite and the one I’m least likely to watch again. Since I was disappointed ultimately in most of these movies, that’s saying something. So why is it third? Because Renoir actually managed to make something mildly watchable (mildly, mind you) out of a film that is what I like to call a misery parfait. It’s an unpleasant story filled with characters who are venal or stubbornly ignorant. But Renoir does manage to get us from the start to the end without me throwing the remote through the screen. That’s something, right?

2. Alfred Hitchcock never won a competitive Oscar and he’s not going to win one here from me. The man absolutely should have won multiple times in his career, but it would have been sad for him to win for the Freudian mess that is Spellbound. The problems with Spellbound are all wrapped up in the screenplay, though, and not the direction. When Hitchcock really took the bit in his mouth, it might have been impossible for him to not create something worth seeing. This is true even with drippy psychobabble like this one. Hitchcock made this better than it should have been, and that means something.

My Choice

1. It’s all about Billy Wilder and The Lost Weekend for me, though. Wilder had the guts to portray alcohol addiction as something real and terrible and not as the butt of jokes and played for comedy. I admit that the ending isn’t earned. Everything before it is gripping and gutting, though, and Wilder’s work is what helps us get that sense of overwhelming oppression and pain. Billy Wilder may be the most versatile director in Hollywood history. That he could create great comedies and still make something this black and awful is testament to the man’s skill. He earned this Oscar, and the Academy was right to give it to him.

Final Analysis


  1. I love Bells of St. Mary and like the others barring Spellbound which despite Hitchcock, Ingrid and Peck is a silly mess but the only one I'd include is Lost Weekend so almost by default it would be my winner but it is an excellently directed film.

    For who else is missing I second your mentions of Curtiz and Lean. If Lean had been nominated this year he would have been my choice, if he hadn't and Curtiz had than he would have taken it but Wilder would have always been near the top.

    There are two others I'd rather have seen make it though over several that did and that's Fritz Lang for Scarlet Street and Edgar Ulmer for Detour. I know Ulmer would never have been considered since he's forte was low budget features but considering what he was able to accomplish with zero budget on Detour is estimable.

    1. I really didn't like Detour at all, which is why it didn't make it here. Scarlet Street is still a gap for me, much to my shame.

      I think had David Lean been nominated for this year, he'd have been my choice as well. Since he was nominated in 1946, though, I don't quite feel like I should really be upset with his lack of nomination in 1945.

      Curtiz, though, is a serious miss. It would have been an interesting top two for me if he had.

  2. I recently revisited Brief Encounter and it still holds up. If eligible that would be my choice. So subtle and delicate direction. Mildred Pierce may be all about Joan Crawford, but it is also very skillful direction. Even then Billy Wilder is a formidable force. He earns every award and nomination he gets.

    1. Putting Wilder up against Lean for those two films would be hard. Thankfully, I'm spared that because Lean was nominated in 1946.