Monday, July 17, 2017

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Picture 1958

The Contenders:

Auntie Mame
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
The Defiant Ones
Gigi (winner)
Separate Tables

What’s Missing

Looking at the nominees for 1958, it would seem like an off year. It really, really wasn’t, even if it was an off year for nominations, and I’m not talking about the stuff that I love, like The Blob and The Fly that wouldn’t sniff a nomination in a thousand years. Based on the sort of movies that were nominated in 1958, Some Came Running, I Want to Live! and Inn of the Sixth Happiness are better nominations than two or three of the actual nominations. On the foreign front, Mon Oncle is a stretch, but films like Cairo Station, The Music Room, and Elevator to the Gallows are worth a second look. Worth an additional look beyond that is Ashes and Diamonds. But let’s get serious for a second here; there are three movies that genuinely should have been nominated that were left off the list. The first is The Vikings, which has everything that the Academy looks for in a Best Picture film. The biggest misses, though, are Vertigo and Touch of Evil, the absence of which is absolutely insane.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. I really hate Gigi. I can recognize that the film is well made and the production values are top of the line. I can see that it’s a film of particular quality. And I hate everything else about it. It is ugly in terms of character and plot and intent. This is a film where two matronly aunts more or less train their niece to be a prostitute, scam men for jewelry and other gifts, and are then disappointed when she’d rather not do that. It’s misogynistic, and it starts with an old man singing “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” to people a quarter of his age. Ick. Just ick.

4. Auntie Mame has some of the same problems for me. I get that it’s a fine performance from Rosalind Russell, she’s a character that doesn’t deserve a movie or anyone to like her. She’s the sort of person who regularly creates massive amounts of problems for other people (she essentially sets up a situation that gets her assistant pregnant outside of marriage in a time when that was social death) for her own convenience. There are weird, pervy moments here that are supposed to be wacky hijinks and just aren’t. I like Roz Russell just fine, but I don’t like this movie at all.

3. Separate Tables is the first nomination I understand, even if I wouldn’t nominate the film. This is a good, human drama about real, flawed people, and I understand why the Academy found it to be worthy of putting on the docket. The biggest problem I have with Separate Tables is that, several years after watching it, I don’t have much in the way of memory of it. It’s gone right out of my head, and a movie that could win Best Picture should be more memorable than that. I get its inclusion, but I don’t think it belongs here.

2. Assuming that we’re going with the conventions of the time and not nominating foreign language pictures, The Defiant Ones is the first nomination I’d actually keep. I like a lot of this movie, and I particularly like the characters and the situation. It’s an old formula (a road movie with two characters who start out hating each other) with a few significant twists and updates, and the whole thing works. I think it’s gutsy for its time, and I respect not only that it was made, but the way the characters work in the film. It’s a fine nomination.

1. Of the five nominees, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is the best of the lot. In fact, in an open field, I wouldn’t object too much if someone suggested that it really is the best film of its year. Multiple great performances, a good story well told…it’s got pretty much everything I want in a Best Picture, and had it won, I can’t say I’d be terribly upset. It’s not my choice in an open field, but of the five we got, I don’t know that there is really a different place to go. It should have walked with the statue given the nominations, even if I wouldn’t settle there myself.

My Choice

I’d go back to the two movies I put at the end of my first paragraph. Vertigo got mixed reviews upon its release, and it wasn’t until some years later that it was recognized as being one of Hitchcock’s great films, eventually being voted as the greatest film of all time in 2012 in a Sight and Sound poll. But my vote goes for Touch of Evil, almost certainly ignored because the Academy had decided that Orson Welles wasn’t worth the time of day. This was Welles at or near his best, though, a truly magnificent film in all respects, and it’s what should have been nominated and what should have won.

Final Analysis


  1. I like Gigi a lot and I still have to agree with you on the noms and the open field!

    1. That's fair. I won't tell you you're wrong for liking Gigi, but it's bottom-5 Best Picture winner for me.

    2. As much as I dislike Gigi, I can't deny how much charm and how entertaining it is if you consider just one scene at a time. Chevalier, come on, he's awesome. (The only good episode of "The Lucy/Desi Comedy Hour" is the one with Chevaier.)

      But you put it all together and it's rather disturbing and unpleasant.

    3. "Thank Heaven for Little Girls" is creepy no matter how you slice that scene.

  2. Orson Welles was utterly fantastic in his "Touch of Evil," but besides their obvious disdain for Welles, and his genius talent, his look at racism, elitism (best "B" movie of all-time), and corruption may have also hit too close to home for many old school "Oscar" voters in 1958.

    1. That's entirely possible, although The Defiant Ones has a large element of racism in it. Still, there's a great deal of evidence that the Academy looks for specific types of depictions of social problems, ignoring others. Driving Miss Daisy was a "friendly" racism movie, and wins Best Picture. Do the Right Thing was an aggressive racism movie, far better in almost every respect, and isn't even nominated.

      The same could be said of depictions of corruption, too.

      I stand by earlier statements that the only thing I have trouble with in Touch of Evil is having Charlton Heston playing a Mexican, a very odd whitewashing. Other than that, I think it's damn-near perfect.

    2. I think I'm way past due for a viewing of "Touch of Evil." I've seen it two or three times but it's been a while. That opening scene, crossing the border and all that, gives it so many points that it's hard for ANYTHING to catch up.

      Heston as a Mexican ... I'm having trouble enunciating my feelings about that. It's easy to make fun of, especially condsidering how Welles felt about it. ("They want Charlton Heston to play a Mexican.") It's never bothered me. There's a certain unintentional genius to the way that Welles makes it entirely irrelevant almost immediately.

  3. Yay! It's one of the categories where I've seen all the films! I can hardly stomach Gigi, but I like Auntie Mame and Separate Tables well enough. I'd be hard-pressed to pick between The Defiant Ones and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof because they're both pretty great!

    Touch of Evil is a great choice if you're going off-list. Still, I'd go for Elevator to the Gallows. I love that movie. I have it listed as best movie of the year on my IMDB year-by-year list.

    1. I genuinely like all of the non-English movies I named at the top. I'd have a hard time chosing between them, but I really like Ashes and Diamonds a lot because of how ballsy it is. Elevator to the Gallows does have one of the all-time great soundtracks, though!

  4. Given that I consider Touch of Evil the best movie from Welles (better even that Citizen Kane) it should not be a surprise that I agree it was snubbed.
    The Gigi win is just goes to show that the Academy's values at that point was very far from mine. If that can win, anything can (and was) nominated.

    1. It was a weak nomination year in a lot of respects. Vertigo's original critical bashing is a part of that, as is the disdain for Welles from the Academy.

  5. Well this year is a puzzler. The movie I love the most of these five is Auntie Mame but that's mostly for the performances of Roz Russell and company. The movie is VERY much a photographed stage play with blackouts and all.

    I think some of the music in Gigi is charming and Chevalier and Hermione Gingold are aces but the story is yuck. I'd have rather seen Minnelli in for Some Came Running though I wouldn't necessarily include that in my own list of nominations, at least not if the list was restricted to five.

    Separate Tables has some fine acting in it, though Niven's win for Best Actor is egregious category fraud, but as with Mame it's little more than a an instance of turning a camera on while a play is performed.

    I admired the artistry involved in The Defiant Ones without really being blown away by the movie and put down its nomination to Hollywood trying to show support for its message. Maybe in a long list of ten nominees it would come in tenth but no higher.

    Which leaves Cat on a Hot Tin Roof which I agree out of these choices should have been the easy winner. It's not a perfect film but that's more the code's fault than the filmmakers and Liz, Newman, Burl Ives and Jack Carson are great. But in an open field it would come in somewhere around 6th place.

    As to what's missing I haven't seen all the foreign films you mention but I love Elevator to the Gallows and think it definitely should have made the list, it would have made mine. Of the English language ones you spoke of I can see your point about The Vikings but if didn't really strike me as anything special outside of being a big crowd pleasing entertainment.

    I Want to Live! isn't something I ever saw as Best Picture material either, more as a picture designed to showcase its star and obviously to Susan Hayward's benefit it did that extremely well.

    As I said Some Came Running, for which my appreciation grew with repeat viewings, is where Minnelli should have scored and Inn of the Sixth Happiness is a fine film with a wonderful Ingrid Bergman performance but too stately a pace.

    A few others that haven't been talked about yet that I'd include are Elvis Presley's best film, with the best supporting cast as well, King Creole and the near documentary A Night to Remember both of which I'd nominate if I had the choice. Then there's The Long, Hot Summer which is certainly better than Gigi but wouldn't make my shortlist.

    But I'm in complete agreement about Vertigo and Touch of Evil being missing. That's just nuts! Vertigo is a film that I harbor little affection for, Jimmy Stewart's character is a pretty contemptible person to hang a movie on, but I can appreciate the skill and complexity in the movie and there are times when I think it would be my winner. But today my choice would be the weird convoluted intricate Touch of Evil faux Mexican Chuck Heston or not. Some things just have to be overlooked in the overall scheme of things, after all Marlene Dietrich was no more gypsy than Heston Mexican and she's not called out for that. Then again she rocks her role and Heston is sort of in the way but still.

    1. Truthfully, I don't think that I Want To Live!, Some Came Running, or Inn of the Sixth Happiness deserve to be nominated here, but I do think they'd be better nominations than some of what we got. It was a great year in foreign films, though, and you could come pretty close to a full slate of worthy nominations there.

      The Vikings is kind of an also-ran in snubs for me. It feels like an Oscar picture because of the sweep and scope of the story even if it's not a patch on Touch of Evil or even Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

      It's all about Touch of Evil for me, though. It's a brilliant film and magnificently made. Heston as a Mexican is a little galling for me, but it's not make-or-break. It's the sort of thing I squint a little at, and then I get on with enjoying the rest of the movie. It's one of the great movies of its decade and one of the greats of its genre, and seeing it ignored in general come award season is a serious slap. And it was completely ignored by every award-giving organization or thing in 1958/59.

  6. Yeah, the Academy stuffed that up! I haven't seen Auntie Mame or Separate Tables, but agree with your places for the others. 1958 was clearly a pretty great year for film, just not for "Oscar" films.

    Less said about Gigi, the better

    1. I think it's another argument for postponing awards for five years. You can't tell what's going to be important or influential right away, and there are plenty of cases (obviously) where movies that were ignored should not have been.

  7. Fully agree with this. I can't stand Gigi and the omission of Vertigo and Touch of Evil is indeed insane. For me, it's a toss-up of The Defiant Ones and Cat for the winner. Very odd year of Best Picture nominees here.

    1. It is an odd year. My top two of the actual nominations are really the only ones I think should be kept, and even then I might be argued out of one or both.

      Okay, probably not both. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is too good all the way around.

      Still this could have been a much better slate of nominations.