Friday, September 1, 2017

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Director 1956

The Contenders:

Michael Anderson: Around the World in 80 Days
William Wyler: Friendly Persuasion
George Stevens: Giant (winner)
Walter Lang: The King and I
Walter Lang: War and Peace

What’s Missing

Well, 1956 is another one of “those” years. While there are a couple of movies in the nominations where I can legitimately understand the director being here, it’s a year with so many good movies and so many good directorial performances that I’m almost stunned by the five that I’ve been given. I would love to say that we could literally start with Cecil B. DeMille and The Ten Commandments, but that would leave out a whole lot of movies and a whole lot of directors who deserved some recognition. Among those who I think were stiffed include John Ford and his excellent work on The Searchers and Douglas Sirk’s superior direction for Written on the Wind. On the foreign front, A Man Escaped from Robert Bresson, Bob le Flambeur from Jean-Pierre Melville, and especially Kon Ichikawa’s work on The Burmese Harp are directorial performances worth mentioning. Longer shots, but worth mentioning are Elia Kazan for Baby Doll, Mervyn LeRoy’s work on The Bad Seed, and Nicholas Ray for Bigger than Life. Sadly, Stanley Kubrick didn’t have a reputation in 1956 and film noir wasn’t much of a style any more, but The Killing is worth mentioning here. Films that would never have made an Oscar list but that have directorial work worth mentioning are Invasion of the Body Snatchers by Don Siegel and Fred M. Wilcox’s work on Forbidden Planet.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. Where to start? I honestly don’t know, and spent a good amount of time trying to figure out which of these directors I think deserved the nomination the least. I finally decided to put William Wyler and Friendly Persuasion in last. That’s nothing against Wyler, who I generally liked as a director. I just see absolutely nothing in the direction of this film that I find so exceptional that Wyler should be mentioned here. In a year with this many good movies and this many directors on top of their respective games, Wyler being nominated for an actionless snoozer makes no sense.

4. While I understand why Michael Anderson was nominated for Around the World in 80 Days in the moment, he doesn’t belong here, either. Anderson almost wound up in last place from me, and was saved that indignity by virtue of the fact that at least this film has a sense of spectacle. I’ll grant it that, but I grant it nothing else. When I did this post for Best Picture for 1956, these two films were flipped, but in the same bottom-two positions. Neither one belonged here for either category.

3. The fact that War and Peace has made it to third place demonstrates just how poor I think the previously disregarded nominations were. I can only think that King Vidor’s nomination came not from his work on this film or even from this film itself but from the fact that he managed to make a filmed version of this book and have it still end up coherent and not 24-hours long. With a year that has so many well-made movies in it, those aren’t reasons to nominate someone for Best Director. Vidor doesn’t belong here, and neither does War and Peace.

2. I don’t have a real problem with either of the two films I’m putting in the top two positions here, even if I’m not sure either would warrant a nomination from me. They are at least nominations that I understand, even if I don’t fully agree they belong. On a different day, I might swap these two positions as well. For today, though, I’m putting eventual winner Giant and George Stevens in second place. Given the nominations, I don’t hate that he won, but he’s not where I’d put my vote.

1. That leaves me with Walter Lang and The King and I, which is a winner I don’t hate, even though in an open field my choice would never be this. I said above that on a different day I might flip this placement with actual winner George Stevens. The only reason I gave the nod to Lang today is that The King and I is possessed of a grand spectacle, and our sense of that spectacle comes in large part from Lang’s use of camera in the bigger, flashier sequences. The King and I is all about the show, and it’s a good show. It wins based on the five I have, but I’m not limiting myself to that.

My Choice

No, I think a trip back to my first paragraph is warranted here. I mentioned a dozen movies in that paragraph created by a dozen different directors. I would take just about any of those over the five that I was given here. Cecil B. DeMille jumps to mind. I’ve said in the past that he won an Oscar in 1952 because the Academy wanted him to have one before he died. All they had to do was wait until 1956, and when that happened, they didn’t even nominate him. I’m tempted to hand this to Kon Ichikawa, Stanley Kubrick, or Douglas Sirk, but I think that the clearly best directorial performance of 1956 belonged to John Ford. Ford not only got John Wayne’s single-best acting performance for The Searchers, Ford also got some of the most iconic western shots in film history and presented a story that still has not lost a step to a modern audience. The Searchers is near-perfect, and while there’s a lot of credit to go around for that, much of it is because of what John Ford did with it.

Final Analysis


  1. Absolutely agree with everything you say though I'd flip The King and I and Giant since its the only one I'd nominate if given the chance. Oh and I'd put that overblown piece of crap and worst Best Picture winner ever Around the World in 80 Days dead last.

    Love the mentions of The Searchers and Written on the Wind. The first is a brilliant job by Ford but I lean towards the latter because of Sirk's bold use of vantage point and color to heighten his situations.

    While I don't think The Ten Commandments deserves a picture nomination, despite my enjoyment of its elephantine excesses I do think DeMille should have netted one for his handling of those very excesses.

    I'd add Alfred Hitchcock for the remake of his own The Man Who Knew Too Much which I thought was an improvement on the original but he wouldn't be my choice to win.

    1. I'm actually fine with those two flips. I spent a lot of time going back and forth between 4th and 5th place and between 2nd and 1st. I also don't take any issue with moving Sirk ahead of Ford here, because Written on the Wind is my favorite of Sirk's films.

      My own list of five nominations would be:
      John Ford: The Searchers (winner)
      Douglas Sirk: Written on the Wind (close runner-up)
      Cecil B. DeMille: The Ten Commandments
      Kon Ichikawa: The Burmese Harp
      Nicholas Ray: Bigger than Life

  2. I believe Ford credited Howard Hawks as does Peter Bogdanovich who says it better than I ever could:

    I was just fortunate enough to see "Red River" before I saw "The Searchers," and after I'd seen most of The Duke's other works (including Singin' Sandy, the second singing cowpoke). "The Searchers is definitely extraordinary, but so is "Red River."

  3. Replies
    1. Red River is great, but I'm of the opinion that The Searchers is the pinnacle of the genre. Still, it's kind of six of one, half a dozen of the other.

  4. Oscar may have never been as spectacularly wrong. I too would have dumped the whole slate and might have added Ozu to your dozen but The Searchers still would have won.

    1. Early Spring is a massive hole in my viewing, which is why I haven't mentioned it above.

      Still, The Searchers is damn-near perfect.

  5. Giving the award to DeMille would have been singularly wrong. His directional development stopped somewhere in the early thirties.
    Giant is a nice enough movie, but is it a spectacular directional achievement?
    The Searchers is, and that is why it should have won. Your still from the movie says it all. A framing worth Ozu, but also so much more.

    1. That shot from The Searchers is one of my all-time favorite framing moments in cinematic history.