Monday, October 2, 2017

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Adapted Screenplay 1956

The Contenders:

Around the World in 80 Days (winner)
Baby Doll
Friendly Persuasion
Lust for Life

What’s Missing

While I do follow a patter for which award I look at on a given day on this blog, I pick the years somewhat at random. I seem to have had a bunch in a row recently where I look at the nominations and I look at the films ignored and I wonder what the hell was going on. That’s entirely random, I assure you. For Best Adapted Screenplay 1956, even removing the films that didn’t have a chance at a nomination, I can find more than a full slate of legitimate should-be contenders. Those films that wouldn’t be considered in 1956 include Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Forbidden Planet, and The Burmese Harp, since Oscar didn’t tend to look outside of the English language at this time. We don’t have to look a lot further than nominations in other categories to see some genuine misses for this one. The King and I and The Ten Commandments head that list, quickly followed by The Bad Seed. I also love Written on the Wind as a potential nomination here. Film noir wasn’t nearly as prevalent in 1956, but The Killing is one of the better examples around. Westerns had just started to come back, and they got a huge helping hand with The Searchers, arguably the greatest film in the genre ever made. I’m not sure if Bigger than Life would qualify here since it was based at least in part on an article, but were it available, I think I’d consider nominating it.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. The draws to winner Around the World in 80 Days are the travelogue aspect of it and the chance to see just about every star in Hollywood for a couple of seconds. As far as I’m concerned, it gets just about everything else wrong. It is almost literally a travel movie, just showing us one exotic location after another while David Niven has a drink and talks about whist. It’s never been a film I’ve thought I needed to revisit, nor one that has a story that interests me much. There’s not enough actual plot behind the locations to make it worth considering, let alone winning.

4. Friendly Persuasion has a glaring problem at its core: it has no idea what tone it wants to set. Much of the film is light-hearted and fun, but just as much of it is deadly serious and dealing with issues central to the Quaker beliefs of its main characters. It seems to be attempting a sort of slice-of-life tone, but it never really settles on anything. There are long sequences here that just seem unnecessary to tell the story it wants to tell. Not having a real focus left me wondering what I was supposed to think most of the time, so ultimately, it didn’t work for me at all.

3. The best part of Lust for Life is Kirk Douglas’s on the edge portrayal of Van Gogh and Anthony Quinn’s force of personality as Gauguin. Well, that and the glorious artwork. But in terms of the story, Lust for Life edges very close to straight histrionic melodrama. That this screenplay managed to get all the way up to third place for me suggests something about the nominations as a whole. For anyone interested in the life of Van Gogh, this isn’t a bad place to start, but for anyone who doesn’t really care, this movie isn’t going to make you care.

2. The best thing going for Giant is the sweep of the story and the fact that it manages to all stay coherent. This wouldn’t have been a terrible choice for winner based on the nominations, and I’m a little surprised it didn’t win. It has everything that Oscar wants in a screenplay. It’s big and blustery, contains a bunch of large personalities facing off against each other, there’s money and power and greed, and all of it makes sense and stays coherent by the end. It’s a good screenplay and not a bad nomination.

1. Of the five nominations, I’m giving this to Baby Doll for a few reasons. I’m shocked that it managed a nomination in 1956 because of its subject matter, which means that it had to be damn good to even get a look. This is all about sex and infidelity, and there are not subtle call outs to Lolita throughout. It’s prurient and dirty and puts us smack in the middle of characters who are pretty much unredeemable and still makes us want to see what happens. That it did this in 1956 is remarkable, and based solely on its chutzpah, it would be my pick of the nominations.

My Choice

I might be tempted to keep Baby Doll and possibly Giant in an open field, but I think I could come up with a list of five nominations that would be better than the five we’re given. Of all of those, The Searchers is the one that strikes me as having everything that a movie in the western genre should have and doing it perfectly. All of this starts with a story that, with its themes of both family and racism, is still relevant today. It should have been nominated, and there isn’t another film from this year that I think can touch it.

Final Analysis


  1. The fact that Around the World in 80 Days even garnered any nominations is shocking enough because it's a colorful piece of way overlong junk. The fact that it won this and Best Picture is a testament to Mike Todd's gift for promotion. The Jules Verne story that is the basis is a good one but what happened to it on the way to the screen is a travesty, the worst best picture winner in the awards history. Obviously it doesn't belong here but dead last is the only spot since it did.

    All the others are much better films but my winner out of the bunch would be Giant based on how well it managed to capture the tone and sprawling concept of the novel. Baby Doll is an interesting film but I didn't like it much, however it is surprising that something so racy was so acclaimed in the uptight mid-50's.

    But I'm with you in thinking that The Searchers should have been the easy winner. Such a brilliant piece of movie making and I find it hard to believe that it went completely empty-handed at nomination time. I would have handed it not just this award but Best Picture and Actor. I'd also strongly consider Jeffrey Hunter for Supporting Actor and I'd be torn between Ford for this and Douglas Sirk for Written on the Wind in director.

    1. I've looked at four of the awards from 1956 so far. I gave Best Picture to The Burmese Harp, with The Searchers as the best English-language film of the year. Ford was my clear choice for director, with Sirk getting a mention as someone clearly stiffed in the nominations. I don't do the supporting awards, so I won't contest your win for Jeffrey Hunter. For Best Actor, Wayne would make my list of nominations and would be in the top three with Yul Brynner for The King and I and James Mason for Bigger than Life. So, on the whole, we're in a lot of agreement here.

      I completely agree on Around the World in 80 Days. It's not my least favorite Best Picture winner, but when I ranked the winners a few years ago, I put it third to last, just above Gigi and The Broadway Melody.

  2. Weird movie trivia: Around the World in Eighty Days was one of Nixon's favorite movies.

    1. I imagine a lot of people really liked it for the travel aspects and because just about everyone who'd ever been a star and was still alive was in it for 30 seconds.

  3. I hate to admit that I've never seen The Searchers, but of the ones I've seen Forbidden Planet for the win. What a fantastic movie.

    1. It is, but you should really hunt down The Searchers. Even if you don't like westerns, it's pretty special.

  4. I am a bit late here, Steve. I am on vacation in Thailand and access is not all that good.
    In any case The Searchers is the obvious win in 1956 in most categories, but I think that for the adaption category Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a very strong contender. It manages to do what it does very effectively and on what I can imagine was a very tight budget.

    1. It wouldn't be a bad pick. What I find very interesting is that it changes the ending from the original story, but changes that ending from something mildly uplifting to something very much downbeat and scary.