Monday, February 5, 2018

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Adapted Screenplay 1951

The Contenders:

The African Queen
Detective Story
A Place in the Sun (winner)
La Ronde
A Streetcar Named Desire

What’s Missing

1951 turns out to have been a pretty good year for movies, and there are a number that have adapted screenplays worth mentioning. In the “not the right genre for 1951” category we have both The Thing from another World and The Day the Earth Stood Still, which may or may not have been eligible depending on the status of the story on which it was based. The Man in the White Suit is also technically science fiction, but if a much different stripe; it may not have been serious enough for consideration. Bright Victory, which I watched last week, is a bit muddled in places, but I like its screenplay better than a nomination or two. I wasn’t a fan of Quo Vadis, but that was more the performances than the screenplay. For films I might really consider nominating, Death of a Salesman is perhaps trite, but I like this version. Strangers on a Train is one I think I’d get more consensus for. I’d also consider the oddly sympathetic The Desert Fox, but I’m a sucker for James Mason. The last one I have to mention is The Browning Version, which I do based on reputation; I haven’t seen it.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. Gun to my head, I can probably figure out why people like La Ronde, but I’m not one of them. This is a film I ultimately found pointless because it seems entirely self-referential. There’s not a lot of actual story here, just a series of people having sex with each other, a sort of carnal conga line. I suspect this is to be titillating, the sort of thing to cause a wicked grin and a wink. It very much does not. I didn’t hate this film, but it doesn’t deserve to be here based on the films that were left off the slate.

4. Beating up on The African Queen feels unfair or somehow rude. It’s a film with a sizable reputation…but I don’t know why. There are real problems with the film. The chemistry between Hepburn and Bogart is one issue. A bigger one is that there are problems in the screenplay itself that make the romance unlikely in the first place. The complete lack of resolution is another issue I have with the film. For whatever reason, I don’t think this one has aged very well. I may have thought differently 67 years ago, but not now.

3. I was surprised by Detective Story, a film that goes places I really didn’t expect. I thought there was a slim chance for something along the lines of film noir, and we do get a bit of that, but this goes much deeper and much darker. I’d love to rank it higher, and in a weaker year, I’d be more than ready to do so. This is the first of the nominations I really like, and in an open field, I would be tempted to keep it. Detective Story deserves more acclaim, even if it doesn’t merit higher than third.

My Choices

2. A Place in the Sun was the winner of this Oscar, and while it wouldn’t be my choice, I can’t say it’s a terrible winner. It’s an odd duck of a film, though, in that I dislike pretty much every character involved and the story is ugly, but I find myself fascinated by it. I find it a difficult film to recommend, and yet feel like it’s one that I should recommend frequently. I understand why the Academy handed the Oscar in this direction even if I don’t concur. It’s a good choice, but not the best choice.

1. A Streetcar Named Desire started life as a play, but it seems tailor-made to be a movie. Blessed with a tremendous cast including a raw and feral Brando, this is an absolutely blazing version of Williams’s play. Sure, it helps to have such a tremendous cast, but this is a truly cinematic version of the play in question. It’s a near-perfect interpretation of the story, and when that story is one of the greats of American stage, it’s hard to go wrong. This would be my pick, but that’s not a shock—it’s my pick for a lot of 1951.

Final Analysis


  1. Can't argue with your picks. I hope you will add The Browning Version to your un-list. It's a favorite of mine.

    1. Consider it added--your endorsement works for me.

  2. I'm of a like mind on La Ronde. I watched because I had really liked other Ophuls films but I was left with a big "So what" feeling when it was over.

    African Queen is one of my least favorite films of either stars filmographies. I can see why it was popular and it was a big change of pace for Bogie but it's rather flat-footed.

    I like the three other films without loving any of them. I'd also go with Streetcar because while A Place in the Sun is compelling it has a few patches where it could have been a bit tighter, Streetcar has none. Both are brilliantly acted though.

    I'll second the recommendation of The Browning Version, a very fine film. To me the biggest miss and one that would be my second choice after Streetcar is Strangers on a Train. It reworks the story in just the right way to pull the viewer in even more than the original story. Of course having Robert Walker's tremendous performance as Bruno in the mix doesn't hurt.

    Otherwise I'd consider Robert Bresson's The Diary of a Country Priest, Come Fill the Cup or I'd Climb the Highest Mountain all of which are better adaptations of their source materials than La Ronde or African Queen.

    1. I think it could be argued that Diary of a Country Priest is a miss on my part in the opening paragraph. I tend to like Bresson in general, and must have simply skipped over it as I went through possible nominations.

      In an open field, I think Strangers on a Train is my #2 as well. It's definitely in my nominations, and while it's not my favorite Hitchcock, it's awfully damn good.

  3. Strangers on a Train works very well for me, but Hitchcock never got along with the Academy. This is also not THE Oscar he missed.
    No, I am with you on A Streetcar. Even if it is not my favourite movie ever, it is a movie that points forward and the adaption from theater works very well.

    1. Yeah, that's really what sells it for me. It feels so naturally attuned to being presented as a film, and a big part of that is just how well that's done here.