Monday, June 11, 2018

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Adapted Screenplay 1961

The Contenders:

Breakfast at Tiffany’s
The Guns of Navarone
The Hustler
Judgment at Nuremberg (winner)
West Side Story

What’s Missing

I’ve evidently seen fewer movies from 1961 than I thought I had, at least for this award. I don’t dislike the five nominees, to be honest, but there is some room. I should come clean from the start here, saying that there are two films that have a good reputation. I haven’t seen either The Children’s Hour or A Raisin in the Sun, though, so I can’t really comment on them. I have a fondness for Mysterious Island even though I know it’s pretty much goof nonsense. The subject matter may have kept The Mark off the docket for this award. If I had to add only one, my choice would be for The Innocents, which is scary and a solid adaptation of the source material.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. The Guns of Navarone is a movie that very much reminds me of my childhood. I grew up on war movies in no small part, and Navarone is a war film and an action film from start to finish. I like it more than my third and fourth place finishers. So why is it in fifth place? Because if I was making my own set of nominations across the board for this Oscar year, I might put this film in the running for some awards, but it would never occur to me to think about it for its screenplay. It doesn’t belong here.

4. Truthfully, I have trouble ranking these movies because I like three of them and understand the respect for the other two. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is being put near the bottom here for a few specific reasons. This is a film I want to like more than I do. It’s a film where Audrey Hepburn’s presence helps get over the fact that Holly Golightly is a pretty awful human being. It’s also a film that hasn’t really aged well thanks to a really racist performance from Mickey Rooney. So, while I understand the love, I can’t quite feel it myself.

3. Truthfully, West Side Story probably deserves to be higher than third place. I cannot fault the music and the songs, for instance—some of the songs are classics. I’ve said before, though, that I dislike the base story. Romeo and Juliet is probably my least favorite Shakespearean play, or at least my least favorite of the ones that are widely known. Because of that West Side Story is going to have an uphill battle getting me to appreciate it at all. Again, I get the love for it, but since I dislike the story itself, it doesn’t have a chance.

2. I think I can see voting for The Hustler for this award, and were this someone’s choice, I don’t think I would have a real issue with it (and honestly, I can say the same about West Side Story). I like a lot of the elements of The Hustler, in particular the way the characters play out across the screen. There’s so much to appreciate here. This is a deep film, one that digs far into just how broken people can be. It just feels a little too late. It feels like it should be more at home in the heart of the noir era rather than the start of the ‘60s.

My Choice

1. This is a surprisingly strong year in terms of the nominations, and I admit that I’m hampered by having not seen The Children’s Hour and A Raisin in the Sun. While there may not be a ton of traditional snubs here, the five nominations are, generally speaking, strong. Judgment at Nuremberg is an important movie, one that brings up important moral points and difficulties. There is a great deal here, and the sort of film that works by putting good and evil not just against each other but on both sides of the conflict. It’s the sort of film that creates conversation after viewing, and that’s rare. It’s also a good indication that the film’s screenplay has done what it set out to do. It was the right choice.

Final Analysis


  1. This is actually a quite competent list. The Guns of Navarone was also very much a part of my childhood and I think I ended up reading all the books by the author. As I recall this was a good adaption of the story.
    The Hustler would probably by my winner. I have no idea how good an adaption this is, but it is an awesome script.

    1. Judgment at Nuremberg isn't on The List. It's worth tracking down if you haven't seen it--it might change your mind.

      That said, The Hustler is a fine choice.

  2. I'm not much of a fan of Guns of Navarone but agree otherwise this is a good crop.

    I'm prone to agree with you and the Academy this time out. Judgement is a heavy, grindingly sad film but there is an enormous amount of meat on its bones and while it’s brilliantly acted the root of that is the screenplay.

    I love Breakfast at Tiffany's, except for Rooney, but it is SO far removed from the Capote story that if it wasn't for the names it would be unrecognizable.

    Between West Side Story and The Hustler would be a tough choice for second place for me. While Romeo & Juliet isn’t my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays either the reimagining that was done to turn it into the film of WSS, which required it once again be retooled from the stage show, is inspired. Then to turn around and look at the lean and quiet Hustler and its economy and sharpness of purpose makes it impossible to decide between them.

    Of those that you mentioned as other possibilities I wasn’t that mad for The Children’s Hour. Shirley MacLaine is deeply touching with a difficult character but while they are both fine neither Audrey Hepburn nor James Garner manage to get under the skin of their characters which I know isn’t the focus of this category but makes an impact. However the material is dated, and was better done by Wyler even with the whitewashing of the main conceit in the 30’s as These Three. A Raisin in the Sun is better but not necessarily better than the actual nominees. The one that you mentioned that would be a serious contender had it made the list is The Innocents which is such an undervalued gem in every aspect.

    Others that could be considered are One Two Three which is a delightful comedy though a great deal of its appeal is Jimmy Cagney and two British films-A Taste of Honey and Whistle Down the Wind.

    1. Of the films that I've seen, The Innocents would be a lock for a nomination from me. It's a hell of an adaptation and a great story.

      I don't really take issue with wanting to put West Side Story ahead of The Hustler if that's how you eventually end up. I respect the hell out of WSS because of its staging and pageantry and because of how well it adapts the story, even if it's a story I don't like that much.

      But for the nominees, Judgment at Nuremberg has the benefit of being weighty in the best ways possible. It presents real dilemmas, and like the best of films that do this, only hints at possible solutions rather than giving us answers. The complete set of monster performances doesn't hurt, but, as you say, that's all rooted in a tremendous screenplay.

  3. Quite a strong year in this category (and overall). Your top 3 are difficult to argue with. Also worth checking out are the adapted screenplays for:

    Paris Blues (Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier).
    The Young Savages (Burt Lancaster, Dina Merrill, Shelley Winters and Telly Savalas)
    Sanctuary (Lee Remick and Yves Montand)

    These three are all better than A Raisin In The Sun, which is effectively a filmed play and does not translate all that well to the screen.

    1. I appreciate the suggestions.

      The top three are, I agree, hard to argue. Toss in The Innocents and it would be the sort of category that we could argue back and forth over for a really long time.