Friday, September 13, 2019

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Director 1951

The Contenders:

John Huston: The African Queen
Vincente Minnelli: An American in Paris
William Wyler: Detective Story
George Stevens: A Place in the Sun (winner)
Elia Kazan: A Streetcar Named Desire

What’s Missing

Some great movies in 1951, and a few that haven’t really aged that well both in what was nominated and what wasn’t. For the ignored, we can start with the ones that aren’t going to be nominated by the Academy in the early 1950s, including Robert Wise for The Day the Earth Stood Still and Charles Crichton for The Lavender Hill Mob. I’m a little surprised at the lack of love for Albert Lewin’s Pandora and the Flying Dutchman; it’s worth noting that I probably wouldn’t nominate him, but it’s a film that seems to beg for one. The same is true for Mervyn LeRoy and Anthony Mann’s work on Quo Vadis. Again, not my choice, but it’s surprising it’s not on the list. Hitchcock never got the Academy love he deserved, which leaves off Strangers on a Train, and foreign directors didn’t get any attention at this point, which explains the miss on Robert Bresson for Diary of a Country Priest. The biggest miss for my by far is Billy Wilder for Ace in the Hole.

Weeding through the Nominees

5. I don’t honestly dislike An American in Paris, but I don’t really understand the nomination for Vincente Minnelli. Oh, it’s certainly a pretty film and Minnelli knew his way around a musical and staged them very well, but this is also a supremely indulgent film, which detracts a great deal from just how much it’s worth watching. Cut the overlong ending ballet and he might move up a notch, but I’m still not sure what he’s doing on this list for this film. It’s a fine movie, but not worth this much acclaim.

4. Were this a look at Best Picture, The African Queen would be in last place for these five movies. I have to admit that John Huston’s work on it is good in terms of the technical aspects of the film. It looks good, and after that I’m not sure I have a lot positive to say about it. I don’t love the characters, I don’t buy the romance, and I think the ending is cheap. It’s a significantly flawed film, and while this is a director award, Huston was involved in the adaptation for the screenplay. Bluntly, I just think everyone involved was a lot better somewhere else.

3. Detective Story and the work of William Wyler is an interesting nomination simply because I’m not entirely sure why he was nominated, and yet I’m putting him in third. It’s a good movie, and it’s a well-told story, but it’s a case where, if I had to decide what it would be nominated for, I’d go with the screenplay (and it was nominated for its screenplay). It is a good movie, even a very good movie, but again, I think there are other directorial performances that deserve to be here a lot more than Wyler.

My Choices

2. Based on what I’ve seen, one of the hardest things to do as a director is create a movie based on a stage play and have it look substantially not like the stage play. There are certainly aspects of that in Elia Kazan’s work on A Streetcar Named Desire, but that’s not why I’m putting him in second and as a viable winner. Kazan got incredible performances out of his entire cast. Sure, he had a great cast to work with, including Brando at the height of his sexual charisma, but Kazan is still the person whose name is on the movie and so he gets the credit.

1. A Place in the Sun is a fascinating movie in the sense that I essentially dislike virtually every character on the screen and yet find the film and the story completely compelling. It’s a difficult film in a lot of ways, but I love that about it, and George Stevens could have done a great deal wrong with it. Instead, he tells the story with a deft touch, allowing us to understand all of these people and exactly why they are as terrible and undeserving of pity as they are. It’s a magnificent film, and George Stevens was a deserving winner.

Final Analysis


  1. Your preferences align with mine right down the line until the top two and even then I'm not saying that your choice couldn't be mine on another day.

    As far as both Streetcar and A Place in the Sun go I actually like the second of those two better but Kazan elicited four award worthy performances from his cast with material that could have easily gone awry and over the top, his strong hand is evident in that it never does. But then Stevens does something very similar however the relationships, though complex, in his film aren't quite as knotty. I can't fault Stevens's win though.

    I think in an open field I'd still go with Kazan but the rest of the list could certainly be stronger. Wilder's exclusion is crazy but Ace in the Hole flopped big time on its initial release, I'm sure that's why it's among the missing. And Hitchcock should definitely be here for Strangers on a Train. My only other suggestion outside those you named is William Wellman for Westward the Women.

    I am surprised Mervyn LeRoy wasn't nominated for Quo Vadis. It's so in the Academy's zone as witnessed by its eight nominations including a Best Picture nod. I guess it directed itself. I love the film as I do most Biblical epics but more for its pageantry, pomp and Peter Ustinov but would never have included LeRoy for director. I still would have thought in that age when they were gaga for these films he would have easily slid in before Huston or Wyler.

    1. The policy of this blog is that ties go to the Academy, that was kind of the case here. I would have been absolutely fine with Kazan walking away with this--it's a supreme effort. For me, I'm sticking with Stevens in this case not because the relationships aren't as knotty but because the film is worth watching despite having no character worth rooting for.

      I'm with you on Quo Vadis. I don't at all like it well enough to nominate it myself for much (Peter Ustinov aside), but I'm really surprised it wasn't here.

  2. I have yet to see A Place in the Sun and A Streetcar Named Desire as they're in my possible Blind Spots list for next year (maybe). Of the nominees, The African Queen is the only film that I saw though it's been a long time. The omission of Billy Wilder for Ace in the Hole is criminal as is consideration for Robert Bresson, Alfred Hitchcock, Jean Renoir for The River, Samuel Fuller for both The Steel Helmet and Fixed Bayonets!, and Yasujiro Ozu for Early Summer should be in the conversation.

    1. Both of those movies as blind spots would be worthy additions. They're both absolutely worth your time.

      I really need to get to The Steel Helmet one of these days.

  3. Ace in the hole is a brilliant movie, I just cannot tell how much is the screenplay and how much the direction. Either way it would be a favourite of mine and ignoring it was a gross error by the academy. Of the nominees A Streetcar is my winner for all the reasons you mention. A few years down the line this is the movie I recall the best from 1951.

    1. It is a great film. Evidently, it was ahead of its time, though--I didn't realize it was a financial flop.