Monday, November 11, 2019

Oscar Got It Wrong!: Best Director 1963

The Contenders:

Federico Fellini: 8 ½
Elia Kazan: America, America
Otto Preminger: The Cardinal
Martin Ritt: Hud
Tony Richardson: Tom Jones (winner)

What’s Missing

Sometimes I hate this project, and Best Director for 1963 is one of those times. This is such a drab and dreary collection of nominations that I have to wonder what the hell was going through the head of the Academy. The Academy managed to somehow never give a competitive Oscar to Ingmar Bergman and failed to nominate him in this year for Winter Light. Robert Wise, who did win an Oscar or two, could certainly have stood in this group for The Haunting. John Sturges, who directed The Great Escape in this year was also overlooked for some reason, as was Alfred Hitchcock, whose 1963 movie was nothing less than The Birds. I’d also love to see Lindsay Anderson for This Sporting Life on the docket. Finally, I realize that I’m not entirely serious when I suggest Sam Fuller for Shock Corridor, but wouldn’t that have been great?

Weeding through the Nominees

5. For some reason, Oscar often thinks that things that are of epic length are absolutely warranted to be of epic length and are therefore good. The Cardinal isn’t terrible as a film, but it’s certainly not the sort of thing that requires the 180 or so minutes of its running time. It’s long and it drags, and for someone of my non-religious predilections, the fact that it is essentially a three-hour apologetic for the Catholic Church rubs me the wrong way. I have no issue with Otto Preminger as a director, but I would have more respect for this film with an hour or so removed.

4. I think I’m supposed to love 8 ½ a lot more than I actually do. Of course, I think I’m supposed to love Fellini a lot more than I actually do as well. There is nothing specifically bad or wrong with 8 ½ in general; it’s just that I tend to find Fellini both opaque and self-indulgent. Most of what I get from his films is “Look at me! I’m making a movie!” and in the case of this movie, it’s essentially an autobiographical jaunt about his making a movie. It’s a hell of a lot of navel gazing. I mean, it’s stylish navel gazing, but it’s still navel gazing.

3. I’m completely unenthused about Tom Jones as a movie, so it’s kind of a wonder that Tony Richardson has made it to the middle of the pack. And yet, his direction is something here that I can genuinely respect. The thing he does very well here is keep the tone light and comic. He does this by using a few interesting techniques, like speeding up the film, silent film-style pantomime, and fourth wall breaks. He’s smart enough to use these techniques, and smarter still not to overuse them. I don’t love the film, but he did this well.

2. I tend to like Elia Kazan, and I didn’t love America, America, which again makes it interesting that he has made it this far in the running. This is a deeply personal film for Kazan, and that shows in almost every frame. The reason I’ve put him this high in the rankings for a film I am honestly ambivalent about is that, despite this, America, America never drags for feels long despite its close to three-hour length. Kazan has made a film here that, while not specifically enjoyable, still moves well and provides interest. That’s an accomplishment.

1. What this means is that, given the five nominees, I’m going with Martin Ritt and Hud. He’s not going to be my ultimate choice, but it’s worth saying that Ritt wouldn’t be a bad choice for a number of reasons. The first is that Hud is loaded with amazing performances. The second is that this is a film that breaks a number of genre stereotypes and does so in interesting and meaningful ways. Ritt made pretty much all of the right decisions with Hud, and while he’s not going to be my ultimate choice, he’d be a good one, and one I’d support.

My Choice

For this award for this year, my heart is always going to be with John Sturges and The Great Escape. Some of that is almost certainly nostalgia, since the movie is a favorite of mine as a child. But the work here is good—a massive cast and a massive story made understandable and clear, and that’s not easy. I’d also give a lot of consideration to Hitchcock for The Birds, even if I like that a little less (only a little) than everyone else.

Final Analysis


  1. For me personally, I would've gone with Fellini for 8 1/2 as it's a film that I love while I also agree with you on Sam Fuller for Shock Corridor as it's one of his best films. I've seen bits of The Great Escape but not enough to make a valid opinion while I would also make cases for Ingmar Bergman for Winter Light and The Silence, Jean-Luc Godard for Contempt, Alfred Hitchcock for The Birds, Louis Malle for The Fire Within, Ermanno Olmi for I Fidanzati, and Akira Kurosawa for High and Low. Yet, if there is one filmmaker I felt that should've been considered seriously for Best Director that year. It's Luchino Visconti for The Leopard.

    1. I find Fellini difficult to like in general, so even his best films are going to elicit a shrug from me in a lot of cases. I'd love to live in a world where Shock Corridor could earn a nomination--I love how lurid it is.

      I considered Visconti at the top and probably should have put him in.

  2. I am currently reading Tom Jones (next book on my book list) and so I am very curious about this adaption by Richardson (curiously another Richardson was Fielding's rival back in his day...), but based on your recommendation maybe I should skip that one.
    Luchino Visconti did deserve a nod in this category. I do not love Il Gattopardo but there is some director muscle behind this movie.
    For me it is a toss up between The Birds and The Great Escape. Hitch did deserve a win, but this is not his most deserving movie so I am going with the Escape.

    1. Well, Tom Jones isn't the worst thing going. It's just not close to the best film of 1963. Your mileage may vary--I found it to be fluffy and not worth a lot of serious consideration.

  3. I love all three B&W movies on your list. As you know I am a Fellini fan, so the win for me would have been a no brainer. But Hud is certainly a respectable choice. I think Great Escape should have been at least nominated. It's hard to make that compelling a movie with that big a cast and story. It could have been just another epic adventure.

    1. See, that's my point with The Great Escape. There's a huge cast of characters, and he we know a great deal about all of them, and we genuinely root for all of them to succeed. That's hard to do.

  4. THE CARDINAL received a best director nomination!!!! Yikes! Preminger was a talented, but inconsistent, director and his 60's output is wildly variable. Between such sharp work as Advise & Consent and Bunny Lake is Missing are disasters such as Hurry Sundown, Skidoo (shudder) and this excruciating piety lesson. The killer is he received zip for those first two and yet a nomination for this dog meat!

    Of these five my preference would line up with yours pretty closely though I might swap Tom Jones and America, America for the simple fact that I enjoyed it more. I'd never pick Tom Jones for my winner, like all the nominees but Hud it would have benefited from a major trim, but it is often a merry romp.

    All your suggestions are good ones, Shock Corridor would never get within a mile of the nominating committee but is a fun mention. I do have several others I'd throw into the mix-Joseph Losey for The Servant, Mark Robson for The Prize and Akira Kurosawa for High and Low-all of which I'd rather see in the lineup, with the exception of Hud, than what we have.

    In order of preference mine would run this way with a thin margin between the first two, not that Sturges is a bad choice either.

    Alfred Hitchcock-The Birds-Winner
    Akira Kurosawa-High and Low
    John Sturges-The Great Escape
    Joseph Losey-The Servant
    Martin Ritt-Hud

    1. I thought about including Losey up top and decided against it because The Servant is all about the performances for me. Sure, Losey gets some credit for that, but it's less his film in my mind.

      I wouldn't complain about Hitchcock winning this. The Birds is one of his great films, and one in the best and most interesting period in his career. Were he to win a competitive Oscar, I'd have preferred something like Rear Window or North by Northwest (of course), but winning for The Birds would not have felt like a career Oscar in competitive clothing.

      I really should track down High and Low one of these days.