Better than the Oscars: 55-51

The following is from my series of Oscar Best Picture rankings, as well as my strongly worded suggestions for what should have won from among the nominees. For an introduction to the project, click here. For a way to vote on some Oscar-related ideas, click here. If I’ve written a review on any of the films below, I link to it in the movie’s title. Enjoy!


55) How Green Was My Valley, 14th Academy Awards, directed by John Ford

What should have won: …if you don’t know, honey, honey, then you don’t.

Worth noting: The Maltese Falcon not only didn’t win the big prize this year, but no one thinks it should have either despite its obvious quality. Whatever that category is (“It’s a great movie but definitely shouldn’t have won” ?), The Maltese Falcon has to be the charter member.

John Ford always did get a little sentimental when his movies went back to the British Isles. The Informer makes a heavy-handed connection between Victor McLaglen’s character and Judas Iscariot from the titles; The Quiet Man is as pretty as the old geezer’s movies got, with a fairly straightforward romantic comedy plot. And then there’s How Green Was My Valley, set in Wales rather than Ford’s pseudo-native Ireland (for a guy born in Maine, he really went all in on his belief in Ireland as the Old Country), a movie which begins with this idyllic, peaceful family doing things the way they should be done. The men go to work in the mines, come home, wash up, and eat a silent dinner that the women have made in between supplying the soap and buckets of water and towels. Each unmarried man still lives at home and still gets an allowance parceled out by Pop. Faith in God is unquestioned, and the way things are happen to be the way they were before, symbolized by the beautiful valley just beyond the mine. It’s all a little too peachy, and when bad things start to happen to the Morgans, the regression to the mean of terribleness is mighty. The wages drop at the mine, and the young men start speaking union much to the distress of their father, labor representative Gwilym. We aren’t socialists here, he says, and in that moment we know that the Morgans and their way of life are utterly doomed. They believe too much in institutions: the decency of the capitalists, the morality of the church, the steadiness of the home, the safety of the mines. All of these fall apart in time, taking spiritual and physical casualties, and it would be one thing if Ford had not worked so hard and so guilelessly to make this valley heaven on earth in the first fifteen minutes. There’s too much unironic Paradise Lost in How Green Was My Valley, and no doubt for viewers of a certain age staring down the barrel of World War II (or having stared down the Great Depression) it rang true. Unfortunately, all of the good things in this movie—Walter Pidgeon as the ur-Gregory Peck, Maureen O’Hara’s stern, sexy performance, and Arthur C. Miller’s very strong photography—are too much coated with smarmy nostalgia.

Look, we don’t have to talk much about Citizen Kane here because you know already. What’s often conflated in the here and now is the William Randolph Hearst and the Oscars, which is unlikely at best; Kane was the best-reviewed movie of the year and the Hearst papers, which didn’t speak of the picture but did attack Welles, were aimed at common moviegoers like us and not at the people who vote on the Oscars. Historically, it’s one of the snubs which we appear to know something about, if this article from a 1942 issue of Variety is to be believed. According to Variety, some combination of the later release of How Green Was My Valley, a serious marketing campaign, and, weirdly enough, the animus of thousands of extras sank Welles at the ceremony. In short: the reasons Citizen Kane went down to a movie everyone knew was inferior at the time are the same kind of reasons that superior movies lose at the Oscars in our time. Isn’t that kind of consistency wonderful? (What the article doesn’t make clear to me is how John Ford and Arthur C. Miller topped Welles and Gregg Toland, respectively, for Director and Cinematography. Maybe the trades weren’t more insightful then, either.) One simple reason is left out of the Variety piece, but maybe they wouldn’t know for years yet. The primary criticism of Citizen Kane is that it’s a little cold to the touch, and it was beat out by a feel-good picture like How Green Was My Valley. For some voters, it really might have been as simple as they liked How Green Was My Valley more than they liked Citizen Kane, and sometimes that’s all that matters.


54) Ben-Hur, 32nd Academy Awards, directed by William Wyler

What should have won: Anatomy of a Murder

Worth noting: I’ve decided that The Diary of Anne Frank belongs in that category The Maltese Falcon heads. It’s great to be able to answer your own questions. (And sad not to say more about Anne Frank, which is just an outstanding movie.)

The shortest nominee for Best Picture at the 32nd Academy Awards was Room at the Top, which runs a little less than two hours. None of the others were shorter than two and a half, and when your median length picture is the 160-minute Anatomy of a Murder, you know you’re in a golden age of movies that went on and on and on. I’m a sucker for the two and a half hour movie, admittedly, and so Anatomy of a Murder is right up my alley because it screams with action and simmers with thought for the whole of its run. Ben-Hur is one of those rare mainstream movies which has more than 200 minutes behind it, but you feel those minutes the way you feel a road trip when you’re driving a car that’s low to the ground. There’s more to Ben-Hur than the chariot race about halfway through the movie: there’s an ocean battle, too. I happen to be sympathetic to Judah’s interesting brush-ups with Jesus of Nazareth, who is for Judah, as he is for so many of us, temptingly close without ever feeling near. One is also interested in the distinctive homosexual subtext of Ben-Hur five years after Johnny Guitar made “If I can’t have you I have to kill you” into a bizarre and compelling narrative for same-sex repression. And while you can list the number of people who can shoot a vista like Wyler could on one hand, vistas do not a movie make. The side adventures of Ben-Hur are far more interesting than Judah’s real quest to return home, see justice done, and find his mother and sister. That last is a carnival of lamenting leprosy and aggrieved Charlton Heston faces. (Insert your own NRA joke here.) It also happens to last as long as the chariot race, the ocean battle, and the scenes with Jesus put together; Ben-Hur is the ultimate seven-foot prospect who plays small around the rim.

Anatomy of a Murder does just the opposite. There’s a fairly open-and-shut courtroom case that’s been expanded on mightily because the people involved in the case all stand to lose a great deal. Paul Biegler, a former district attorney, runs a struggling law firm on the Upper Peninsula. His only company are his wisecracking, underpaid secretary and a buddy, a far-gone alcoholic whose legal muscles have turned brittle. Biegler, who needs the money, hears out a soldier charged with murder; Manion essentially admits to having killed a local barkeeper because he probably raped but may merely have slept with Manion’s beautiful young wife, Laura. Biegler coaches Manion into making an insanity plea, and thus the ball rolls. It turns out that Manny is a basically unstable man with a taste for violence; it also turns out that Laura is a floozy, and that her story of rape may have more to do with protecting herself from Manny than anything else. Although it’s fully three-quarters the length of Ben-Hur, Anatomy of a Murder crackles with energy throughout, making that time absolutely breeze past. We root for Biegler and McCarthy because they’re likable, and we root for Laura because she is trapped. Unfortunately, that means rooting for borderline sociopath Manny and against the film’s acting cudgel, Dancer, a Lansing lawyer played by George C. Scott. The trial is acrimonious and murky; there may not be a movie where Jimmy Stewart resorts to that shouty upper register of his more. Ambiguities reign in Anatomy of a Murder, a movie that must have blown the doors off its bourgeois viewers in 1959, and all of it is underlined with the music of Duke Ellington.


53) Tom Jones, 36th Academy Awards, directed by Tony Richardson

What should have won: This one is chalk in a fairly weak year.

Worth noting: I have always had a soft spot for Lilies of the Field, which is by and large a gentle and rewarding movie.

The Deadpool of British costume dramas, Tom Jones is fun, but not a lot of fun. It certainly has panache. Albert Finney is pleasing in the role, funny and charming and a little odd; Susannah York is fetching and sunshiney. Everyone else is playing a bawdy parody of someone else in these dramas, highlighted by Diane Cilento as Tom’s slutty would-be girlfriend, Molly, or Hugh Griffith as a huge nose Squire Western, who is a weather vane who could be tricked into changing direction by someone sneezing really forcefully. The performances have zest, I think, and the cast plays into the in-jokes the movie makes. Finney has some fun yelling at the audience, for example, but the best part of the movie is in the first sequence. The birth of Tom Jones was so long ago (how long ago was it?) that it needs to be depicted in a silent movie, complete with intertitles. Physical comedy is at play here as it’s rarely been feted in a Best Picture winner. At its height, Tom Jones is a wacky movie doing some wacky things under the slight guise of respectability; it has just enough restraint to helm in the excesses that totaled It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World the same year. In comparison with three of its competitors (Cleopatra, America America, and How the West Was Won), it’s a breath of fresh air. At its worst, though, Tom Jones is something of a mess. There are scenes in the film which honestly don’t seem to make a lot of sense, and while part of that is the madcap comedy that’s going down, the greater part of it is a failure of editing. Simple stuff, like not using your average cut to smack the viewer over the head with it, would help. The problems go further, though, because Schlesinger and Co. used their edits to splashy rather than industrious effect. Tom Jones definitely feels herky-jerky at climactic moments, or when more than three or four characters exist at the same time in different places. And while the aforementioned acting is the single strongest part of the movie, some of the performances lose their edge simply because it’s as if they’re happening in a vacuum.


52) Mrs. Miniver, 15th Academy Awards, directed by William Wyler

What should have won: The Magnificent Ambersons

Worth noting: As partial as I am in the abstract to any movie in which Ronald Reagan has his legs cut off (Kings Row), 49th Parallel is the truly great transatlantic propaganda flick of the 15th Academy Awards, exciting in some parts and, with Hutterites Anton Walbrook and Glynis Johns, surprisingly moving and tender.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one a few hundred words ago, but Orson Welles gets jobbed at the Academy Awards after the release of a groundbreaking picture by an established master making a weepie with Walter Pidgeon. Mrs. Miniver earns more of its moments than How Green Was My Valley, at least, but it’s still far too comfortable making us comfortable. The old story of British phlegm is given primacy in the film. After her husband, Clem, has returned from doing his part with his boat at Dunkirk, Kay is talking with him about breakfast and leaves it to others to mention that she was briefly taken hostage by a German soldier who infiltrated their home and might have gotten away with it if he hadn’t passed out. The movie makes a lot of from the haughtiness turned to pride of Lady Beldon, the local aristocrat. She consents to allow her perfect granddaughter to marry the Minivers’ gangling fighter jock son, Vin, though only once Kay has one of those “We were their age once…” conversations with the old bag. Later on, she throws the results of the local flower show to honor the local stationmaster, whose rose is superior to hers anyway. (“But there’s a Downton Abbey episode like that!” I hear some of you saying, and to you I say that plagiarism is clearly for the poors and not for the peers.) The Luftwaffe ultimately bombs their little suburb, blowing holes in their homes and their church and even their beloved, but not in their resolve. I don’t mean to sneer too much at the film, which is well-made, features very good performances from Pidgeon and Teresa Wright, and was a smash hit in the early days of American involvement in World War II. It simply is a movie made for a particular time, and outside that particular time it can be a little hokey. (I tend to be fairly susceptible to such movies, for whatever reason; a more neutral observer may find even more harsh things to say about it.) Compared to 49th Parallel, which was released in the UK the year before and which praises Canada’s connection to Britain, Mrs. Miniver lacks balance.

The Magnificent Ambersons, which, in a bonkers coincidence follows the life of a guy named Minafer, has most of what makes Citizen Kane great and is much more emotionally affecting besides. (I wish to high heaven that Welles’ original cut still existed. The fact that RKO seriously altered the film, plus the fact that it was the follow-up to Citizen Kane, means that The Magnificent Ambersons remains one of the more underrated American movies.) There are better roles for women in Ambersons than in Kane, for what that’s worth. Agnes Moorehead gives the most interesting and thoughtful performance of anyone in the film, while Anne Baxter is utterly radiant in an early starring role. Behind the camera, Stanley Cortez is a more than adequate replacement for Gregg Toland, and Orson Welles’ direction is remarkable, as reliant as ever on tracking shots that stretch the limits of the technology at hand and boggling deep focus.

The Magnificent Ambersons is primarily the story of George Minafer, the most spoiled of all the pre-World War I brats who ever suckled at the teat of the untitled American aristocracy. And George’s story is one which the wealthy of this country have experienced many times and seem to never really learn: there are unstoppable forces out there (in this case, the automobile), and the fact of inherited money is not an immovable object. Everyone, even his family, is just waiting for George to be bludgeoned with something which will force him to admit his arrogance or apologize to those he has wronged. It appears to most of them that George’s literal bludgeoning—he’s hit by a car, which we all know is coming the moment he makes fun of the “horseless carriage,” but definitely root for anyway—is that turn of fate. The universe truly requites George when, in a moment of weakness? understanding? self-realization? he goes to the side of the bed where his mother died and prays for the life he knew to return. Other people may see George acting as haughtily as ever, but he knows that he has caved, and that’s good enough for us.


51) Oliver!, 41st Academy Awards, directed by Carol Reed

What should have won: …probably Oliver!. I know, we’re going to talk about it.

Worth noting: I don’t think it’s a terribly watchable movie, but the Zeffirelli Romeo and Juliet you had screened for you in high school was nominated, and there’s certainly a level of craftsmanship that’s appealing.

I had not seen a lick of Oliver! before researching this project, and that was on purpose. I usually don’t go in for Dickens adaptations and I am philosophically opposed to the pre-Company musical. What I discounted, quite wrongly, was the marvelous direction of Carol Reed, although I’m obviously horrified that the guy topped Kubrick for 2001 and Pontecorvo for The Battle of Algiers at that ceremony. What I was unprepared for was the charismatic and remarkable performance of Ron Moody as Fagin. It’s right on the same level, for verve and voice and virtuosity alike, as Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady. The movie doesn’t need him to be saved, precisely, but he fills the screen in all of his scenes, humorous and nimble and, when the occasion calls for it, even quite sad. There’s a protective bent to a song as chipper as “Be Back Soon,” which is basically a plea for Fagin’s brigade of boy thieves to make it back safely to their lair. “Reviewing the Situation” is such a difficult performance to pull off, as Moody is working off of an owl and a few props to make it work. But he does, debating the liberty of his criminal life against the safety of marriage and a regular job, and in the end he concludes that his choice has been made long ago. Changing would require not just a profound alteration of his own preferences and skills and lifestyle, but also an intercession by someone from the outside of his criminal underworld. “There is no in-between for me,” he laments, “But who will change the scene for me?” Within the patter and the florid gesticulations Moody manages to bring out the biting solitude and disappointment in Fagin, and for my money it’s probably the most effective scene of the film.

Compared to the other Best Picture-winning musicals of the ’60s, Oliver! is almost entirely without bankable movie stars. The closest any of them come is West Side Story, which had Natalie Wood going for it. There’s certainly not a Audrey Hepburn or Julie Andrews to pad the bottom line, and it turns out to be a great thing for the movie. Part of that is the difficulty of casting known preteens for roles like Oliver or the Artful Dodger, and Mark Lester and Jack Wild acquit themselves well. But it’s also refreshing to see a pre-fame Oliver Reed playing Bill Sikes with a gruff heaviness that ought to come with its own bassoon solo. Once Oliver lands with Fagin’s gang, the movie seems almost tamely sweet; Oliver Reed singlehandedly changes the equation. I’m less interested in Shani Wallis as Nancy, who acts the part well but whose singing is belabored with identical extra effort (and uncalled for diphthongization) before she holds out a note. The most underrated and most essential cast member is the set, which is not meant to be realistic but instead lends a grim fairy-tale tone to the film. There’s enough space to dance in the street to a number like “Consider Yourself,” but it gets crowded awful fast. Fagin’s orphans tumble into tight little bunks. The walkway to their hideout is practically over a moat, and there’s a practically luminescent waterway near the bar where we first run into Nancy and Sikes. The movie is still a little overlong—”Who Will Buy” is probably only a five or six-minute song, though if you told me it was twenty minutes I’d believe it—but on the whole it’s about as good as its source material will give. In a weaker year of nominees, that’s not such a bad thing.

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