February 14, 2011

9 My Oscar Picks, Part 5: 1956-1960

Last year I wrote several posts comparing Oscar winners in the major categories with my own choices in the same categories for the years 1934-1955. (If you're interested in checking them out, they cover the years 1934-1939, 1940-1944, 1945-1949, and 1950-1955.) This year I'm going to continue with two more installments. As I wrote last year, these are strictly personal choices based on what I would have voted for. I chose only from among the actual nominees, and although I have seen most of the nominated films and performances, I can't claim to have seen absolutely every single one of them. Often the choice was a difficult one to make, and in truth I would have been just as satisfied with my second or even third choice. For each year, I've also noted what I felt to be the gravest oversight in the nominees, at times another difficult choice to make, as each year it seems that several worthy pictures, directors, and actors are neglected in favor of obvious mediocrities. For lists of all the nominees, CLICK HERE for a link to the Official Academy Awards Database.


The Winner: Around the World in 80 Days
My Pick: Giant

The Winner: George Stevens, Giant
My Pick: George Stevens, Giant

The Winner: Yul Brynner, The King and I
My Pick: Kirk Douglas, Lust for Life

The Winner: Ingrid Bergman, Anastasia
My Pick: Ingrid Bergman, Anastasia

The Winner: Anthony Quinn, Lust for Life
My Pick: Anthony Quinn, Lust for Life

The Winner: Dorothy Malone, Written on the Wind
My Pick: Dorothy Malone, Written on the Wind

The Winner: La Strada
My Pick: La Strada

After giving the best picture award to a "little picture," Marty, the previous year, the Academy finished the decade by giving the prize exclusively to expensively produced spectacles. In some cases these awards were actually deserved, but as enjoyable as it is, I don't think Around the World in 80 Days was the best picture of 1956. Actually, I wasn't thrilled by any of the best picture nominees this year. My own choice for best picture, Vincente Minnelli's Lust for Life, wasn't nominated. I went with what was essentially the least offensive nominee, Giant, and its director, George Stevens, not for artistic inspiration but for the sheer engineering feat of putting the picture together.

Yul Brynner is an actor I have never been able to respond to, and I find his performance in The King and I just plain annoying. For me the only possibility in this field was Kirk Douglas as Vincent Van Gogh in Lust for Life, and I still find it incomprehensible that Brynner, not Douglas, took home the Oscar. I went with the Academy's endorsement of Ingrid Bergman's return to Hollywood in Anastasia as well as its choices in the supporting categories. This was the first year the award for foreign language film was a competitive one. Even though the convoluted nominating process in this category often results in a weak field with many of the best foreign films of the year getting left out, the Academy got it right this year, giving the first competitive award for best foreign language film to Federico Fellini's La Strada. Biggest omission: Lust for Life—for best picture, director, and (incredibly) cinematography.


The Winner: The Bridge on the River Kwai
My Pick: The Bridge on the River Kwai

The Winner: David Lean, The Bridge on the River Kwai
My Pick: David Lean, The Bridge on the River Kwai

The Winner: Alec Guinness, The Bridge on the River Kwai
My Pick: Alec Guinness, The Bridge on the River Kwai

The Winner: Joanne Woodward, The Three Faces of Eve
My Pick: Joanne Woodward, The Three Faces of Eve

The Winner: Red Buttons, Sayonara
My Pick: Arthur Kennedy, Peyton Place

The Winner: Miyoshi Umeki, Sayonara
My Pick: Elsa Lanchester, Witness for the Prosecution

The Winner: The Nights of Cabiria
My Pick: The Nights of Cabiria

Except for the supporting actor and actress awards, I concurred with the Academy's choices this year. The Bridge on the River Kwai and its director, David Lean, had little competition. The Academy seems to like rewarding comic actors for getting serious and glamorous actresses for getting plain, but this year's award to Alec Guinness for his uncharacteristically serious turn in Bridge was a well-deserved one. Actors who might have given him real competition—Henry Fonda in Twelve Angry Men (the third year in a row he was overlooked, after Mister Roberts in 1955 and The Wrong Man in 1956), Burt Lancaster's caustic J. J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success, and Kirk Douglas in Paths of Glory—weren't nominated, leaving Guinness the standout in a weak field.

Likewise, Joanne Woodward had no serious competition as best actress for her breakthrough performance in The Three Faces of Eve, just the kind of career-making performance by a young actress the Academy loves. I liked the award-winning supporting performances in Sayonara by Red Buttons and especially Miyoshi Umeki—for me they were the best things in the movie—but I preferred veterans Arthur Kennedy and Elsa Lanchester. For the second year in a row a Fellini movie, The Nights of Cabiria, one of his most likable, featuring a brilliant performance by his wife Giulietta Masina, got the best foreign language film award. Since this is a movie I have a particular fondness for, I certainly won't quarrel with that choice. Biggest omission: Paths of Glory for best picture, director, actor (Kirk Douglas) and supporting actor (Adolphe Menjou, George Macready).


The Winner: Gigi
My Pick: Gigi

The Winner: Vincente Minnelli, Gigi
My Pick: Vincente Minnelli, Gigi

The Winner: David Niven, Separate Tables
My Pick: Sidney Poitier, The Defiant Ones

The Winner: Susan Hayward, I Want to Live!
My Pick: Susan Hayward, I Want to Live!

The Winner: Burl Ives, The Big Country
My Pick: Burl Ives, The Big Country

The Winner: Wendy Hiller, Separate Tables
My Pick: Wendy Hiller, Separate Tables

The Winner: Mon Oncle
My Pick: Mon Oncle

Again I pretty much agreed with the Academy, seconding its choices in all but one category. I like musicals, and I don't think anyone made them better than MGM did in the 1940s and 1950s. Gigi is one of the best, a concise and beautifully directed film. Its large number of nominations (nine) and wins (nine, a record at the time) doesn't surprise me; only the failure of Maurice Chevalier and Hermione Gingold to get nominations in the supporting acting categories does. For best actor I went with Sidney Poitier's powerful performance in Stanley Kramer's interracial version of The 39 Steps over David Niven's pathetic "silly ass" in Separate Tables, for me another example of an old-timer's "career achievement" Oscar trumping a more deserving performance by a less well-known young actor. That Tony Curtis also was nominated for the same film didn't help Poitier's chances, and although Hollywood doted on social issue movies, it's also entirely possible that the Academy felt it was still a bit too soon to acknowledge racial injustice with more than a nomination.

Elizabeth Taylor made a strong impression as Maggie the Cat in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. But Susan Hayward's performance in I Want to Live! as a character who was hard as nails but also one of life's victims, a woman whose resilience was undone by bad luck and disastrous taste in men, seemed a distillation of her entire screen persona, and hers was the performance I chose. Burl Ives gave a wonderful performance in The Big Country and an even better one in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Together, these left little doubt about the most deserving nominee for supporting actor. The great Wendy Hiller in Separate Tables, who gave the best performance in that movie, was likewise clearly the most deserving choice for supporting actress. Jacques Tati's gentle but pointed satire on modernity, Mon Oncle, had little competition for best foreign language film. Biggest omission: Vertigo for best picture, director, actor (James Stewart) and supporting actress (Barbara Bel Geddes).


The Winner: Ben Hur
My Pick: Room at the Top

The Winner: William Wyler, Ben Hur
My Pick: Jack Clayton, Room at the Top

The Winner: Charlton Heston, Ben Hur
My Pick: James Stewart, Anatomy of a Murder

The Winner: Simone Signoret, Room at the Top
My Pick: Audrey Hepburn, The Nun's Story

The Winner: Hugh Griffith, Ben Hur
My Pick: Arthur O'Connell, Anatomy of a Murder

The Winner: Shelley Winters, The Diary of Anne Frank
My Pick: Shelley Winters, The Diary of Anne Frank

The Winner: Black Orpheus
My Pick: Black Orpheus

I found little to agree with in the choices of the Academy this year. William Wyler apparently decided to become the new Cecil B. DeMille with his remake of the silent classic Ben Hur. The Academy must have liked the movie's combination of pageantry and piety, for it broke the record for Oscar wins set just the year before by taking home eleven of them. Any of the other nominees would have been a better choice, but I went for the British film Room at the Top, with its trenchant view of the postwar evolution of the deeply ingrained British class system, and also its director, Jack Clayton. Ben Hur even swept Charlton Heston along to a best actor win on his only nomination ever. I would have voted instead for James Stewart's folksy but shrewd defense lawyer in Anatomy of a Murder, a relaxed and charming performance by an actor still at the top of his form twenty-five years after his first credited part.

Simone Signoret, hardly a Hollywood insider, must have been a surprise winner for her touching performance in Room at the Top, the first ever best actress winner in a British film. But I'm a huge fan of Audrey Hepburn, who gave the best of her infrequent dramatic performances in The Nun's Story. The total investment of herself in this role is obvious every moment she is on screen. George C. Scott was nominated as supporting actor for his typically showy performance in Anatomy of a Murder, but I preferred Arthur O'Connell's quieter performance in the same picture. I did agree with the choice of Shelley Winters as best supporting actress for her shrill Mrs. Van Daan and the gorgeous Brazilian film Black Orpheus as best foreign language film. Biggest omission: North by Northwest for just about anything it was eligible for, including best picture, director, actor (Cary Grant), actress (Eva Marie Saint), supporting actor (James Mason).


The Winner: The Apartment
My Pick: The Apartment

The Winner: Billy Wilder, The Apartment
My Pick: Billy Wilder, The Apartment

The Winner: Burt Lancaster, Elmer Gantry
My Pick: Trevor Howard, Sons and Lovers

The Winner: Elizabeth Taylor, BUtterfield 8
My Pick: Deborah Kerr, The Sundowners

The Winner: Peter Ustinov, Spartacus
My Pick: Peter Ustinov, Spartacus

The Winner: Shirley Jones, Elmer Gantry
My Pick: Janet Leigh, Psycho

The Winner: The Virgin Spring
My Pick: The Virgin Spring

How could I argue with the choice of The Apartment and Billy Wilder for best picture and director? Actually, I wouldn't have been surprised if the movie had done an It Happened One Night and taken all the major awards. Burt Lancaster's best performances manage to strike the right balance between flamboyance and restraint. Elmer Gantry was one of his most garish efforts—Acting with a capital A, just the kind of show-off performance the Academy loves. I would have been satisfied with a win by Laurence Olivier in The Entertainer or Jack Lemmon in The Apartment. But I've always had great admiration for Trevor Howard as the brutish father in Sons and Lovers, to my mind the most memorable thing (along with the Oscar-winning b&w cinematography by Freddie Francis) in a fine movie that tied with The Apartment for best picture in the New York Film Critics Circle awards.

In BUtterfield 8 Elizabeth Taylor gave an earnest performance that looked all the better for being in a picture that was, in a word, terrible. But even Liz considered her Oscar a sympathy award, an overreaction to her near-death experience from pneumonia and an atonement for Hollywood's rejection of her over the affair with Eddie Fisher. Shirley MacLaine was great in The Apartment, but I can't see giving her an award without also giving one to Jack Lemmon; that's how closely these performances seem linked to me. For best actress I would have voted to give Deborah Kerr her long overdue Oscar for doing what she did best on screen—enduring nobly without losing her cool—in The Sundowners. Peter Unstinov was hardly subtle in Spartacus (was he ever?), but the unimpressive field of nominees left him the default choice. For best supporting actress—Janet Leigh. Nothing more need be said. An Ingmar Bergman film won as best foreign language film for the first time. The Virgin Spring isn't one of his absolute greatest, but it's still an excellent, meticulously directed movie. Biggest omission: Alfred Hitchcock made his third masterpiece in three years and did receive a nomination for best director, but Psycho was glaringly overlooked for best picture, best actor (Anthony Perkins), and best supporting actor (Martin Balsam).


  1. This is a great idea for an Oscar blog series. There's much that could be discussed, so I'll focus my comments on the 1959 Oscars. BEN-HUR is OK, but clearly not even the second-best among the nominations. I can't argue with your pick of ROOM AT THE TOP, as it helped set the tone for the British working class dramas of the 1960s (e.g., SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING, THIS SPORTING LIFE). Personally, I would have gone for ANATOMY OF A MURDER, an impeccable courtroom drama that pushed the censorship issue a little further down the road for American cinema. I agree with the Academy on Simone as Best Actress, but I concur with you that James Stewart should have clinched Best Actor. For Supporting Actor, I'm torn between the two from ANATOMY. I suspect one of them might have won if their votes hadn't been split. Pressed for a choice, I'd go with O'Connell, too. I'm not enamored with any of the Best Supporting Actress nominees, but would likely stick with Ms. Winters. For foreign-language film, it's incredible to consider that WILD STRAWBERRIES and THE 400 BLOWS--which were nominated for other categories--were omitted here. I chalk that up to the stupid Academy guidelines for selecting foreign-language films. Very entertaining and thought-provoking post!

  2. Rick, thanks for leaving a comment. I'm also a big fan of the "British New Wave" films of the early-mid 60s, of which "Room at the Top" was a forerunner. I think of it as the best five years or so in British film history. Actually, "Anatomy" was my close second choice for best picture. I wrote a whole post on "Room" a couple of years ago, and focusing so much of my attention on it made me realize what a really excellent film it is. Signoret was a very close second choice for best actress, but my personal fondness for Audrey Hepburn gave her the edge. The foreign language nomination process is a bizarre one and usually results in a really oddball slate of nominees with one or two strong films and the rest movies that are immediately forgotten, with a slew of great films like the ones you named overlooked altogether. I'll be doing the next five years in my next post.

  3. Like Rick said, there is a lot to discuss and since he talked about 1959, I will stick with 1956.

    In looking at the list of the five films nominated, three I saw with my parents way back upon their original release, two of which I never watched, and have no desire to watch again (Around the World in 80 Days and The King and I) and the third (The Ten Commandments) I saw once more on one of its first TV presentations. My point being I was really too young when I saw these films to make any judgment and it was so many years ago! That said, I don't think 1956 was a particularly good year but for me there were still other films that should have been on the Best Picture nominee list and were excluded. Your own personal choice (Lust for Life), Nick Ray's "Bigger Than Life, John Ford's "The Searchers," Hitchcock's "The Man Who Knew Too Much" and dare I say it, the "B" masterpiece "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." Most of these selections were genre films and rarely did the Academy give a nod to these kinds of films. "Giant" is the best choice as you point out.
    I always thought Douglas gave one of his best performances in "Lust for Life", as did Anthony Quinn. As for the other Best Actor nominees, I would have dropped Rock Hudson and added John Wayne for "The Searchers." I never considered Wayne a good actor, his performances lack any depth, he is more a movie star than actor, but in Ford's master work he actually did not play his own well known persona and deserved a nod, more than he did for "True Grit" some years later.
    Cannot make a choice on the female side since the only performance of the five nominated I saw was Carroll Baker in "Baby Doll". Foreign film, I agree with you and the Academy though I wonder how "Bob le flambeur" did not receive a nomination.

    Enjoyed this!

  4. John, some interesting comments about the year 1956. "The Searchers" has certainly gained quite a reputation since its release (just like "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance"). Wayne surely should have been nominated. This and "Red River" are his best performances, interestingly in unsympathetic roles. I agree about the limits of his acting skills, but he had a personality that came across strongly, and this was the right thing for his best roles. I have greater reservations about James Dean's performance in "Giant" than Hudson's. It makes me wonder if he might have become as mannered an actor as Marlon Brando if he had lived. And then there were James Mason in "Bigger Than Life" and Henry Fonda in "The Wrong Man," both performances nomination-worthy. As for actresses, I thought Marilyn did a good job in "Bus Stop." And of course there was Liz in "Giant." This was surely the performance that first caused her to be taken seriously as an actress. Melville,a favorite of mine, wasn't really discovered until years later. "Bob" was shown in the US in 1959, but "Le Samourai," for example, wasn't shown here until 1972 and then only in NY, and "Army of Shadows" not until 2006, when it got the NY Film Critics award for best foreign film even though it was made in 1969!

    And, yes, by all means add "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." It made a huge impression on me when I saw it as a child. It was shown on Sat. afternoon TV and was the talk of my school the next Mon. So many great scenes--the parents putting the pod in the baby's crib and tonelessly saying "No more pain," stabbing the pods in the greenhouse with the pitchfork, Wynter confessing to McCarthy she went to sleep, the townspeople chasing McCarthy on that outdoor stairway. The movie still gives me chills every time I see it again.

  5. I was all ready to dive in with THE SEARCHERS (the best American film of 1956 by quite some distance) but John rightly broached it. I must dissent with everyone here on BEN-HUR, which few know also won Best Picture of 1959 from the esteemed New York Film Critics Circle. BEN-HUR is the most intimate Biblical film ever made, and it boasts an extraordinary performance by Charlton Heston, which deserved both the Oscar and the New York Film Critics prize he copped. Miklos Rosza's spectacular score, majectic and sublime may well be the greatest motion picture score of all-time.

    I undersand you are concentrating here on the choice among the officially Academy Award-nominated films, which of course leaves us to settle wih a number of middling films. Even as a musical lover I am not a huge fan of GIGI, though I like it well enough. Likewise with BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, not one of Lean's best films, but moderately decent enough. 1958's best film of course is the unominated VERTIGO. I'd take TWELVE ANGRY MEN over BRIDGE in 1957, but the unominated MEN IN WAR (Anthony Mann) and SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS are masterpieces, which Ingmar Bergman's WILD STRAWBERRIES is my personal top choice. CURSE OF THE DEMON is another that ranks high. Back to the BEN-HUR year, in my estimation, Bresson's PICKPOCKET is as great a film. I like Yul Brynner more than you, but I know his THE KING AND I turn is not everyone's cup of tea.

    Needless to say, AMPAS's choices in the 50 were by and large the most blasphemou sin their infamous history, and AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS is just as ludicrous as THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH, and even MARTY, which is still a film I like. (especially Chayevsky's script and Ernest Borgnine is a rare good performance). I am NOT however all that down on AN AMERICAN IN PARIS (despite STREETCAR an dothers being ignored) as it's a masterful musical.

    I have always found Danny Peary's excellent "Alternate Oscars" as very helpful in sizing up this eternally engaging topic, and I applaud you for this equally engrossing and painstaking study.

  6. I am also a huge fan of THE INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS as one of 1956's best films, and a seminal sci-fi work.

  7. Sam, thanks for your, as always, fascinating thoughts. The NY Film Critics Circle gave the award to "Ben Hur" with 10 votes to 5 for "Room at the Top." They gave best director to Fred Zinneman for "The Nun's Story" with 8 votes to 5 for Jack Clayton, 1 for William Wyler for "Ben Hur" and 1 for Basil Dearden for "Sapphire." For best actor and actress they chose James Stewart and Audrey Hepburn, as I did.

    I admit I like "Gigi" more than most people, even fans of musicals. I'm not sure why, perhaps it's the francophile in me coming out. Its major weakness is the lackluster score, which certainly pales in comparison to, say, "My Fair Lady." I've heard that Minnelli wanted Dirk Bogarde for the lead, and that would have been a most interesting piece of casting. Louis Jourdan's not bad, but he's not quite in the same league as the rest of the cast either. As for "An American in Paris," I think it's a good musical but not one of the truly great MGM musicals like "Singin' in the Rain" or "On the Town" or Minnelli's "Gigi," "Meet Me in St. Louis," and "The Band Wagon."

    You named some great alternatives to the official choices, both nominated and unnominated. As for the Bergman and Bresson you named, I can only say that Hollywood should be grateful these were ineligible or overlooked. As I said in response to the WitD 1950s countdown, Hollywood's output during this decade is overall pretty tepid in comparison to the foreign language films, particularly the Europeans. I think the same holds true for most of the 1960s. And as you pointed out, the Academy often seemed clueless about some of the best American films.

    The increasing number of nominations for foreign language films is an issue I'll be touching on next week, when I continue with 1961-1965. I've decided to cover these years countdown style, one year at a time. This should leave more time for response. Thanks for alerting me to the "Alternate Oscars." I checked my library and they have a copy.

  8. Fun post. I will stick up with you for "Gigi." It's one of my favorite musicals, because every time I watch it I fall in love with it a little more. The score actually is delightful. It's not a movie that knocks people off their feet the first time but it has so much to love on repeat viewings. I'm also glad you stuck by Susan Hayward. I recently saw "I Want to Live!" on a big screen and that movie blew away everyone who was watching it. Her performance is big and bold and can sometimes be misinterpreted as overacting when watched on TV. But it is powerful stuff on the big screen. And thanks for the shout out to my favorite, Audrey Hepburn. She is brilliant in "The Nun's Story." This was also a great time for foreign films. "Mon Oncle" is a particular favorite of mine.

  9. Filmboy, thanks for your comments. I'm glad you like "Gigi" too. I think you're right about it growing on you with repeat viewings. It's just beautifully directed, and unlike a lot of musicals it seems concise, not padded at all. Actually, according to TCM's Robert Osborne, Audrey was first choice to play Gigi but was worn out from doing the Broadway version and had to turn it down. He also said that afterwards she wanted to do a musical and that's when her husband Mel Ferrer helped her get "Funny Face." Not sure how the timeline for this worked out, since "Funny Face" was shot about a year earlier than "Gigi," but that was the anecdote he told.

    Glad you liked Hayward in "I Want to Live!" too. She projects too forceful a personality for some (and not only in this picture), but I really like her. She was one of the last of the "tough dames." With her performance and the great noir look Robert Wise achieved, it must have been quite an experience seeing this on the big screen.