Tuesday, August 11, 2015

I've Always Depended on the Kindness of Oscar

Vivien Leigh:
Best Actress for
A Streetcar Named Desire

The 24th Academy Awards certainly knew a good thing when they saw it.  That is why when given the choice between two of the greatest dramas of the year, they chose a musical as the Best Picture of the year.  Maybe the Academy was playing it safe with an inoffensive choice, one so innocuous that no one could find blame in it.

That being said, I have seen the winning Best Picture twice and both times fail to see why people love it so much.  It's very pretty (far prettier than tales of rape and murder) but I found it a little shallow and dull. 

As always this is just for fun and should not be taken as my final decision. I should like to watch all the nominees and winners before making my final, FINAL choice. Now, on to cataloging the official winners (in bold) and my selections (in red). Also, my substitutions (in green).



Never from Golden Girl
In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening from Here Comes the Groom
A Kiss to Build a Dream On from The Strip
Wonder Why from Rich, Young, and Pretty
Too Late Now from Royal Wedding

I find the actual winner for this year to be among the worst choices the Academy has made (up there with Crappie Redmayne winning for his calculated Stephen Hawking impersonation).  Honestly, who remembers either In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening or Here Comes the Groom? At least last year's winner had the good fortune of being a brilliant song in a forgotten film.  The song's cute enough (the second duet to win if memory serves correct) but in terms of being both memorable or even interesting, perhaps not since Sweet Leilani do we have a pretty forgettable little ditty.  I can forgive it only because it was written by Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer.

Then again, this is the same group that ignored various Bond theme songs to finally award their Best Original Song to that damn Bond Funeral Theme known as Skyfall.  Quick: sing the chorus.  Can't remember it without looking it up?  Surprising, given how it was declared the Greatest Song Ever Written in the History of Mankind by my fellow critics.

My choice goes to another song by some pretty good songwriters.

From The Strip, A Kiss to Build a Dream On.  Music and lyrics by Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby and Oscar Hammerstein II.

I think the Academy, to coin a phrase, is on the wrong side of history on this one.  Which of these two songs do YOU recognize, remember, and know? 

However, I'm exercising my option to reward another song, one that I think is a standard.  My list of nominees along with my winner:

Never: Golden Girl
A Kiss to Build a Dream On: The Strip
Wonder Why: Rich, Young, and Pretty
Too Late Now: Royal Wedding

and the winner...

From The Lemon Drop Kid, Silver Bells.  Music by Jay Livingston, lyrics by Ray Evans.

For the life of me I can't explain why Silver Bells wasn't even nominated (especially over the Cool, Cool, Cool song that I bet you people wouldn't even recognize today).  Someone pointed out to me that Silver Bells is about the only Christmas song that is nostalgic for the urban sights and sounds of the holiday rather than for the rural, pastoral ones.  It makes the city a wonderland of the Yuletide, and I for one think it's a standard.

So, who hear thinks In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening really was the undisputed winner?


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

I think you've got a pretty good slate of candidates for this category.   I really don't have an argument with George Stevens' win, since I love A Place in the Sun and is one of my favorite films.  That being said, in terms of direction, I'm leaning strongly to Kazan's take of the Tennessee Williams masterpiece of Southern Gothic.  He delivered from his actors fantastic performances, and it should be noted that three out of his four actors won (versus last year, when Billy Wilder had the unenviable honor of seeing all four of his nominees sink.  Thanks, Anne Baxter).

Alfred Hitchcock: Strangers on a Train
John Huston: The African Queen
Elia Kazan: A Streetcar Named Desire
Akira Kurosawa: Rashomon
George Stevens: A Place in the Sun

However, for me in terms of directing, I don't think you can get better than Kurosawa.  Rashomon is a masterpiece where truth is subjective based on who is telling it.  We can never be sure which is THE truth, and even now it stands as one of his greatest accomplishments (and this is considering this is the same man who gave us among other films Seven Samurai and RAN).


Joan Blondell: The Blue Veil
Mildred Dunnock: Death of a Salesman
Lee Grant: Detective Story
Kim Hunter: A Streetcar Named Desire
Thelma Ritter: The Mating Season

Thelma Ritter has the unfortunate designation of being the most nominated actress in the supporting category to lose (six nominations, six losses).  At least she's in good company (two other people with six nominations and no wins are Deborah Kerr and Glenn Close).  Such was her certainty that she would never win that she would throw "Come Over and Watch Me Lose Again" Oscar Parties...and would predictably lose again.

Perhaps her losses can be accounted for the fact that it seemed she played the same type of character in all her films: a wisecracking broad from New York and therefore was perhaps too close to home.  Still, while some of her nominations I think were questionable (All About Eve), and while Hunter was a standout as Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire, I think Ritter's performance as the mother who pretends to be the maid in her son and daughter-in-law's home is one of her best.

Doris Day: Storm Warning
Lee Grant: Detective Story
Kim Hunter: A Streetcar Named Desire
Thelma Ritter: The Mating Season
Shelley Winters: A Place in the Sun

For those of us who remember Shelley Winters as only 'the fat woman who in the water, was a very skinny lady' in The Poseidon Adventure, it is hard to believe Winters was once considered one of the ultimate glamour girls.  In A Place in the Sun, she deglamorized herself to be a frumpy, a bit shrill factory girl who gets knocked up by opportunistic social climber Montgomery Clift.  Part of me can understand why Clift's George Eastman did what he did and why he did it, but part of me was so sympathetic to this simple (and a bit simple-minded) girl who just wanted to be with the man she loved.

Why Winters was singled out for Lead rather than Supporting when I think Elizabeth Taylor appeared on screen more than Winters I don't know.  Perhaps people were astonished she could genuinely act.  For me though, Winters was a supporting player in this American tragedy.


Leo Genn: Quo Vadis
Karl Malden: A Streetcar Named Desire
Kevin McCarthy: Death of a Salesman
Peter Ustinov: Quo Vadis
Gig Young: Come Fill the Cup

To be truthful, I can't say I'm particularly overwhelmed with the slate of nominees here.  However, out of all them, Malden's Mitch, the one man who genuinely loves Blanch Du Bois for herself (or rather, for the image she presents him, though part of me thinks he would love her for the real her) is the best of the bunch.  Mitch is one of my favorite characters in A Streetcar Named Desire, and Malden did such a good job.

Oscar Levant: An American In Paris
Karl Malden: A Streetcar Named Desire
Michael Rennie: The Day the Earth Stood Still
Peter Ustinov: Quo Vadis
Robert Walker: Strangers on a Train

Part of me really wants to give it to Walker's turn as the deranged, obsessed killer, especially since we should remember that Robert Walker started out his career as a romantic lead.  However, right now I'm leaning towards Levant's witty performance as the best friend to both men in love with the same woman that I think is a highlight of a film I'm not crazy over.  Despite the fact that his 'dream sequence' was completely irrelevant to whatever plot An American in Paris has, his scene with Gene Kelly and Georges Guetary when he realizes both men are talking about the same girl is brilliant.  Levant, like Ritter, appeared to play the same type, but at least here, it's put to good use. 

Did I ever tell you about the time I gave a command performance for Hitler?


Katherine Hepburn: The African Queen
Vivien Leigh: A Streetcar Named Desire
Eleanor Parker: Detective Story
Shelley Winters: A Place in the Sun
Jane Wyman: The Blue Veil

This Blue Veil must be pretty good to get nominations for Lead and Supporting Actress (even though I'm pretty sure most of us have never heard of it).  I still question the place of Winters in Lead.  I think in any other year, Hepburn would have won, but let's face it: Vivien Leigh was simply breathtaking as the Southern belle who is also flat-out bonkers in A Streetcar Named Desire, her dreams of genteel behavior brought down by harsh reality.  She may have wanted magic, but this cold, cruel world would not let her have it. 

It is tragic though that Leigh in real life would in a way become Blanch Du Bois due to her battle with mental illness, but in her performances we have some of the greatest pieces of acting on film.  All other Blanche Du Bois stand in her shadow, even the woman who originate the role on Broadway (Jessica Tandy), for when I think of Blanche Du Bois, Scarlett O'Hara's demented doppelganger, I think of the very British Vivien Leigh.

Susan Hayward: I Can Get it For You Wholesale
Katharine Hepburn: The African Queen
Vivien Leigh: A Streetcar Named Desire
Patricia Neal: The Day the Earth Stood Still
Elizabeth Taylor: A Place in the Sun

We got some great performances in some great films this year, but I see no reason to replace Leigh with anyone.


Humphrey Bogart: The African Queen
Marlon Brando: A Streetcar Named Desire
Montgomery Clift: A Place in the Sun
Arthur Kennedy: Bright Victory
Fredric March: Death of a Salesman

First, I think Lee J. Cobb should have recreated his stage performance for the film version of Death of Salesman, and wonder why they gave it to Fredric March.  Second, we can see how great the American theater was back then to produce both Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire.

This has been the most difficult one to choose from.  Leaving aside March and Kennedy, I have flipped constantly between the other three.  For the longest time, I had Clift's ambitious social climber whose dreams of the great beauty are undone by his own actions.  Then I thought how Brando changed acting with his Stanley Kowalski in Streetcar.  After that, I reflected on how well Bogart did in one of his most iconic roles.  After all that, I ended up back with our very beautiful but troubled young actor, a man with enormous talent, enormous physical beauty, but with enormous emotional problems.

This isn't a case of a weaker performance winning over a stronger one.  I'd have no problem with Bogart, Brando, or Clift having won.  At the moment though, I am coming full circle to give it to the much overlooked Clift, a man meant for greatness but also meant for self-destruction.

Humphrey Bogart: The African Queen
Marlon Brando: A Streetcar Named Desire
Montgomery Clift: A Place in the Sun
Michael Redgrave: The Browning Version
Alistair Sim: A Christmas Carol

I'm pulling a major upset in this category by giving my prize to Sim's iconic performance as Scrooge in A Christmas Carol.  Ebenezer Scrooge is one of the most played characters in film (we're talking close to characters like Hamlet), but I think of all the performers who have played Scrooge, I don't think any has come as close to perfection as Sim.  It's the equal in my view to those groundbreaking Method acting performances of Brando and Clift, as well as the non-Method style Bogart had.


An American in Paris
Decision Before Dawn
A Place in the Sun
Quo Vadis
A Streetcar Named Desire

It still astonishes me that the lightweight (I'd argue featherweight) An American in Paris won.  I think there was more than one Academy member who was genuinely shocked that this musical few people thought had a chance to overtake two of the great dramas of our time had actually been the name in the envelope.  Having seen all three films in question, I too am among those genuinely shocked to find that the Best Picture could be about a man who stalks a teenager old enough to be his daughter into being his girlfriend or that said girl would willingly go out with two men simultaneously.

I'm not taking away from the fact that An American in Paris has some beautiful moments (the closing ballet is a tour de force), but really, Best Picture?  I love Gershwin as much as anyone, and think the world of Gene Kelly (who would win his only Oscar for this film, an Honorary One for his versatility as an actor, singer, dancer, and choreographer).  Never mind that Kelly was screwed by the Academy for the rest of his career and life.

Also, I'd like for all those Redmaniacs to tell me how Crappie Redmayne is better than Gene Kelly in terms of 'acting, singing, dancing, and choreography'. 

It's really a battle between the two heavyweights, and for now, I'm going for the drama of romance gone wrong, tragically wrong, rather than the drama of delusions of grandeur. 

Tell Mama.  Tell Mama All...

The African Queen
The Day the Earth Stood Still
A Place in the Sun
Strangers on a Train
A Streetcar Named Desire

Honestly, I think there were far better films than An American in Paris (which again, I don't understand this cult built around it).  How The African Queen wasn't nominated is amazing.  I can see why both The Day the Earth Stood Still and Strangers on a Train were ignored (the Academy is surprisingly ignorant of quality, though for some such ignorance is beneficial...just ask Eddie Redmayne).  However, I don't see why my choice for the Best Picture of 1951, A Place in the Sun, should be replaced. 

Next Time, the 1952 Academy Awards.   

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