Tuesday, August 4, 2015

They Are Big. It's The Oscars That Got Small.

Jose Ferrer (right):
Best Actor for
Cyrano de Bergerac

The 23rd Academy Awards was a fierce battle between two brilliant films (a rarity in Oscar history).  The backstage realities of Hollywood and Broadway were the films dueling to be the big winners.  It seems to be an eternal struggle to decided whether Sunset Boulevard or All About Eve was THE Best Picture of 1950 (which has the effect of leaving the other nominees in the dust, and frankly, King Solomon's Mines?).

There's a lot of history to be had at this year's Academy Awards.  Sunset Boulevard had nominees in all four acting categories and lost each one (ah, Josephine Hull).  All About Eve, its great rival, earned six out of the record-setting 14 nominations, the most of any film in history (a feat to be tied only with Titanic).  As Joseph L. Mankiewicz's son Tom observed, when you think of how sprawling Titanic is, and then to think that the biggest piece of action in All About Eve was Bette Davis running down the stairs, it makes you appreciate the genius of the latter. 

Jose Ferrer's win for Best Actor was the first win for a Hispanic actor, and as of today no other Hispanic has won in for Lead Actor or Actress (all other Hispanic actors/actresses being in the Supporting category: Rita Moreno, Mercedes Ruehl, Anthony Quinn, and Benicio Del Toro. Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz, being Spaniards, are still the subject of debate, and Lupita N'yongo is Mexican by being born in Mexico to Kenyan parents, which I don't think qualifies her as Hispanic despite being born in Mexico).

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).



Mona Lisa from Captain Carey, U.S.A.
Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo from Cinderella
Mule Train from Singing Guns
Be My Love from The Toast of New Orleans
Wilhemina from Wabash Avenue

It's amazing that the film Captain Carey, U.S.A. is completely forgotten, but the song written for it, Mona Lisa, is now an American standard.  It helps when you have Nat King Cole singing it.  Out of all those years nominees, the only other song that has stood the test of time is Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo from Cinderella, which is a delightful number.  However, Mona Lisa IS a better song, which makes Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo a rare Disney song that didn't win when nominated.

That being said, I'm exercising my option to select a non-nominated song for my Best Original Song.   My nominees are...

Mona Lisa: Captain Carey, U.S.A.
Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo: Cinderella
Mule Train: Singing Guns
Be My Love: The Toast of New Orleans

and my winner

from Stage Fright, The Laziest Gal in Town.  Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter.

I love Jay Livingston and Ray Evans as songwriters, but it's COLE PORTER!  Also, you've got Dietrich being at her seductive best.  According to director/film historian Peter Bogdanovich, she loved introducing this song by saying she sang it for "Hitchcock", drawing as much sexual innuendo from "Hitchcock" as she could, emphasizing every noun in her Teutonic pronunciation.


George Cukor: Born Yesterday
John Huston: The Asphalt Jungle
Joseph L. Mankiewicz: All About Eve
Carol Reed: The Third Man
Billy Wilder: Sunset Boulevard

WHAT A CHOICE!  Each of these directors did a brilliant job with their film and all of them rank among the great directors.  You're rather spoiled for choice.  Mankiewicz became the first and as far as I know only person to win Best Director back-to-back (he did the same thing for Screenplay, having won in both categories for A Letter to Three Wives).  In terms of directing actors, Mankiewicz did a brilliant job with his all-star cast, but I think the deliberate theatricality of Sunset Boulevard and its brilliance put it on top for me.

Jules Dassin: Night and the City
John Huston: The Asphalt Jungle
Joseph L. Mankiewicz: All About Eve
Carol Reed: The Third Man
Billy Wilder: Sunset Boulevard

I'd make only one substitution, but not for my choice. 


Hope Emerson: Caged
Celeste Holm: All About Eve
Josephine Hull: Harvey
Nancy Olson: Sunset Boulevard
Thelma Ritter: All About Eve

Well, here we go again.  Two actresses from the same film cancelling each other out.  As much as I love Ritter, I don't understand why she was nominated at all since she pretty much disappears without explanation by the middle of the film.   I wasn't particularly overwhelmed by Olson either, and someone remind me, did Hope Emerson play the 'lesbian' prison warden (and turned such a figure as a stock character in future 'women-in-prison' movies)?  No Orange is the New Black for us tonight. 

Out of all the performances, I think it is Holm who merited the prize (sorry, but not tonight, Josephine).  She is the heart of All About Eve, the only one there who has human aspirations, not theatrical ones as she is the only one not enthralled with the idea of 'the arts'.  She is as close to what she was in Gentleman's Agreement with one difference: All About Eve was simply a much better movie.

Anne Baxter: All About Eve
Doris Day: Young Man With a Horn
Marlene Dietrich: Stage Fright
Jean Hagen: The Asphalt Jungle
Celeste Holm: All About Eve

Curiously, if it were up to me, we'd have two Best Supporting Actress nominees from the same film, only one of them would win.  What exactly possessed Anne Baxter to submit her name in the Lead rather than Supporting Actress category I have no idea.  I can guess (ego) but Baxter was completely insane in going for Lead rather than Supporting for at least two reasons.  One: I am one of those that holds that Baxter cause enough of a vote-split between herself, Bette Davis, and Gloria Swanson to cause them all to lose, and Two: Eve Harrington was a supporting part.  A major part, but Supporting nonetheless.

However, despite the bungled nomination and loss, who really remembers The Razor's Edge?  It's her performance as the Bitch from Hell we remember, and few characters have been as despicable as Eve Harrington (one of the Greatest Screen Villains in Film History according to The American Film Institute).  By turning things on their ear, Baxter really gave a fully-rounded performance, but by not going for Supporting (where let's face it, she had a better shot), she allowed a lot of bizarre goings-on that night.


Jeff Chandler: Broken Arrow
Edmund Gwenn: Mister 880
Sam Jaffe: The Asphalt Jungle
George Sanders: All About Eve
Erich von Stroheim: Sunset Boulevard

I read somewhere that when hearing of his nomination, the great von Stroheim was enraged...because it was in the SUPPORTING category.  Von Stroheim supporting?  MADNESS.  I bet he would have forgotten the insult if he'd won.  Fortunately, he didn't.  Out of the nominees, the race for me is between Sam Jaffe's brilliant criminal mastermind done in by his own vice for pretty young girls and George Sanders' cynical Addison De Witt (as brilliant and obvious a name as ever given to a character). 

Sanders gets it from me because he is sleazy, amoral, duplicitous, but hides it under a veneer of sophisticated charm...until the end, when he loses it briefly when confronting Eve and all but demanding she become his mistress.  Here, we see that he won't be made a fool out of by anyone, and the idea that Eve, this little harlot, would think she could bring down the great Addison De Witt was too much for him. 

Edmund Gween: Mister 880
Sam Jaffe: The Asphalt Jungle
George Sanders: All About Eve
Erich von Stroheim: Sunset Boulevard
Orson Welles: The Third Man

Has an actor really gotten a better introduction than Orson Welles' monstrous yet charming Harry Lime in The Third Man?  He pops in every so often, but his scenes are clever and sharp and witty (his "Cuckoo Clock" monologue is brilliant in its cynicism and accuracy about the wickedness of man) but we know that at the end, Harry Lime is evil, so his end is fitting and a bit sad.



Anne Baxter: All About Eve
Bette Davis: All About Eve
Judy Holliday: Born Yesterday
Eleanor Parker: Caged
Gloria Swanson: Sunset Boulevard

I don't think there has been a more contentious point of argument among those who follow the Oscars than this: was there vote-splitting in the Best Actress category that was so fierce it allowed Judy Holliday to win for her comedic performance in Born Yesterday? There are those adamant that because Baxter threw herself into the mix, and because both Davis and Swanson gave such outstanding performances, that Holliday snuck in with just enough votes to win because the other three split the votes among them.  Others that I've talked to insist that Holliday won the Oscar fair and square and that people voted FOR her rather than vote for the others.

I imagine that if Parker had won for her proto-Piper in Orange is the New Black role, the vote-splitting crowd (of which I belong to) would be taken more seriously.  There probably wouldn't be a debate at all, which makes me wonder exactly why no one raises the possibility that if Parker, rather than Holliday, had won, people would be closer in thought about this than they are now.

It isn't that Holliday is not deserving for her funny turn as Billie Dawn.  It's just that Bette Davis and Gloria Swanson created iconic characters in Margo Channing and Norma Desmond respectively, and despite Holliday's great work, are more remembered than her Billie Dawn.  I know there are some people who think Swanson was wildly over-the-top, but that is exactly how the character was.  Davis and Swanson were just so brilliant, it's really hard to choose between them.

Therefore, I'm declaring a tie and awarding them both the Best Actress Oscar.

Baxter should have submitted her name for Supporting rather than Lead, and I wonder if people speculate that if she had, would the non vote-splitting group still insist Holliday was the legitimate winner?  Curious this isn't applied to Marisa Tomei...

Peggy Cummins: Gun Crazy
Bette Davis: All About Eve
Judy Holliday: Born Yesterday
Gloria Swanson: Sunset Boulevard
Jane Wyman: Stage Fright

I am so tempted to pull an upset myself and give it to Cummins, but for the moment I'm sticking with my tie.


Louis Calhern: The Magnificent Yankee
Jose Ferrer: Cyrano de Bergerac
William Holden: Sunset Boulevard
James Stewart: Harvey
Spencer Tracy:  Father of the Bride

While there is endless debate about whether Holliday deserved to beat out both Bette Davis and Gloria Swanson, there doesn't seem to be as much when it comes to William Holden losing.  I'm big on Hispanics moving ahead in Hollywood, but if I'm honest I think Holden's performance as the hack Hollywood writer devoured by the industry was the best performance of the year.

I do wonder whether Montgomery Clift, the original choice for Joe Gillis, would have done better, though oddly the role of virtual gigolo to the faded silent film goddess was a bit too close for our closeted, sexually confused and tormented Monty.  Holden had no such baggage, and was able to be both sympathetic and sleazy (sometimes simultaneously).  In a sense, he is speaking to us from beyond the grave, as he narrates the story post-mortem.  By the middle of it, we forget that he's dead until the dramatic end, when we're brought back to his corpse. 

It's interesting to note that both Holden and Louis Calhern had great years this year: Holden not only had Sunset Boulevard but Born Yesterday and Calhern has his nomination and his brilliant turn as the sleazy lawyer in The Asphalt Jungle.  It's also odd that Calhern didn't win, but then again the Academy's derangement for giving Best Actor Oscars to biopics hadn't taken full form yet (but I bet Crappie Redmayne is so happy that it did eventually).

Joseph Cotten: The Third Man
Kirk Douglas: Young Man With a Horn
Sterling Hayden: The Asphalt Jungle
William Holden: Sunset Boulevard
Richard Widmark: Night and the City

I think these are all good performances (sorry, Louis).  However, I was most impressed with Sterling Hayden's performance as the good man who does bad things, the criminal who yearns for a clean life.  He's a man who has been made dirty by the dirty city but who at heart still yearns for the simple life of a quiet farm with horses, and hopes that his big score will let him out of his own prison.  It's a brilliant and heartbreaking performance.


All About Eve
Born Yesterday
Father of the Bride
King Solomon's Mines
Sunset Boulevard

Really, King Solomon's Mines?  I bet even its producers saw that and wondered, 'how'd we get here?'  Just as people still argue whether Judy Holliday really deserved to win, there is debate as to whether Sunset Boulevard lost when it should have won.  The argument on Sunset Boulevard losing to All About Eve is that the former hit too close to home and that Hollywood wasn't about to reward a film that painted itself in as hideous a light as possible (though I think the film's portrayal was probably softer than the reality).  Certainly voting for All About Eve (or at least against Sunset Boulevard) would be MGM's tyrant/genius Louis B. Meyer (though it would have been deliciously ironic if Sunset Boulevard, which he hated on sight, would have won the same night he won an Honorary Oscar/unofficial forced retirement prize)

However, let's put some things in perspective.  First, All About Eve had more nominations than Sunset Boulevard (14 to 11).   Second, both films lost in certain categories (Film Editing, Cinematography).  Third, Sunset Boulevard did beat All About Eve in other categories (Original Score and Art Director), which doesn't indicate a Citizen Kane-like rush to 'punish' Wilder for his dark mirror on Hollywood.  Fourth and perhaps most important, All About Eve is a brilliant film and I've never heard an argument that says otherwise.

I agree, it is a tough choice this year, but I think the Academy got it right when it gave its Best Picture Oscar to All About Eve

All About Eve
The Asphalt Jungle
Night and the City
Sunset Boulevard
The Third Man 

That being said, who can make the case that King Solomon's Mines is better than The Third Man?

I admire all the films above, but for me, I've grown to love The Third Man as being among one of the greatest films ever made.  My love for All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard remain intact, but for now, I choose The Third Man as my Best Picture of 1950.

Next Time: the 1951 Academy Awards.   

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