Thursday, January 20, 2011

West Side Story: I Believe in "America"

This will probably be the most personal of my blog entries. First of all, I’m a sucker for anything Romeo and Juliet related and West Side Story is my favorite Shakespeare film adaptation. West Side Story is also my father’s favorite film; he screened it for me when I was probably ten or eleven. At my wedding, my wife and I used mini-posters—like lobby cards—of Best Picture winners as table identifiers for the reception. My Auntie Lupe (my father’s sister) asked for the West Side Story place setting, saying that it was her favorite movie. My Auntie Lu also told me a bit of family legend: her eldest sister, Amelia, auditioned for a part in the film. The thing is, we aren’t even Puerto Rican; we’re Mexican, but Latinos everywhere claim the film for themselves.

What I also like about the film is that like many great films, my reaction to it has changed over time. Great films aren’t static; as you grow older and develop more life experiences, your perspective on your favorite films should change accordingly. A film that doesn’t offer fresh insight upon repeat viewings can be good—but not great. I remember when I first watched West Side Story; I was a full-on Jets guy.

It’s not hard to see why an eleven year old boy would like the Jets better than the Sharks. Let’s face it, the Jets are cool. They get the fantastic “Jet Song” that opens the film and the cool-as-hell introductory close-up—five tough guys, in close-up, snapping their fingers off the zoom-in from the birds-eye view of New York City. They have the funnier lines. They have the cooler names—Riff, Ice, Action, A-Rab, Tiger, Baby John. Riff, my favorite Jet, was based off my favorite character in Romeo and Juliet—Mercutio. I even recognized some of the actors. I knew that Russ Tamblyn and Richard Beymer—who play Riff and Tony, respectively—were also on a TV show I liked, Twin Peaks, though obviously older and in completely different kinds of roles (this should prove to you how strange I am—I was watching Twin Peaks surreptitiously at eleven).

But deep down—and this is a bit harder to admit than I would like, but completely necessary to say—I probably identified more with the Jets because I identified more with the white half of my ethnicity than the Mexican half. I don’t mean this as a negative thing—it’s simply a statement of fact. I lived in a small town full of mostly white people, went to school with mostly white kids taught by completely white teachers, and was raised by my white mother and white step-father. For all intents and purposes, my Mexican heritage was entirely subverted. I may as well have been 100% white. It was only natural that I identified with the characters that looked like me.

I can’t pinpoint when my allegiances shifted from the Jets to the Sharks, but I guarantee that the more I learned about my Mexican heritage and Latino culture, the more I felt that the Sharks were the true heroes of West Side Story. To be fair—I never disliked the Sharks. I liked George Chakiris and Rita Moreno—Shark leader Bernardo and his girl Anita, respectively—from the get go, and the Oscars they won for Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress are completely deserved. They’re easily the best performers in the film. The Jets though, were just that more cooler, and they were cooler for a long time.

My allegiances shifted when I began to pay more attention to the lyrics and the acting, which is something that comes more naturally as one becomes a more mature appreciator of film. Musicals can be especially challenging films in which to soak in and absorb every strata of detail. Granted, I think many musicals are insipid (and there are two very, very popular musicals that won Best Picture in the 1960’s after West Side Story that fall directly into that category), but when they’re created with obvious layers and deeper meanings, as West Side Story is, they demand multiple viewings over an extended period of time. Having said that, what stood out most to me upon first seeing the film was the story, the catchy and memorable songs and music (the soundtrack, from lyricist Stephen Sondheim and composer Leonard Bernstein, held the record for the bestselling film soundtrack for decades, and I think it is without peer in movie musicals), and of course, how cool the Jets were. Later, I judged the film on its fidelity to its source material (Shakespeare would be proud, says I). It probably wasn’t until I was in college, armed with a better understanding of my Latino heritage, that my perspective on West Side Story truly changed.

Basically, I finally started to pay attention to the lyrics in “America”.

“America” is the Sharks' big number in West Side Story. It comes roughly an hour into the film, toward the beginning of the second act. Until that point, the story is told almost entirely from the Jets’ perspective. The first act of the film closes with the big dance, where Tony meets Maria (Natalie Wood—a fine actress, but miscast as Puerto Rican), and the white guy’s interest in the brown girl (and her mutual interest in him) is used as a reason to escalate, in Anita’s words, “World War Three”. The second act opens with Tony’s song “Maria” (Beymer’s voice is dubbed by Jimmy Bryant, and Wood’s voice is dubbed by voice pro Marni Nixon, who dubbed Deborah Kerr in The King and I and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady). From there the film catches up with the Sharks in their tenement building. (It should be noted that the film changed the order of “America” and “Tonight”, the song which recreates the famous balcony sequence from Romeo and Juliet. In the Broadway show, “Tonight” is first, then “America” and I think it should have stayed that way. “America” was also substantially changed, but for the better, and more on that later.)

Bernardo, overprotective, lectures Maria about the dangers of dating outside her own race. In a timeless example of Latino machismo, Bernardo says, “Someday, when you are an old married woman with five children, then you can tell me what to do! But right now, it is the other way around.” Bernardo commands Maria to bed, and as he and Anita make their way to the techo of their tenement building, they begin the argument that forms the crux of “America”.

ANITA: You know, she has a mother. Also a father…
BERNARDO: They do not know this country any better than she does!
ANITA: And you do not know it at all! Girls here are free to have fun. She-is-in-America now.
BERNARDO: Puerto Rico is in America now!
ANITA: Sometimes I don’t know what is thicker—your skull, or your accent.

Before delving into the song, it is important to note that the rooftop is the one place where we see the Sharks and their girls truly relaxed and not on guard. This is important, because while “America” is a debate, it is a playful one. In minority communities, the most serious of issues are most often discussed in places where the community feels the most at ease and comfortable. For the Puerto Ricans, the techo is that place. The men are off-guard and have toned down the macho posturing they display when with the gang. The women do not have to be the silent dressmaker’s assistants. On the techo, they are free to speak their minds. While the gender inequality is still heavily tilted toward the men (Bernardo’s attitude toward his sister completely spells out which gender has the ultimate decision making power), the women speak as equally, as frequently, and as passionately as the men. In terms of contributing to the discussion, the sexes are equal. Most importantly, everyone is honest.

Anita continues the argument about Maria at the dance—“She was only dancing.” Bernardo retorts, displaying his own prejudices—“With an American. Who is really a Polack.” (More on the ethnicities of the Jets at the end.) Anita’s comeback: “Says the spic.” This leads into a conversation about the jobs the Shark boys hold down. The girls are impressed that Tony has a job. Chino (Jose DeVega) says he has a job, too—an assistant—and Bernardo complains that Chino “makes half of what the Polack makes.” There are some lighthearted jests at Bernardo’s observation—his friends have heard it many times before—but the issue eats at his own self-worth and impression of what America would be like for him. “Well, it is true! When I thought of how it would be for us here…We came like children, believing, trusting…” For Bernardo, there has been a serious breach of trust between him and his adopted home.
As the conversation continues, Bernardo’s complaint is sort of brushed aside—remember, everyone has heard it all before from him—his Shark buddies dream of what America will bring them, and what they will return to Puerto Rico with. “I’m going back with a Cadillac!” “Air-conditioned!” “Built-in-bar!” “Telephone!” “Television!” “Compatible color!” One of the girls points out, “If you had all that, why would you want to go back to Puerto Rico?” Anita replies, getting to the heart of her position: “Even if you didn’t have all that, why would you want to go back to Puerto Rico?” Bernardo: “It’s so good here?” Anita: “It’s so good there? We had nothing.” Bernardo again, with the upper hand: “Ah, we still have nothing—only more expensive.”

This leads to flirting between Bernardo and Anita (say it with me and Bernardo—“Anita Josefina Teresita Beatriz del Carmen Margarita—etcetera, etcetera…”), who have really been playfully teasing one another the whole time. Bernardo takes it a step too far when he accuses Anita of no longer being loyal to her home country. “And now she is queer for Uncle Sam.” This leads to the song (and I am going to copy the entire lyrics with speakers below).

ANITA: Puerto Rico, my heart’s devotion—
Let it sink back in the ocean.
Always the hurricanes blowing,
Always the population growing,
And the money owing,
And the sunlight streaming,
And the natives steaming.
I like the island Manhattan,
Smoke on your pipe and put that in.
GIRLS (chorus): I like to be in America,
Okay by me in America,
Everything free in America—
BERNARDO: For a small fee in America.
ANITA: Buying on credit is so nice.
BERNARDO: One look at us and they charge twice.
ROSALIA: I’ll have my own washing machine.
INDIO: What will you have though, to keep clean?
ANITA: Skyscrapers bloom in America.
ROSALIA: Cadillacs zoom in America.
ANOTHER GIRL: Industry boom in America.
SHARKS: Twelve in a room in America.
ANITA: Lots of new housing with more space.
BERNARDO: Lots of doors slamming in our face.
ANITA: I’ll get a terrace apartment.
BERNARDO: Better get rid of your accent.
ANITA and THREE GIRLS: Life can be bright in America.
BERNARDO: If you can fight in America.
ALL GIRLS: Life is all right in America.
SHARKS: If you’re all white in America.
(There is an interlude of whistling and back and forth dancing)
ANITA and CONSUELO: Here you are free and you have pride.
BERNARDO: Long as you stay on your own side.
ANITA: Free to be anything you choose.
SHARKS: Free to wait tables and shine shoes.
BERNARDO: Everywhere grime in America,
Organized crime in America,
Terrible time in America.
ANITA: You forget I’m in America.
(Another interlude with more dancing)
BERNARDO: I think I go back to San Juan
ANITA: I know what boat you can get on.
BERNARDO: Everyone there will give big cheer…
ANITA: Everyone there will have move here…
(“America” ends in an exuberant dance number.)

“America” is the immigrant experience in the United States of America. The dream and the promise; the reality and the cruelty. For the Sharks, their fight against the Jets isn’t simply because Bernardo doesn’t approve of Maria dancing with a white boy. They are fighting more a measure of respect and self-worth. For the Anita and the girls, America is a land of promise; Puerto Rico is the land of struggle and conflict. For them, America is the country where they are free and have pride. Both sides are correct, and for me, realizing that “America” illuminates the struggles immigrants face in this country is what made me be a Shark forever. These characters voice a struggle my father, his siblings and my grandparents face. It is a struggle that continues to be fought today. It is an issue I grapple with, that friends of mine grapple with. Having the Sharks and their girls voice this in West Side Story gives immigrants a voice on the silver screen; it gives us heroes that we can identify with.

“America” also represents a conscious choice on the part of the filmmakers to give voice to immigrant issues on screen. In the original Broadway production, “America” was originally a duet between Anita, who defended America, and Rosalia, who took up the cause for Puerto Rico. Some of the lyrics in the original song could also be interpreted as painting a caricature of the island (example: “I’ll drive a Buick through San Juan/ If there’s a road you can drive on”). When adapted for screen, co-director Jerome Robbins made the decision to according to Moreno, “bring the boys in”. The lyrics were also re-worked to eliminate many of the lyrics that could be construed as too offensive. To be fair, the “America” in the film certainly paints the United States as the country of promise and opportunity, while Puerto Rico is home to poverty and suffering, but the song also makes room for some vicious, stinging and absolutely true criticisms about America.

And what an incredible range of issues the song brings up! There is a litany of topics brought up and dispelled, from simply purchasing items in a store (“Buying on credit is so nice/ One look at us and they charge twice”), to housing issues (“Twelve in a room in America”, “I’ll get a terrace apartment/ Better get rid of that accent”), job prospects (“Free to be anything you choose/ Free to wait tables and shine shoes”), to the big issue: facing the reality that the American dream, as advertised, does not apply to minorities because of the color of their skin and their native tongue. What else could possibly be meant when the girls sing “Life is all right in America”, then the boys retort—and this is so bad ass and subversive—“If you’re all-white in America”? All-white in America—that is the burning issue, it’s what eats at Bernardo and the other Sharks, causing them to rise up and take arms.

What is fantastic is that the girls are also right. When Bernardo has his opportunity to present his version of America—“Everywhere grime in America/ Organized crime in America/ Terrible time in America”—Anita hits him right back with a simple truth: “You forget I’m in America.” Anita here isn’t simply Bernardo’s girlfriend; she is his future, the promise of family. And really, isn’t that why immigrants come to America? The promise of a bright future for your family. Puerto Rico is where Anita is from; America is where her family will live. The song ends with the line, “Everyone there will have moved here.” What family will Bernardo have if her were to go back?

Bernardo also forgets that he and the Sharks aren’t the only ones having to deal with racism and social inequity. Anita and the other girls have to deal with all the same shit (a scene toward the end of the film, where Anita goes to the Jets to give a message to Tony, shows how nasty she really has it). What future do they have working in the dress shop? Not much of one. The girls have to hitch their post to a strong man, and hope that he isn’t pigheaded enough to get himself killed. The girls have made their choice—they know that America isn’t the paradise of freedom they dreamed it to be, but they have no other choice but to make the best of a less than ideal situation. The question becomes: How are these men going to deal with it?

The answer, of course, is a tragic one. Bernardo ends up unable to look past his anger. He ends up with a knife in his chest. The Jets are scarcely able to look past their own anger, and both the lives of Riff and Tony are claimed by violence. What West Side Story subtly implies is that the Jets are also descendants of immigrants. Tony is Polish, and the auburn-headed Riff is obviously Irish. Action (Tony Mordente) is clearly Italian. (I also love the tomboy Anybodys—played by Sue Oakes—who is unquestionably a lesbian.) Every one of the Jets belongs to a low economic class, a fact they are all aware of and confront with great humor in “Gee, Officer Krupke.” The tragic irony in West Side Story is that there are two sets of immigrants fighting one another. If the Puerto Ricans weren’t in their neighborhood, the European immigrants that make up the Jets would be on the bottom of the scrap heap, the lowest of the low.

What each group doesn’t understand is that the Jets could be singing “America” and the Sharks could be singing “Gee, Officer Krupke” and “Cool” and the words in each song would be true for both of them. When they could be working together collectively to improve the social and economic outlook of their neighborhood—their turf, if you will—they choose to deal with their anger through conflict. The tragic force of that irony comes full circle in the final minutes of the film. Inexorably, bloody consequences await, as Bernardo murders Riff, Tony murders Bernardo, Chino murders Tony, and both Anita and Maria are essentially widowed. Maria grabs Chino’s gun, and asks: “How many bullets are left Chino? Enough for you? And you? All of you? You all killed him! And my brother! And Riff! Not with bullets and knives! With hate! Well I can kill too! Because now I have hate! How many can I kill, Chino? How many—and still have one bullet left for me?” Only after violence has wracked these young people with its terrible consequences can these two groups of immigrants come to any sort of understanding. The Jets and the Sharks come together to carry Tony’s body away, and the audience’s tears are well earned.

West Side Story succeeds where so many musicals fail because it allows for thematic complexity. Musicals, by design, are meant to have simple stories with simple themes. What‘s The Sound of Music really about other than being strict and uptight is no way to raise children? My Fair Lady tells us that love isn’t defined by class. In An American in Paris, art and love are one and the same. The Wizard of Oz tells us there is no place like home (actually, that story is pretty complex, but the simple message is what is most remembered). West Side Story is an adaptation of a story that everyone knows—Romeo and Juliet—and like the play, the simple message of the story is why must tragedy unite warring factions instead of love? Yet where the play is primarily focused on the star-crossed lovers, West Side Story gives equal weight to what motivates the supporting characters.

In many ways, the heart of the film belongs to the Jets and the Sharks. Part of this is by design—Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer neither sing nor dance as Tony and Maria in the film. As mentioned earlier, their voices were dubbed, and the few scenes where pair is required to dance—the gymnasium sequence, “I Feel Pretty”—the choreography is rudimentary. Compare their participation to the majority of the cast filling out the ranks of the Jets and the Sharks and their girls. From the ballet inspired steps of “Jet Song” to the sweat drenched and intense “Cool”, the dancing in the film is a major factor in telling the story. Look at how dance is used in “America”, especially in the caustic responses from the boys (my favorite bit has to be when they act out “Twelve in a room in America”) and how the girls flirt and tease right back. The song could be wordless (and “Cool”, for the most part, is) and the idea of the two different Americas could be read loud and clear.

Jerome Robbins, who co-directed and choreographed West Side Story, was a relentless taskmaster that demanded absolute perfection from his dancers. The cost of perfection made for a busy costuming department, as dancers wore out over 200 pairs of shoes, had over 100 pounds of makeup sweat right off their bodies, and 27 male dancers danced until their pants split open. Not to mention the crushing physical toll taken on their bodies, as the first aid unit dealt with numerous injuries (and according to the making-of article included in the DVD booklet, 18,000 Band-Aids were applied during the production) and dancers literally passing out from exhaustion.

Because of their limitations as dancers, Beymer and Wood were unable to contribute to the film on the same level as their castmates. As such, the love story in the film inevitably carries less weight. I also feel that while most of West Side Story is perfection, it is not a film without flaw. Frankly, the Tony and Maria sections of the film are far less compelling and more than a little saccharine. The flaws in their storyline only serve to make the social conflict in the film even more compelling, and the screenplay is structured so that each story carries equal weight. And I will say that when the finale of the film hits, when the love story and the gang conflict intercede, it is Wood who gives the film its final, haunting power.

Finally, I think the choice to make West Side Story not only a tragic love story, but a social issues picture improves and modernizes the source material. Shakespeare created a masterpiece in Romeo and Juliet, but the Capulets and Montagues are the Hatfields and McCoys of the theater—the feud has been going on for ages, and nobody can recall how it began. The Capulets and Montagues are also two upper class families, and one gets the sense that the feud is really about which family is richer. Only though the character of Prince Escalus—a minor part—does Shakespeare tip his quill as how the blood feud of the two families has affected Verona. In West Side Story, there is no specific reason as to how the rivalry between the gangs was sparked, but the broad reasons are abundantly clear. In “America” the Sharks sing that because their adopted country has shown nothing but racism and hardship toward Puerto Rican immigrants, they must fight to gain respect. For the Jets, it’s a socioeconomic issue. They have to keep the Sharks down because they no longer wish to be the lowest of the low in terms of social class. Both reasons run deeper than mere hatred.

When I examine why my family loves the film so, a big reason is, of course, the film is ridiculously entertaining. As far back as I can remember my father has hummed the tunes and sang the lyrics from songs in West Side Story. Yet without ever directly vocalizing it, my father showed the film to me because there were characters in the film that he identified with, who looked like him, that shared the same struggles. He was telling me—these too, are your people. On a subconscious level, we all identify with characters that look like us. Countless musicals—which in the early 1960’s were basically the equivalent to a 3D special effects blockbuster today, in other words, the bread-and-butter moneymakers for the Hollywood studios—are the near-exclusive domain of characters white as Wonder bread with problems vanilla as a milkshake. (Which is why, as fine of an actress as Natalie Wood was, it’s a bit hard to buy her as Puerto Rican, another flaw with the character of Maria.) Latinos, regardless of country or origin, claim West Side Story as their own because the film chooses to give voice to characters of color. My father knew this, and knew exactly what he was doing when he showed West Side Story to his son. It just took me a bit longer to catch on to the message.

Te adoro, Papa.


West Side Story (1961)

Director: Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins

Starring: Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, Russ Tamblyn, Jose DeVega, Sue Oakes, Marni Wood*

Studio: United Artists

Total Oscars: 10* (Best Picture—Robert Wise, Best Director—Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins**, Best Supporting Actor—George Chakiris, Best Supporting Actress—Rita Moreno, Best Art Direction (called at the time, Best Set Decoration, Color), Best Cinematography (Color), Best Costume Design (Color), Best Editing, Best Score, Best Sound) from 11 nominations (Best Adapted Screenplay—Ernest Lehman)

* Jerome Robbins was also awarded a special Oscar for Brilliant Achievements in the Art of Choreography on Film (though it does not toward the official total)
**Wise and Robbins set an Oscar record by becoming the first “established duo” of directors to be nominated for and win the Best Director Oscar. In addition to Wise and Robbins, Warren Beatty and Buck Henry were nominated for 1978’s Heaven Can Wait. Joel and Ethan Coen became the second established duo to win a Best Director Oscar for 2007’s No Country For Old Men.

NEXT BLOG: Lawrence of Arabia

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Apartment: Shut Up and Deal

The Apartment is a perfect film to begin a discussion about the Academy Awards in the 1960’s because in many ways it is a film that bridges the 32 years of Best Picture winners that preceded it to the fifty years of Oscar history that would follow. The film’s final line delivered with razor-sharp precision timing by Shirley MacLaine—“Shut up and deal”—is also the perfect angle in which to approach the ten Best Pictures of the decade. In a period of unmatched tumultuous social change, the most enduring films were the ones that chose to shut up and deal with the changes Americans faced.

The Apartment is also the perfect transitory film because it is the last film to win Best Picture to be shot entirely in black and white (Steven Spielberg used black and white film for Schindler’s List in 1993, yet that was a deliberate artistic choice, and the film also has sections where color is used for specific purposes). However, like its recent Best Picture-winning predecessors, the film is gloriously widescreen. It gives Ben-Hur and The Bridge on the River Kwai a run for its money in terms of scope. The look of the film straddles the past and the future. Unlike the chiaroscuro film stock, there is nothing black and white about the themes contained in The Apartment. The story is extraordinarily modern and it perhaps resonates stronger now than when it premiered over fifty years ago (Look at the television show Mad Men, which exists squarely under the shadow of The Apartment).

What makes The Apartment a great film is the way director Billy Wilder pull the audience in alongside his characters. I think Wilder was a great humanist filmmaker. What I mean by humanist is this: Wilder’s films contain characters drawn with such a depth of humanity that it becomes impossible for the audience not to be carried alongside their journeys. These characters are just as human as the viewers watching them. In Double Indemnity, we are seduced along with Walter Neff (played by Fred MacMurray, who also has a key, also similarly against type role as an insurance man in The Apartment) when he meets deadly Phyllis Dietrichson and mistakes murder for honeysuckle. Ray Milland makes Don Birnam’s alcoholism so profound in The Lost Weekend that we can smell the booze sweating out of his pores as he searches for the bottle of hidden whiskey. A funeral for a monkey in Sunset Boulevard makes Norma Desmond’s madness palpable, inspiring both horror and sympathy. The idea of two men being able to find the meaning of true love only after they have disguised themselves as women sounds absolutely absurd, but in Wilder’s hands Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon (Lemmon plays the lead role in The Apartment, and in many ways, he was Wilder’s muse) make the absurd logical in Some Like it Hot. Every one of these films is a classic because the characters endure.

Each of the main characters in Wilder’s films share a common trait—loneliness—and in The Apartment, that great existential theme drives the actions of the characters in the film.

The film opens with a brief montage of New York City. Wilder means to convey the metropolis is a bustling epicenter of human life and commerce, but the helicopter shots of towering skyscrapers and office buildings underscore the fact that a single individual could easily find themselves lost among the hubbub. The narration is provided by C.C. “Bud” Baxter (Lemmon), an average, hard working yet powerless white collar worker employed by Consolidated Life of New York. Bud describes New York as if he were reading off the back of a baseball card. “On November 1st, 1959, the population of New York City was 8,042,783. If you laid all these people end to end, figuring an average height of five feet six and a half inches, they would reach from Times Square to the outskirts of Karachi, Pakistan.” His description of his workplace is just as statistically bent:

“We're one of the top five companies in the country. Our home office has 31,259 employees—which is more than the entire population of Natchez, Mississippi. I work on the 19th floor—Ordinary Policy Department, Premium Accounting Division, Section W, desk number 861. My name is C. C. Baxter—C. for Calvin, C. for Clifford, however most people call me Bud. I've been with Consolidated for three years and ten months and my take-home pay is $94.70 a week.”

Wilder then gives us a shot of the interior of Bud’s office on the 19th floor—a literal sea of desks, with one benign occupant after another (the shot is an homage to King Vidor’s 1928 silent film The Crowd). Bud even provides us this detail: “The hours in our department are 8:50 to 5:20—they're staggered by floors, so that sixteen elevators can handle the 31,259 employees without a serious traffic jam.” Bud is just one man in an ocean of desks, in a skyscraper that houses a small city, where elevator rides must be scheduled as to not upend the entire building. In a city where he is surrounded by eight million other people, Bud could not be more alone.

Bud’s narration dives right into the main plot of The Apartment. He often arrives at his desk early and stays late despite the prime location of his apartment in the “West Sixties, just half a block from Central Park”. What could keep a man away from an apartment which is “just right for a bachelor”? Bud has found a way to advance his career, by loaning his apartment out to his superiors so that they can engage in extramarital trysts with the secretaries, telephone operators and other low-level female employees in the firm (it should be noted that all of the female employees at Consolidated Life are low level; this doesn’t make The Apartment a sexist film, merely a historically accurate one). This arrangement is a fruitful way of brown-nosing, and Bud enjoys being called a “bright boy” and hearing promises of a promotion. However, Bud incurs two problems with this arrangement, one he is unaware of, and one that is painfully obvious.

The painfully obvious part of his problem is that his apartment is loaned out so often that he is unable to use it for a social life of his own. The “hospitality” the apartment provides Bud’s bosses extend well after work hours. When Bud does get home, he usually has a TV dinner and a bottle of Coke, a late night movie his only companionship (in one scene, Bud watches the 1932 Best Picture Grand Hotel, another film about lonely people in a busy place). Bud also suffers looks of indignation and scorn from his neighbors, especially Dr. and Mrs. Dreyfuss (Jack Kruschen and Naomi Stevens). Because Bud’s “guests” fail to ever clean up after themselves, Bud often has to tote bags of empty bottles of alcohol down to the garbage. While there, Dr. Dreyfuss comments, “The way you're beltin' that stuff, you must have a pair of cast-iron kidneys....As a matter of fact, you must be an iron man all around. From what I hear through the walls, you got somethin' goin' for ya every night...Sometimes, there's a twi-night double-header. A nebbish like you!” Bud never bothers to correct the assumption that he is a boozehound, skirt-chaser, and all around lothario. He assumes that if he keeps a low profile and keeps his supervisors happy, the ever-elusive promotion will come his way.

What Bud remains unaware of is that his supervisors regard him as a doormat. The first supervisor who absconds to the apartment in the film, Kirkeby (David Lewis), tells his mistress that the dwelling belongs to “some schnook in the office”. Later, Mr. Dobisch (character actor Ray Walston, and if you’ve seen Fast Times at Ridgemont High you’ll recognize him instantly), another middle manager, wishes to extend his date. He phones Bud at 11 pm, rousing him from his sleep, simply because he wants to screw his date, a “blonde who looks like Marilyn Monroe” (a dig at the actual Monroe, who though irreplaceable, gave Wilder absolute fits when directing her in his previous picture, Some Like It Hot). Bud doesn’t want to give up the only activity he can enjoy in his apartment—sleep—but Dobisch blackmails him, saying "Look Baxter, we're making out the monthly efficiency rating, and I'm putting you in the top ten. Now you don't want to louse yourself up, do you?" Bud meekly acquiesces, spending the night on a hard bench on a cold November night in Central Park. He’s in so deep, that in many ways, he has become a secretary for his own home, keeping each middle manager on a rigid schedule and having to iron out conflicts when two bosses wish to cheat on their wives on the same night. Bud isn’t moving upward, he’s simply becoming a bigger bitch for mid-level management.

Bud does have at least one source of happiness at Consolidated Life—his daily ride on the elevator. It is there that he flirts with the charming and cheerful elevator operator, Fran Kubelik (the incandescent Shirley MacLaine). Miss Kubelik is also clearly likes him (in a friendly way)—she is compassionate toward Bud comes in the elevator sick, she places a carnation in his buttonhole when Bud is nervous upon being summoned for a meeting, and she tells him, crucially, that “something happens to men in elevators. Must be the change in altitude—the blood rushed to their head or something—boy I could tell you stories.” Bud, however, does not rank among these men. He is the only man who removes his hat as a sign of respect when he enters Fran’s elevator; she’s noticed, and she thinks Bud is a nice guy. When Bud tires to find out information about her from Kirkeby—whom Fran has rejected before—he is told that Fran plays hard to get and that she isn’t that special. Bud defends her, calling Fran “a nice, respectable girl.”

In that first act, Wilder and his co-writer I.A.L. Diamond gives the audience everything we need to know about Bud and Fran. He is lonely, angling for a promotion, and at heart a romantic; the removing of his hat in Fran’s elevator and his chivalrous defense of her prove that trait. Fran shows true kindness in addition to being charming and attractive. There is also an undeniable mystery and allure to the girl. Wilder and Diamond provide the set up for the audience to be on the side of these two characters; Lemmon and MacLaine make us want to know them better. What will become of the moral quandary Bud has found himself in? Will we ever know more about this cute, elusive and charming girl who runs the elevator? Luckily, the answer to both questions is yes.

The big twist in the plot occurs when Bud is summoned to the office of the Director of Personnel, Jeff D. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray, playing a version of his Walter Neff had he survived Double Indemnity and rose up through the ranks from insurance salesman). Bud figures that Sheldrake has discovered that he is letting his superiors use his apartment for their infidelities, and that Sheldrake will fire him on grounds of moral turpitude. Instead, Bud is surprised that Dobisch, Kirkeby and the others have finally recommended him for promotion. There is a catch though, because Sheldrake does know about the apartment—“I know everything that goes on in this building”, Sheldrake intones. It turns out that Sheldrake is just as adulterous as Dobisch, Kirkeby and the rest, and he seeks to gain membership into Bud’s “little club”. At first, Bud can hardly believe he isn’t being fired, but Sheldrake buys him off with a pair of tickets to The Music Man and the promotion. Bud’s rationale: “Four apples, five apples, what’s the difference, percentage-wise” (Wilder and Diamond create an extended gag in the film by tacking “-wise” onto the end of several words in the script; it is even seen in the tagline in the film’s poster).

Bud is so excited with his promotion and now that he has a pair of tickets to the hot Broadway show, he works up the courage to as Fran out on a date. She declines at first, citing a previous commitment to meet another man for a drink, but Fran is unsure of her current relationship, calling it “more or less kaput.” She dismisses dinner with Bud, but agrees to meet him at 8:30 in the lobby of the theater for the start of the show. What Bud does not suspect is that the man Fran is meeting is Sheldrake, and they have had an on-again, off-again affair.

The night of The Music Man Fran and Sheldrake have a conversation in a Chinese restaurant, in the booth nearest to the back, that reveals how Fran is torn about their relationship (in a nice touch, the piano man in the restaurant plays “Jealous Lover” upon Fran’s entrance). It is the first date between Fran and Sheldrake in six weeks. Sheldrake tells her, “It's been hell...You don't know what it's like, standing next to you in that elevator, day after day. Good morning, Miss Kubelik. Good night, Mr. Sheldrake. I'm so crazy about you, Fran...I never said goodbye, Fran.” Wise to Sheldrake’s pleas, Fran retorts, “For a while there, you try kidding yourself that you're going with an unmarried man. Then one day, he keeps looking at his watch, and asks you if there's any lipstick showing, then rushes out to catch the 7:14 to White Plains. So you fix yourself a cup of instant coffee—and you sit there by yourself, and you think—and it all begins to look so ugly…What do you want from me?” Sheldrake tells Fran that he wants her back. He tells her that he is getting a divorce from his wife. Still, Fran is unfazed. “They got it on a long-playing record now. Music to String Her Along By. My wife doesn't understand me. We haven't gotten along for years. You're the best thing that ever happened to me.” Finally, Sheldrake plays his trump card: he will promise to divorce his wife if Fran promises to tell him that she loves him. With resignation, Fran says, “You know I do.” This is a woman trapped between what her heart is telling her and what her conscience knows is right. All the while, Wilder cuts to Bud waiting in the theater lobby for Fran. He has been stood up. As Sheldrake and Fran leave the restaurant, he hails a cab to take the pair to Bud’s apartment.

Six more weeks pass, and Bud and Fran do not talk to one another until the Consolidated Life Christmas party (on Christmas Eve). His anger toward Fran for standing him up has subsided considerably, going so far as forgiving her. Bud tells Fran: “I mean, when you're having a drink with one man, you can't suddenly walk out on him because you're having another date with another man. You did the only decent thing.” Fran tells Bud that she is “no Girl Scout”. Bud will hear nothing of it, saying “as far as I'm concerned, you're tops, I mean, decency-wise, and otherwise-wise.” While Bud forgives Fran, secrets are also spilled under the influence of alcohol. Miss Olsen (Edie Adams), Sheldrake’s secretary, has seen Sheldrake parade his mistresses in front of her desk for the past four years; she was, in fact part of the parade at one time. A conversation is all it takes for Miss Olsen to dispel Fran’s fantasies.

Miss Olsen: Hi. How's the branch manager from Kansas City?
Fran: I beg your pardon?
Miss Olsen: I'm Miss Olsen, Mr. Sheldrake's secretary...You don't have to play innocent with me. He used to tell his wife I was the branch manager from Seattle, four years ago when we were having a little ring-a-ding-ding.
Fran: I'm sorry; I don't know what you're talking about.
Miss Olsen: And before me, there was Miss Rossi in Auditing, and after me there was Miss Koch in Disability, and right before you, there was Miss, uhm, oh What's-Her-Name, on the twenty-fifth floor...You haven't done anything. It's him—oh, what a salesman! Always the last booth in the Chinese restaurant—and the same pitch about divorcing his wife—and in the end, you wind up with egg foo yong on your face.

Fran can no longer take it, and seeks out some comfort from Bud. He proudly shows her his new office, where there is a Christmas card from Sheldrake—pictured with his wife, sons, and dog—open on Bud’s desk. Fran begins to cry. When she goes to reapply her makeup, Bud notices Fran is using a compact—he recognizes a fleur-de-lis pattern—that he returned to Sheldrake after he used the apartment. He pieces together that Sheldrake and Fran have been having an affair. Both Bud and Fran leave the party disillusioned; Bud seeks comfort in booze at a dive bar, Fran leaves with Sheldrake to the apartment.

Back at the apartment, Sheldrake and Fran exchange gifts. She gives him a record. Sheldrake tells Fran that he cannot spend much time with her, that he has to be home because his in-laws are there, and that he is obligated to spend Christmas Eve with his family. Miss Olsen’s words prove prophetic—Sheldrake is the master salesman, and he has been stringing Fran along. He tells her, “When you've been married to a woman for twelve years, you just don't sit down at the breakfast table and say, 'Pass the sugar, I want a divorce.' It's not that easy. Anyway, this is the wrong time. The kids are home from school. My in-laws are visiting for the holidays. I can't bring it up now.” Fran knows now that there will never be a good time for Sheldrake to broach the subject of divorce with his wife. “You'd think I would have learned by now - when you're in love with a married man, you shouldn't wear mascara,” Fran says acknowledging the futility of her relationship. Sheldrake drives the stake Fran’s heart when he gives her his gift—a one hundred dollar bill. “You go and buy yourself something,” Sheldrake tells Fran, proving to her (and the audience) that she is no more than a prostitute in his eyes.

The theme of prostitution, or as is the case with Bud and Fran, of compromising one’s morals to attain a personal goal, runs deep in The Apartment. Bud has prostituted himself by turning his home into a hotel with rates by the hour. He isn’t a second administrative assistant; he is a scheduling manager for a brothel. Fran has it even worse. She has convinced herself that if she loves a married man enough, that he will return that love and marry her. Yet how much does it really weigh on her mind that if she receives a marriage proposal from Sheldrake, she will play a part destroying a family. Never mind that Sheldrake has made a farce of his wedding vows for years, Fran knows she is doing something morally compromising, and chooses to do it anyway. Simply because Sheldrake cheats on his wife does not mean that Fran should allow him to cheat on his wife with her. Bud—a single man with whom she shares a mutual attraction—could be a good man for her, but she deludes herself into thinking that Sheldrake will change. When Sheldrake gives her the $100, all he is doing is exposing Fran for what she has been in his eyes—a whore. What is worse is that Fran, until that moment (and this is true of Miss Olsen and the other women who the bosses cheat with) was lower than a whore. At least a prostitute is paid for her services.

The remainder of The Apartment seeks redemption for both Bud and Fran. In doing so, Wilder and Diamond’s script masterfully changes in tone—a move that would sink less assured screenwriters (and in Wilder’s case, director), but here is where the film truly becomes something memorable.

On the same Christmas Eve, bud returns to his apartment inebriated, with an equally lush date in tow. Upon entering his bedroom, he sees Fran passed out on his bed, having overdosed on a bottle of sleeping pills. At first, Bud is incensed at the sight of Miss Kubelik, but he soon realizes that Fran's health is critical. He dismisses his date (and really, what can the poor guy do to get laid in his own apartment?), and raps on the door of Dr. Dreyfuss. Dreyfuss already has a low opinion of Bud, and when the doctor spots a note lying next to the bed; he assumes that Bud has driven Fran to attempt suicide. Bud pleas with Dreyfuss to revive Fran, and he begrudgingly does so. The resuscitation is staged with such intensity that there is considerable doubt to Fran’s survival; the scene also helps jolt the film from being a lighthearted adultery comedy to a potentially tragic suicide drama.

Finally, Dreyfuss gives Bud a piece of his mind: “As your neighbor, I'd like to kick your keister clear around the block! I don't know what you did to that girl in there, and don't tell me, but it was bound to happen, the way you carry on. Live now, pay later. Diner's Club! Why don't you grow up, Baxter? Be a mensch! You know what that means? A mensch—a human being!” Dreyfuss has been incorrect in assuming Bud is a playboy, yet he rightly points out that Bud’s callous behavior reflects a lack of compassion for humanity. Bud may not have broken Fran’s heart, but he has created the environment for heartbreak. He is indirectly responsible for Fran’s suicide attempt.

Over the next few days, as Fran convalesces, a relationship slowly begins to develop between Bud and Fran. They spend Christmas together. They both speak of their failed romances. They play gin rummy. Fran tells of how she came to live in New York and become an elevator operator. Bud cooks spaghetti for her; the scene where Bud uses a tennis racket to strain the noodles is a great, pure example of a bachelor taking sublime pleasure in cooking a meal for the woman he loves for the first time, and Lemmon plays it perfectly. Bud tells her, “Me, I used to live like Robinson Crusoe, I mean shipwrecked among eight million people. Then, one day I saw a footprint in the sand, and there you were. It's a wonderful thing, dinner for two.” Bud is clearly in love with Fran; she though, remains cool, and says, “Why can't I ever fall in love with somebody nice like you?” Bud’s reply: “That’s the way it crumbles, cookie-wise.”

Meanwhile, back at Consolidated, change is afoot. Winning the Boss-of-the-Year Award, Sheldrake fires Miss Olsen for revealing his adulterous history to Fran. She serves him up with a sharp reply—“You let me go four years ago, Jeff. Only you were cruel enough to make me sit out there and watch the new models pass by."—and as a parting gift, she tells Mrs. Sheldrake about her husband’s infidelities. As a result, Mrs. Sheldrake begins divorce proceedings, and Sheldrake is kicked out of his home, living out of his suitcases at the men-only Athletic Club. Sheldrake—who was too cowardly to ask for the divorce himself—couldn’t be happier, and with the barrier of family no longer in place, he intends to rekindle his relationship with Fran. As a result, Bud is again rewarded with a promotion and the most symbolic gift of all—a key to the executive washroom.

Still, this isn’t a no-strings-attached promotion, and Sheldrake expects to continue to be allowed use of the apartment. Upon hearing this, Bud finally understands what it means to be a mensch. Sheldrake is shocked, telling Bud, “It takes years to work your way up to the 27th floor, but it only takes 30 seconds to be out on the street again.” Bud is no longer threatened. He passes the key to the executive washroom back to Sheldrake (who initially mistakes it for the key to the apartment), saying “I won’t be needing it, because I’m all washed up around here.”

On New Year’s Eve, a furious Sheldrake carries his anger over into a meeting with Fran in the Chinese restaurant. Sheldrake bitterly complains, "Just walked out on me, quit, threw that big fat job right in my face...that little punk, after all I did for him. Said I couldn't bring anybody to the apartment, especially not Miss Kubelik." Finally, this allows Fran to see that Bud is the right man for her. She tells Sheldrake, “I guess that’s the way it crumbles, cookie-wise.” She leaves a dumbfounded Sheldrake alone as revelers in the restaurant sing Auld Lang Syne.

The final scene is handled with remarkable restraint and perhaps a sly bit of skepticism. Fran, jubilant, runs down the street to Bud’s apartment. She finds him there alone with a bottle of champagne. Bud can hardly believe Fran is at his door. They resolve to move on to "another neighborhood, another town, another job." Regardless of where they end up, they know they will be together. Those who were once alone have found another person to share a meal with. They play another hand of gin rummy, and Bud finally tells Fran, “I love you, Miss Kubelik.” She remains reticent, almost stone faced, and continues to play the game. Bud tells her, “Did you hear what I said, Miss Kubelik? I absolutely adore you.” Her response is a fantastic one liner that closes the film: “Shut up and deal.”

What makes the ending perfect is that Wilder doesn’t immediately give the audience the saccharine conclusion they expect. Bud doesn’t kiss Fran in a moment of passion—in fact, our lovers are never seen kissing in the film—he only tells her he loves her, and she appears to be ignoring him. What Wilder knows is that the corny ending, the saccharine embrace, the give-over to romance is not in character for Bud and Fran. These are two weary souls, recovering from loneliness. Bud has told Fran he loves her; we know Fran loves him, when she surprises him on New Year’s Fran gives Bud all the acknowledgement of love he will ever need. The rummy game is a metaphor, for these two people have literally laid out all of their cards on the table to each other. All that remains is to shut up, and deal with it.

The Apartment signals a trend in film where romance is rejected in favor of realism. Bud and Fran don’t have a “meet cute” scene. They never go on a date. Neither of them makes a grand gesture of love to win the other over; their consciences come to the conclusion that they should be together. What they do understand is that each has made the other a whole human being. They no longer have to be lonely among eight million. The remainder of their lives is what they will have to deal with.

The 1960’s film that most embraces the notion of rejecting romanticism in favor of idealism is The Graduate. Ben whisks Elaine away—on her wedding day—in spectacular fashion. But when the young lovers board that bus together, Dustin Hoffman and Katherine Ross give the audience some two of the most quizzical and unsettled looks ever seen on film, and the audience isn’t left with happily ever after, instead, the characters seem to be saying, “Did I just really do that?” Wilder doesn’t end The Apartment on anywhere near of ambiguous of a notion, but neither does he give us the happily ever after we expect. He lets Fran do the speaking for him: “Shut up and deal.” He is saying that relationships are not always filled with fun and romance; they’re not an evening frolic in a bachelor’s apartment. In The Apartment, a true relationship is the one where two people grow into being better human beings. Wilder lets us know not to expect happily ever after, and in fact, we may be better off rejecting that notion.

“Shut up and deal” is an excellent way to view the Best Picture winners of the 1960’s. The Oscar winning films of the decade are monstrous and eternally popular and smaller, intimate and character driven. The best films are the ones that deal with the issues the characters—and by extension American society—face. The Apartment is one for the time capsule.


The Apartment (1960)

Director: Billy Wilder

Starring: Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray, Jack Kruschen, Ray Walston, Edie Adams, David Lewis, Naomi Stevens

Studio: United Artists

Total Oscars: 5 (Best Picture—Billy Wilder, Best Director—Wilder, Best Original Screenplay—Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond*, Best Art Direction (called Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black & White at the time), Best Editing) out of 10 nominations (Best Actor—Jack Lemmon, Best Actress—Shirley MacLaine, Best Supporting Actor—Jack Kruschen, Best Cinematography (B&W), Best Sound)

*The acceptance speech given by Wilder and Diamond for winning Best Screenplay proves the axiom; brevity is the soul of wit. Diamond said, “Thank you Billy Wilder.” Wilder said, “Thank you I.A.L. Diamond.”

NEXT BLOG: West Side Story

Sunday, January 2, 2011

1950's Decade in Review

The 1950’s were a decade of schizophrenic Best Picture winners. Full confession time—I have finished watching all of the Best Picture winners and did a ranking of all 82 of them. You’ll all have to wait for each of the reviews to come out before I reveal my final rankings (and I will make a mental note that if I want readers to care about such things, three month hiatuses between posts does not help maintain a captive audience), but I can tell you that five films from the 1950’s are in my top twenty Best Picture winners. The other five are in the bottom half of the list, four of which are in the bottom twenty, three of which are in the bottom five, and one film from the 1950’s the hands-down, no competition winner for worst film to ever win the Oscar.

I think the division of quality in the Best Picture winners from this decade reflects two things: a reaction to the political climate of the country—the blacklisting of several filmmakers, screenwriters and actors during this time is most indicative of this—and the advent of television as a major competitor for the entertainment dollar of the American public. The question of “Why should I go to the movies when I can watch TV at home for free?” became a bigger threat to Hollywood than communism. In the journey from All About Eve to Ben-Hur, you can trace the evolution of film from sharply written, character based drama to broadly drawn, massive spectaculars that provided audiences with an entertainment experience unique to the silver screen.
With that said, here is how I am ranking the 1950’s Best Picture winners (and I’ll let you know that deciding between #1 and #2 was very difficult to determine—they’re easily the closest #1 and #2 within a decade for all the Best Pictures. I went simply with the film I thought was overall better):

#1—All About Eve (1950): This Joseph Mankiewicz penned and directed masterpiece about the backbiting that takes place behind the scenes in the world of theater showcases not only a phenomenal script and fine acting (and it is an especially great showcase for actresses) but also one of the finest film to ever deal with the everyday emotions of being human. The final shot of the film has an aspiring actress gazing into a mirror, with her image reflected ad infinitum. The shot is a metaphor for her vanity, but it also serves to reflect the many sides of humanity in the audience watching. Bette Davis as Margo Channing is one of the all-time greatest roles for any actor ever, regardless of gender. A masterpiece.

#2—On the Waterfront (1954): You can choose to see this as Elia Kazan’s apology for naming names to the House Un-American Activities Committee, but it is better to see the film as a triumph of human goodness and conscience. The ensemble cast—led by Marlon Brando as palooka Terry Malloy—is absolute dynamite, and one of the finest ever assembled for a film. Terry Malloy famously says he could have been a contender; On the Waterfront is an undisputed champion.

#3—Marty (1955): Paddy Chayefsky adapted his one-hour drama into a feature film not much longer. Size matters not here, as 94 minutes are exactly what is needed to prove that love can be found among people who consider themselves unlovable—in this case Ernest Borgnine’s lummox of a butcher and Betsy Blair’s plain, insecure schoolteacher. When Marty dances in the street, knowing he has found true love, you will be moved to dance along with him. And hey, the French loved it.

#4—The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957): Director David Lean knew that you can make the most epic looking film in the world but it the picture would ultimately be hollow unless there were equally compelling ideas at its core. The Bridge on the River Kwai is a film where the scope and ambition of the filmmaking matches the power of the ideas within that have engaged the minds of its viewers.

#5—From Here to Eternity (1953): While the film is responsible for providing one of the most smoldering and iconic loves scenes ever filmed—the Burt Lancaster/Deborah Kerr kiss on the Hawaii surf, as the waves of the beach crash around them—the movie is not the passion-filled romance the image suggests. Director Fred Zinnemann uses the audiences’ foreknowledge of the attack on Pearl Harbor for maximum dramatic effect as the stories of the characters within spin inexorably toward tragedy.

#6—Ben-Hur (1959): William Wyler’s biblical and historical epic was at the time, the most expensive and biggest motion picture ever filmed. It not only set a record by winning eleven Oscars, but it also saved MGM from bankruptcy. Ben-Hur re-established Hollywood filmmaking as the dominant producer of spectacular entertainment.

#7—Gigi (1958): This musical is a triumph of production design, and Leslie Caron is very pretty, but there is ultimately not much substance to be found here.

#8—An American in Paris (1951): This Vincente Minnelli directed, Gene Kelly/Leslie Caron starring musical contains some of the most innovative dancing ever seen in film—especially in the incredible ballet and fine art inspired finale. However, the “story” holding the film together completely falls apart at the seams. The film is nothing more than one song and dance sequence after another.

#9—The Greatest Show on Earth (1952): Cecil B. DeMille’s circus spectacular could have been the greatest show on Earth had it focused less on melodrama and more on how the circus survives a multitude of daily calamities. It would have been better as a documentary on the Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey circus.

#10—Around the World in 80 Days (1956): Producer Michael Todd wanted to give audiences a film that contained everything and the kitchen sink. The problem is that the film becomes so overstuffed that it loses all semblance of focus. It ended up being an insipid, unentertaining mess. Around the World in 80 Days is the only Best Picture that I saw that had no redeeming qualities. Easily the worst film to ever win the Oscar.

Actor of the Decade: Marlon Brando. His Terry Malloy was the cherry on top of a fabulous decade for the Method actor. Brando was nominated for Best Actor five times in the 1950’s (consecutively from 1951-1954), and his performances revolutionized screen acting. Easy choice.

Actress of the Decade: Bette Davis. Davis is really a product of the Golden Age of cinema during the 1920’s, ‘30’s and early ‘40’s, and she didn’t actually win an Oscar for her performance as Margo Channing in All About Eve, but two key factors figured into my decision making. First—the 1950’s were not the greatest decade for actresses, and the three most famous actresses from the period—Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly and Marilyn Monroe—are better known as icons than actresses (though to be fair, Hepburn and Kelly each won Best Actress during the decade). Second—Davis’ performance set the bar so ridiculously high that only one other performance from an actress during the decade—Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, also from 1950, and also did not win Best Actress—matched it in terms of greatness. Davis deserves recognition, and her Margo Channing will endure for all time.

Director of the Decade: Elia Kazan. Kazan is easily the most controversial figure of the decade, but he also made some unquestionably great films. On the Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire, and East of Eden each netted the director Oscar nominations (he won for On the Waterfront). His work with Brando in bringing Lee Strasberg’s Method acting to the screen alone merits a director of the decade nod. Hugely respected by his actors, he led twelve actors (Brando, Vivien Leigh, Karl Malden, Kim Hunter, Anthony Quinn, Eva Marie Saint, Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger, Jo Van Fleet, James Dean, Carroll Baker, and Mildred Dunnock) to fifteen Oscar acting nominations and seven wins (Leigh, Malden, Hunter, Quinn, Brando, Saint, and Van Fleet). In the decade he had six films receive an overall 38 nominations and fifteen wins. Controversy aside, the numbers favor Kazan.

Studio of the Decade: I’m going to cop out a bit and call it a tie between Columbia Pictures and MGM. MGM had three films outright win the Oscar (An American in Paris, Gigi, and Ben-Hur), and both Marty and Around the World in 80 Days were both United Artists releases. The UA library has since been incorporated into the MGM library (though Around the World in 80 Days is now owned by Warner Brothers). So you can argue that MGM really has five Best Picture winners during the decade. The studio was still the unquestioned popular tastemaker, and the musicals MGM released during the 1950’s were the finest any studio produced. Still, Columbia released three films that also outright won the Oscar—From Here to Eternity, On the Waterfront, The Bridge on the River Kwai—that represent such a massive uptick in quality over MGM’s slate that they have to be included in the argument. For a schizophrenic decade, it seems right that there are two studios that share the “Best of Decade” title.

NEXT BLOG: The Apartment