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.

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