Recently I decided to try to catch up and see all of the Best Picture winners at the Academy Awards that I had never seen before.
I decided at first to narrow the mission to just winners since 1950 since some of the older movies are harder to find, even with streaming services. Although, as I near the end of that goal, I’ve decided I might try to watch all of the them if possible. I’ll still try to knock out the post-1950s ones first since I only have a few left but I’ve already started on a few earlier pictures.
I had a strong start to my mission, having seen 44 out of the 70 Best Picture winners going back to 1950 and I had not missed a winner going back until 1997.
I recently watched six Best Picture winners from the ceremonies of 1967, 1964, 1958, 1957, 1952 and 1947.
I only have 7 left to watch post-1950 (“The English Patient,” “Ben-Hur,” “Gigi, “My Fair Lady,” “All The Kings Men,” “The Greatest Show on Eart” and “All About Eve” and 15 to watch going back to 1929 (basically everything except the ones I’ve seen: “Casablanca,” “The Lost Weekend,” “Gone With the Wind,” “The Best Years of Our Lives,” “You Can’t Take it With You” and “It Happened One Night.”).
Without further ado, here’s three more entries to cross off my list.
THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946)
I was interested in watching this movie after I saw its inclusion in the American Film Institute’s top 100 movies of all time and honestly I had never even heard of this movie.
It’s directed by Wiliam Wyler, who might be the most underrated director in movie history. Recently, many of my Facebook friends were posting about their favorite directors ever and Wyler did not make anyone’s list.
But here are the numbers.
He has been nominated for Best Director at the Oscars a record 12 times, winning three times. Only Frank Capra has three Best Director wins and John Ford has four wins.
He’s the only person to have directed three Best Picture winners. He directed “Ben-Hur,” “The Best Years of Our Lives,” and “Mrs. Miniver.” He directed 13 movies that were nominated for Best Picture, another record.
And — and this record is interesting — he directed more actors/actresses to Oscar-nominated and Oscar winning performances than anyone else. His casts earned 36 acting nominations and 14 wins, both are records.
In “The Best Years of Our Lives,” he tackles a subject that was taboo in 1946, shortly after World War II ended (the Japanese formally surrendered on September 2, 1945): what happens to the military when they come home? Sure, the soldiers get parades but the emotional baggage that they take home wasn’t really explored back then.
In this movie, he explores the stories of three very different veterans who return from WWII.
One man married his girlfriend (that he wasn’t dating for very long) right before he went off to war, a practice that was quite common in order to ensure the women would get war widow benefits if he died. When he returns home, he barely knows his wife and the quick marriage isn’t as strong as he’d expect and he finds himself attracted to another woman. His wife loves the idea of bragging to her friends about her war hero husband but she’s frustrated that he can’t find a high-paying job when he returns home. He’s now working at the same grocery store from before he left, only now he’s an underling to his former assistant.
Another older veteran returns to the bank where he once worked, only now he’s asked to deny loans to veterans who ask for money. The bank wants to use his military background as a sensitive way to politely turn down the loan requests and he doesn’t feel comfortable doing that. On top of things, his children are now all grown up and he’s having trouble sleeping due to PTSD from the war.
And finally, another solider comes home disabled. He’s lost both hands and now has hooks in place. He’s played by Harold Russell, who became one of only two non-professional actors to win an Academy Award for acting. He was an actual veteran who came home from the war and Wyler decided to cast him in the movie. After his Oscar win (he actually won an Honorary Oscar for bravery that same night) he had trouble getting other acting roles and ended up selling his statuette at an auction. His character feels depressed about his hooks and is reluctant to marry his longtime sweetheart, even though she doesn’t care about his disability. There are some beautifully poignant scenes involving his characters. There’s one scene where children are peaking at him through a window and he shouts, “Did you come here to see the freak?!” He tries to open the door to yell at them and show them his hooks but he can’t twist the door knob so he smashes both hooks through the window, saying, “Here! Now you can see them!” There’s also a sad scene where he explains to his fiancee the process he has to go through in order to get dressed or undressed every day.
I was pretty blown away by this movie. Every character is nuanced and realistic and the film beautifully illustrates how some casualties of war actually come home. I highly recommend this one.
It did beat one other amazing movie to win Best Picture: “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I’d probably rank “It’s a Wonderful Life” higher on my list of best movies of all time, but “The Best Years of Our Lives” is still a worthy choice for Best Picture that year.
AN AMERICAN IN PARIS (1951)
Vincente Minnelli, father to Liza Minnelli and one-time husband to Judy Garland, had the distinction of directing two Best Picture winner: “Gigi” and “An American in Paris.” The latter is probably one of the most famous musical movies of all time is often lumped in with “Singin’ In the Rain” another musical movie starring Gene Kelly that won Best Picture.
I had never seen this movie before but I’ve had it on my list for a while. Despite never seeing this one, I have a personal connection to this movie. My wife and I had our wedding reception inside The Palladium in Carmel and the room in which we ate and danced there’s a giant poster on the wall for this movie. Michael Feinstein, famed singer and artistic director for The Palladium, had the original billboard-sized poster as part of his personal collection (he’s an expert in the Great American Songbook) and he donated it as a decoration for the building.
The movie itself utilizes several existing songs by George Gershwin but brings them to live with new arrangements and thrilling dance numbers. Yes, it’s Gene Kelly so there’s a lot of tap dancing.
The movie is filled with bright technicolor hues and the set pieces — obviously filmed at a sound stage and not actually in Paris — are full of color and character. It’s almost like a dreamlike vision of Paris rather than a realistic authentic portrayal.
If you’ve seen the movie “La La Land” then you’ll see that it borrows heavily from “An American in Paris,” from the lighting and colors to the dance numbers. It straight up steals from it at times.
The highlight of the movie is a 17-minute dance number that is incredibly impressive but does grow a little tedious after the 10-minute mark. You can have too much of a good thing and it’s like watching a 30-minute battle/fight scene in an action movie. It’s great but you can only be on the edge of your seat for so long.
“An American in Paris” is a feast for the eyes and it hold up in many ways. But it’s an interesting contrast to its chief competition for Best Picture that year, which was “A Streetcar Named Desire.” You couldn’t find two more opposite movies. “A Streetcar Named Desire” was directed by auteur Elia Kazan and was based on a play. There’s no showy cinematography and it’s filmed in black and white. It boasted nominees in all four acting categories, winning three. Marlon Brando lost to Humphrey Bogart in “The African Queen” for Best Actor, but that seems to have been a “make-up Oscar” for Bogey since he had never won before and was getting up in years. Bogart died five years later.
“A Streetcar Named Desire” was a tour-de-force for acting while “An American in Paris” received no acting nominations. “An American in Paris” is beautifully shot in bright color while “A Streetcar Named Desire” is drab and simple. Two very different movies.
The plot of “An American in Paris” is pretty simple and it kind of just ends without really resolving anything. My wife was frustrated with the idea that Gene Kelly’s character snubbed the older rich lady, who was actually quite nice, for a very young girl he meets at a club. She didn’t think that reflected well on his character. I’d tend to agree. The connection between the two leads is mostly for their dancing, not their acting.
I don’t know which movie I prefer: “A Streetcar Named Desire” or “An American in Paris” but they’re both great.
There are images and scenes in “An American in Paris” that I’ll remember for a long time. The shot of him picking up the bright red rose and standing up is iconic to me.
AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS (1956)
Finally, we end with a little bit of a dud.
“Around the World in 80 Days” is not a bad movie. It’s funny. It’s fast-paced. It’s well shot and has colorful costumes and fun action scenes.
It’s just not an Oscar-worthy movie.
It feels like the old Disney family movies in the 1950s and 1960s. Nothing wrong with those, but just empty fun, not really award worthy.
It’s often referred to as the worst Best Picture winner ever. That’s not really fair. Maybe it doesn’t fit with the idea of what a Best Picture winner should be, but it’s still a well-crafted fun movie that I enjoyed. Other films that have that pedigree of “heaviness” or “gravitas” are sometimes just not enjoyable. I’m thinking of “Tom Jones” or “Out of Africa.”
“Around the World in 80 Days” is dumb fun. It’s not a technical marvel. It’s not groundbreaking. But it’s enjoyable.
It’s the 1950s equivalent of “The Hunger Games” winning Best Picture.
The biggest flaw in “Around the World in 80 Days” is it’s length. It’s three hours long which is OK for an epic like “Lawrence of Arabia.” It feels excessive for a silly comedy.
The opening intro about Jules Verne seemed unnecessary and as I understand it that was cut when the movie was broadcast on TV.
I didn’t really care about any of the side characters and I didn’t pay much attention to the plot because it didn’t seem to matter. The entire movie is a vehicle to explore different international settings and basically show the cultural stereotype of each country. It’s not offensive but it definitely paints in broad strokes.
David Niven stars as British adventurer Phileas Fogg but he’s overshadowed by Cantinflas who plays his assistant Passepartout. Cantinflas, the one-named stage name for hispanic actor Mario Moreno, is often called “Charlie Chaplin of Mexico” and he received top-billing in some countries when promoting this film. Indeed, he steals the show in this light-hearted travel film and is the source of most of the humor.
Is there another movie that should have won Best Picture instead? You could make an argument for “The Ten Commandments,” “The King and I” or “Giant.” The last one would have been my choice, having earned a Best Director Oscar for George Stevens (who previously won for “A Place in the Sun” and was also nominated later on for “The Diary of Anne Frank.”)