- Ben-Hur, William Wyler*
- Anatomy of a Murder, Otto Preminger
- The Diary of Anne Frank, George Stevens
- The Nun’s Story, Fred Zinnemann
- Room at the Top, Jack Clayton
I’ve been looking forward to covering the 32nd Academy Awards for a while now, for a few reasons. First, all five nominees are films I had never seen before, which is always exciting, and all five are by directors whom I, if not love, at least expect to make watchable films. Second, this is one of 16 years in which all four acting winners came from Best Picture nominees, so I could, in theory, look forward to some fine performances. And third, the winner is William Wyler‘s unprecedented third Best Picture; he also joined Frank Capra and John Ford as the only three-time winners of Best Director.
As of this moment, I’ve watched every one of the nominees apart from the winner, and I have to say, the year has more than met my expectations. This came as a welcome relief from the distinctly lukewarm slate of nominees that opened the decade in 1958.
They nominated Auntie Mame for Best Picture, while this was only up for Art Direction and Sound. Sometimes I wonder if the Academy really knows what it’s doing.
There’s a lot to say about these films, so let’s not waste any more time…
Over the course of this blog, I’ve discovered that I am not a huge fan of George Stevens as a director. He has an annoying habit of taking human interest stories and filling them so full of clichés and bathos that I lose all sense of connection with the characters (as in A Place in the Sun), and all to often find it a chore just to make it to the closing credits (as in Giant). He also made The More the Merrier, for which I will never forgive him.
Seen here swearing to skeptics that the Oscar he’s holding doesn’t actually belong to Walter Lang.
My opinion of him was not improved by The Diary of Anne Frank…but it didn’t suffer, either, so I’ll count it as a win. Though I did find out that William Wyler was the first choice to direct the film, so now I’m tortured by dreams of what might have been.
On the face of it, one would think that a film based on this (true) story shouldn’t have difficulty creating tension and suspense. It’s set almost entirely in one location, the Amsterdam attic in which Anne Frank and her family–along with a second family and, later, a dentist named Albert Dussell–are hiding from the Nazis from 1942-1944. It should be a claustrophobic, sweaty, intense experience. Yet somehow, the only way the film can think to show tension is by repeating a “there’s a noise downstairs, everyone be quiet” scene about five times, and by kinda showing that there is some animosity between Anne and her mother, because teenagers.
While her father is a saint of patience and understanding…which I’m sure had nothing to do with the fact that Otto Frank was the one who edited his daughter’s diary.
It’s been a while since I read Diary of a Young Girl, so I can’t be certain that the source material isn’t just a string of scenes in which none of the characters really show the effects of malnourishment, lack of true bathing, or claustrophobia, and in which disagreements are settled and put aside immediately after hearing a bit of good news on the radio. But I kindly doubt that it is.
A major problem, I think, was the decision to film in Cinemascope, creating a widescreen sense of space instead of a cramped, uncomfortable attic. This is a format suitable for vistas, the Great Plains, and the vastness of outer space, not (what should be) an intimate drama confined to a single, small set of rooms. I don’t think it was entirely George Stevens’ decision, but maybe he should have fought a little harder against it…he was the producer, after all. While he tries to make up for it by (sometimes) confining the action to the middle of the screen, the damage is done. It’s typical of Stevens’ style-over-substance approach to filmmaking that he couldn’t make this silver-platter scenario work.
If only a film already existed that could have shown him how to do it properly.
The film also, unforgivably, runs almost three hours. That’s only ten minutes longer than Anatomy of a Murder, another nominee this year, yet it feels so much more bloated, full of unnecessary scenes and drawn-out arguments that go nowhere and are repeated over and over with no variation. Despite being trapped in an attic for two years, none of the characters develop or change whatsoever, aside from Anne becoming interested in Peter, which the film portrays as true romance (while in the real diary, Anne Frank eventually dismisses the crush as fleeting and based solely on the fact that Peter is her only option). The characters may as well be cardboard cutouts.
In the end, it’s a (barely) watchable film, and has some moments of fine acting, particularly from Joseph Schildkraut as Otto Frank, Ed Wynn (nominated for Best Supporting Actor) as Albert Dussell, and Millie Perkins as Anne. Shelley Winters won Best Supporting Actress, though she doesn’t do very much other than a) brag about how much boys chased her in her youth, and b) hysterically proclaim their doom every time there is a noise downstairs. It’s watchable, but forgettable, and I can only imagine how much better it would be with Wyler behind the camera.
Audrey Hepburn was actually George Stevens’ (and Otto Frank’s) first choice to play Anne, but she turned it down, feeling she was too old to play a 13-year-old. Probably a good career move. Instead, she starred in…
The Nun’s Story is just that, following the life of Gabrielle Van Der Mal (monial name, Sister Luke) from her decision to be a nun to her decision to…not. It’s one of the clearest arcs I’ve ever seen in a movie, sombrely examining themes such as doubt, duty, and humanity, and Audrey Hepburn, as the center of the whole thing, holds it all together beautifully.
Gabrielle enters the convent in order to become a nun and a nurse, though it’s not entirely clear why she needs to become the former when her heart is clearly 99% set on the latter. She is shown to be unsuited for the cloistered life from the start, and it’s not as if secular nursing schools didn’t exist in the 1920s, when the story begins. It was also, in real life, possible to train as a nurse at a nunnery without actually taking the vows. Still, she goes through with the process, despite knowing, as soon as she hears the first rules of the convent, that it’s not for her.
The film is episodic: the first thirty minutes concern Gabrielle’s time spent going from novice to postulate to full-on nun, trying to adapt to the rules of the convent such as the Great Silence (which basically means no talking, no thinking), and cutting all ties with her family, worldly possessions, and even to her fellow nuns. This proves impossible, given her strong will and sense of self.
This is Princess Ann, after all.
At the end of her training, in which she excels and earns the respect and admiration of her professors, she is asked by her Mother Superior to fail her nursing exam as a show of humility and devotion to God (and also because another student is feeling butt-hurt that she’s not as good at nursing as Gabrielle). This is, of course, a patently idiotic request, not to say a wildly irresponsible one to make to a medical practitioner, and Gabrielle rightly refuses to do so…the result is, she is sent to practice not in the Congo, her greatest goal, but in a mental asylum.
At the asylum she again lets her compassion get the better of her, putting herself in a dangerous situation with a violent inmate (though to be fair, this one is less a failure to follow orders than an utter lack of common sense), after which she finally gets sent to the Congo (in scenes that were shot on location and are quite stunning). Once there, she works herself to exhaustion and to tuberculosis trying to juggle the demands of nun and surgical assistant, under a constant barrage of harsh life truths from Dr. Fortunati (Peter Finch). Back in Belgium at the outbreak of World War II, she finds it increasingly impossible to obey her superiors’ exhortations to ignore the horrors of the outside world, and finally gives up the veil and, it is implied, joins the underground resistance.
All of these little vignettes show different sides of the same basic conflict, when Gabrielle is forced to choose between acting like a compassionate, caring human being, or honoring some vague devotional rule that, more often than not, constrains her ability to perform her duties as a nurse. She is reminded over and over again that she is a nun first and a nurse second, and while Hepburn does a great job showing Gabrielle’s inner struggle, all of this continually raises the question I had at the beginning…namely, why she is a nun in the first place when all she really wants to be is a nurse.
I guess getting to work with Peter Finch is a nice perk.
I mean, I understand why in a storytelling sense…the film is meant to examine this very conflict, between duty to oneself and duty to a higher power, and whether it is possible or worth it for someone like Gabrielle to smother her individuality and strong will. In the end, the answer is…no, of course not. But I’m just saying it would have been stronger if she was shown to have any motivation for putting herself in this awkward situation to begin with. Hell, there’s not even any family pressure for her to be a nun…just the opposite, in fact, as her father is an internationally renowned surgeon who could easily get her the medical education and experience she desires.
Still, she tries her hardest to be the best damn nun she can be, and I think it’s to the film’s credit that it doesn’t treat her decision to leave the convent as a failure on her part. Zinnemann (who, like Wyler, had a talent for making stories about people) shows it as a very difficult choice, and Audrey Hepburn’s performance really shows us Gabrielle’s struggle and her reluctance to give up, even in the face of everything that has happened. Again, I wish the groundwork had been laid at the beginning to show why the choice is so hard, but within what the film offers us, director and actress do the best they can.
Hepburn was nominated for Best Actress, but the film failed to win any Oscars out of eight nominations. I am kind of surprised that Peter Finch wasn’t nominated for Best Supporting Actor, as his performance as world-weary Dr. Fortunati was the highlight of the film’s second act. Like many of his characters, he manages to convey Fortunati’s impatient, take-no-guff approach to his practice that belies the compassionate, insightful person that emerges as he becomes aware of Gabrielle’s troubles. Much as I love Ed Wynn, I think Finch should have taken his place in the nominees this year.
Moving up from a merely watchable film, to a good film but not a great one, and now we get to the great ones, starting with…
Finally, a tagline that gets it exactly right. Room at the Top is all the poster promises, an outright savage story about a man who wants it all, and will do anything to get it…or so he believes at first. It is an amazing film, one of the first non-Shakespearean British films to crack the Best Picture nominees, and one can immediately tell that this is a movie made outside the strictures of the system, and of the Hays Code.
I knew nothing about this film going in, other than the fact that Simone Signoret won Best Actress. It’s the story of Joe Lampton, who moves to a new town in Yorkshire and immediately sets about getting to the top by wooing the daughter of the town’s richest citizen. Unfortunately for Joe, he’s played by Laurence Harvey, whose seduction face looks like he’s trying to unhook a brassiere with the power of his mind.
It works for a brainwashed veteran, but less for a charming roué.
Despite having all the charm of a dead otter, Joe singlemindedly
harasses courts Susan Brown until she goes on a date with him, more out of embarrassment than anything else but he chalks up a win nevertheless. Again out of embarrassment, she begins to care for him after seeing how her family and her actual boyfriend look down on Joe for his common background. He doesn’t care…he can fake pride with the best of them, but if pity is what it takes to get that sweet, sweet Brown money, then pity he will get.
So already, you may have noticed the major difference between this and the typical Hollywood films of the period, at least the non-noir films: the protagonist is an unapologetic shit, purely out for his own sociopathic interests, and the movie fully acknowledges it. Laurence Harvey, for all his lack of romantic prowess, plays him perfectly: as we follow Joe through his tortured path to the top, we’re not rooting for him, yet at the same time we’re not hoping he’ll fail too badly. Harvey is great at expressing the constant self-loathing and self-doubt that Joe lives in every minute of every day, trying not to stop long enough to fully realize the pointlessness of his existence.
Understandably, Susan’s family is not willing to let their daughter get involved with someone who is less a man than he is a swarm of locusts in a cheap suit, so they send her abroad. Joe passes the time with Alice Aisgill (Simone Signoret), an older, unhappily married French émigrée who acts in the local theatre troupe. Unfortunately, even though she falls in love with him, she’s a bit too much for him to handle, being the exact opposite of Susan: a strong, independently-minded woman not afraid to tell him off or call him out on his (many, many…many) faults and hypocrisies.
Joe breaks it off with Alice when he finds out she does not suffer fools…and man, does he make a fool of himself in this scene. Aside from Harvey’s sometimes shaky Yorkshire accent, it’s a grimly realistic depiction of a fight starting from something so trivial, and escalating until all the tensions in the relationship blow up at once:
It’s acted perfectly by Harvey, but especially by Signoret, who goes from happy to confused to angry, and it’s marvelous to see her on the offensive in the face of Joe’s childish tantrum. He doesn’t stand a chance, and he knows it.
So, back he goes to Susan, whom he knows he can manipulate and control. Sure enough, within hours he manages to guilt her into sex, which causes her to fall in love with him…but Alice has gotten into his head for good, and he immediately dumps Susan to go back to Alice. Suffice it to say, despite a romantic weekend together, during which Joe is happy for probably the only time in his entire life–or, if not the only time, it’s certainly the last–everything falls apart. I don’t want to give away what happens…I’ll just say it is a tragic ending in the literal sense of the word, and it’s done without melodrama or contrivance. Watch this film, you won’t regret it.
Maybe now you’ll watch it?
As I said at the beginning, Simone Signoret took home Best Actress for her nuanced and gripping portrayal of Alice Aisgill. She was the first actress to win the award for a non-American film, and the second French actress to win an Academy Award (after Claudette Colbert). It was well-earned…her performance is magnetic, conveying strength and independence with vulnerability all at once, and was a strong harbinger of dramatic acting in the years to come. French audiences already knew all about her, of course, but Room at the Top introduced her to the Anglophone world.
It’s worth mentioning, too, from a trivia point of view, that Room at the Top contains the shortest performance ever nominated for an acting Oscar, that of Hermione Baddeley as Alice’s roommate Elspeth. She is onscreen for only two minutes and thirty-two seconds, and received a nod for Best Supporting Actress. I don’t really get it, myself…she basically just tells Joe not to hurt Alice, then yells at him when he does. Oh well, it wasn’t a strong year for that category.
So, pretty strong start to the 32nd Awards! If Anatomy of a Murder is any indication, it’s going to keep getting better. Part II coming soon!