1950195119521953195419551956195719581959
* Indicates that the film/performance was not nominated for an Academy Award in this category

1950
All About Eve
Actor: José Ferrer (Cyrano de Bergerac)
Actress: Judy Holliday (Born Yesterday)
Supporting Actor: George Sanders (All About Eve)
Supporting Actress: Josephine Hull (Harvey)
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewitz (All About Eve)
Sunset Boulevard
Actor: José Ferrer (Cyrano de Bergerac)
Actress: Bette Davis (All About Eve)
Supporting Actor: Erich von Stroheim
(Sunset Boulevard)
Supporting Actress: Josephine Hull (Harvey)
Director: Billy Wilder (Sunset Boulevard)
 

1950 was one of those frustrating years where a number of classic films were released, any one of which would have been Best Picture had it been released the year before. Born Yesterday, The Gunfighter, Father of the Bride, The Asphalt Jungle, and the British-made The Third Man were all superior to anything Hollywood came out with in 1949. But in 1950, the race went down to two enduring masterpieces: All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard. The Academy awarded Eve a record 14 nominations and 6 Oscars, but Sunset Boulevard was close behind with 10 and 3. Both films boasted brilliant casts (especially in the Best Supporting Actor category, where George Sanders' Oscar winning turn as an urbane drama critic and Erich von Stroheim's classic performance as a mysterious butler create unforgettable characterizations) and wonderfully inventive screenplays that make having to select a "best" between these two wonderfully entertaining and enduring films a painful chore.

But the staff of the Hindsight Awards doesn't shy away from such dirty work, and the film that passes test of time far more successfully is Sunset Boulevard. This may be in part because All About Eve seems more dated because it gives a contemporary view of a Broadway that is now a bygone era, whereas Sunset Boulevard is looking back on a world that was already dead when the film was made. Over time the self-consciously witty dialogue of All About Eve's self-absorbed characters become more and more annoying, whereas the timeless Sunset Boulevard becomes fresher with each new viewing. Wilder brilliantly cast Gloria Swanson as the fallen idol Norma Desmond (after Mary Pickford, Pola Negri and Mae West turned it down) because he knew that more current actresses couldn't capture the style of the silent era with the authenticity of someone who had been active in it. Swanson responded with an extraordinary, unique performance that is really unlike any other in the history of film (it is unfortunate that she did her greatest work in such a competitive year for female performances).

Worst Award

The Best Foreign Film Oscar was still an honorary award in 1950, and the Academy Board of Governors chose René Clément's The Walls of Malapaga for the honor, a forgotten film about a murderer on the run seeking treatment for a toothache. 1950 was a weak year for foreign films released in the United States, with Ways of Love receiving the New York Film Critics citation and the Oscar-winning documentary The Titan - The Story of Michelangelo being named Best Foreign Film by the National Board of Review. In the end, the most remembered foreign film released in the US in 1950 was Jean Renoir's overrated The Rules of the Game, which probably deserved on the basis of Renoir's direction if nothing else. With memories of The Bicycle Thief behind us and the anticipation of the brilliant Rashomon coming up in 1951, it's probably best just to forget about the 1950 Best Foreign Film Oscar and move on to more interesting subjects.

Biggest Oversight

Orson Welles was nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director and won the Best Screenplay Oscar for his his film debut Citizen Kane, received a surprise Best Picture nomination for The Magnificent Ambersons the following year, and then was completely ignored by the Academy until they trotted him out to present him a lifetime achievement award in 1970. It's surprising that he wasn't nominated for his most popular role by far as the mysterious Harry Lime in The Third Man, a film the Academy thought so highly of that they nominated it for Best Director, Best Film Editing and awarded it the Best Black & White Cinematography award. It's a gripping suspense yarn until Welles finally appears late in the game and completely takes the movie over. The character was so successful for him that he starred in a spin-off radio series The Lives of Harry Lime in 1951/52 and while the Academy's final five of Von Stroheim, Sanders, Edmund Gwenn in Mr. 880, Sam Jaffe in The Asphault Jungle and Jeff Chandler in Broken Arrow were all worthy choices, we can't help but think that the race would have been more exciting if Harry Lime had been in their midst. Welles might not have agreed since he was said to resent the role, bitter that his most popular part was in a film that he didn't direct.

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1951
An American in Paris
Actor: Humphrey Bogart(The African Queen)
Actress: Vivian Leigh (A Streetcar Named Desire)
Supporting Actor: Karl Malden
(A Streetcar Named Desire)
Supporting Actress: Kim Hunter
(
A Streetcar Named Desire)
Director: George Stevens (A Place in the Sun)
A Streetcar Named Desire
Actor: Marlon Brando (A Streetcar Named Desire)
Actress: Vivian Leigh (A Streetcar Named Desire)
Supporting Actor: Karl Malden
(A Streetcar Named Desire)
Supporting Actress: Kim Hunter
(A Streetcar Named Desire)
Director: Elia Kazan (A Streetcar Named Desire)
 

Our memories of the 1950s are best displayed in TV sitcoms of the period like Leave It to Beaver, Make Room for Daddy and Father Knows Best. They represented a well-ordered world of easy answers and self-assured authority figures who had everything under control. In reality, the US of the 1950s was at one of its most intensive pressure points, with the paranoia of McCarthyism and the constant threat of nuclear war looming over everyone's head. In such troubled times, people wanted to believe in easy answers and welcomed the seeming simplicity of a repressed life. In such a world, the torrid sexuality of A Streetcar Named Desire was a disquieting revelation. Dismissed by many as smut (critic George Jean Nathan dubbed it Glands Menagerie after playwright Tennessee Williams' earlier play The Glass Menagerie), most discerning audiences immediately recognized it as the intense work of art that it was. Even the oppressive Hollywood censors of 1951 couldn't rob it of its white-hot effectiveness. And with the groundbreaking work of the brilliant Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski, everyone knew that A Streetcar Named Desire was not only the best film of the year, but it opened the door to a new honesty about sexuality that could only be hinted at in the past.

All that is immaterial when selecting the Academy Awards. Like Citizen Kane before it, Streetcar couldn't be named Best Picture because of things that had nothing to do with its qualities as a motion picture. In such troubled times, a conservative institution like the Academy could no more give an agitator like Tennessee Williams the Oscar than a Hollywood studio could give a blacklisted writer screen credit. And in a decade when films like Rebel Without a Cause, The Blackboard Jungle and Salt of the Earth were forcing us to reconsider the individual's place in society, the Academy was giving Oscars to escapist drivel like Around the World in 80 Days and Gigi.

Its easy to understand why a film like An American in Paris was selected as Best Picture in 1951. Considered a major upset when it won the award (which was expected to go to George Stevens' flawed and depressing tragedy A Place in the Sun), An American in Paris was actually very much in the Academy Award vein: an impressive though ultimately unchallenging big budget film made by high pedigree talent that the main thing anyone remembers for is winning the Academy Award. An American in Paris manages to be both pretentious (through its overly stylized ballets that are far less entertaining than what Kelly did in the `40s) and trivial (through its almost nonexistent story, where Kelly and Leslie Caron display no chemistry at all and one doesn't care in the slightest if they get together at the end or not) at the same time. Nobody really thought An American in Paris was the best film made in 1951, but at least no one was made to feel uncomfortable at its selection.

Worst Award

The Academy loved Tom & Jerry, giving MGM's animated cat and mouse seven Oscars for Best Cartoon. Their streak continued in 1951, with producer Fred Quimby winning for Two Mouseketeers, the story of Jerry and his fellow mouseketeer Nibbles attempting to crash a lavish royal banquet over the objections of perennial wet blanket Tom. Alas, Tom & Jerry's popularity has diminished over the years (were it not for Jerry's unforgettable dance with Gene Kelly in Anchors Aweigh, the pair might not be remembered at all) , while the affection for Warner Bros.' stable of Looney Tunes characters grows ever stronger, making one wonder why the series didn't fair better in the Oscar voting. The most conspicuous victim of the Oscar's disregard of Looney Tunes cartoons was the great Bugs Bunny, who received a single Oscar for Best Cartoon for 1959's Knighty-Knight Bugs. The Wascully Wabbit appeared in The Faired Haired Hare, Rabbit Every Monday and Rabbit Fire in 1951, but failed once again to receive a nomination.

Biggest Oversight

The Oscars began a trend it followed throughout the 1950s of snubbing modestly budgeted films in the Best Picture Race that would go on to become beloved classics in favor of overblown blockbusters that are forgotten today. Chief among these overlooked masterpieces in 1951 are The African Queen, Strangers on a Train, and the sci-fi classic The Day The Earth Stood Still. The science fiction genre would be snubbed by the Academy until 2001: A Space Odyssey but many screenwriters writers began turning to science fiction in the 1950s, feeling that their serious messages could be more palatably served if blunted by the artifice of space ships and ray guns. Two of the first to take this step were Harry Bates (story) and Edmund H. North (screenplay) for the Robert Wise-directed film, with its message we must live peacefully or be destroyed as a danger to other planets. Because the Academy looked down its nose at the science fiction genre, the film was not taken seriously enough to receive nominations but it is a far more artistically successful and frequently revived film than Best Picture nominees Decision Before Dawn or Quo Vadis.

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1952
The Greatest Show on Earth
Actor: Gary Cooper(High Noon)
Actress: Shirley Booth (Come Back, Little Sheba)
Supporting Actor: Anthony Quinn (Viva Zapata)
Supporting Actress: Gloria Grahame
(The Bad and the Beautiful)
Director: John Ford (The Quiet Man)
Singin' in the Rain*
Actor: Gary Cooper(High Noon)
Actress: Shirley Booth (Come Back, Little Sheba)
Supporting Actor: Donald O'Connor
(Singin' in the Rain)*
Supporting Actress: Edith Evans
(The Importance of Being Earnest)*
Director: Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen
(Singin' in the Rain)*
 

The biggest box office hit of 1952 was This is Cinerama, a travelogue that showed off the new widescreen, three-camera process of Cinerama. Its phenomenal success sent a clear message to Hollywood; that in order to combat the coming of television, the greatest weapon at its disposal was size. Films didn't have to be good in order to succeed. They had to be big. The Academy chose not to honor the best film of 1952, but the biggest: Cecil B. DeMille's gargantuan tribute to life under the big top, The Greatest Show on Earth. Frequently derided as the worst film to win the Best Picture award, DeMille's Oscar winner is a tired soap opera that rises above its hackneyed material only by virtue of its size. But in 1952, size is exactly what movie audiences wanted, so it is difficult to fault the Academy for selecting it any more than it is difficult to fault them for voting for The Broadway Melody in 1928/29. Had a more objective panel been voting for the award, the Oscar probably would have gone to High Noon. But there was a backlash against that film because its Oscar nominated screenwriter Carl Foreman was under investigation by the McCarthy committee; so right-thinking Academy members naturally assumed that it had some underlying Red sentimentalities even though it starred All American Gary Cooper. Fortunately for the security of the United States, Foreman was eventually blacklisted; although he (and fellow blacklistee Michael Wilson) did later win an Oscar for The Bridge on the River Kwai, using the novel's original author, Pierre Boulle, as a front.

With all this going on, it is a shame that the film universally regarded as the year's best slipped through the cracks. Singin' in the Rain was selected by the American Film Institute as the 10th best film ever made and is frequently named as the definitive movie musical. It was appreciated in its own time as well, winning the award from the Writers Guild as Best Written American Musical and a nomination from the Directors Guild for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures for Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly. But it didn't get much respect from the Academy in the year that it came out, receiving a paltry two Oscar nominations (for Best Supporting Actress for Jean Hagen and Best Scoring of a Musical Picture). The most likely explanation of the snub is that the Academy didn't want to honor another Gene Kelly musical so soon after giving An American in Paris the top prize. Another example of a film not being named Best Picture for reasons that had nothing to do with its artistic quality.

Worst Award

Singin' in the Rain's Oscar for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture was won by With a Song in My Heart, a melodramatic biopic of singer Jane Froman who is left without the use of her legs following a plane crash during a USO tour during World War II. Alfred Newman was one of the greatest composers in film history and he did his usual craftsmanlike job arranging Froman's now-dated catalogue of songs, but we feel that could could have spared one of the nine Oscars he won over the course of his career to Lennie Hayton for what is probably the most memorable musical film of the 1950s.

Biggest Oversight

Donald O'Connor never made a tremendous impact in films, being best known for starring in the Francis, the Talk Mule series. In fact, if he had not appeared in Singin' in the Rain, no one would know how ill-used this spectacular talent was. That he was overlooked for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar he clearly deserved for his awe-inspiring work in it was indicative of the state of O'Connor's career: no one ever seemed to appreciate just how talented he was. In a more perfect world, he might have been placed on the same level as Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. The Oscar went to Anthony Quinn in a surprise selection as Marlon Brando's brother in Viva Zapata! The award was expected to go to Richard Burton for his Hollywood debut in My Cousin Rachel. It was the first of seven Oscar nominations that Burton would go on to lose and while we adamantly support O'Connor for The Hindsight Award, we have to admit that it would have saved a lot of frustration if they'd just given the thing to Burton in the first place.

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1953
From Here to Eternity
Actor: William Holden (Stalag 17)
Actress: Audrey Hepburn (Roman Holiday)
Supporting Actor:Frank Sinatra
(From Here to Eternity)
Supporting Actress: Donna Reed
(From Here to Eternity)
Director: Fred Zinnemann (From Here to Eternity)
Roman Holiday
Actor: Montgomery Clift (From Here to Eternity)
Actress: Audrey Hepburn (Roman Holiday)
Supporting Actor:Frank Sinatra
(From Here to Eternity)
Supporting Actress: Donna Reed
(From Here to Eternity)

Director: William Wyler (Roman Holiday)
 

Fred Zinnemann's film of James Jones' best-selling novel From Here to Eternity was the perfect film to select for Best Picture in 1953: A well-acted drama that created controversy for its steamy sex scenes (without being too controversial or too sexy). It is an enjoyably elaborate soap opera, with wonderfully memorable performances by Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, Donna Reed, Frank Sinatra and particularly Montgomery Clift as the tortured Private Robert E. Lee Pruitt, that tied the record for the most Oscar wins with eight and won many of the other year-end awards as well, including those from the New York Film Critics and the BAFTAs. But there is no question that movie standards of the day toned down the torrid sexuality and brutality of the novel considerably, and there are lapses in the logic of the story (Clift's devotion to the army after being horribly mistreated during his service makes no sense at all). It's a fantastic movie that we never tire of watching, and we think of it with respectful appreciation.

Unfortunately for From Here to Eternity, it came out the same year as a movie we adore more every time we watch it. William Wyler's delightful Roman Holiday, which introduced a fresh new talent named Audrey Hepburn to the screen (not counting the few minor parts she had already played in some European films, including a nonspeaking role the Ealing Studios 1952 classic The Lavender Hill Mob), who won the role only after original director Frank Capra (who would have made it with Elizabeth Taylor and Cary Grant) allowed his option to pass on it. Fresh is exactly the word for Roman Holiday: a breathtaking romantic comedy that makes one believe in love. It's a rare thing when the Academy gives its top prize to a romantic comedy, and with Serious Drama like From Here to Eternity, Shane and The Robe in the running, it never had a chance. But Roman Holiday has a singular evergreen quality about it: despite spawning more derivitive imitations than perhaps any film ever made, it is as affecting, charming and amusing now as the day it premiered. The next time it's playing on television on a rainy afternoon, check it out and see if you don't wind up falling a little in love yourself.

Worst Award

When the Academy was deciding who should win the Best Color Costume Design Oscar, they looked at all of the nominees with the same criterium they always use: give the award to the film that isn't set in the 20th century. As a result, they selected The Robe, a maudlin spectacle about a Roman tribune present at the crucifixion who wins Christ's robe in a game of dice. A smash hit in its day because it introduced Cinemascope to the screen, The Robe is a very run-of-the mill epic whose unexceptional costumes were outclassed by nominees The Band Wagon, Call Me Madam and How to Marry a Millionaire. Of course all of those films were set in the present, so they never had a chance.

Biggest Oversight

When Marlon Brando was shooting Julius Caesar, he went to fellow cast member John Gielgud for help with the Shakespearean text. Brando's performance as Marc Antony so impressed the Academy that he received his third consecutive Best Actor nomination, but the performance in the film that is most memorable is Gielgud's Cassius. The great Shakespearean actor had virtually turned his back on film throughout his career (including turning down the title role in MGM's 1936 production of Romeo & Juliet), but when director Joseph L. Mankiewitz approached him about playing Cassius in his screen version of Julius Caesar (which Gielgud had played triumphantly at Stratford in 1950), Gielgud couldn't turn him down and delivered one of the great Shakespearean performances on film (equaled only by Olivier's Henry V and Richard III, Kenneth Branagh's Henry V, and Ian McKellen's brilliantly fascist Richard III). James Mason is a powerful and memorable Brutus in the film and was worthy of a nomination himself (he was named Best Actor by the National Board of Review in a busy year, winning the award for his performances in The Desert Rats, Face to Face and The Man Between as well as Julius Caesar), but the Academy was so impressed with Brando's conversion from mumbler to orator that they gave him the nomination, even though his Marc Antony is really a supporting role. Gielgud is the one who continues to impress audiences.

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1954
On the Waterfront
Actor: Marlon Brando (On the Waterfront)
Actress: Grace Kelly (The Country Girl)
Supporting Actor: Edmond O'Brien
(The Barefoot Contessa)
Supporting Actress: Eva Marie Saint
(On the Waterfront)
Director: Elia Kazan (On the Waterfront)
On the Waterfront
Actor: Marlon Brando (On the Waterfront)
Actress: Judy Garland (A Star is Born)
Supporting Actor:Lee J. Cobb
(On the Waterfront)

Supporting Actress: Eva Marie Saint
(On the Waterfront
Director: Elia Kazan (On the Waterfront)
 

On the Waterfront placed number 8 on the AFI's list of the hundred greatest American films on the twentieth century. No other films from this year made the list, although the omission of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers does seem like a peculiar oversight. But even with this nitpicking, it is clear that Elia Kazan's drama about corruption on the docks was far-and-away the finest film of the year, and it's a relief that even the Academy recognized it, giving On the Waterfront a then-record eight Oscars (tying it with Gone With the Wind and From Here to Eternity for the most statuettes to date). Not all of those awards were no-brainers (Seven Brides certainly should have given it a run for its money for the editing award), but Elia Kazan's direction and the performances of Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint were without peer. And while Edmond O'Brien undeservedly won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his tiresome performance as a press agent in The Barefoot Contessa, it didn't hurt his cause that three nominated performances from On the Waterfront canceled each other out. (A film receiving three acting nominations in one category had only been accomplished once before, for Mutiny on the Bounty, and would only be equaled thrice more, for Tom Jones and the first two installments of The Godfather).

Worst Award

Grace Kelly was everywhere in 1954, appearing in Green Fire, Rear Window, Dial M for Murder and in her Oscar winning performance as a dowdy housewife henpecking her actor husband back to the top in The Country Girl. The Academy was itching to give the glamorous Kelly the Oscar but she was totally miscast as the frumpy housewife (Uta Hagen won a Tony Award for playing the role in the Broadway production), and attempts to dress her down for the part have the same effect as the "ugly" girl in all those teenage sex comedies that is played by a Playboy model wearing thick eyeglasses. The award clearly should have gone to Judy Garland for her comeback role in A Star is Born, but by that time Kelly was MGM's hottest female property (with the approval of Paramount Studios, who benefitted from from some lucrative loan-outs) and Garland was Hollywood outcast without a P.R. department to call her own.

Biggest Oversight

The Academy frequently gives out Special Awards to make up for past injustices, and they had quite a bit of housekeeping to do in 1954. Choreographer Michael Kidd was awarded a Special Oscar in 1996 for his career achievement in films, despite the fact that he'd only worked on ten movies. The Special Oscar was actually for Kidd's phenomenal work on Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. The following year, an even bigger oversight was rectified when director Stanley Donen received a Special Oscar as well. Donen's movie career output was much greater than Kidd's (who had a distinguished Broadway career, winning five Tony Awards), but he was always overlooked in the Best Director race. This snub was never more apparent than in 1954, when Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was nominated for five Oscars including Best Picture, but not Donen for Best Director; who absurdly never received a single nomination despite being the obviously deserving co-winner of the Best Director Oscar along with Gene Kelly for 1952's Singin' in the Rain and turning in one of the greatest directorial tour de forces of the 1960s with Two for the Road. When Donen finally won his Special Oscar, he gave one of the greatest and most memorable acceptance speeches in the award's history. The Academy must have kicked themselves for waiting so long.

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1955
Marty
Actor: Ernest Borgnine (Marty)
Actress: Anna Magnani (The Rose Tattoo)
Supporting Actor: Jack Lemmon (Mister Roberts)
Supporting Actress: Jo Van Fleet (East of Eden)
Director: Delbert Mann (Marty)
Marty
Actor: James Dean (Rebel Without a Cause)*
Actress: Susan Hayward (I'll Cry Tomorrow)
Supporting Actor: Jack Lemmon(Mister Roberts)
Supporting Actress: Jo Van Fleet(East of Eden)
Director: Charles Laughton (Night of the Hunter)*
 

At first glance, the Academy's selection of the modest, low-budget Marty seemed to be their way of continuing to apologize for naming the behemoth The Greatest Show on Earth as Best Picture in 1952. But Marty was a revelation in 1955, winning all of the major film awards handed out that year and universal acclaim for the performance of Ernest Borgnine in the title role of a butcher who spends his free time hanging around with his buddies asking the eternal question "Whattayoo wanna do tonight?" Prior to Marty, Borgnine was best known as a villain in films like From Here to Eternity and Bad Day at Black Rock, but his sensitive performance won him a brief period of stardom in somber dramas like The Catered Affair and The Rabbit Trap before returning to his true calling in supporting roles in blockbusters like The Dirty Dozen and The Poseidon Adventure. But for all the sensation Borgnine created as Marty Piletti and as moving as the film undeniably is, it's not always easy to understand what the fuss was about. Based on Paddy Chaevsky's 1952 teleplay, the film frankly looks like a TV show and Ernest Borgnine's bland performance as a bland butcher sometimes comes off as, well, bland. But there is an undeniable poetry to the blandness and poetry is a commodity that is often in short supply on motion picture screens.

Although generally regarded as a weak movie year, there were numerous films released in 1955 that some quarters prefer to the gentle hopefulness of Marty. A Rebel Without a Cause is usually pointed to as the most influential film of the year, but its influence seems to come more from James Dean's landmark performance than from the film as a whole. And Charles Laughton's superb directorial debut Night of the Hunter has enjoyed an enormous rise in its reputation since being written off as a box office flop when it first came out. But it lacks the emotional impact of Marty. As for the Academy's final four, Love is a Many Spendored Thing, Mister Roberts, Picnic and The Rose Tattoo, they're all second-string entries which wouldn't have stood a chance of a nomination in the far-stronger 1954. But we're still not entirely sold on Marty and look hopefully to other deserving possibilities: Bad Day at Black Rock, East of Eden and Blackboard Jungle, to name a few. While we're not altogether thrilled to admit it, when we consider these films and then ask ourselves "Whattayoo wanna do tonight?", the answer inevitably comes back as watch Marty. It's not a selection we're terribly excited about but when considering the other options, we have to grudgingly acquiesce that it was the best the movies had to offer that year.

Worst Award

After grudgingly going along with the selection of Marty as Best Picture (whose success is almost entirely due to Paddy Chaevsky's touching screenplay), we're drawing the line at giving Ernest Borgnine the Best Actor Oscar prize. Borgnine was honored for a performance which straddled a fine line between being earnest and being merely maudlin, and while it certainly had its engaging aspects does not have the impact of the now-legendary performance of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (who, strangely, was nominated for his less popular performance in East Of Eden). Borgnine gave a moving performance in the title role but after his Oscar win, he settled into a busy, though unremarkable career as a character actor best known for the sitcom McHale's Navy; his place in the pantheon of Oscar winners is an undeniable aberration. Arguably equally fine work came from fellow nominees Spencer Tracy in Bad Day at Black Rock, Frank Sinatra in The Man With the Golden Arm and James Cagney in Love Me or Leave Me, but we can still see Borgnine riding the popularity of Marty's coat tails to Oscar gold. Even adding non-nominated actors like Henry Fonda in Mister Roberts, Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter, Glenn Ford in Blackboard Jungle and Tom Ewell in The Seven Year Itch into the field, Borgnine seems like a reasonable choice among some tough competition. But compared against the iconic image of Dean, his gentle butcher comes just a little short.

Biggest Oversight

The only person to win the Best Director Oscar for the only film he directed was Jerome Robbins for West Side Story. If justice had been served, Charles Laughton would have been added to that list for his solo attempt at directing, the suspenseful Night of the Hunter. Virtually unnoticed when it came out, Laughton's tale of good versus evil was a director's showcase of cinematic tricks that is now recognized as a classic. The film benefited from sterling performances from Robert Mitchum, Lillian Gish and Shelley Winters, a tense screenplay by James Agee, and atmospheric cinematography by Stanley Cortez, but the bulk of its success must be attributed to Laughton's direction. Laughton never attended the Oscars when he was nominated as an actor and it's doubtful that his omission in the Best Director race caused him to break his stride, but the shutout of Night of the Hunter for any recognition at the 1955 Academy Awards does seem puzzling today.

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1956
Around the World in 80 Days
Actor: Yul Brynner (The King and I)
Actress: Ingrid Bergman (Anastasia)
Supporting Actor: Anthony Quinn (Lust for Life)
Supporting Actress: Dorothy Malone
(Written on the Wind)
Director: George Stevens (Giant)
The Searchers*
Actor: John Wayne(The Searchers)*
Actress: Judy Holliday (The Solid Gold Cadillac)*
Supporting Actor: Richard Basehart(Moby Dick)*
Supporting Actress: Dorothy Malone
(Written on the Wind)
Director: John Ford (The Searchers)*
 

After selecting two small-scale films for the Best Picture Oscar in 1954 and 1955, the Academy went back to the "bigger is better" line of thinking, selecting the widescreen extravaganza Around the World in 80 Days. It was a popular choice that received most of the other year-end awards as well, although now the film seems like little more than an overlong travelogue without any real entertainment value or dramatic resonance. Phineas Fogg & Company's episodic adventures fail to build on each other to create anything like a story and Fogg resolves every obstacle that confronts him in the same unimaginative way: by throwing money at it. The film's convention of featuring well-known actors in "cameo" roles (a clever gimmick of famous faces appearing in walk-on parts) is a fun innovation, but hardly enough to give it Best Picture consideration over other nominees that included the epic soap opera Giant, the enjoyably outlandish Biblical super-production The Ten Commandments, the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical The King and I, and William Wyler's gentle drama about a Quaker family, Friendly Persuasion. The latter blew the lid off the award when blacklisted writer Michael Wilson was nominated, violating the new Academy rule that prevented accused Reds of receiving nominations so that the official Academy roles listed the film as being nominated, but decreeing that "writer Michael Wilson was ineligible under Academy bylaws." Wilson didn't receive credit on another motion picture screenplay for ten years, although he did win an Oscar for the script of The Bridge on the River Kwai (with co-writer Carl Foreman) in 1957 using Pierre Boulle, the writer of the original novel, as a front.

The Academy might have saved themselves some trouble by nominating some vastly superior films that weren't so steeped in controversy. Akira Kurasawa's The Seven Samurai was the finest film released in the US, but it never had a chance for the Best Picture Oscar (it would still be another thirteen years before the Academy broke the precedent it had set with a nomination for a foreign film with La Grande Illusion), although it did receive nominations for black and white art direction and costume design. The other great masterpiece of 1956 was John Ford's The Searchers, which strangely did not receive a single nomination despite its spectacular cinematography and the greatest performance of John Wayne's career. Overlooked in its own time, The Searchers is now considered one of the greatest films in the history of the cinema.

Worst Award

Producer Mike Todd tried to give humorist S.J. Perelman the sole credit for writing the screenplay to Around the World in 80 Days, feeling that it would give the enterprise more prestige. The Writer's Guild intervened, and co-writers James Poe and John Farrow were not only given screen credit, but the three shared the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. In fact, Around the World in 80 Days' tedious screenplay is the worst thing about it; an endless series of dull episodes that don't make up any real dramatic structure. Far superior adaptations were supplied by Michael Wilson for Friendly Persuasion, but he was ruled ineligible for the award because of a new Oscar bylaw that ruled anyone who "had admitted Communist Party membership and has not renounced that membership, if he has refused to testify before a Congressional Committee or if he has refused to respond to a subpoena from such committee" ineligible; and from Frank S. Nugent for The Searchers, Ray Bradbury and John Huston for Moby Dick, Philip Yordan for The Harder They Fall, Abe Burrows for The Solid Gold Cadillac, and Æneas MacKenzie, Jesse L. Lasky Jr., Jack Gariss and Fredric M. Frank for The Ten Commandments; none of which was even nominated. The final winner probably should have been The Searchers, although it would have been a source of guilty pleasure to see The Ten Commandments take the award home. Any screenwriter with the guts to write a line like "Oh, Moses, Moses, why of all men did I fall in love with a prince of fools?" deserves some recognition.

Biggest Oversight

When John Wayne finally won the Best Actor Oscar for True Grit in 1969, it was more in recognition for the culmination of his career than for anything spectacularly different he did with the role of Rooster Cogburn. Wayne was perceived as a strong but fairly limited actor who gave the same durable one-dimensional performance in all his films, but he could be a performer of surprising depth who gave a moving performance in his only only other Oscar nominated role, The Sands of Iwo Jima, and was similarly effective in Red River, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Bravo before settling into playing a caricature of himself that was strangely lauded as an icon of the military despite his having never actually served in the armed forces. Wayne's greatest work as an actor was his multi-layered tour de force in The Searchers. His masterful depiction of the racist and bitter Ethan Edwards was revelation in John Ford's powerful western, and his failure to be nominated for the Best Actor Oscar for this compelling performance over lesser work by Rock Hudson and James Dean in Giant or the surprise selection of Laurence Olivier in the hit-and-miss film version of his greatest stage role Richard III is one of the greatest oversights in the history of the Academy Awards.

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1957
The Bridge on the River Kwai
Actor: Alec Guinness (The Bridge on the River Kwai)
Actress: Joanne Woodward (The Three Faces of Eve)
Supporting Actor: Red Buttons (Sayonara)
Supporting Actress: Miyoshi Umeki (Sayonara)
Director: David Lean (The Bridge on the River Kwai)
The Bridge on the River Kwai
Actor: Alec Guinness (The Bridge on the River Kwai)
Actress: Joanne Woodward (The Three Faces of Eve)
Supporting Actor: Sessue Hayakawa
(The Bridge on the River Kwai)

Supporting Actress: Elsa Lanchester
(Witness for the Prosecution)
Director: David Lean (The Bridge on the River Kwai)
 

The Bridge on the River Kwai was so overwhelmingly the selection as best film of the year in 1957 by the people who handed out year-end awards that films would proudly advertise when they came in as runner-up in the voting, and it is a clear winner in the Hindsight Awards as well. David Lean's drama based on Pierre Boulle's novel featured a brilliant cast and a marvelous screenplay by Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman (who used Boulle as a front after being blacklisted by Joseph McCarthy) and remains today as the definitive prisoner of war film ever made. It also had a marvelous cast in William Holden, Jack Hawkins, and a star-making turn by Alec Guinness as the leader of the prisoners who becomes more obsessed with completing the bridge than his Japanese captors, which won every year-end film award despite the fact that he was only the third choice for the role after Noël Coward and Charles Laughton. The Bridge on the River Kwai was named Best Picture by the National Board of Review, the BAFTAs, the Golden Globes, the New York Film Critics, and won seven Oscars, including Best Pictures.

With such an open-and-shut case for the Best Picture, it seems appropriate to analyze the other nominees, which were Peyton Place, Sayonara, 12 Angry Men, and Witness for the Prosecution. Of these four, only the powerful 12 Angry Men (although dated by virtue of its all-white all-male jury) and Billy Wilder's delightful adaptation of Agatha Christie's Witness for the Prosecution still pack enough punch to warrant a nomination. Were the finalists announced today, the final two spots would be taken by Elia Kazan's indictment of the entertainment industry A Face in the Crowd (featuring an anti-Mayberry characterization from the underrated Andy Griffith) and Alexander Mackendrick's exposé of the public relations industry, The Sweet Smell of Success.

Worst Award

George Wells won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for his trifling script for Designing Woman, beating out the work of Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano and Tullio Pinelli (nominated for Vitelloni but not for Nights of Cabiria) and the non-nominated Ingmar Bergman for The Seventh Seal. The Oscars were becoming more generous in honoring foreign films with nominations, but not with awards. Both Fellini (who holds the record for most writing nominations without ever winning) and Bergman were nominated several time for their screenplays, but the Academy could never bring themselves to hand them an Oscar for anything but Best Foreign Film. Meanwhile, Wells had a long journeyman career that began in 1946 and extended to 1994's Angels in the Outfield, penning trivial entries like Party Girl and Where the Boys Are. Designing Woman was Wells' only appearance on the Oscar Roll of Fame yet he still won more screenwriting awards than Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman combined. Questo non è giusto or, to make members of the Writer's Branch more comfortable, that ain't right.

Biggest Oversight

In 1992, What's Opera, Doc? was chosen by the Library of Congress' National Film Preservation Board as one of 25 "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant films" to add to the National Film Registry, and it is frequently named as the sum total of many people's education on classical music. This landmark cartoon failed to even be nominated for Best Short Subject (Cartoon), the winner being the delightful, but inferior Sylvester short Birds Anonymous. Edward Seltzer produced both films, so at least the Academy awarded the right person that year, but the overlooked Bugs Bunny would have to wait another year before collecting his first (and only) Academy Award, for Knighty-Knight, Bugs.

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1958
Gigi
Actor: David Niven (Separate Tables)
Actress: Susan Hayward (I Want to Live!)
Supporting Actor:Burl Ives (The Big Country)
Supporting Actress: Wendy Hiller (Separate Tables)
Director: Vincente Minnelli (Gigi)
Vertigo*
Actor: James Stewart (Vertigo)*
Actress: Rosalind Russell (Auntie Mame)
Supporting Actor: Burl Ives (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof)*
Supporting Actress: Hermione Gingold (Gigi)*
Director: Alfred Hitchcock (Vertigo)*
 

MGM commissioned the lavish film musical Gigi from the creative team that crafted the most popular stage musical of the 1950s, My Fair Lady. The result was another sumptuous Pygmalion story of a young woman who balks at being forced to fit into a mold in order to make her way in polite society. The film was a smash hit and won a record number of Academy Awards in 1958 (9 - a record that would stand for exactly one year), and its easy to see why. Elaborately produced with high pedigree talent, it excelled in all the areas that the Oscars recognize. But as skillfully made as it is, viewing the film does leave one with a somewhat empty feeling; sort of like receiving an impeccably wrapped gift that contains a present you don't find terribly interesting. A better choice for Best Picture among the nominees would have been Stanley Kramer's powerful though heavy-handed plea for racial equality The Defiant Ones or Richard Brooks' sanitized film of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, featuring a brilliant supporting performance by Burl Ives as Big Daddy that was mistakenly classified in the Best Actor category so that it didn't get the recognition it deserved (the Academy made it up to Ives by naming him Best Supporting Actor for playing a similar role in The Big Country).

But the most enduring film of 1958 came from the Master of Suspense Alfred Hitchcock: Vertigo. Hitchcock was never taken seriously enough to win the Best Director Oscar (his Rebecca was named Best Picture of 1940, but the Best Director Oscar went to John Ford for The Grapes of Wrath), but his films of the 1950s (Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, North by Northwest) are among the most memorable of the decade. Vertigo, the mind-numbing tale of a San Francisco detective suffering from acrophobia who becomes obsessed with the object of his investigation, topped them all, featuring one of James Stewart's finest performances and the best work of Kim Novak's career. It was, regrettably, the final collaboration of Hitchcock and Stewart when the director unfairly blamed his star for the film's poor box office showing and refused to work with him again. Its reputation has skyrocketed in the ensuing decades, and Site & Sound Magazine crowned it as the greatest film ever made in its most recent once-a-decade listing of the top cinematic achievement, taking the top spot that had been previously held by Citizen Kane.

Worst Award

When the great English actress Wendy Hiller won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her forgettable performance in Separate Tables, she said "All you could see was the back of my head. Unless they give some award for acting with one's back to the camera, I don't see how I could have won." Indeed, the distinguished Hiller (who gave memorable Oscar nominated performances in Pygmalion and A Man for All Seasons) made minimal impact in the film, and it is a mystery that she was nominated for the award, much less won it. Meanwhile, while we thought the Academy went overboard with its adulation for Gigi, one nomination that it didn't receive that it should have won was Hermione Gingold's Golden Globe-winning turn as Madame Alvarez. It was a colorful, memorable performance in a classic film and while the virtues of Separate Tables are many, Hiller's role allowed her to be neither colorful nor memorable.

Biggest Oversight

Alfred Hitchcock was nominated for the Best Director Oscar five times (Rebecca, Lifeboat, Spellbound, Rear Window, and Psycho), never winning in spite of his singular style that makes many classify him as one of the great directors in history. Overlooked in its initial release (it received a solitary nomination for Best Sound),Vertigo is now regarded as one of the most complex and suspenseful films in the Hitchcock canon. Hitchcock blamed the financial failure of Vertigo on the waning box office pull of star James Stewart (who offers what may be the most mulifaceted performance of his career), but the film was really ahead of its time and challenged audiences with many of its surreal elements and intricate plot twists which now seem far more compelling than the well-dressed fluff of Gigi or Separate Tables. Hitchcock stayed at the top of his game for a couple of more years, turning out the classics North by Northwest and Psycho, but it wouldn't be long before he started to believe all the nonsense the auteurists started saying about him and his work took a downward turn that he would never return from. But with Vertigo he was still at his unpretentious best, and deserved the Best Director Oscar that had always been denied him.

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1959
Ben Hur
Actor: Charlton Heston (Ben Hur)
Actress: Simone Signoret (Room at the Top)
Supporting Actor: Hugh Griffith (Ben Hur)
Supporting Actress: Shelley Winters
(The Diary of Anne Frank)
Director: William Wyler (Ben Hur)
Ben Hur
Actor: Cary Grant (North by Northwest)*
Actress: Marilyn Monroe (Some Like It Hot)*
Supporting Actor: Joseph N. Welch
(Anatomy of a Murder)*
Supporting Actress: Shelley Winters
(The Diary of Anne Frank)
Director: William Wyler (Ben Hur)
 

Ben Hur won more Academy Awards than any other film and although its record total has since been equaled by Titanic and The Lord of the Rings, the Return of the King, its stranglehold on the movie prizes in 1959 is understandable - it's so big a presentation that it just seems like the best the year had to offer. With its cast of thousands and epic production values, it is as dazzling now as when it first premiered despite such curious casting choices as Welshman Hugh Griffith as an Arab and ulta-WASP Charlton Heston as Judah Ben Hur (whose most famous roles as Ben Hur and Moses depict the two most non-Jewish Jews in cinema history), both of whom won Academy Awards for performances that can be charitably described as self-indulgently theatrical. But what Ben Hur lacks in subtle humanity, it makes up for in spectacle, with its celebrated chariot race being justifiably canonized as one of the most exciting action sequences ever filmed. It can be argued that The Diary of Anne Frank or Anatomy of a Murder carry more dramatic punch or that Some Like It Hot or the unnominated North by Northwest are more entertaining, but few films are as impressive for the shear spectacle of their presentation as Ben Hur. Anyone who has seen the film only on television might yawn at the choice; but seen on the big screen, Ben Hur continues to impress.

Worst Award

The Academy got carried away with their adulation of Ben Hur in 1959, giving it some awards that it clearly didn't deserve. The most obvious of these is the Best Actor Oscar to Charlton Heston for his typically hammy performance of the title role. Far superior work was given by fellow nominees James Stewart in Anatomy of a Murder, Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot, Paul Muni in The Last Angry Man and Laurence Harvey in Room at the Top, as well as the non-nominated Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot, Victor Sjöström in Wild Strawberries, John Wayne in Rio Bravo, or the perennially overlooked Cary Grant giving the most memorable performance of his underrated career in North by Northwest. Heston was always enjoyable to watch in movies like The Ten Commandments, Planet of the Apes and The Three Musketeers, but his self-indulgent posing was never "acting" in the Academy Award manner and his selection for the Oscar was derided by many in the acting profession. Actress Shirley Knight once famously summed up her feelings about the movie capital by saying "Hollywood - that's where they give Academy Awards to Charlton Heston for acting."

Biggest Oversight

Marilyn Monroe was never taken seriously as an actress, despite memorable performances in Bus Stop,The Misfits and The Seven Year Itch which were all worthy of Best Actress nominations. Her greatest performance, however, was as the sexy but vulnerable Sugar Kane Kowalczyk in Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot, which was nominated for Best Actor, Director, Screenplay, Art Direction and won for Costume Design, but was not nominated for Best Picture or Best Actress. Monroe's behavior on the set was becoming more and more self-indulgent (she frequently didn't show up for shooting and when she did, she was hours late) and she was difficult to get along with (she sometimes required as many as forty takes to complete a shot, and costar Tony Curtis said that "kissing her was like kissing Hitler"), but Wilder had only praise for her work."Anyone can remember her lines," he said, "but it takes a great artist to come on the set and not know her lines and give the performance she did."

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THE TOP 10
FILMS OF
THE 1950s

1
Sunset Boulevard

2
Singin' in the Rain
3
The Searchers
4
The Seven Samurai
5
The Bridge on the River Kwai
6
A Streetcar Named Desire
7
On the Waterfront
8
Roman Holiday
9
All About Eve
10
From Here to Eternity

BEST MALE
PERFORMANCE Marlon Brando
in
A Streetcar Named Desire

BEST FEMALE
PERFORMANCE Gloria Swanson
in
Sunset Boulevard