-Year in Summary/What Did Win-
It seems that in the wake of a somewhat tumultuous reception to the previous year’s upsets and wealth-spreading, the Academy Awards for the films of 1953 went in a decidedly more favored direction for its second year on television. While there were plenty of films up for the major categories, and plenty of performers in the nomination fields, one title loomed head and shoulders above the rest, given its massive critical and commercial success (coming in second on the list of the year’s highest-grossing films). It was a given going into the ceremony that From Here to Eternity was the heavy favorite for almost every category it was up for (a whopping thirteen nominations, tying Gone with the Wind for the second-most ever); it was only a matter of who would get swept up along with the film to the podium. One lucky honoree was Frank Sinatra for Supporting Actor, who’d pulled every string and dealt in every backroom to get his role in the film; the leads of the film weren’t as lucky, however, with Audrey Hepburn graciously stealing the win for Best Actress and William Holden winning Best Actor to the surprise of many, including Holden himself (who felt one of the Eternity men should’ve won instead). Director Fred Zinnemann needn’t have worried any, if indeed he even did; his win for Best Director was assured, as was his film winning Best Picture among the eight total Oscars it won, also matching a record set by Gone with the Wind for the most ever.
-Ranking the Nominees-
-It should be absolutely zero surprise that The Robe is coming in last place for me; aside from a few tentative baby steps into the new field of color widescreen cinematography (and, admittedly, the film does look pretty good), The Robe has basically no selling points at all, and really only works if you’re already sold on the film’s religious position before you’ve even started it. Coming into this film expecting satisfaction in any facet of it other than personal religious validation will only leave you confused, disappointed, or irritated (you might get some humor out of it if you’re looking for corny, hackneyed performances, and then really mostly because of Jay Robinson as Caligula), and trying to think of how this managed a nomination in this category will only leave you doubly so. Don’t even bother; this just shouldn’t be here.
-I can see how the Academy felt enough appreciation for Julius Caesar to put it in this category, but I also disagree with it for sorta the same reasons. Being a Shakespeare film aside, this is an actors showcase first and foremost, and the main trio are by and large the best thing about the film and the reason to see it (though why Marlon Brando was seen as the choice for a Best Actor nom when he is absolutely a supporting role behind James Mason and John Gielgud is something one could argue about at great length). However, they are also the only reason to see it, and nothing else about the film warrants the effort to get through it; thus, why it got this nomination in particular is something that really leaves me scratching my head. Perhaps the Academy still wanted to show that it loves Shakespeare as much as the rest of the English-speaking world wanted everyone to; either way, it only shows the age of being beholden to such outdated thinking, with how poorly this nomination has held up in the years since.
-With how absolutely beloved this film was immediately upon its release, and for how many nominations and wins it racked up at the Oscars this year, I’m really only modestly satisfied with From Here to Eternity as a film, even with my rewatch for this segment. I said in my initial review, in the early years of this blog, that it was good but not anything really special to make it stand out from the pack, and now after watching it again, while I could be pushed into assessing the film as “very good” instead of only just, I would definitely dig in my heels if pressed to move any further; even at very good, there’s nothing in this that makes it stand out from a myriad of other “very good” pictures, in the Best Picture canon or outside it. I’d even say that the cast, while all very good, have all done better work elsewhere, and really that the film hit a particular moment for the Academy to be as widely honored as it was is probably more a matter of happenstance than genuine greatness. I’m not sure how many would agree with me, but it’s as far as I’m willing to go with it.
-Now, in terms of striking a chord, you’d be hard up to argue that Roman Holiday doesn’t do exactly that. This is the film that made Audrey Hepburn a star, and won her the Oscar for Best Actress, and rightly so on both accounts; her performance and the story told with her character is almost the perfect definition of “star-making”. But, for a Best Picture nomination, is the film as a whole up to the same level? I might say yes, if only barely so; the main hiccup, for me, is that the film is a 90 minute story told over a full two hours, and that the film takes its time so deliberately and meanders about so much is perhaps not as beneficial as the film may feel that it is, even with the ending it deservedly and fully earns. Trim some of the bloat down, and the film works just as good if not better, still keeps the ending it wants, and has a much better shot at this award for me. As it is, it comes across as just slightly enough of an effort to get through to make me hesitant about giving it Best Picture, though I’ll happily keep it among the field of nominees.
-Interestingly enough, the one or two reasons that kept me from giving this to Roman Holiday are, if I’m being honest, shared by Shane if I’m looking at the film overall. It’s also two hours long, and it also feels like it, taking its time and meandering with the plot in a not dissimilar way to William Wyler’s whimsical Italian romance. Here, however, the slowly-paced plot allows us time to simply bask in the frontier life that George Stevens took such great effort to capture, and it’s here that makes the key difference in how the somewhat languid pacing works to Shane’s benefit, instead of being narrative-focused and thus feeling like ten minutes of waiting to end up with five minutes of plot. In terms of its depiction of prairie living, and the simple & solid construction of its western story, Shane is as perfect a film as you’re likely to find, and it’s more a matter of personal tastes instead of any actual faults with the film that determines if it’s a worthwhile effort for one to see. It certainly makes its case among the milieu of westerns released up to then, and in my opinion, it’s the best choice among this field of nominees.
-What Should’ve Been Here-
1953 is a strange year for me; looking at what was released as well as what made the 1001 list, there’s not a lot that I really, really liked, or that sticks out enough as an obvious miss among the things I haven’t seen. A handful of other Oscar contenders, like Lili, Titanic, The Band Wagon, and especially Stalag 17 sure seem like they could’ve muscled into the category, especially against the lower end of the nominee table. It’s a surprise, with how Oscar has seen fit to nominate films like Trader Horn and King Solomon’s Mines, that Mogambo missed out on this category; perhaps the Academy didn’t take to it nearly as much as the public, nominating only a couple of the performances and nothing else. Walt Disney put out Peter Pan, which was an instant smash hit, but no way was the Academy at the point yet of nominating an animated picture (they were too busy giving Disney himself four other Oscars that evening, to this date the most any individual has won at a single ceremony). On the 1001 list, potential contenders The Bigamist and The Naked Spur missed the Academy’s eyesight, & Pickup on South Street would’ve been an unconventional choice. I’d imagine many would stump for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes mostly thanks to Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell, but the movie around them only barely works, & even less so as a musical, so I certainly won’t. The foreign front has a bit more to offer, with good films in M. Hulot’s Holiday, Tales of Ugetsu, and The Earrings of Madame de, but that wouldn’t appeal to the Academy’s sensibilities about foreign pictures; there are two other more than worthy contenders, though, in Tokyo Story and The Wages of Fear, though I doubt either had a qualifying release in the States this year.
-What I Would’ve Picked-
This one’s a hard one, for two reasons: of the films from 1953 that I’ve seen, I wasn’t really solidly in love with any of them, save Shane and perhaps Roman Holiday, and also because I only watched or rewatched these five for this segment and not any others that might’ve stood a chance at reappraisal that may have bumped them up into contention for me. Aside from the nominees, I’m mostly going off memory, and it’s that nebulous remembrance coupled with whatever notes I’d written down in my blog posts that keeps Tokyo Story and The Wages of Fear from vying for the prize in my mind; both were films I liked and thought were well made, but I wasn’t sold on the label of “masterpiece” that so many others have placed on them, and it’ll be even harder to justify my picking one of them here as a result. Basically, then, my vote is going to Shane, and only because there’s nothing else that I’ve seen from this year that really does enough as a whole picture to potentially knock that film from its tentative position at the top. If I expand my knowledge of ’53 any further in the future, this could possibly change, but for right now, that’s where it’s ending up.
-How Did Oscar Do?-
I feel like 1953 is a better year than I’m generally able to regard it, and definitely better than what the Academy’s field of five here would have me believe. There’s some good films here, but definitely just as many outside the category, so how we ended up on this list of five is certainly a question mark, & one that I feel especially ill-equipped to answer in particular. Cinema in this era is still growing, still feeling out new technologies and storytelling genres like widescreen and epic films, and it still feels like the Academy doesn’t yet have a handle on what makes a truly all-time great picture, despite what they want to believe. I’m still holding out some hope, though, Oscar. There’s plenty of room in which to grow.