Judging Oscar: Best Picture 1949

-Year in Summary/What Did Win-

After the studios’ show of non-faith and frustration the previous year, Academy head Jean Hersholt lobbied to hell and back to get the Awards a permanent home at last, after getting bounced around from theater to theater the past few years. Finally, he pulled it off; with the studios back on board, the Oscars set its flag at the corner of Hollywood and Vine at the Pantages Theater, the very heart of Hollywood, and would remain there for the next decade. The Academy would honor its outgoing President for his efforts with an Honorary Award, two others of which also went to Cecil B. DeMille and Fred Astaire; the Italian neorealist film Bicycle Thieves would also get an honorary award, as foreign films still had a few years before they’d get a category proper. It seems the voting body wanted to pass honors around a wide arc indeed, as each one of the five films nominated for Best Picture took home multiple awards that night, the first time this had happened (as well as this year being the final year every Best Picture nominee was a black-and-white film). And despite producer/director/writer Robert Rossen missing out on Best Director and Best Screenplay to Joseph L. Mankiewicz, he would happily get the big one when All the King’s Men took home the award for Best Picture.

-Ranking the Nominees-

Battleground

-It’s honestly a little strange, looking from the outside in, that Battleground is ending up at the bottom of my ranking, what with it being the second highest grossing film of the year. Of course, stepping into the door and taking a look-see at my review, the picture becomes clearer; while plenty of people enjoyed what Battleground had to offer, I found all that these people were touting as selling points to be eye-rolling features at best and cringe-inducing at worst, to the point that I almost had an existential crisis trying to figure out why everything everyone else loved about this was exactly why I ended up disliking it. Oh well, to each their own; that’s about all I can say, I guess.

Twelve O'Clock High

Twelve O’Clock High is the other war film in the field, and I was honestly expecting this to end up last when I watched it, with how boilerplate and unremarkable it was in just about every way. It opts for strict authenticity in its attempt to honor this part of the war effort, but it ends up shooting holes in its own wings in doing so, as the resulting picture feels less like a soaring experience than a plane slowly sliding down through the air to a landing strip as it coughs puffs of smoke from one or two engines. It may have been given a stamp of approval from the boys who really went through the fiction of the film’s plotline, but it’s not getting one from me.

All the King's Men

-It definitely feels like Oscar wanted to award the big one to importance and timeliness in giving the award to All the King’s Men. In this effort, they probably succeeded; this film more than any of the other four has a lot to say about the country and the state of politics both then and even now some 70 years after it came out. It’s a solid picture, with a solid amount of things going for it, but I still struggle in mustering up enough enthusiasm to say that this should have won this award. Given that there are other films in this field that, while I might not be able to muster myself in that way, I at least did get more personal enjoyment out of, this is ending up right in the middle instead.

A Letter to Three Wives

-I still feel pretty strongly that Joseph L. Mankiewicz won the right two Oscars for A Letter to Three Wives; it also so happens that I liked the hell out of this film right after my first watch. A Letter to Three Wives is that rare sort of film that really doesn’t make a misstep; you may not love the film all over or in individual pieces (and indeed, I carefully chose the word ‘like’ in my previous sentence), but you really can’t say that it does anything wrong or incorrectly. It’s got a great premise, and it makes of that premise exactly what it should, and I appreciated that a bunch. However, it doesn’t make more of what it has, only just enough, and it’s that that is keeping this film below the one left in this field.

The Heiress

The Heiress is very unassuming at first glance, and even right there is the film’s first ingeniously deliberate decision. You can have plenty of films up for this award that are here for importance or to make a statement, and then you can have certain films that just hit you over the head in ways you had forgotten a film really could do, and The Heiress accomplishes that with panache. It’s got Olivia de Havilland in possibly her best performance, a supporting cast each up to the same level in their roles, a production second to none, and most importantly, more emotional wallops than quite possibly the rest of the field combined. Really, it comes down to picking either the most ‘important’ film of the year, or the film that one has overall gotten more out of than any of the others while still being a strong film as well. For me, this year, that film is The Heiress.

-What Should’ve Been Here-

It’s getting harder each year that passes to discern what could’ve (or should’ve) gotten a nom here instead of some of the actual field, with more films being released and thus more and more possibilities that I likely don’t know enough about slipping through the cracks. The Academy, for instance, seemed to avoid box office totals almost entirely for Best Picture consideration, with Battleground being the sole exception of the top-grossers to get in; perhaps they didn’t want to seem too indebted to popular opinion, but it does leave out a lot of high-grossing films from this field. Some of these did get other Oscar nods, like Jolson Sings Again, Pinky, Little Women, and Sands of Iwo Jima. Two other Oscar heavy-hitters that year, Champion and Come to the Stable, somehow missed out here. With all the seriousness in the nominees, the Academy might’ve been apt to throw another light-hearted comedy in there like Whiskey Galore or Kind Hearts and Coronets; the latter could’ve also seen a potential acting nom for the eight-fold duty Alec Guinness pulls. Some might stump for On the Town just to get a musical in here, but I won’t. The Third Man would’ve absolutely been among my picks, if it didn’t qualify for the following year’s Oscars instead.

-What I Would’ve Picked-

With nothing outside the field sticking its head in too visibly this year, it seems my Oscar vote would’ve defaulted to The Heiress. Not to say that that tepid confirmation is indicative of that film not being a really good one; it’s just not quite the clear-cut winner I’m usually looking for each year.

-How Did Oscar Do?-

This definitely feels like a weaker field overall than I’m starting to expect from Oscar. There’s one or two solid choices, maybe three if I stretch, but it’s hard to look at these five and say unquestionably that these are the best of the year. With color films now guaranteed to intrude upon this category, though, I’m hoping that will help mitigate this feeling somewhat going forward. As long as Oscar doesn’t muff it up because of it.

3 thoughts on “Judging Oscar: Best Picture 1949

  1. In short, there is not much here beyond the List movies?
    Had The Third Man not been considered a 1950 movie I would have considered it a big miss. It would have been my clear winner, even ahead of The Heiress.

  2. Of this lot my ballot would run the same as yours except I’m torn between A Letter to Three Wives and The Heiress as to who would come out on top. I love them both and this is Olivia de Havilland’s best performance (she has others that come close but the depth she gives to Catherine is hard to beat) but while Heiress is incisive with its look at emotional brutality Wives looks at that too plus it explores other aspects of the various relationships. A tough call, I find both endlessly rewatchable but I’m leaning towards The Heiress since it doesn’t have any weak link in its performances while Three Wives has Jeanne Crain and Jeffrey Lynn.

    That said if it were up to me I’d slice those last three off and have a ballot that ran in this order:

    The Heiress
    A Letter to Three Wives
    The Set-Up
    Criss Cross
    The Reckless Moment

    Even that’s a compromise. Though I love those three films there are several from other countries-Bitter Rice, The Rocking Horse Winner, Late Spring, Stray Dog and Le Silence de la Mer-that are 1949 releases that I’d include first but didn’t make it to this country until later, sometimes many years (Stray Dog didn’t hit the US until 1963!) or at all (Silence never had an American release).

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